Photos by Brian Horsley
Fall is the season to break out the light tackle for albies and red drum off Cape Lookout, North Carolina
It’s a cold and blustery October morning at Harkers Island Fishing Center as a group of anglers shuffles down a narrow, weather-beaten dock. A dozen or so center consoles tug at their dock lines. Each angler carries a bundle of fly rods against his shoulder like a soldier with a bayonet-tipped rifle marching off to battle.
One after the other, the fishing boats speed out into the sound toward Barden Inlet. Just beyond, a storm of seabirds targets a pack of false albacore that is pummeling a ball of bait. Sheets of baitfish fly in a last-ditch attempt to survive. Anglers cast flies into the melee, and a chorus of fly reels erupts into song. Rods bend deep into the water, and huge grins pop out from behind foul-weather gear.
This is a common scene on the waters around Cape Lookout, North Carolina, each fall. From early September through late November, schools of baitfish wash out of North Carolina’s vast sounds and into the Atlantic. Schools of frenzied false albacore, red drum and sharks gather for the occasion. Fly and light-tackle anglers descend from as far away as Japan and Scandinavia.
Though a number of species can be caught during the season, the false albacore (also known as “fat albert,” “albies” and “little tunny”) is the star of the show. These atomic-powered, football-shaped tunas spend the summer in the Gulf Stream and reach Cape waters in early September. Fundamentally inedible, they are seldom sought as food. That makes them great sport on fly and light-spin.
These beautifully colored ocean predators have a propensity for schooling up bait into tight balls before crashing through them at 20 to 30 mph. A typical false albacore weighs 8 to 12 pounds, though many specimens can push 20 pounds or more. Once hooked, they’ll scream off hundreds of feet of line, digging well into your backing and putting a thick bend into your rod.
Albies maraud bait up and down the Outer Banks during the fall, but the big event generally happens between Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, and 20 miles north of Cape Lookout. The fish often hang around well into November. October is prime time. That’s often when I head to Harkers Island for a four-day weekend. It’s a great launching point with easy access to Barden and Beaufort inlets, as well as Cape Lookout.
Smart anglers who are new to the area will do well to hire a guide. Although it sounds as if catching an albie is as easy as slinging a fly into a school of breaking fish, well … it isn’t. Capt. Sarah Gardner and her husband, Capt. Brian Horsley, are well-known guides who have been fishing this fall blitz for almost two decades. I’ve fished with them many times.
Gardner, one of the best anglers and fly casters I know — and now a good friend — met me at the dock early for my first albacore trip, in 2010. She’s tough — an Iron Man triathlete — and often outlasts my own fishing endurance. When I am ready to head back to port and crack a cold one, she’s looking for more fish. Stowing our rods and gear that first day, Gardner asked, “What sort of fishing have you done?” I told her I’d fly-fished for stripers and other saltwater species but never for false albacore. “You’ll get a workout today,” she said. “It’s going to be a little windy, too. How’s your casting when the wind’s up?”
“Pretty good,” I answered, sheepishly. “Yeah, pretty good.”
Our boat headed east into the bright-orange orb climbing over the horizon. We wound our way in and out of the shallow channels toward Barden Inlet, scaring up pelicans, herons and other waterfowl. Cape Lookout Lighthouse jutted out of a sand-ringed pine forest as a sort of exclamation point in the middle of the landscape. Wild horses walked along the marsh grasses with a careless, lazy gait. It was a daily ritual that’s difficult to become bored with.
We rounded a bend into “The Hook,” an open expanse of water aptly hidden behind a hook of sand in the coast. A school of large albies busted on silversides. Gardner put me in position with the wind in my face. I double-hauled my ass off, and as I whipped free my forward cast, a pile of line landed forward of the boat. A word to the wise: Don’t come here without practicing your wind casting. The wind blows a lot. Like, all the time.
I eventually managed to get my casting together and landed a pink and chartreuse Clouser in the face of a willing fish. Before I knew it, the albie had hit the afterburners and was well into my backing. After an intense seven minutes, my biceps were burning, I had a bruise in my gut from the rod butt, and I was holding a healthy 18-pound false albacore. (You can really put the heat on an albie with a 10-weight rod and large-arbor reel.) Launching the fish back into the water, I was instantly addicted.
