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The Old Normal – Albies on the Crystal Coast

I can’t remember the last day that passed without hearing someone talk about “the new normal”. With the way the world has changed, I grow increasingly fond of things that haven’t. The plain old normal: the way I feel when my wife smiles, the taste of tacos, the smell of salt air, the sound of screaming drags on fly reels, Albies…ALBIES! ALBIES!!!

On the Crystal Coast of North Carolina, fall has always meant albie season. Although found other times of year, fall brings a temperature change that sends massive bait schools from the sounds, marshes, and estuaries out to sea, bringing swarms of hungry false albacore in from the Gulf Stream to the near shore waters surrounding Cape Lookout. It is an angler’s paradise, and droves of fishermen with long rods descend on the area to enjoy the fishery.

Nathan Rhea with an albie.

False Albacore (Euthynnus alletteratus) are called many things: Albies, Little Tunny, Fat Alberts, Bonita, and Spotted Bonito to name a few. Regardless of your chosen moniker, they are pound for pound one of the strongest game fish a fly angler can hook. Lacking swim bladders, they must remain constantly in motion. This perpetual activity results in a fish capable of swimming 40 mph, and that means blistering runs when they take a fly. Albies in the 10 to 15 pound range are common, and 20 pound class fish, locally referred to as buffalos, are often caught in North Carolina waters.

Seagulls swarming over albies.

Albies hunt together like a pack of wolves. Pods of fish crash through bait balls, chomping away. It is a scene of utter carnage. Seabirds dive to the surface, picking at leftovers as the water boils beneath them. Approaching and often casting into the birds, their calls all but drown out the sound of the boat motor. The water’s surface bulges as blue-green and silver flashes rise to the surface through the bait. Careful not to put the fish down, a good captain will slow the boat down within casting range of the angler at the ready. Line piled on the deck, fly dangling in hand or trailing in the water, a well-placed cast into the ruckus can result in an immediate hook up. In the words of my dear friend John Snipes, “Get it in the gunk!”

Many anglers associate fly fishing with peaceful serenity. Albie fishing is anything but that. Whether approaching bait under gulls, or pulling behind a shrimp trawler, the atmosphere is charged. Fish are racing through the water, often disappearing as quickly as they appear. Birds are swarming, sometimes snatching your fly and creating an altogether different angling experience as they fly off with your line. Sharks enter the picture, chasing the albies. (Note: It’s always a good idea to have a nice hefty rod rigged with a steel leader and large fly. The TFO Baby Bluewater is a good option, but a nice 12 weight of your choice will do. Trust me. It helps a lot with the ensuing tug of war after hooking a 100 pound or better black tip!) Your heart will be racing, your hands will be shaking, and that’s before you even cast. Then the real fun begins as over a 100 yards of backing gets ripped from your reel as the first, of what will be several, runs begins!

The gunk!

Fishing for albies in the Cape Lookout area is most frequently done in boats. There are times when they are close enough to shore for kayak and beach anglers to reach them, but they move so quickly and often that the speed of a motorized vessel is preferred. The fish are moving, and from day-to-day can be active along different parts of the coast. For those without access to a boat, there are numerous guides in the area that specialize in the fishery including TFO Advisory Staff members Captain Jake Jordan and Captain Gary Dubiel. If you’re going to book a guide, do it as early as possible – their schedules fill quickly!

When you come, and you should come, you’ll want to have the right tools. The Cape Lookout/Harkers Island area has been called the place “where 10 weights go to die.” ~ Raiford Trask – The Saltwater Sportsman (Oct 3, 2001). 8 and 10 weight rods with floating lines are the norm. Having a sinking line on hand is never a bad idea either. I prefer moderate-fast to fast action rods that can deliver the energy necessary for long casts and the tracking and recovery required for accuracy at distance. Being able to load and unload quickly with good presentation is critical, and the TFO Axiom II X and Mangrove Coast rods deliver when it counts. Machined aluminum reels with a powerful, reliable drag are a must. Remember, you’ll be fighting powerful saltwater fish, so having enough spool for your line and 250 yards of backing is a good place to start. I like the TFO Power II or III reels, but whatever you choose needs to be sturdy and reliable.

