In saltwater fishing, the striped bass is pursued by the fishing masses with a devotion that borders on the religious. But if fishing for striped bass is a piscatorial religion, then fishing for hardtails is its cultish counterpart. The hopeful come, enticed by tales of ferocious topwater boils and promises of screaming drags. But like any good cult, it is shrouded in words of caution, steeped in mystery, and entrenched in a little dogmatic misinformation. All of this renders those looking to join slightly skeptical of their own chances for success. Fortunately for the inductee, the mystique is nothing more than illusion. Despite their exotic reputation, false albacore and bonito are still mere fish, meaning that the fisherman can claim them. The learning curve for these fish is a steep one, comprised of basic fundamental footholds and easily scaled. Just as is the case with any other saltwater quarry, your success will be contingent on location, conditions, and presentation.
I have managed to land albies from the estuary inside a river mouth and from a two-foot-deep sandy flat. Neither location is thought of as a typical spot, so I think that it is safe to say that it is possible to catch a false albacore from virtually any stretch of shoreline. The location at which it is probable to hook into one of these fish is another story entirely. The common characteristic of all quality albie and bonito haunts is deep, moving water of at least average clarity. (These fish feed primarily by sight and are scarce in stained waters.) All this limits the pool of likely locations to jetties, rocky points and cliffs, and sandy beaches with a steep drop-off.
Any or all of these locations could hold fish. What determines which locale the fish inhabit is a feature as nomadic as the fish themselves: bait. Albies and bonito have a palate that is diverse but have a proclivity for the miniature. They feed on sand eels, silversides, bay anchovies, peanut bunker, small tinker mackerel, and juvenile squid. Bait influences two very important variables in regard to location. One, bait attracts the fish to certain locations over others. Two, bait determines how long the fish stay in any one location. The movement of both bait and fish are at the beck of nature’s whimsy. This leads us into our discussion on conditions.
If you are sincere about catching your first shore hardtail, you should fish first light and into the morning every chance you get. This is the time of day when these fish feed their hardest, offering you the best chance at hooking one. Albies often feed hard from sunrise to about 10 a.m., before entering a mid-day slow down from 10AM to 1PM,followed by an encore performance sometime between 1PM and 5PM This afternoon bite is the saving grace for casters whose work prevents them from fishing at first light. Frequently not as good as the morning bite, it is always worth trying, especially if your only opportunity.
Many of you reading this are probably avid striped bass fishermen. When you venture out for a night of surfcasting and you are met with a flat sea and a pitiful leeward wind, you are probably feeling less than optimistic. What you may not know is that when you encounter these same conditions in hardtail fishing, you would be wise to again lower your expectations. A flat sea with no wind and crystal clear water are fantastic conditions in which to watch false albacore, but they are terrible conditions in which to catch false albacore. What I mean is that fish may be very active under these conditions. You may see them boiling all over the place. But “see” is the operative word in this scenario. You can fish for 12 hours under these conditions, and you may see fish feeding the entire time, but you will be hard pressed to catch a thing.
The optimum conditions for actually catching these fish are again rather similar to that of stripers. You should be getting excited about a moderate chop with a stiff shoreward breeze, which in a lot of cases is a southwest, with some exceptions. If the sea is about 1 to 3 feet, with the wind in the 10- to 15-knot range, the bait will be hugging the bases jetties and getting pushed into the surf line along rocky cliffs. The albies will quickly follow suit, and you will be ready to intercept them.
It bears mentioning that days with conditions slightly rougher than this can be exceptional. Seas in the 2- to 4-foot range with winds from 15 to 20 knots often provide lock-and-load fishing. Under these conditions, hardtails often forfeit their persnickety reputation and hit lures with a recklessness that rivals bluefish. It is not uncommon for the spinfisherman to land several albies in a few short hours on these nastier days. But, if these conditions intensify or persist for more than two or three days, the fishing will shut off as the high surf inevitably churns up the bottom, forcing the keen-eyed albies to seek more pristine hunting grounds. As has been alluded to thus far, conditions dictate the hardtails’ behavior–and their behavior is going to dictate your technique and lure choice.
Lures & Presentation
Despite a reputation for being picky, albies and bonito have felt the sting of steel from lipped stickbaits, surface lures, jointed swimbaits, soft plastics, and every 1⁄4-ounce to 1 1⁄2-ounce tin in the known universe. But, our focus is on fundamentals, so I’m going to discuss only two lures that are proven staples of hardtail fishing. They are the Deadly Dick and the Zoom Salty Super Fluke. The Deadly Dick is a wondrous little sliver of metal. I annually expand on my albie arsenal and yet the effectiveness and versatility of this lure never ceases to amaze me. With its slim profile and nervous flutter, the Deadly Dick is a dead ringer for Rhody’s more gracile baitfish. The three most popular sizes of this lure are the #3/4L, the #1L, and the #2L. The #1L is the crowd favorite among anglers and albies alike. The #3/4L and the #2L are considered niche sizes for when the resident bait is slightly smaller or larger. There is almost a unanimous agreement that green is the top color for these tins. However, I can assure you that the straight silver lures work just fine. In fact, it’s the only color of Deadly Dick that I buy! I caught my first shore albie on a silver Deadly Dick, and I use that color out of pure, irrational preference. Truth be told, I think the importance of color with these lures is grossly overstated.
Deadly Dicks are best used during choppier conditions. Their effectiveness in calm conditions is somewhat inconsistent. With sloppier seas, the fish will tend to spread out and roam a spot freely. As a result, blind casting proves more effective than sight fishing in these instances. With its long casting range and speedy retrieve, the Deadly Dick covers a lot of water and readily draws strikes from marauding hardtails.
