The Focused Aggression of False Albacore

Fishermen wait all season to see albies streaking across the surface after small baitfish

False albacore aboard the Seven Stripes

Sergeant Feller summited the sand dune that faced southwest, overlooking a crescent beach. The goat path was as steep as any mountain trail. With his hands on his knees, head down and eyes on his feet, he caught his breath. He chuckled to himself, imagining what his brothers in arms would say if they saw him winded from a sand dune. After his service with the Army, he indulged in the civilian staples of hamburgers, steaks, sandwiches, and beer, which he had thought of with every dust-seasoned MRE in Iraq. He knew those still serving would be jealous and he had all winter to get himself back into fighting shape while pursuing a career. But, for now, his mission was to enjoy homecooked meals and fishing the coast.

As Feller surveyed the shoreline with the breaking sunlight, he noticed the water inside the crescent between the points stayed inky black in spite of the sunlight. To the east a quarter-mile, west about a mile and straight out 150 yards, was a black, amorphous-shaped mass. The water on the edges and beyond was greenish-blue, and the waves on the beach broke clean and clear on the white sand. Feller realized it wasn’t a trick of lighting, but the shape of something in the water. He wondered if it was an oil slick brought in with tide.

Albie on the fly
Even when peanut bunker are abundant, albies often favor the slimmer silversides, and flies that imitate them. -Photo by Sergio Diaz

As he considered calling the fire department, the amoebalike black water instantly flashed silver from his right to left, like rows of dominoes at high speed. Then, different sections began to flash silver, simultaneously and spontaneously. Feller concentrated on the strange phenomenon and spotted incoming movement, an iridescent green streak, before the black water flashed silver.

Feller quickly realized what he was observing and what would be coming. The black blob was an enormous concentration of peanut bunker and the green streaks were the backs of false albacore tearing through them. Startled and trying to escape predation, the shiny sides of the peanuts caught the light and flashed silver when they moved, alerting the rest of the school in a chain reaction. Feller charged down the dune, ripping line off his reel into his stripping basket as he ran to the surf and fired out a cast before his feet had even stopped.

Feller got tight to a fish almost instantly. He squeezed the running line and checked the stripping basket to make sure it was clear of tangles. It was. He pegged the fighting butt above his right hip, anticipating a blistering run and an intense fight, but the run never happened. Instead, he hand-lined an 18-inch school bass to shore and quickly released it. Disappointed, he hurried to get his fly back into the water to catch an albie, though he didn’t miss the irony, having spent the past 5 months targeting bass. He cast again and was tight on the first strip. “Another schoolie. Rats!” he muttered.

albies feeding on surface
Fishermen wait all season to see albies streaking across the surface after small baitfish. -Photo by Joey Manansala

The water began to froth and roar as a full-blown blitz erupted in front of him. Feller could see the dark backs and lined flanks of schoolies as they unceremoniously ravaged the bunker. Some vaulted through the surface and somersaulted back to the water; others thrashed the surface with their bodies and tails. He even thought he saw the acid-green back of an albie porpoise on the edge of the melee. Feller could hear his heart beating in his ears and he breathed deeply to control himself. He turned his back to the blitz and began sprinting to a rock pile 50 yards to the east. He told himself, “If I’m going to get tight to a surf tuna, I gotta see what I’m shooting at and get up on a perch.”

Feller scrambled up a large boulder and watched the massacre unfold. “Not a good day to be a peanut bunker,” he thought. A southwest wind was building and carried a pleasantly sweet smell off the water, reminding him of eating watermelon on the 4th of July as a kid.

During winter months, Feller devoted quite a bit of his fly-tying time to reading as much as he could about albies. He had first heard of them as a high school student from a clique of older fishermen on the river. The men disappeared for months at a time, forsaking the run of large pre-spawn brown trout, then return to the river in early winter with stirring tales that seemed to trigger Feller’s own adrenaline. He wondered, though, “If it wasn’t an albacore, then what the heck was it?”

