Can you fish tomorrow morning? It’s lights out albie fishing on the fly.
email from Greg Cudnik, “Fishhead Greg”
The email was simple and to the point: did I want to go fly fishing for bait-busting albies? Is a frog’s ass watertight? Does a bear shit in the woods?
I had received Greg (aka “Fishhead Greg”) Cudnik’s email just before I left for the Jersey shore to see my parents. Greg owns Fisherman’s Headquarters on Long Beach Island (Ship Bottom, NJ), a well-known bait and tackle store and this year he got his Captain’s license, allowing him to take anglers on fishing charters.
Looking for a chance to capitalize on the fantastic fall fishing of the New Jersey shore, I checked in with him about a possible fly fishing charter. My first inquiry found him up in Montauk, chasing the legendary striper/bluefish/albie blitz. He said he would get back to me, but after hearing that, I figured he might be out of action for a while. Greg is, after all, a fishing addict as his fishing moniker attests. So I packed my salty fly gear nonetheless, figuring I could shore fish Barnegat Bay, the inlet, or the surf during my visit to my parents. And as it would turn out, that was a very good thing, for on the way down, shore-bound, I got his email – “lights out fly fishing for albies” – and it’s game on. I was anxious to fish for a species I’d long ago heard was tailor-made for salt water fly rodders…
The false albacore goes by many names—little tunny, fat albert, albie—but whatever it may be called, this species is prized for its blistering runs and never-give-up fight. One of the smallest members of the Scombridae family, the false albacore is not a “true” tuna (genus Thunnus) but is more closely related to the mackerels. The species’ streamlined body, powerful tail, and pelagic lifestyle make it pound-for-pound one very powerful game fish, especially to light tackle enthusiasts like fly anglers. Classified as a pelagic, false albacore prefer relatively warm water and spend much of their lives in inshore waters, making them very accessible to anglers, especially in autumn. They can be found wherever baitfish congregate—in inlets, around jetties, and sandbars. Like other fish that feed in schools, false albacore will drive bait to the surface or into shore in order to concentrate the food. Albies lack a swim bladder so they must be in constant motion, which explains their phenomenal swimming speed and power.
I met Greg at the marina before 6 am. It was still dark and the stars dotted the ink-black morning sky like so many glittering diamonds. I dressed in my foul weather gear and broke my rods and tackle out while Greg readied his 21 foot Parker center console for action. His boat proved to be a great sport fishing machine with an especially large and unobstructed bow that was perfect for fly casting.
Greg brought the 150 Yamaha to life and we slid out of the marina and cruised slowly towards Barnegat Inlet. In the darkness, I rigged my rods – a 9 foot 8 weight with an intermediate sinking tip and a 9 foot 9 weight with full intermediate line. The game plan was to fish the north jetty of the inlet while we waited for signs of bird play outside the inlet.
Barnegat Inlet connects Barnegat Bay with the Atlantic Ocean. It separates Island Beach State Park and the Barnegat Peninsula from Long Beach Island. Watching over the inlet at the northern end of Long Beach Island is “Old Barney” the historic Barnegat Lighthouse.
The inlet gets its name from Dutch settlers who in 1614 named it “Barendegat,” or “Inlet of the Breakers”. The inlet can be extremely dangerous when ebbing or flooding tides run counter to high winds, building the heavy seas the Dutch must have observed before naming it.
Once we got out into the inlet, Greg nosed his boat within 30 feet of the end of the visible part of the north jetty. The rest of the jetty leading out to open ocean is submerged rock. The constant swirling and crashing of the sea over this section of the jetty creates a cauldron of froth that is known to attract stripers and blues all year. I fly fished at first, casting a streamer into the froth, allowing it to sink, then stripping it back, but no one seemed to be home. Greg had me switch up to a light saltwater spinning outfit using first an imitation eel and then a white bucktail with a hot orange plastic tail. After a number of casts I hooked up and landed a nice “cocktail” blue. Not long after, I felt a good bump and retrieved my bucktail with most of the tail bitten clean off. For the unknowing, bluefish and plastics don’t mix too well but as Greg added, at least we’d gotten rid of the skunk.
As the eastern sky began to glow orange, bird play started outside the inlet. At first, the numbers of birds were small and their concentrations, weak. Greg said the seabirds, including brown pelicans, were searching for bait. He continuously spied the horizon for denser groups of birds and sure enough, as the sun broke the horizon and the sky lightened with the new-found dawn, birds wheeled in bigger and tighter groups. Then they began diving, a sign that it was time to move in – but not recklessly. According to Greg, many anglers are apt to drive their boats right into birds and fish, not realizing how that can put the blitz down. We parked a bit outside the developing fray and Greg had me blind cast the area. The fishfinder was lit up with tons of bait.
I threw a “deadly dick” metal for a while – then Greg had me switch up to a white plastic. He had me experiment with retrieves, “burning it” at times, letting it pause, and even jigging it as I retrieved. I worked the water column as best I could and on one retrieve saw what looked like a boil not far off the stern. I continued my retrieve only to have an albie flash at it right at the boat, then take it solidly and dive. The drag on the spinning reel screamed and I was on. I was at once amazed at the sheer power and speed of these saltwater bullets. I’d gain a little on the fish only to have it take off on blistering run after run. Eventually, we had the fish boat-side, and Greg deftly tailed it…
This first albie was followed not long after with another on the same soft plastic lure.
