Photos by Brian Horsley
It was about 23 years ago that I first heard about the false albacore bite that goes off every fall in the waters around Cape Lookout, North Carolina. I was hanging out at a local fly shop when four or five guys described the hot topwater action, with little tunas smoking off fly line to the backing and hours of bent fly rods. When I finally got around to making a plan and researching online how to make it happen, I kept seeing the names Sarah Gardner and Brian Horsley, a husband-and-wife guide team who work out of Harkers Island, North Carolina, during the fall season. “If you want to catch albies, go see Brian and Sarah,” one old-timer piped in on a fishing forum. I made a couple of phone calls and secured a date to fish with Gardner in October.
As soon as I met her, I could see that she was unlike the grumpy guides I’d fished with out West. As I stepped aboard Fly Girl, her Jones Brothers Marine Cape Fisherman 23, she greeted me with enthusiasm and a grin that stretched across her elegantly weathered face. In the next slip was her husband’s boat, Flat Out, also a Cape Fisherman 23. Horsley, a salty grumbler who is a teddy bear at heart, shook my hand when Gardner introduced us.
Gardner expertly navigated the shallow, winding channel called “The Drain,” which leads to Barden Inlet and an area known as “The Hook.” I knew it was going to be a good day when albies started busting all around us. “This is gonna be epic — I can already tell,” Gardner said.
I got up on the bow, made a few false casts and then flopped a cast into the steady 15-knot breeze about 20 feet short of the albies. Gardner immediately went into teaching mode. “You have a decent cast, but you’ll need to adjust your double-haul and get the line lower to the water so it unfurls under the wind,” Gardner said, demonstrating with my rod. “Now you try.” Her coaching added about 30 feet to my cast.
When another school popped up, I angled my cast just so, and within seconds I was tight to a speedster hell-bent for the inlet. The fish came alongside in about five minutes, and Gardner plucked it from the water by the tail, unhooked it and gave it to me for a snapshot. We slapped a high-five, and Gardner released the fish. It was the first of many caught that day, and Gardner and Horsley are now two of my closest fishing friends.
Focused and determined, Gardner and Horsley have been perfecting their guiding game for more than 20 years, and not just around Cape Lookout and Oregon Inlet. They’ve also put clients on fish in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Bahamas, the Amazon and elsewhere. They’ve caught dozens of species, from sailfish to roosterfish to big red drum, on the fly and have held several IGFA world records. How the two found each other, fell in love and grew their guiding business is a story of dedication and perseverance — to each other, their clients and the sport they love.
Worms, Falcons, Fly-Fishing
Gardner was born in 1964 and grew up on the campus of Delaware State University, where her father was a history professor. Her mother was a librarian and social worker. “Many of my friends were the children of professors and other staff at the university,” Gardner says. “That meant my friends and I had the run of the place. It was a great place to grow up.”
Running through the middle of campus — and her family’s backyard — was a creek that feeds Silver Lake and the St. Jones River, which eventually flows into Delaware Bay. This is where Gardner had her first fishing experiences. “I remember all of my buddies fishing, so I was happy to go along with what they were doing,” she says. “My folks weren’t into fishing, so it was my grandfather and three uncles who encouraged and coached me beyond worms and bobbers.”
Gardner remembers wetting down her yard to catch worms, as well as nabbing a few from her parents’ compost pile. “Once I’d collected a nice bucket of worms, my friends and I would head out to explore the lake and river,” she says. “All we had were bamboo poles and branches. My folks were happy to supply bobbers and other gear as time went on.”
Gardner has loved the outdoors since she was young. She was a member of the Youth Conservation Corps and joined the Delaware Nature Education Society as a Junior Naturalist. “One of the reasons Sarah is such a good angler and guide is because she’s totally outdoorsy,” says renowned fly tyer Bob Popovics. “She sees every subtle thing that goes on, and that leads her to where the fish are biting.”
Gardner was exposed to fly-fishing later in life. “Falconry was a massive part of my life when I was much younger,” Gardner says. “I was in my 20s when I was out West taking care of other people’s birds and working on getting my falconry license. A friend’s roommate gave me my first real fly-casting lesson. I fell in love with it immediately. I just wish I’d spent more time fishing the spectacular trout streams out there.”
After earning a degree in graphic design at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, she settled near Annapolis, Maryland, and secured a job at a graphic design firm. “I quickly realized office life and politics are not my thing,” Gardner says. “I was a frequent visitor to Anglers Sport Center in Annapolis at the time. I didn’t have any retail experience, but I asked for a job, and they gave me one.”
