September’s baitfish bring blitzing false albacore tight to the beaches.
Pictured above: Jersey shore albies regularly move within casting distance of the beach, where even shore-bound fly-casters can get a shot.
Fall at the Jersey Shore signifies a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some, it’s less-crowded beaches offering a lot more real estate, to others it’s the traditional Saturday afternoon football rivalries, or maybe the aroma of an evening wood-burning stove. Any of these things can be a special delight to those who enjoy the fall season. But if you are a light-tackle enthusiast or saltwater fly fisher, you probably have a different scenario in mind when you look forward to fall.
To fishermen, the fall means it is time for blitz season to begin. This is when our annual migration of baitfish takes place along the New Jersey beachfront as the daylight hours shrink and water temperatures drop. These baitfish lure in the predators, creating a feeding frenzy that can take place right at your feet on the beach or right next to the gunnels in the boat.
In September, false albacore take center stage as the prime target for many fly fishers and light-tackle specialists in New Jersey. These pelagic speedsters can quickly strip a hundred yards of line in a reel-screeching run before you can wrap your head around what is happening. Add to this the visual component of being able to see your quarry before the strike and your adrenaline levels will surge to a boil. After you experience your first albie on light tackle or a fly rod, catching just one will never be enough.
Even though the false albacore that we see here in the Northeast are not monster specimens like those that appear in Carolinas later in November, there is nothing diminutive about them when it comes to their fighting ability. The first arriving false albacore in late August and early September are most often the largest fish that migrate through New Jersey waters. These albies range in size from 6 to 12 pounds. Later in the fall, most of the false albacore fall into the 3- to 6-pound range.
Hooking into and landing these hard tails is considered a prized catch because getting one to bite can be difficult at times, even though you’ll be retrieving your lure or fly right in front of and through the blitzing fish. Many first timers can walk away with an initial impression that these fish are very difficult to catch. To some degree this is true. But with a few pointers and knowing a little bit about this fish you can reduce you cast to catch ratio and become more successful. Here’s how I like to attack and target this fish from the boat or beach.
False albacore are present in New Jersey’s offshore waters starting in August. We will inadvertently hook these fish while targeting tuna anywhere from 10 to 50 miles out. By the end of August they will begin to move inshore. We will find the greatest concentration of these fish along our beaches out to 10 miles during the month of September. As water temperatures drop from 72 to 64 degrees during September and into October this albies will ravenously feed on the abundance of small baitfish that are present. At this time of year spearing, mullet, peanut bunker, bay anchovies, (aka rainfish), striped anchovies, juvenile bluefish, sardines and squid will all be on the menu of New Jersey false albacore.
Albies favor stable surf and sea conditions, bright sunny days, and clean, clear, warm water. They will tolerate the “green” water that is common along the New Jersey coast provided baitfish are present. An approaching or passing hurricane can push the albies back offshore, away from the swells that will develop along the beach. By the middle to end of October, when water temperatures dip below the mid-60-degree range, the run will wind down and only scattered schools will remain.
Without a doubt, you will have much more success hooking into albies by boat than you will on a beach. Being mobile is key because albies do not stay in one area for an extended period of time. They feed with a hit-and-run style, pushing the bait. For this reason they will need to be followed. In essence you are following the bait as the albies stay with it.
An ideal situation for catching from the boat is when the albies are up on the surface corralling the bait into giant balls. Here, you can drift along with the pod usually hooking into one fish after another. But if the bait scatters, so will the albies. These fish will then only feed on the surface in short bursts before sounding, repeating this over and over in one general area. When albies begin feeding like this, boaters will need to employ the run-and-gun technique. As these fish pop up within eye shot of the boat, you will need to determine the direction that they are pushing and then get ahead of the pod. Cut the engine and allow the boat to drift into the fish. Any engine noise can quickly put the fish down only to have them resurface a hundred yards away, which can be extremely frustrating.
When running and gunning along the New Jersey beaches, you will most likely have some company. A small fleet can quickly develop as each boater tries to be the first to get a cast off into a busting pod of fish. It goes without saying that running and gunning does require a certain amount of boating etiquette. I’ve seen frustration build in many boaters when they are not catching, which can drive them to running the boat directly into or through the feeding fish to get their next shot.
