I have always thought of myself as the straight arrow kind of guy. One that always follows the rules, never exceeds the speed limit, and loves his wife and family above all else. But now, here in the presence of God and all His creation, I must confess to a torrid love affair that I have carried on for some fifteen years now. I seem to sneak off several times a year, usually in the fall, to spend time with my other love. The journey takes me north to the home of my paramour, Morehead City, North Carolina. It is here that she visits each fall, and here I must meet her. Recently, I discovered that she has not been completely forthcoming with me. She is actually in these environs at other times. In fact, she seems to be about even in the spring, though she often lays low, living the clandestine life, as if she were a secret agent. And who might this mysterious object of my affection be? No, not a woman. There can never be another woman that could take the place of my lovely, intelligent, sweet wife. Never in a million years. However, the false albacore has a place in my heart that will also last forever. When I discovered a few short days ago that the false albacore had been seen around town, I knew I had to make the trek. So, I called Captain Byron Wills, loaded my Tahoe, and steered a northerly course from my home in South Carolina.
Weather conditions were forecast to be marginal. Despite sunny skies, the wind was predicted at fifteen to twenty knots. This alone makes casting a fly, my personal preference for a gift to the fish, both challenging and frustrating. Not easily deterred, I readied my gear for the day’s fishing. After meeting Byron at the ramp in Beaufort, we loaded my rods and flies. I had come ready for whatever Mother Nature had in store, or so I thought. Byron placed my three rods into the under gunnel rod holders, one rod armed with a floating line, one with a sink tip line, and the third sporting the heavy stuff- a full length class 5 sinker. Byron carried a variety of spin and trolling rods. Interestingly, though he is not yet a committed fly fisherman, he has the soul of one. His reels are all spooled with twenty pound mono and the drags set at a mere three pounds. Going to fly gear would not be a bridge too far for him.
The twenty three foot Wellcraft angled away from the dock, propelled by two finely tuned Mercury 150 outboards. We lazily waked past the condos and through the channel markers to Beaufort Inlet. The lack of boat traffic amazed me, as in the fall this area looks like an LA freeway at rush hour. We had the water all to ourselves this morning. Byron pushed the throttles forward, the Mercs coming to full power with a throaty growl reminiscent of an offshore racer. The immediate near shore water was greenish and dirty. We read a water temp of sixty one degrees as Byron wheeled onto a course for the shoals and the false albacore we hoped to locate on the far side. As we progressed, the waves became increasingly large. The wind was winding up for a fastball as well. The radio crackled and a voice was heard over the static and the engines. ” Weatherman says its going to lay down this morning.” the voice declared. “It better hurry up. Nasty looking water here at the crossover point” he added, referring to a deeper area towards the end of the shoals. ” I think I will pass on this whole deal and head in for some coffee and pancakes.” The shoals at Cape Lookout are an enormous pile of constantly shifting sand about eight miles in length. They extend from the tip of Cape Lookout to the Knuckle Buoy, which marks the beginning of deeper waters. As we approached a GPS number marking the entrance to Byron’s safe zone for crossing, we noted the water temps to continue to be steady at sixty one degrees. We also noted menacing appearing rollers pushed by the strong northerly winds. I guessed them at maybe six feet, though Byron thought they were less. We cautiously started across, eyes glued to the GPS and the depth finder. Occasional tall rollers dropped from underneath us, and the Wellcraft fell back into Mother Ocean’s arms in heavy thuds, making my back and shoulders yelp in protest. Water depth remained easily in the comfort zone, despite the wave action being anything but comfortable. After perhaps fifteen minutes, we reached the east side and I took a sigh of relief.
As we motored towards an area known as The 1700 Rock, I noticed how blue the water had become. It was as if we were forty miles offshore, so pristine was the ocean below us. The water temperature gauge now read seventy two degrees. I was astounded at the change in so short a distance. Byron explained that there is sufficient offshore underwater structure to divert a bit of flow from the Gulfstream towards Cape Lookout, creating a sort of back eddy. This water from the Stream sometimes brings pelagics such as blackfin tuna to the area we would be fishing. That would be cool, I thought. Catching tuna ten miles from the sand of Cape Lookout. The waves were relentless and made for an uncomfortable ride, but certainly not an unsafe one. The pitching deck, however, made fly casting a virtual impossibility. Additionally, despite our vigorous searching, no false albacore , or albies, as they are affectionately known, were to be seen at any point of the compass. Changes in conditions force changes in plans usually, so I left my rods ensconced in the holders, hoping to break them out as the forecast wind dieoff occurred. Instead, we rigged a couple of pink colored Yo-Zuri lures, fresh from the packaging, on twenty pound mono on light trolling rods. The drags, as Byron had said, were set for a minimalist fisherman’s dream of just three pounds.