When albacore work a pile of bait, the balled-up school rarely sits still, and neither do the albies. “By the time you lay down a cast, the albies are often busting 2 feet away from where they last broke the surface,” Gardner says. “Casting to where you think they might be next is often more important than casting to where they were seconds earlier.” On calmer days and with tighter balls of bait, it’s an easier task. But days when fish are feeding and the wind lies down are rare.
A steady wind continued to blow while we made our way toward Cape Lookout. On the beach were so-called “sand people,” a Star Wars reference to the surf anglers who camp out with pickup-bed rigs and tents during the run. Gardner threaded our boat through “The Slot,” where skippers with local knowledge can cut through Cape Lookout’s shoals.
Two miles east was a seabird tornado. With no other boats in sight, we sped off to intercept it. The scene resembled a pack of lions feeding on a recent kill on the Serengeti. Black tip and spinner sharks swam through a thick, red ball of bay anchovies as albies picked off stragglers around the fringes. When the sharks took a break, the albies blasted through the center of the ball and sent bait flying. It’s enough to get anyone’s heart pumping.
As my epoxy fly hit the emerald green water, an eager ablie walloped it. The extra fly line around my feet peeled off as if I’d tied it to the back of a sports car. I landed the fish, and we got back into position and repeated. Miraculously, the bait ball held together for at least 30 minutes. I cried uncle after the seventh fish and sat down to rest. “You tired?” Gardner asked, sarcastically.
“No, but I’ll be fine as soon as I can use my arms again,” I said. I slept very well that night.
The Pumpkin Patch
There’s a tight camaraderie among albie addicts on Harkers Island, and by my third year I’d cemented bonds with some great people. Hugh Davis is an accomplished photographer and birder, and a fine angler who has fly-fished for sailfish in Guatemala, bones in the Bahamas and roosterfish in Baja. He travels from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Harkers Island each weekend during the run to enjoy the fishery.
At 5 a.m. one day that year, Davis was tying flies and chugging coffee at the dining room table. “These big white and chartreuse half-and-halfs are what we use for red drum,” Davis said. “Hopefully we can find them today.” We’d rigged my 11-weight up the night before with a 750-grain, full-sinking line. “We find them on top sometimes, but they’re usually feeding on the bottom. That line will get your fly down there.”
Some Cape anglers target albies and nothing else, but Davis prefers hunting for big schools of red drum. “I like looking for the drum because we can also fish for schools of albies that inevitably pop up along the way,” he said. “It does involve a lot of motoring around, but if we find a school of reds today you’ll see that it’s totally worth it.”
We were heading north after working a couple of pods of albies along the beach when we saw a spinner shark launch about a mile away. Then two more went flying. Davis put the throttle down. “That’s what we want to see,” he said.
There’s a theory that spinner sharks run with packs of red drum. “Maybe they eat red drum, or maybe they eat the bait the drum blitz,” Davis said. “But more often than not, they’re a tip-off to something happening under the surface.”
Nothing was evident when we arrived. “Keep an eye on the finder,” Davis said. We motored slowly, looking for signs of life. Then the finder lit up with wavy lines from about 15 feet to the bottom. “Drop it now!” Davis exclaimed as I pitched a bucktail behind the boat. I got no response, and the finder went clear. We continued looking.
Another spinner shark pirouetted about a half-mile ahead of us. We wouldn’t need the finder this time. Just a quarter-mile away we found a large school of 40-plus-inch red drum stirring up the bottom as they blitzed a school of bunker. We cast bucktails into the muddy melee, and all of us immediately hooked up. We each landed our three fish and released them, found the school again and hooked up once more. The cooperative school allowed us one more try. Before it was over we’d each landed three world-class redfish. You couldn’t have removed the grin from my face with a belt sander.
Back at the dock that afternoon, we sat around for an hour or more, slurping suds and getting the lowdown from other skippers who had comparably excellent days. We said our goodbyes as I packed my car with tackle until I could barely see out of the windows. As I made the eight-hour drive home, I felt immensely sad, but my smile was indelible.
No, fishing the Cape is not like this every day, but when you do get lucky — and yes, this sounds cliché — the place is pure magic.