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Chasing Albacore At Cape Lookout

Shute Leadin

    False albacore, little tunny, alberts, cores or albies. Whatever you want to call them, the Cape Lookout, North Carolina, area has them in some of the largest numbers during the fall season that you can find anywhere on the East Coast. It's not just large numbers of albies that gather around Cape Lookout in the fall; the size of the albies themselves is large. This is especially so later in October and the first few weeks of November. I’m talking about some albies weighing in at 20 pounds or more. Whether you are fly fishing or using conventional light tackle spinning gear, you will need to have your tackle right, and prepare to hold on!
    The season for the albies around the Cape Lookout area usually starts in early to mid-September, when we start to see our water temperatures drop with some of the first northeast winds. Not only do the northeast winds start the water temperatures dropping, but they also get all the smaller bait moving out of the sounds and push the bait out along the beaches. Glass minnows, bay anchovies and spearing are the major bait sources that the albies will key in on in the fall.
    We are very fortunate to have two inlets that funnel the bait into the ocean: the Beaufort Inlet around the Morehead City and Atlantic Beach area, and to the east we have Barden’s Inlet up at Cape Lookout. Both inlets are major points for the bait to congregate, especially on the falling tides. Another good feature that we have going for us is that our beaches run east and west instead of the usual north and south. Having predominantly north winds in the fall, it allows us to fish on even the windiest of days. Fishing in northeast winds of 15 to 25 knots is not a problem since the land will block most of the winds and allow us to fish out to a quarter mile offshore even in the strongest winds. Barden’s Inlet is a very good refuge in high winds. It is called the “Hook of the Cape.” The island around the "Hook” is actually shaped like a hook. Barden’s Inlet is surrounded by land on three sides and has depths up to 30 feet inside the Hook. This is a protected area and at times can be epic fishing for albies.
    We are fortunate to have one more inlet that we can fish around, although it is a longer ride: Bogue Inlet. Bogue Inlet is 18 miles to the west when you clear Beaufort Inlet from Morehead City. I usually prefer fishing to the west when we are having strong northwest winds. The way the beach lies makes for calmer water and easier fishing on the west beach. When the winds are not as strong, it comes time to hop across the Cape Lookout shoals and fish on what we refer to as the eastside. This is the point where the beaches return to running north and south. With a moderate to light northwest or west wind, it is very calm on the east beaches and fishing can be very good, especially in and on the shoals themselves. When the tide is running, it will pull bait and fish over the shoals where water depths can go from 4 and 5 feet in the center to 20 and 25 feet on the edges making for excellent fishing.
    My charter business is based out of my fly shop, Cape Lookout Fly Shop on the Atlantic Beach Causeway. On a normal morning we leave the dock around 7 a.m. and head for Beaufort Inlet. When we clear the no-wake zone in Morehead City and head for Beaufort Inlet, I will contact some of the other guides and fishermen that are fishing out of Barden’s Inlet at the cape to see what is going on to the east. Many days this past season we never got out of the Morehead City turning basin at the state port before we had small schools of albies feeding on pods of glass minnows around the ships. Not bad to get shots at a few fish before you leave the sound. Many mornings the bait and albies will be right in Beaufort Inlet early in the morning and we might not have to go far. Other mornings we will make the decision based on what we hear to either head east to the Cape or to head up the west beach. What we normally look for is sea gulls working bait pods. You can see the birds from a long distance and usually there will be both bait and abies near or just under the birds. Albies breaking and surface-feeding on pods of bay anchovies and glass minnows are not very hard to spot. When we find breaking fish I always pause and watch them for a little bit to see what direction they are moving. Normally the fish and bait pods will be swimming and feeding into the wind. I try to get up wind of them and then start casting to them before they reach the boat. Sometimes this is easier said than done, depending on how fast they are moving and how long they can keep the bait pushed up to the surface.
    When fly fishing for albies, I like to use a 9 or 10 weight rod, depending on the size of the fish. When the albies first show up they are normally in the 6- to 10-pound range. For this size fish you can go as low as an 8 weight rod and not have any problems. Later in the season I prefer a 10 weight because you never know when those 15- to 20-pound fish might show up. Fly colors that seem to work the best are chartreuse and pink, chartreuse and white, tan and white and all white seem to get the job done for me day in and day out. I tie most of my flies on No. 2 and No. 1 size hooks. I prefer the C 70 SD Mustad Big Game hooks since they don’t seem to open up as badly as some other hooks when you have to put a lot of heat on the fish. Any baitfish pattern or clouser minnnow will normally work well on the albies. For leaders, I carry spools of 15- and 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and tie a loop-to-loop connection to my fly line. When using a floating line I make the leader 8 or 9 feet. With my intermediate or full sinking line I just tie a straight 4- or 5-foot piece of fluorocarbon right to the fly.
    Many anglers prefer using light spinning gear on the albies. This works extremely well. Medium action 7-foot rods with a reel that can hold a good amount of 15- to 20-pound braid with a 18-inch piece of 20-pound fluorocarbon for a leader to the lure is the way I like to set the rods up. A reel with a fast retrieve is also necessary. The faster the better in most cases.
    For artificial baits, lately I have been doing extremely well using soft plastics. Zoom Super Flukes, Hogys, and Albie Snacks work very well. White or pink colors work best and about 4 or 5 inches in length. This allows you to cast long distances as well. I rig these baits two ways. One is with a three-eighths-ounce jig head to get down, and the other way is just with a 2/0 or 3/0 worm hook to be fished on or close to the surface. In both cases I work the bait with a very fast retrieve.
    Fishing for albies really started to take off around the Cape Lookout area in the mid-1990s. Back then most anglers just called them trash fish and tried their best to stay away from them. Since they were not good to eat, most anglers didn’t want to mess with them. I saw them as a great way for my customers to catch a large, hard-fighting fish after we were finished catching our limit of speckled trout up at the Cape Lookout rock jetty. They were very easy to get to bite and anglers liked the way they pulled. Then the fly fishermen started taking advantage of the albies, and the word really got out how much fun it was to catch these fish on fly rod.


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