To avoid potentially ugly situations, proper etiquette when running and gunning is necessary. It would include yielding to other boats around you that are already working an existing pod of fish. Don’t crash their party just because you’re not in one. Also don’t race another boat to a pod of breaking fish either. Since sound travels at a speed of approximately 3300mph in water it will get to the fish much quicker than either of you ever will. Not to mention how dangerous it could be. When a boat next to you hooks into an albie drop back and give them room to fight their fish. Also, if you are leaving a fleet of boats to fish somewhere else do so by going around and behind the boats and not running across the water that others are casting into.
Chumming ‘em Up
Since false albacore are a pelagic species, meaning open ocean, they will take up residence on the inshore lumps, ridges, and wrecks anywhere from 1 to10 miles off the beach. These inshore areas provide structure that attracts bait due to upwelling of currents that take place around them. Many of these inshore lumps will rise to bottom depths of 45 to 50 feet with surrounding bottoms of 65 to 70 feet. Since baits will be holding in these areas, albies will be also.
When pods of albies are not visible along the beach moving out to these offshore lumps and ridges will be my next plan of attack. Outside of my home port of Will’s Hole Marina located at the base of the Manasquan Inlet there are quite a few locations that are within easy reach and quick to get to. The Manasquan Ridge and the Klondike are two spots that are just beyond 6 miles.
To fish these lumps and ridges, the technique that I will employ is chumming. This involves anchoring up on the spot and chumming with live or frozen baits. My first option is to chum with live peanut bunker if I can net them before I leave the dock. These baits can be present around my slip or in the river as I head out to the ocean. When live peanuts can’t be obtained I will chum with fresh or frozen spearing instead. A half to three quarters full five gallon pail of fresh spearing netted in the morning or the night before will do the trick.
You will also always need to be prepared if you can’t net baits. So I will also always have with me five pounds of fresh frozen spearing that I will purchase from my local tackle shop the night before. Five pounds will usually be enough to last for just about three hours of chumming.
After anchoring to draw the albies to the boat you can speed up the process by tying off a five gallon bucket of frozen bunker chum. If the tidal current is moving from bow to stern I will tie the chum bucket off the bow of my boat so the chum drifts back and down under the stern. Since I have a 28 Parker Sport Cabin this is the optimum condition for clients to be fishing from my boat. This bunker chum will begin to lay the scent in the water. I will then spice this slick up by tossing live or dead baits into the water. Initially I will toss baits heavily at first and then lighten up to a handful of baits every few minutes. This combination of chum and baits will be draw the albies up from below and bring them into casting range.
When you have the right combination of baits and chum drifting in the water it is not uncommon to see the albies flash by instantly picking the baits off one by one as soon as they start to sink below the surface. When this happens you know for sure that your offering is going to be taken with a vengeance.
When chumming, you will be most successful if you are fishing the baits that you are chumming with. If you are tossing live peanut bunker, then bait a hook with the same. If spearing are your chum of choice, then use these slim baitfish as your hookbaits. A small weight can be added to your leader so these baits drop down below the surface into the slick. Allow these baits to sink through the upper 20 feet of the water column. Be alert when drifting baits back in the slick as the take will come instantly without warning. Circle hooks will work well for this method as the first reel screeching run of the albie will set the hook when you pull back on the rod.
A Troller’s Delight
If you love trolling, then false albacore will be an easy target, and will provide all the fun you could ever ask for. Small trolling feathers – black and purple is my favorite color – or small metals such as Clark Spoons or Drones, or even small splash bars or spreader bars will have reels singing in no time when trolled in a productive area.
I find that trolling between 7.0 and 8.5 knots is best for rods to go off while keeping bluefish away. I recommend a four-rod spread, but if the albies are thick you won’t be able to get them all out before a rod goes off again.
Catching an albie from the beach or jetty is the ultimate experience for a surfcaster. Since the albies can’t dive down once the hook hits home, they will instead head east at lightning speed. Many times the initial run will have you thinking whether or not you have enough line or backing on your reel.
But the catching is the hard part as many times surf anglers may never get a shot at these fish at all. Because of their pelagic nature, albies don’t like to see or feel sand under their bellies. For this reason they will typically stay off the beach. Many times it becomes a waiting game as the fish can easily be seen just outside the breakers where the boat anglers are hooking up.
There are, however, several beach locations where albies regularly move in to feed. One location is around an inlet. Since inlets act as bait highways they will push baits out during the outgoing tides. False albacore will key in on this and be drawn to the inlet mouths as a result. During these tides the albies will move right into the inlet and circle back out to the outside only to retrace this path after a short period of time. Knowing this, you will want to set up camp at the end of an inlet jetty. Along the New Jersey coast, the Shark River, Manasquan River and Barnegat Inlet jetties offer excellent locations for anglers to perch and wait for the albies to move in.
