The recently and dearly departed high water redfish season was not kind to me this year. My quest to connect to at least some of the usually numerous and cooperative redfish which frequent our lovely local flats met with utter failure this season. Despite several trips and many hours spent on those mud and spartina islands dotting our coastline, I failed to hook a single redfish. I suppose that it may be true that it is, indeed, better to have cast and lost, than never to have cast at all. Still, unrequited casting sooner or later leads to frustration and pain. Cloaking my unfulfilled desire for feeling the power of a redfish unwinding my nine weight reel in poetic descriptions of nature’s majesty have doubtless fooled few.
Hope, as they say, does spring eternal in every fisherman’s soul, and I am no exception. As October unrolled itself towards Halloween and November, I began to consider the remarkable fishery which exists within a four hour drive of my home. For each of the past twelve years, I have journeyed up the coast to North Carolina’s Crystal Coast in pursuit of one my most revered fly rod targets, the mighty False Albacore. This animal is the stuff of a saltwater fly fisherman’s dreams. It possesses all the speed and power of a tuna, but is inedible, making it unsuitable for commercial, or even recreational harvest. It moves through a long migration, beginning in New England, sweeping south through the Outer Banks, and down along Florida’s Atlantic coast. These fish range from six to twenty pounds or more. Like all tunas, they are exceptionally hard fighters, reknown for scorching runs and deep dives. If they were any larger, it would be a bridge too far for most fly rodders, but this fight to weight ratio make them ideal for rods in the nine to ten sizes.
What’s more, at least in certain vicinities, they are want to appear in amazingly shallow waters, making them available to stalwart fly anglers. Happily, the waters around Cape Lookout, near Beaufort, NC, are ideally suited for these hungry predators. Here the bottom drops rapidly away from shore, and massive quantities of glass minnows and smaller microbaits( known as “snot bait”), are readily available in the fall months. In a true natural spectacle, these fish rush from below into tightly packed baitballs, their momentum propelling the fish’s bodies clear of the water, and spraying bait in all directions. Ever the fisherman’s friend, seabirds such as gulls and gannets take advantage of this smorgasboard, their diving and hovering above the fish pods creating an easily seen pointer to the albacore. Once the angler makes a motor off, stealthy approach, he or she can let slip match the hatch type flies, then hang on as the “albies” test both angler and equipment.
I have been blessed to have experienced many years of spectacular albie fishing, but I have also seen a few years in which the fish seemed to be “sipping” gently on “snot bait”, refusing any and all flies, no matter how artfully tied or cleverly presented. Last year, however, it was ON! Albies were everywhere, eager to eat any fly they could see. Life was good. After a heart wrenching redfish season, I was full of anticipation for the return of the false albacore to Cape Lookout. So, after hearing the reports of fifteen fish days from a very good friend, I attached my trusty Hewes Light Tackle to my Tahoe and dialed Harker’s Island, North Carolina up on the Tahoe’s GPS system.
“I left my home in Conway, headed for Cape Lookout Bay
I had nothing to fish for, looks like nothing gonna come my way”
Apologies to Otis Redding, but I was reminded of the great soul singer’s signature song from the sixties by my current piscatorial situation. I arrived at the world famous Harker’s Island Fishing Center just after a strong cold front had rolled through the previous day. Thirty knot winds and seven inches of rain had left their marks on the water and waves at the Cape. My old friend and former comrade in arms from the days of my orthopedic surgery practice, Keith, and I sat on the deck of our luxury second floor accommodations and tried to make sense of our chances to connect to a few Fat Alberts, as some call the false albacore, the following day. It would be the first of two days scheduled for fishing. As we did, I was reminded that during his days in office, George Herbert Walker Bush was among the guests at HIFC. I took some comfort in knowing that despite accommodations ranking somewhere south of Motel Six, they should be suitable for the likes of me, given the fact that POTUS had stayed here. We gazed down at the mixture of albie addicts who had convened here from various locales around the world. We were especially fascinated by the fellow who drove his converted Fedex truck up and treated us to a close inspection of a true beach fishing machine. It seems that there is a ferry which conveys people, vehicles, and even animals across to Cape Lookout National Seashore. I was amused to see that non-humans have a separate rate. Keith, not so subtlely, inquired if I thought I might be able to take advantage of the lower rate.