Albie flies at the ready

Fly selection is important. Fly selection isn’t critical. What!? Yeah, that’s kind of how it goes with these guys. Some days they’re keyed in on one color and size, and nothing else will do. On other days, you could probably throw a Wooly Bugger in there and they’d eat it. You just never know, so I recommend bringing a variety. My dear friend and mentor, Rick Pope, is fond of saying, “Too much is the right amount!” My fly boxes resemble that approach, at least at the beginning of the season. During the fall, you may encounter fish feeding on Bay Anchovies (or brown bait), silversides, or spearing just to name a few. There are also tiny, clear, slender minnows with black eyes referred to as snot bait. Bottom line, there’s a whole lot of bait out there during the fall and fortune favors the prepared.

Baitfish patterns are the key, and I recommend a variety of sizes and colors. Lefty’s Deceivers, Surf Candies, Game Changers, Clouser Deep Minnows, and just about any other baitfish pattern will work. Tie or buy patterns ranging from size 6 to 1/0, or smaller and bigger if you’d like, in numerous colors. All white, tan over white, pink over white, brown over white, chartreuse over white, pink over chartreuse (Ahhh! The tuity fruity!), olive over white, and even brown over pink over white are all good choices. With flash and without flash, 1/2 an inch to 5 inches, weighted and unweighted…I think you have the idea by now. The flies don’t have to be fancy, they just need to look like baitfish and try to be ready for anything.

The author fighting an albie with a TFO Axiom II and Power II.

Besides the powerful runs, excitement of the hunt, and fish that are willing to eat, is the camaraderie of the anglers. Upon experiencing the fishery, many anglers return year after year to enjoy the albies and time with their friends. Built on the communion of albie anglers, and the area’s deep military roots, the TFO sponsored Cape Lookout Albacore and Redfish Festival was born. The 3-day event is a fishing tournament and day on the water for disabled veterans. Local captains, businesses, and citizens converge on Atlantic Beach, NC to raise funds for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. and to take their participants fishing for these glorious fish. Around 50 disabled veterans are provided an opportunity for a full day on the water, followed by a captains’ party, silent auction, and tournament. Although the pandemic has postponed the tournament until 2022, it’s a great time in support of a worthy cause that was featured in an episode of the Outdoor Channel’s “The Seahunter” with Captain, and TFO Advisory Staff member, Rob Fordyce.

So, what are you waiting for? It’s time. Right now! The albies are here and they’re willing to eat. Hotels are open. Restaurants are serving. Hitch up your boat and try for yourself. Book a guide. The gulls are singing and reels are screaming. What do you have to lose? It’s almost like the albies didn’t even know life wasn’t back to the good, old normal.

Blog written by TFO Ambassador Chris Thompson. Chris has been a TFO Ambassador since 2008. He is retired Marine, Chairman of the Cape Lookout Albacore and Redfish Festival, and Program Lead for the Camp Lejeune Program of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. He is also a self-professed albie addict.

Introducing Fly Fishing To Your Significant Other | 5 Tips From Chris Thompson

To many, flyfishing is a solitary pursuit. Long moments on a river spent with their own thoughts are broken by brief periods of communal meals, laughter, and lies. A buddy can be 50 yards downstream, just close enough to hear gleeful shouts at a good hook up, or shouted curses as one breaks off, yet not close enough to disturb the serene, babbling water that washes the rest of the world away. I have never been one of those people. I find the best moments in life are those shared with the ones we care for the most, and fishing is no different. I enjoy sharing the process with my friends, or fishing buddies.

Mind you, those friends must go through a rigorous screening process. Everyone can’t be allowed into that sacred space. Plenty of friends are great to share a finger of rum with, talk about the family, or even share deep thoughts and dreams. On the water with a fly rod is another matter entirely. That’s church. There, the wrong person can transform a small slice of paradise into just another bland place in this world. The right person brings an explosion of color into even the dullest day. They are few and far between.

I have several fishing buddies that have been part of my life for a very long time. One of them stands above the rest, and I made sure I married her. Who better to pass those selection criteria than the person you decide to be your partner in life? I know, a lot of you are already laughing (or shouting…or worse) and think I’m crazy. I admit, my marriage isn’t normal. Kellie was a guide when she was younger on the Little Red. She’d mastered trout fishing, landed salmon, and fought smallies before she’d ever met me. Sure, that made my screening a lot easier. She already shared my appetite for fly fishing. She also shared my passion for life, and we unquestionably share passion for one another.

Passion. Isn’t that what angling truly is? Isn’t that what we all really want in our partner? Your significant other may not understand fishing, but would probably like to know why you’re obsessed. Try letting them in. Invite them along, and like you, they may just discover the beautiful places our fish live, the skill required to hook and land them, our connection to nature as we try, and the healing the water provides. If you’re still reading, then you likely haven’t thrown your hands up at the thought of being on the water with your spouse (or girl/boyfriend). However, you’re probably unluckier than me and didn’t marry an angler. At this point, you’re receptive to the thought of inviting that special someone into your magical place, but just don’t know where to start. Kellie and I have been asked how we manage it before, and I have a few suggestions.