By this time the sun was up and the surface action began to improve. The albacore were driving bait up from the depths and slashing through the confused schools from all directions. Birds wheeled just feet above, hovered, and dove. With two albies tallied, Greg said it was time to break out my fly rod…
Greg had me tie on a unique fly that has been garnering a lot of attention in the northeast saltwater fly fishing world. The fly is the innovative design of local fly rodder and fly designer, Bob Popovichs. Greg felt the fly was a perfect imitation of the “white bait” the ablies were chasing.
I tied this fly to 15 lb tippet off a 6 foot leader on my full intermediate 9 weight line. As the sun came up and the fishing exploded on the abundant bait, the wind began to blow and the sea took on a bit of a chop, but Greg did a terrific job positioning me for optimum casting, given the stiff breeze.
I experimented with retrieves and found that sometimes allowing the fly to sink a bit worked better than stripping fast through the blitz. This was harder than one might imagine. With fish blasting through the water, it was very tempting to strip fast. My first albie ate the fly with just one strip after the drop. The take was solid and fast and it was all I could do to clear the line and get the fish on the reel. Check out a short clip Greg took as I hooked up and began to fight the fish…
Two more albies followed and I also lost another two fish after brief hook-ups.
As late-morning approached, the blitz seemed to settle down. Fish would pop up here and there. When they did show up they were not around long. Boat traffic may have contributed to the slow-down. Indeed, we observed a lot of fishermen driving right into some blitzes. Most anglers were spin fishing – a much less taxing way of reaching pods of fish. Greg noted many of them were throwing metals far larger than the baitfish the albies were feeding on and the lack of hook-ups for these anglers backed his theory.
Research I’ve done on angling for false albacore indicates that fly fishing is often the “high hook” method of fishing for them. Albies, like most members of the tuna and mackerel family, have excellent eyesight. When they are focused on eating one food item, anything that isn’t the same size, color and profile will be totally ignored and only a near-perfect match will score a strike. This favors fly-fishermen, who can match the color and diminutive size of almost any baitfish.
While we fished, Greg did his best to avoid the “run and gun” game. He’s fished enough days where sitting and letting the fish come to you was far more effective than chasing. The key seemed to be locating the boat in an area of action and then waiting for the schools to pass by.
Anyone interested in this form of fly fishing should gear up with an 8 to 10 weight saltwater fly rod. I found my 9 weight to be perfect. The action of the rod should be medium-fast at minimum with fast being a better choice. While the fall can be warm and the sea almost calm at times, the opposite can be true as well, and this fishing is truly open water fishing. So a stiffer action helps combat windy conditions. Also keep in mind that while casting at long distances is not always the case, you will cast a lot. For anglers used to lighter freshwater
A saltwater-rated fly reel with a good disc drag is also needed as these fish will quickly peel line off well into the backing. Multiple reels spooled with floating, intermediate, intermediate sink tip, and sink tip fly lines will address a variety of fishing conditions. If I had to go with just one line, I’d go with a full intermediate line, preferably clear, as these lines will get the fly down beneath potentially choppy seas. You’ll also want a selection of tapered fluorocarbon leaders rated from 20 lbs down to 12 lbs. Tippet should range from 20 lbs down to 10 lbs. As previously mentioned, albies have excellent eyesight. They can be finicky. Bite guards are not necessary with albacore, however, bluefish can be mixed in with these fish at times, so you might want to have at least some heavier mono available (30 to 50 lbs) just in case.
Fly choice should match the hatch but a good selection of clousers, deceivers, and the foil flies mentioned earlier will typically do the trick. Colors should also match the prevailing bait but silver, white, pink, light tan and light olive will work well in most situations.
While fishing from surf and jetty is one way of getting into albies, this fishing is best done from a small boat. Hiring a licensed captain is a great way to get the access to these incredible fish. If fishing from a small open boat, dress for the weather. A good set of fishing bibs, a foul weather jacket, and boots will help shield you from the effects of wind and water. Underneath, it’s best to layer up in fall. The weather can turn on a dime and the wind and water can make a mild day seem very cold. A hat with a good visor and sunglasses are also key with the sunglasses serving double duty: better vision into the water and eye protection from the sun and errant hooks! Lastly, anglers without sea legs might want to prepare for sea sickness ahead of time. Small boats will move quite a bit in a sea.
I’ll end this post with a tribute to Captain Greg Cudnik for doing a masterful job guiding me for some awesome albie fishing. Greg was thoroughly prepared, organized, and had a solid game plan for the day before we set out on the water. His fishing skill and knowledge was absolutely top-notch.
The mark of a great guide or captain is truly recognized at the end of a day fishing. For me, it was in that good tired feeling from fishing hard, the joy in attaining a fresh perspective on the amazing opportunities for fly fishing in the salt, the gaining of new-found knowledge, and lastly, the capture of so many memories of a deeply bent rods, screaming drags, and the still-present rocking motion from a day on the water. Above all though, it’s the renewed passion one gets to get out and do it again. See you on the water soon, Greg!