“Sittin’ here resting my bones,
the six foot waves won’t leave me alone”
Keith and I in my Hewes, together with Ross and Woody in his Sea Pro center console, pulled away from the HIFC dock Friday morning, filled to gunnels with anticipation. Visions of hundreds of albies flinging themselves skyward, and onto our fly lines, filled our heads as we carefully negotiated the shallow waters behind Shackleford Bank, the last barrier between Harker’s Island and the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean. A bright cloudless sky added to our hopes as we rounded the final buoy leading us into the “Hook”, a protected bay hard by the Cape Lookout lighthouse. In past years, I have routinely observed multiple schools of albies busting up bait in these calm waters, but none were to be found this day. “No matter” I thought as we neared the bell buoy that demarcated the Hook from the open ocean. ” The fish are on the westside today,” I told Keith.” We’ll find them soon, just look for the birds.” Suddenly, we were in a new world. Instead of the pond like conditions of the Hook, we faced a steady assault by six foot rollers. Fortunately, the period of the waves was long, and we were in no imminent danger of a wave breaking over us, capsizing and sinking our flats boat. But I was a bit out of my comfort zone. The Sea Pro is a deep V design well suited for such conditions, and Woody confidently steamed on towards the Rock Jetty and beyond. I called Ross on my new iPhone, and informed him that I was coming about and headed back to the dock to await calmer conditions. Timing the waves, I executed a course reversal and made for calmer waters. Keith and I sat in the Hook for a bit, hoping to spot a pod or two of feeding albies, but could not even find any bluefish, a constant occupant of the area. After a while we balked and chose to head in and take a break. On the return trip, a slight bit of confusion on the part of the captain led to a brief grounding, making me ponder the reason for non-standard channel marker placement. It was not a big deal, though I did have to get my feet wet as I pushed the boat some ten yards off a sandbar.
Back at HIFC, I took a long nap, dreaming albie dreams. After a wakeup cup of Joe, Keith and I headed back out, anticipating flatter waters. Upon reaching the bell buoy, our hopes were dashed. The waves had indeed lessened, but remained daunting at three to four feet. Dejected, we sat in the Hook for a while, again denied the sight of leaping albies, or even blues. We motored back to HIFC for the night, secured the boat in its slip, and headed in for a shower, dinner, and an early retirement.
Saturday broke clear and calm, once more raising our spirits. Our two boat flotilla navigated the channel to the bell buoy without incident, and the search was on. We ran from the Hook, to the Point of Cape Loookout Island, all the way out to Shark Island, a small spit of exposed sand some mile and a half past the point, all to no avail. We considered crossing the shoals, in an area known as The Slot, in order to search the eastside of the shoals, but recent storms had shuffled the sand and we thought better of it. Instead, we pointed our bows towards Beaufort Inlet, and proceeded in that direction. False albacore are like gold – they are where you find them, and they can be anywhere in the thirty mile area from Bogue Inlet to Cape Lookout or even up to Drum Inlet. Mostly, however, they seem to prefer the corridor from the Hook to Beaufort Inlet. Despite pleasant conditions and very hospitable seas, we failed to locate even a single diving bird. There were a few pelicans about, but the gulls and gannets were elsewhere that day. No albies could be found. The water was deeply stained by the heavy outfall of local rivers swollen by seven inches of rain associated with that pesky cold front from a few days prior to our visit. Apparently, the albies prefer less polluted “air”, or maybe it’s the bait that likes more pristine conditions. In either case, we were left running forty five miles and had not a fish, nor digital image of a fish, to show for our efforts.
After a relaxing lunch at a dockside restaurant in Beaufort, we resumed the hunt. We steamed back to the Hook, following the beach, then swung out to the shoals, and back again to the Hook, all to no avail. Not a fin was sighted. Woody pulled up alongside my boat once we had reached the confines of the Hook, where we strategized. After some discussion, it seemed clear that our best plan was a strategic withdrawal. No one, not even internationally known guides like Brian Horseley, had been able to locate the albies. It was time to call in the dogs and piss on the fire. This expedition was finished. Defeated, we slinked back to the dock at HIFC, and loaded our boats onto their trailers for the trip home.
“Looks like nothings gonna change, everything remains the same
I can’t catch a fish no matter what I do, so I guess I’ll remain the same too”
A recent candidate for political office promised “Hope and Change”. That is exactly what I sought on this trip to what is arguably the finest false albacore fishery on the planet. Although I did not experience change in my fishing luck, I still retain hope. In fact, I continue to scour the various internet message boards focusing on albie fishing at Cape Lookout, eagerly looking for a positive sign, no matter how small. I purposely did not delete HIFC from the list of destinations on my GPS.
The underlying theme that fishing is about more than fish was reinforced to all of us this weekend. Good times with good friends can be had with or without fish. That, my friends, truly is what it’s all about.