The shop was packed with fly rods, hunting rifles and all sorts of outdoor gear. “That’s where I bought my first fly rods,” Gardner says. “Not long after, I was doing fly-fishing trips at Pintail Point on the Eastern Shore and began fly-fishing on Chesapeake Bay. My saltwater fly-fishing experience started there.”
Big Blues in the Surf
Horsley, who was born in 1954, also had a fishy upbringing. “I grew up on the water in Elizabeth City, North Carolina,” he says. “I was about 3 or 4 when my next-door neighbor took me down to the river to fish. We fished non-stop for bass, brim, catfish and bowfins, and he’d occasionally take me down to the Outer Banks beaches to fish.”
Around the time Horsley was in high school, one of his best friends introduced him to fly-fishing. “We started fly-fishing for brim and bass in the river with 6-weight fiberglass rods,” he says. “It was perfect. I didn’t know anything about tapered fly line or tapered leaders at that point. Every trip was a learning experience.”
As a young man in his early 20s, Horsley was drawn to North Carolina’s beaches, where big bluefish blitzes occurred in spring and fall. “I started saltwater fly-fishing around 1978,” he says. “The blues used to just tear up the beaches. I got hold of a 10-weight glass fly rod and Shakespeare Wondereel with anti-reverse and drag. It took me two years to find a fly line for it. There was no mail order back then. You had to find it. Eventually, I picked up a 10-weight floating fly line in the Keys. We used Orvis sailfish poppers, which were $6 apiece back then. One fly for each fish. They were destroyed after only one use.” Horsley was smitten.
In the late 1980s to early ’90s, an acquaintance showed Horsley how to tie flies for bluefish. “There were only a few of us fly-fishing the beach back then,” he says. “You could fit all three of us in one car. All of us held bluefish world records at one time. One may still stand.”
Horsley started guiding clients in 1994, running eight to 10 trips each summer. While his trips weren’t always successful, he says his clients were eager to learn right along with him. “That was a couple of years after the movie A River Runs Through It came out. The timing was perfect,” he says. “We were still figuring things out, but people were generous in sharing their knowledge, and we began to develop our techniques in salt water. I ate it up.”
A few years earlier, in 1991, Gardner was working a booth for Anglers Sport Center during a fly-fishing show when opportunity knocked. “I talked with an editor from Fly Fishing in Salt Waters magazine, and we exchanged cards,” she says. Unbeknownst to Gardner, the editor also gave her contact information to legendary fly fisherman and writer Lefty Kreh, who was a longtime contributor for the magazine. “About a week or two after the show, someone claiming to be Lefty Kreh called me around 8 p.m.” Gardner recalls. “I spent the next day trying to figure out which one of my friends was pranking me. I called back the next evening, and lo and behold it was Lefty Kreh on the phone.”
Not long after, Gardner and Kreh were working on her cast at Kreh’s house in Cockeysville, Maryland, when he asked if she was interested in doing some writing. “That’s when I realized I couldn’t ever go back to graphic design and that I needed to get my act together in finding a career,” she says. “I didn’t have any real working experience, so I needed a push in the right direction. Lefty said he’d tutor me in writing for as long as it took.”
For years, Kreh helped Gardner get her articles into magazines and connect with folks in the fly-fishing business, and he encouraged her to keep doing what she loved most: fishing. “Without Lefty, there’d be no Sarah,” she says. “He opened a lot of doors for me that would have been difficult to open on my own. Lefty helped me realize that I could make a living doing what I love.”
I interviewed Kreh before he passed in 2018. “Sarah is one of my finest students and a true friend,” Kreh told me in 2017. “She’s an amazing caster and probably one of the finest female anglers I know. She also is a great teacher and guide — an ambassador for our sport.”
Love and Marriage
In the mid-’90s, Gardner was writing for several fishing publications, fishing as much as possible, hunting and working at Anglers Sport Center. One of her writing gigs included getting fishing reports from guides between Virginia Beach, Virginia, and the lower Outer Banks for The Fisherman magazine. Among the guides she called was Brian Horsley.
Horsley at the time was guiding through much of the summer season and occasionally crewed on commercial fishing boats in the off-season. “I first called Brian in 1996,” Gardner says. “He had recently separated from his wife, and we began talking on the phone outside my fishing reports. The nature of our conversations changed very rapidly. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we’d each found the right person.”
After a few dates in 1997, Gardner packed up her belongings and moved to Nags Head, North Carolina, to be with Horsley. “Brian went down to Harkers to do his first albie season, and I stayed and worked at TW’s Tackle,” she says. “I was all alone and thought, What in the hell have I done?”