He read that “albies,” short for the regional and enigmatic name “false albacore,” were properly called little tunny, a species of tuna. In British English, all tuna are called “tunny.” The scientific name is Euthynnus alletteratus and translates closely to “good little tuna” in Greek, and is one of 5 genuses belonging to the Thunnini tribe, the tunas. Conversely, Atlantic mackerel belong to the Scombrini tribe and bonito belong to Sardini. All mackerel, bonito and tuna belong to the family Scombridae. The four other genuses of the tuna tribe are Allothunnus (e.g., slender tuna), Auxis (e.g., frigate tuna, bullet tuna), Katsuwonus (e.g., skipjack tuna), and Thunnus (e.g., bluefin tuna).

Feller couldn’t imagine anyone ever confusing a tunny with an albacore. One might confuse pyrite (fool’s gold) with actual gold, but albacore have gigantic slicing pectoral fins, grow much larger than little tunny, and (of course) have white meat while little tunny have red meat. He speculated that in the Northeast, at one time or another, “albacore” might have been used colloquially to describe all tunas, including the “true tunas” of the genus Thunnus (e.g., bluefin and bigeye tuna), and “false” was used to differentiate from the tunas prized for table fare … but that was just a hunch.

Feller read that by way of relatively recent evolution, albies lost nearly all of their scales, unlike other tunas, and have frictionless skin that’s coated in a sort of high-performance slime to reduce drag. Like other tunas, albies have dorsal fins that can recess into a sealed cavity and side depressions for pectoral fins to fit flush. They also have a high aspect ratio, crescent-shaped tails for maximum power and minimum drag. Their bodies, dense and rigid, don’t flex under propulsion like most other fish. They are driven exclusively by their tails, which can beat up to 30 times per second and propel albies to speeds upward of 40 mph. This type of fish propulsion is called thunniform swimming.

False albacore's skin
By way of relatively recent evolution, albies have lost nearly all of their scales, unlike other tunas, and have frictionless skin that’s coated with a sort of high-performance slime to reduce drag. -Photo by Joey Manansala

Albies are warm-blooded, allowing for higher metabolism and rapid muscle contractions. They also have extremely high concentrations of hemoglobin to deliver oxygen to meet the demands of their muscles, which makes up nearly 75% of their body mass. They don’t have swim bladders and must always remain in motion so they don’t sink. (The high volume of blood and red meat of an albie is thought to make for an unsavory flavor to most palates.) To assist in reducing turbulence and to keep streamlined, albies swim with their mouths open, appearing almost as if they’re singing. This action forces water over their gills to capture oxygen to feed muscle. “Perfect little swimming machines,” Feller thought. He had read passionately about their physiological adaptations, behavior, and angling tactics so he would be ready when he had a shot, and here it was.

From his rock perch, the sergeant, like an osprey in a tree waiting for a herring, held his cast patiently, waiting for the pelagic fish to move within range. He held the fly in his left hand between his thumb and forefinger, the sight-caster’s ready position. As he focused on the water, he saw smaller, broken schools of peanut bunker file by, and he noticed several large silversides using the bunker as structure and concealment. An albie suddenly appeared and glided under the bunker, engulfed a silverside, then turned and darted away, narrowly missing colliding with Feller’s rock. It reminded him of lions – when one chases a herd of antelope, it doesn’t bite at everything. It singles out one of many in the herd and stays focused on it. Recognizing the significance of his observation, Feller changed to a silverside pattern and watched the edge of the retreating schools of peanuts.