TIP #1: EASE INTO IT

You’re already in love with our sport. That means you’ve already accepted some things your loved one will have to ease into. That first trip can’t be ice in the guides, numb feet, Erie steelhead fishing. Fighting off mosquitos and No See Ums at sunset on your local pond may not be the best initiation either. Sure, I get it. The fish are rising, but trust me, this isn’t the way. Instead, choose a serene and beautiful location you know is likely to produce a few fish. Keep the trip at a few hours to a half day trip. Let your partner be introduced to the best of what we do. If they like it, then they’ll see the other stuff soon enough!

TIP #2: THIS IS NOT A NORMAL DAY

Waking up at 3:30am, fumbling through making a pot of coffee while half asleep, stumbling to the truck, and then stopping for a gas station gut buster and the day’s provision of Slim Jims might be the norm…for you. You’re anxious, excited, and hopeful about what the day might bring. No kid has ever been more excited on Christmas morning. However, throwing the non-initiated into the pre-dawn ritual isn’t going to work out well for either of you. Plan a day that includes time to get ready, some comfort items, no rushing, and remember you’re trying to show someone else a good time. I’m sure you’re in tune with what that will take, and if not, you now have the chance to learn.

TIP #3: IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU

This may be the most important thing to remember. Today’s trip, or maybe even the next dozen, aren’t about you. They’re about her (or him), and ultimately the two of you together. If you’re hoping this will be the start of a genuine lifetime fishing partner situation, then you have to be the guide. I’m not just talking about being the fishing guide. You are the trip planner, the logistician, the tour director, and the guide on the water. You’re hoping your most special someone may just change their life to join you on a regular basis. Show them a good time! Help them rig. Coach them through their time on the water. Have a shore lunch. Be the net guy. Take a break when they get tired, and end the day when they’re ready. Then go relive the experience over some drinks and great food.

TIP#4: PATIENCE AND HUMILITY

Some of you have been waving a long rod around for decades. Your partner is just starting. They may never be at your level, nor do they need to be. Sooner or later they’ll reach a level of competency allowing you to graduate from Ghillie, but until then your role is as much mentor as fishing buddy. You’ll need to teach knots, rigging, fly selection, tactics, and everything under the sun. Sharing your knowledge can be a reward in and of itself. You’ll also need to know when you just don’t have the aptitude or capability to be helpful. For example, soon your partner will begin their voyage casting, and you my friend are not a suitable captain. Lefty Kreh frequently said he could teach anyone to cast except his wife. Unless you’d like to forego some fishing trips for couples counseling, you’d do well to heed his advice. Hire a casting instructor, or ask a friend, but unless you are among the rarest of breeds, admit you’re not equipped for this task.

TIP #5: HAVE THE RIGHT GEAR 

Everything about this process can be exciting and fulfilling, but this part is just plain fun! Along this journey you get to help outfit your partner. In the beginning, they’ll need their own rod. Sure one of your spares may do the trick, but it’s always nice to have something of your own. You don’t have to go overboard. I find the TFO Bug Launcher in 4/5 or 5/6 are exceptional trout and panfish rods, and their finish and smaller handles are especially appealing to ladies. The NXT Black Label is also a great entry level rod that has a smooth action, and is available in 5 or 8 weights. Both rod series are affordable, available in full outfits, are sure to provide years of use, and are backed by a lifetime warranty. As your partner develops a feel for what they like you get an instant gift list, and actually are required to visit fly shops. You’ll want waders, chest packs, stripping baskets, rods, reels…and maybe a second mortgage!

From Michigan, to the Carolina Coast, to Alaska, and many points between, I’ve shared my love of flyfishing with the love of my life. I introduced Kellie to saltwater flyfishing, and she’s shared her expertise on trout streams. We’ve fished in waders, on kayaks, and from boats. We’ve laughed. We’ve cried. We’ve cursed like sailors. What we don’t have are arguments about going fishing, because it’s an integral part of our marriage. It’s part of who we are. It can also be part of who you are. You may have to chart a different course, but after all, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

All the best.

Words and Photos by Chris Thompson. Chris is a TFO Ambassador based out of coastal North Carolina. He is a former veteran of the USMC who does a lot of work with the non-profit organization Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc., and spends more time helping veterans get introduced (and obsessed) with fly fishing.