Despite her trepidations, it wasn’t long before Gardner made her next move. “I convinced a local banker to lend me the money for my first boat — a Parker 18 — and began guiding in 1998,” she says. “The next year, I got into the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center and then guided the false albacore season off Cape Lookout with Brian.”
Before long, the couple began thinking about “sealing the deal,” as Horsley puts it. Kreh — not Gardner’s parents — gave his blessing for the couple to marry when they met for lunch in 1999. Kreh recommended that the ceremony be held at Cape Lookout albie pioneer Tom Earnhardt’s home on Harkers Island on Nov. 5 that year. “We did that so no one would have to make a special trip down,” Kreh said. “Everyone was already there for the albie season, so the timing was great. “
I felt like I had to look after Sarah,” Kreh added. “A lot of guides are rough, hard people, and at first I was worried she’d shacked up with the wrong guy. Eventually, I saw how great they were as a couple and what a good guy Brian was. You could tell it was love at first sight.”
In the following years, Horsley and Gardner cemented a guiding partnership that would take them around the world. “We fished Oregon Inlet during the summer and Harkers Island in the fall,” Horsley says. “We began developing a client list of great people who became truly great friends who fish with us year after year. They’re like family to us.”
Respect of Peers
I spoke with three of the best light-tackle anglers on the water — Bob Clouser, billfish-on-fly pioneer Capt. Jake Jordan and Popovics — and they all shared similar praise and respect for Horsley and Gardner.
“Brian and Sarah are my very best friends,” says Clouser, the famed fly tyer and smallmouth angler who invented the Clouser deep minnow pattern. “They are people-oriented, which is the key to our business. Sarah came to Lefty and me years ago, and we helped her. She is a superior guide and a world-class caster. Brian is a super fisherman and great photographer.”
“Brian and Sarah are what we call, ‘fishy,’ ” says Jordan, who works with the couple on guided trips for sailfish and marlin in Central America, and also guides in the Cape Lookout area. “Sarah is the best small-boat guide in eastern North Carolina. Period. Better than Brian, better than me. She is, in my opinion, the best.”
“Sarah is one of the finest fishermen I’ve ever met, and Brian knows those Cape Lookout waters better than just about anyone,” says Popovics, who has been fishing with the couple since the ’90s. “It’s great to watch them work together.”
There’s an advantage to working as a couple on the water. Gardner and Horsley often head in different directions when the day starts, looking for fish and staying in touch via cellphone or VHF radio. They also have an informal cadre of friends — many of whom are previous clients — who own boats and relay what they’re seeing on the water. I’ve witnessed this strategy firsthand and can vouch for its effectiveness.
The group has used a laminated chart of the Cape Lookout area sectioned off in grids with such code names as “Shrike Temple,” “Stern Pointing at the Lighthouse” and “Salad Bowl.” The code allows them to talk openly on the VHF without telegraphing their intel to the entire Cape Lookout fleet. To say they have the fishery dialed in is an understatement.
When the fall season ends at Cape Lookout, Gardner and Horsley set their sights on warmer locales. “We started doing hosted trips in 2000,” Horsley says. “The first year we went to Turneffe Island Resort [in Belize] to help develop their reef fishery on fly. We caught more than 30 different species, but the lodge was sold the year after we went down there.”
These days, the couple host a number of trips, including Baja in conjunction with Gary Bulla Saltwater Flyfishing, which focuses on roosterfish and other species, and to Casa Vieja Lodge in Guatemala for billfish on fly. Last year, Horsley traveled with a group to the Río Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River, for peacock bass and other species. Gardner hosts a female bonefish school at Black Fly Lodge in the Abacos each winter.
Asked about her favorite fishery, Gardner is quick to answer. “There’s nothing like catching billfish on fly,” she says, “but I really do love the albacore season at Harkers. You never know what you’re going to see or get from day to day. One day it can be slow enough to make you cry, and the next day we never leave The Hook and catch as many as we want. Occasionally, we get big schools of red drum on the east side [of Cape Lookout], which is like magic when it happens.”
Horsley echoes his wife’s sentiments. “Capt. Chris Sheeder once told me, ‘Once you see a blue marlin eat a fly, nothing else matters,’ ” he says. “Billfish are great, but at the end of the day, I love guiding for albies. As a guide, you really have to think and be conscious of everything around you. I like fishing when it’s rough because of the bite, but also because it’s challenging to put the person in the right spot for a cast.”
Although they spend countless hours on the water with clients, Gardner and Horsley enjoy fishing together in their off time. “Sometimes we’re just scouting, but we really just love being with each other on the water,” Horsley says. “It’s our common bond, a really strong one. I guess it’s what makes us tick.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Anglers Journal.