Like a fighter-jet squadron, four albies approached in the Finger-Four formation and glided toward Feller’s rock. He took a deep breath, cast, exhaled, and let his fly sink for a few seconds. He then began a strip-strip-strip-pause retrieve, and one of the wingman albies broke formation and accelerated off path with its mouth open, right into Feller’s suspended silverside. Its momentum alone set the hook and Feller had a surf tuna melting backing off his reel.

albie on the line

He felt his rod vibrate violently and watched the tip rapidly shaking up and down. When the line went slack, he wasn’t fooled, and reeled aggressively, finding his alblie swimming toward the pressure. He kept the rod high and loaded, and after he heard his backing knot ting through the guides, the albie turned against the drag and made a high-speed run for open water. Eventually, it resigned itself to doing pinwheels in front of his rock. When it tired enough to show a metallic broadside, he steered it in and grasped the finlet-lined peduncle above the tail and pulled it from the water. Seven, maybe eight pounds, Feller estimated. He admired its machine-shop look, with metallic blue and silver flanks and an extraterrestrial, acid-green back. He could see the corselet of scales along the body and on the lateral line, the squiggly worm-like pattern on its back, and thought they were evolutionary artifacts from its more primitive mackerel ancestry. He noticed that the tapering, fibrous crescent tail looked more like a wing made of one feather. “Just awesome,” Feller said to the fish. He pointed its head to the water and smoothly pushed this fish back into the water, watching his first albie dart away. “Heck, yeah!”

Feller fished for the rest of the ebbing tide with intense focus, keeping calm under pressure, and managed to nab three more albies as the peanuts and schoolies dropped out with the tide. The sun had climbed high and it was blazingly hot. He reluctantly hopped off his rock, now much higher above the waterline, keeping some line in his stripping basket and holding the fly in case he got another shot.

He walked back down the beach and hiked up the goat path. From atop the dunes, he saw isolated pockets of peanut bunker spraying out of the water from packs of schoolie bass and gulls flapping their wings just above the surface. He caught his breath, and with the adrenaline starting to wear off, began feeling his appetite. He had a lunch date with his fiancée, and the thought of upsetting her was enough to keep him from turning back. He figured he better marry her before he started showing up late on account of fishing.

Albie

With his back turned to the sea, he knew, having seen the stunning takes, the rush he felt when connected to each albie and the trace memory in his muscles, he’d be disappointed catching anything else for a while. Still, Feller wondered how many bass he might’ve caught had he stayed in the heart of the blitz and maintained a two-handed fast retrieve. Success in numbers had been his typical measure in fishing, but his mind was set on a single species in a surf scenario, just as the albies were focused on a single species. If he had caught only one albie, he’d still have called the day a success. He’d have more opportunities to catch school bass later in the fall and was satisfied replaying the day’s events in his mind. And, of course, planning his next albie trip. There was a nor’easter taking shape off North Carolina, and Feller knew he wouldn’t have many more days like this before the albies migrated out to deeper waters.

Driving to lunch, Feller wondered if albies preferred the taste of the slender silversides over broad-bodied and oily peanut bunker. Or, were the silversides just more edible because of their size and shape with respect to the albie’s mouth? He knew other pelagic tunas sometimes moved inshore and fed on adult bunker and that many lures and flies designed for albies imitated peanut bunker. The peanuts may not have been as edible as the silversides, but they weren’t much larger than a nickel and an 8-pound albie could have devoured one comfortably. Feller figured their apparent preference for silversides was largely because the amount of peanut bunker in the water made the silversides stand out; therefore, they were easier for the albies to focus their aggression on.

He also reminded himself that many people called albies “funny fish,” and fishermen’s hypotheses and explanations for their mercurial nature is part and parcel of how they earned the term. Nonetheless, on that day and on that tide, the albies preferred silversides. Feller concluded that the most important tactic for albie fishing is an angler’s ability to prepare, observe and adapt for not only certain species and conditions but their particular fancy of the day.

Feller reflected on the fact that before he arrived to the beach, he believed to catch albies he had to keep casting and casting – casting blind, keeping the fly in the water as much of the time as possible. He smirked, knowing if he employed that strategy, he’d likely be counting the number of bass he caught and telling himself he’d catch his first albie next fall.

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