This prompts me to remark about the suggested retrieval speed of these lures. The Yankee surfcaster has an inordinate fondness for hyperbole and universal statements. This behavior has produced such sagacious pearls as “You can’t out-reel an albie!” “Always reel as fast as you can!” And from the makers of “When you’re reeling slow, slow down some more,” comes “When you’re reeling fast, speed up some more.” These are all dramatic, useless, and misleading exaggerations. You do want to be retrieving this lure at a fairly fast clip. But if it’s flying out of the water, you are probably reeling too fast. Although there are instances when fish will commit suicide over a Deadly Dick “burned” across the surface, running the lure three to six inches below the surface with a straight retrieve is usually best. Some days you will need to retrieve slightly slower, while others will require you retrieve slightly faster. You will have to experiment with the retrieve speed until you discover what the fish want on that particular day.
The other lure it would behoove the beginner to carry is the Zoom Salty Super Fluke. The Zoom Fluke is a soft-plastic stickbait produced in a wide spectrum of colors. But for the albie fisherman, white, pink, and “albino” are the most popular options. Typically, these soft baits are rigged weedless with a 3/0 wide-gap worm hook. Gamakatsu and Owner both make hooks suitable for this application. Additional weight can be added with either the insertion of nail weights or use of a weighted worm hook. The additional weight provides a slight casting improvement and an increase in sink rate.
Conditions for the Zoom Fluke are those days of more moderate wind and sea. This lure does not cast well, even with the additional weight, and therefore is a chore to fish in a stiff headwind. Remember those woeful flat-calm days mentioned earlier? Well, they’re still terrible. But, if you find yourself in these conditions, this is going to be lure that has the best chance of putting an albie on the rocks.
The retrieve of this lure is entirely different than that of the Deadly Dick. Rather than a straight retrieve, the Zoom Fluke’s retrieve is more nuanced. The Fluke looks its liveliest when retrieved in a series of twitches and pauses of varying durations. This retrieve results in a spastic action that alternates between darting and cartwheeling, all of which occurs just below the water’s surface. The pause is integral in this retrieve, for this is when most albies hit the lure. And although fish will most certainly hit it blind casting, the Zoom’s true forte is sight casting to visibly breaking fish. It moves slowly, but erratically. As a result, it stays in the “strike zone” of a breaking pod for much longer than a tin would. This will provide you with a tremendous advantage on days when the fish are only feeding on top. It is my recommendation to fish this lure whenever the fish are in range and conditions warrant it. It is often effective and frequently out-fishes tins.
Both of these lures should be rigged with the same style of terminal tackle. For a leader, I use a 5-foot section of 20-pound- test fluorocarbon that is attached to my main line with a 50-pound-test Spro Power Swivel. This combination of long leader and small swivel will assist you in persuading the albie’s sharp eye.
For a main line, I prefer 14-pound-test Fireline. I have found that “superline” or braided line conveys two advantages for this fishing. One, it allows for farther and easier casts, especially with weightless Zoom Flukes. Two, the sensitivity of this line is invaluable when fishing in a cross wind. Winds blowing at the angler from the side or slight angle are going to create a bow in the line during the retrieve. This is going to compromise the solidity of the hook-set as well the ability to detect strikes. But, with the non-elastic nature of braid, the angler will still detect these strikes and achieve reasonable hook sets. In these same conditions, monofilament will most likely result in missed fish. And with the shots at albacore being so scant, a missed fish is an incident you cannot afford to suffer.
If there is one thing about fishing for hardtails that cannot be overstressed, it is that you should be actively engaged in fishing at all times. This means casting even when the fish are not showing, scanning the water for breaks, and being alert. These fish are energetic, but they will not climb up the jetty to bite the lure off your guide frame, so the keep the lure in the water!
Now, despite the effectiveness of blind casting, there will be days when it is imperative to have your lure in a breaking pod of fish in order to connect. Ensuring that your offering crosses an albie’s line of sight is an art in itself. The key is to cast where the fish are going rather than where the break is occurring. This is most easily accomplished if you spot the fish before they are directly in front of you. But quickly assessing variables such as the fish’s direction of travel, how far out they are, how fast they are moving, where your lure needs to be, and how long your lure takes to reach that spot, is more easily said than done. It’s something that requires practice, and even seasoned fishermen don’t hit their mark 100% of the time.
My other advice is to fish a reasonable drag setting. Yes, it is fun to fish a loose drag and get multiple long runs out of an albie. But by the time you get the little guy in, he’s going to be cooked, and the likelihood for a successful release is going to be slim. There has been much advice given on how to successfully release an albie. Some will recommend you give the fish a sharp plunge headfirst into the water. Others will say to cradle the fish in the water while it regains strength. But the single most important factor that contributes to your fish swimming off healthily is keeping the fight as short as reasonably possible. If the fish has been fought for too long, it will sink and die regardless of whether you “spike it” or “cradle it”.
Fishing from the beach for hardtails is a fun but fickle endeavor. You could fish 10 hours for 3 fish and the next day you could fish 3 hours for 10 fish. Feast and famine, boom and bust, and drought and deluge are the rhythms you’ll dance to. But having your reel whiningly bemoan the charge of an albie, rod doubled over, line whistling as it splits the southwest breeze, all under the cloud dappled sky of a fine September day, is a reward most enticing. You now have the knowledge to pursue it, all you need to supply is the ambition.