This same type of feeding behavior will also be evident along the beach if and when albies crash the surf zone. If baits are in the surf zone they will come in quickly, attack the baits, and turn back to deeper water. Often they will reappear within sight down the beach. This forces anglers to decide between staying put or chasing the action down the beach. The best advice I can give is that if the bait is present in front of you, you’ll want to stay put. More than likely, the albies will circle back and return. Trying to chase albies up and down the beach will only result in getting you a good workout.
North Beach at Sandy Hook is probably the best beach to fish without having to do any rock climbing or jetty hopping. Due to its close proximity to Sandy Hook Bay strong currents flush baits out along this beach. Albies regularly push in tight to the beach within casting range. One can easily fish here while observing the beautiful New York skyline in the background.
Other than this location my advice would be to seek out the longest beach jetty that you can find and stay put. One Monmouth County jetty where albie seekers camp out is the T-jetty in Allenhurst. The Deal jetties to the north of the T-jetty can also be productive.
Artificials To Use
When casting to albies with artificials the rule of thumb will be the old adage, “match the hatch.” Many spin fishermen target albies with striped bass plugs and metal lures that are too big to match the small baits that the albies are feeding on. For the most part, you will need to size down your offerings to smaller metals, small plastics, or poppers with thin profiles. One of the problems in sizing down is that distance is often sacrificed as these small artificials can be hard to cast.
There are number of metals on the market that will cast well in spite of their small size. Probably the best producer year to year is the Deadly Dick. This metal is long and slim and will give very good distance with each cast. The size 3/4 long and size 1 long are the sizes to get. Other silver metals that would also be good choices are the 60 gram Stingo PBJ, Acme Need-L-Eel in the ¼- or ½‑ounce size, a ½- to 1-ounce Crippled Herring 1/2-1 ounce with a single hook, ½-ounce Hopkins, ½-ounce Tsunami Slimwave, and the 1-ounce Luhr Jensen Stinger. Weighted soft-plastic Tsunamis baits will also cast very well and catch albies.
A rig that I learned from some old timers that never fails to produce when using spinning tackle is to take a red and white wooden snapper popper and tie it directly to your main running line, attach to that a 4-foot piece of 15-pound-test fluorocarbon and tie on a 2- to 4-inch Eddy Stone Eel or Red Gill. Cast it out and skirt the popper across the top of the water. The popper will give you the distance you need to cast and also get the attention of the albies by the commotion that it causes. The albies will then hit the trailing artificial. You can also substitute a small fly in place of the soft plastic if you like.
An assortment of flies in the 1- to 6-inch range will prepare fly-fishermen to match the size and profile of any baits that may be around during the months of September and October. Many times, fly fishers will outfish anglers with spinning gear simply because of how well the fly matches and imitates the appearance, profile and color of the actual baitfish.
If the baits are small in size, such as bay anchovies, spearing or other tiny baitfish that measure between 1 and 4 inches, use Bob Popovics’ Surf Candies, Deep Candies, Jiggies, and Simpleclones. Other flies to carry include Clousers, small Lefty’s Deceivers, Geno’s Baby Angel, Skok’s Mushmouth, Farrar’s Softex, Joe Blados’ Crease Fly, and bunny flies.
If the baits are on the larger side such as mullet, peanut bunker, striped anchovies, snapper blues, sardines and squid, try Popovics’s Bucktail Deceivers or Hollow Fleyes along with Tabory’s Snake Flies, Skok’s Mega Mushy, and wide-bodied Lefty’s Deceivers, Half-and-Halfs, or slab flies. I like to fish these flies on a St Croix Legend Elite 9-foot, 10-weight rod coupled with the Jack Charlton Mako 9500 or 9550 Inshore large arbor reel. From the boat I will use the Rio Outbound Shooting Taper Type 6 or Type 8 sinking line or clear intermediate line. From the surf I will use a clear intermediate line such as the Rio striped bass line. Tie your flies to a 15- to 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader such as Sufix Invisiline.
Get That Kodak Moment
False albacore are actually members of the mackerel family and not the tuna family so they have a blood-red, oily meat that is normally not eaten. For this reason, they should be returned to the water quickly after they are caught and a picture is taken. They are a beautiful fish to photograph as their iridescent tuna-like colors will make for a vivid shot. To return them to the water it is best to thrust them head first into the water as this will rush water through their gills to revive them.