Friday, October 30, 2020

October Surprise

For a fish that no one really eats, little tunny sure garner a whole lot of attention. “Albie fever” is an accurate description for how anglers act when these speedsters arrive each fall. Symptoms include cashing in personal days at work, purchasing an obscene number of jigs from tackle shops, putting honey-do lists on hold, and neglecting other fall activities.

False albacore’s cult-like following can be explained by a couple of reasons. The obvious one is their fight. Battling an albie with light tackle is like taming a wild boar with a Nerf gun. Upon realizing they’re hooked, they turn on the afterburners and put every knot, piece of terminal tackle and reel component to the test. It’s one of the biggest thrills I’ve experienced in fishing.

Another reason, at least for me, is their scarcity—an absence makes the heart grow fonder sort of thing. While anglers in locales like the Cape and the Islands can almost set their watch by when Fat Alberts show, other areas in the Northeast sometimes get gypped altogether. Even in good years, albie season is on borrowed time. They can be here today, gone tomorrow with the next storm or cold front.

If nothing else, I’ve learned the presence of so-called funny fish is unpredictable, inconsistent and nothing to take for granted. In my home waters of Long Island Sound’s central basin, encounters with false albacore are far from a guarantee. Before the 2015 season, I had never even seen a local albie. They made a very late appearance that October, which was followed by a string of three consecutive falls filled with hometown albies. Then, in 2019, they skipped our area again altogether.

This year, I made an unsuccessful attempt in Rhode Island early September and put the rest of my chances in them showing up close to home. By mid-October, the feeling that this year was going to be another bust was starting to weigh on me.  Then, in a stroke of luck, some fish pushed into the area on October 20th. I wouldn’t even have known if it wasn’t for my buddy Leon. He logs way more hours on the water than me and happily helped get my first tunny fix in two years. Where Leon found them was significant, but equally so was what he shared about their peculiar behavior.

The following day when Mike and I motored to where Leon said the albies would be, he was already there. He and a friend hooked up three times before we even saw a hint of fish or birds. We were looking for the wrong signs. These false albacore were acting unlike any I’d ever seen; they weren’t showing on top at all. Instead of porpoise-like eats on the surface, their activity more resembled choppy, unsettled water like a nervous school of bunker. If we didn’t know what to look for, we might have passed right on by and a number of boats did just that. Once we got dialed in though, we were seeing the subsurface schools from 100 yards away.  

Fortunately for us, the fish weren’t too picky once we could put something in front of them. I hooked up with an Exo jig on my first cast on target. This albie brought me right to the bottom in 50-feet of water. Not a blistering run initially, more of a bulldog-pull straight under the boat. When I finally budged it from the basement, it gave a demonstration of the drag-peeling they’re known for. Taking no chances, we netted this one rather than going for the conventional tail-grab. It was a pig.

In theory, late-innings albies have more time to bulk up than the ones that first arrive to the region in August or September. It was certainly true for this group of fish. Mike and I each boated two of the largest albies we’d ever caught and dropped a few others. Just incredibly well-fed footballs. One even puked a pile of digested spearing on my shoulder like a baby burping up after a good back pat.   

It wasn’t hot and heavy and we saw only one fish break the surface the whole time we were there. Still, we learned a great deal about the species and pieced together a trip that we’ll be reliving long into winter. That body of fish was a flash in the pan; gone in less than a week. Leon stayed on them for a few more productive outings and deserved every one he caught. I was able to sneak out one more afternoon, but it was a “should’ve been here a few hours ago” situation. The friends I heard from that morning said it was pretty special.

I know that every angler who was fortunate enough to capitalize on this October surprise is grateful for what happened with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Fingers crossed they come back next year. With albies, you just never know.