Albies & Bones: The Basics
August 29, 2019
When late August rolls around, inshore anglers from Cape Cod to New York get a certain itch, which often grows into a larger and sometime unhealthy affliction that has them devoting every waking hour to the pursuit of so-called “funny fish”—false albacore and bonito. The exact date of their arrival varies from year to year, but reports usually begin trickling in my the third week of August. The bones generally move in first, followed a week or two later by the albies. The fishery is highly variable: some years can be gangbusters, while others stink, with the fish simply refusing to show, for reasons unknown. How long they stick around also varies, but in good years it’s common to catch them through October. The farther south and west you go, the later into the season you will find them.
Many people confuse bonito and false albacore, but the 2 are easily to identify. For one thing, bones have pointed teeth, while albies do not. Albies also sport 3 or 4 black “fingerprint” marks just below their pectoral fins, and typically have a rounder body shape than bones. Lastly, bones are food to eat, while albies … well, let’s just say it’s better to release them.
Tiny Tuna Tempters
Both species have one thing in common, however: they can drive anglers mad by suddenly popping up just beyond casting range (then disappearing as you get close), and often display incredibly selective feeding behavior. When albies or bones “key in on” a specific type of bait, they can be very hard to fool unless you have a fly or lure that matches the prey closely. In other words, you’ll want to be prepared by bringing a lot of different lures or flies in many shapes and sizes.
Productive lures include small (1/8-1/4 oz.) metal KastMaster, Deadly Dick, Maria Jigs and Hopkins No-Eql spoons. I generally prefer spoons with plain single hooks (no bucktail, please). These small lures match the size and flashiness of many small bait species, and can be cast long distances. Many anglers make the mistake of retrieving them too fast, however. In my experience, you’re best off casting beyond or ahead of the school, letting the lure sink for a second or two then bringing it back at a slow, steady rate. If that doesn’t work, try different retrieve speeds or change lures.
In recent years, epoxy jigs like those made by Hogy Lures have proven incredibly effective on albies. These lures are easy to cast and imitate a variety of small baitfish.
One of the most effective—if unorthodox—albie tempters is an 4″ to 5” unweighted Slug-Go, Zoom Fluke, or Fin-S-Fish. These light, soft-plastic lures should be twitched across the surface, and are often the only things the fish will hit. I rig them on a VMC 3/0 wide-gap worm hook, with no additional weight. The drawbacks to soft-plastics is that they can’t be cast very far, and cause a lot of line-twist, so be prepared to deal with tangles—usually at the worst moment. That’s one reason I always keep a backup spinning outfit rigged and ready on my boat at all times.
Flies Take ‘Em Too
Since bones and albies typically prey on small baitfish, flies can often be more effective than other lures. Plus, they can be tied to precisely mimic the bait du jour. Popular patterns include all-white No. 1 or 2 Bonito Bunnies, small Skok Mushies (one of my all-time favorites), No. 1 or 2 olive epoxy-bodied flies (eg, Surf Candies), epoxy sand eels, and No. 1 or 2 white or chartreuse Clouser minnows. Peanut bunker and juvenile herring imitations (eg., Crease Flies) work very well when the fish are feeding on these wide-bodied baits. White, foam-bodied Gurglers and sliders can also be effective at times, although they are difficult to cast.
When casting spoons, jigs and plastics, I like to use spinning gear. I still prefer mono line, although braid works just as well. I spool up with 10- to 12-pound-test main line, then attach a three-foot leader of 20-pound fluorocarbon via a Spider Loop-to-Bristol knot connection or Uni-to-Uni knot. This wind-on leader setup allows me to reel the lure close to the rod tip for greater casting accuracy, and also helps when landing a fish. If using braid, many anglers spool up with 30-pound-test and attach a 3′ fluorocarbon leader as described above. Rods should be 7- to 7 1/2-foot, fast-action graphite models, while reels should hold at least 200 yards of 12-pound mono or 30-pound braid and have a very smooth drag.
When it comes to fly gear, I like a nine-weight outfit and a large-arbor reel filled with 200 yards of backing and a 9- to 12-foot leader. There is seldom any need to go lighter than a 12-pound-test tippet, and 20-pound is usually a safer bet. A large-arbor reel is handy because it lets you pick up slack line in short order when the fish suddenly doubles back toward the boat—a common trick employed by these devious fish. For fly line, an intermediate or fast-sink shooting-head is preferred. Floating line is better if using Gurglers or sliders.
Where to Find Them
While bones and albies are liable to pop up anywhere there is bait, including open water, you can narrow your search by looking for areas with good current flow and clear water. The mouths of inlets and rivers are great spots to find them, particularly on a dropping tide. Points of land and rip lines are other good spots to begin your search. Both species will also patrol sandy beachfronts and contour lines, popping up sporadically as they attack and scatter a school of bait, then wait for it to gather again. In these cases, it’s often best to see if you can figure out their feeding pattern, rather than chase the fish in a wild “run-and-gun” style. If there are lots of other boats fishing the area, you will certainly want to shut down and drift rather than chase the schools.
Be aware that these fish may only feed on certain tides or at certain times of the day. Some days may see an evening or late-afternoon bite, while others experience hot fishing only on the outgoing or incoming tide. You have to figure out the pattern, and that requires time on the water—or good intel.
On a final note, don’t give up if you don’t see schools popping on top all the time. Blindcasting can be very effective, as long as you are patient and keep working the water methodically. I know several fishermen who rack up big scores without ever seeing a fish on the surface. After all, you can’t catch fish if your lure isn’t in the water!