The lures were barely wet when one went off, its tip shaking violently. I grabbed it and a glance at the spool found it to be rotating at light speed. The reel was a blur and line melted off like a snowball at the surface of the sun. Initially, I was completely confused by the identity of this fish. It ran like no albie I had ever encountered. It seemed to have the velocity of a large sailfish or perhaps an enormous wahoo. I conjectured that either might be possible, considering what Byron had told me about his catches of tuna at this spot. I turned the reel handle furiously but to no avail. The super light drag setting did nothing to slow this fish. I begged, I pleaded for Byron to let me increase the drag if there was to be any chance of boating this beast. Instead, he turned the boat and gave chase. I began to have very real concerns about being spooled. Byron gave me advice such as “Fight the fish with the rod tip. You don’t need any more drag.” I had my doubts. Maybe a better fisherman than me could subdue this monster with finesse, but I felt like I was trying to slay a fire breathing dragon with a child’s plastic sword. Ultimately, Byron, recognizing that the reel was in mortal danger of having every last inch of line taken, relented and he added some additional resistance. Bit by bit I began to gain line. The “hobbly gobbly” sea conditions made remaining upright in a standing position difficult enough, let alone attempting to tame this Chuck Norris of a fish with a bream buster. The fish made a number of blistering runs, forcing me to seek a balance between adequate force to maintain control and the point at which the pressure would become excessive, resulting in an instantaneous break off. Then, it was as if all the stars in the heavens suddenly transported themselves into an infinite queue , all in a row, all directly over my pitching and rolling boat. The runaway fish slowly was coming back towards my trembling hands and shaky knees. It appeared that I would emerge victorious after all. The now tired fish stubbornly fought on, but it was no use. I gazed deep into the water and saw color. I continued to wind all the yards of monofilament back into its place on the smallish reel. And there it was- an albie of what only be described as epic proportions had now struck its colors and heeled to. It was a magnificent creature. Shiny sides and green back glimmering in the perfect blue water. All there was left now was to grab the fish and bring it onboard for a photo op and a quick weight measurement on the waiting Boga grip. I was very careful to maintain just the right tautness in the line as I began the recovery effort.
Suddenly, my line of stars fell altogether out of alignment and collapsed into a heap. The Yo-Zuri lost its lock on the jaw of my trophy. Horrified, I watched as the beast, nearly spent, slowly finned into the depths of the azure water.
Once retrieved, examination of the lure revealed the cause of my loss and my now growing frustration. The hook had snapped cleanly in half. So, there I stood, with both a broken hook and a broken heart. This albie must have been a female. Like a beautiful vixen, it had teased me, excited me, then just disappeared, leaving me standing there looking dumb with my rod in my hand.
Byron did his best to console me, but it’s no easy task when the best albie of your life has just slipped through your fingers through no deficit of angling skill, but rather faulty equipment. That particular lure was, in fact, a shiny new one, fresh from its plastic wrappings. Just a defective hook I suppose. “That’s why it’s fishing, not catching.” I told myself in a failed effort to ease my despair. “Let’s go get another one!” said Byron cheerily. He replaced the defective hook and soon we were underway, Yo-Zuri’s in trail, singing their songs of seduction to the albies beneath our keel.
“James”, he said, “That was the biggest albie I have ever seen. I would estimate that one at twenty pounds PLUS. Easy. I am so very sorry that you lost him, but, hey, there’s more fish in the sea.” We rocked and rolled along for a couple of hours, and the rods and lures did prove that there actually are more fish in sea, as we caught a couple more nice albies. None were in the same class as Chuck Norris, as I began to call the infamous “one that got away.” Still good fun. These fish have hearts the size of an aircraft carrier and fight to the last drop of energy they possess. I have always admired that trait in them and the main reason I love them so. They are wonderful sporting fish, but are completely unpalatable. This is a blessing in disguise, as all albies are released to be fought, and sometimes caught, again.
The seas finally began to calm as the wind trailed off in the afternoon. We made an uneventful passage back across the shoals and soon we were drifting over a favorite wreck of Byron’s. Here, no albies could be seen breaking the surface in pursuit of the massive bait schools that seemed to be everywhere. Instead, we decided to get jiggy with it, as the kids used to say. We dropped Stingsilvers to the bottom and rapidly moved them vertically, bouncing them off the bottom. I was rewarded with a number of quite lovely black sea bass. Fortunately for them, they all seemed to be an inch too short to make the trip back home with me, so they were immediately released to grow a bit more. Fortunately for me, I was jigging the Stingsilver when, BAM!, as Emeril would say, the reel began rapidly unwinding, depositing its monofilament line into the ocean at an impressive pace. This fish ran hard, albeit several orders of magnitude less than Chuck Norris. I got him close and saw the mirror like reflection in through the water. “Hey, I got another albie!” I called to Byron, who was doing some jigging of his own on the starboard side. He took a quick look and said “No, that’s an Atlantic bonito.” “Bet it’s an albie” I responded. “Hey, I AM the Bonito Boy and I really think that’s what it is.” I soon settled the debate by removing a beautiful AB from the water. I admired the fish, realizing that it is truly worthy of its name. Bonito means beautiful in Spanish, and this fish was a fine example. “Do you want to keep it?” Byron inquired. “Keep it?” I asked. “Aren’t they nasty?” I asked. “No, they are quite delicious.You should take it home and grill it.” So I did. I repeated the catch in a few minutes and Byron bled the fish in preparation for cooking later. “Well, I learned something today.” I said to Byron. “What’s that?” he responded. “I guess you can eat-a a bonita!” I laughed. Later, after my wife and I dined on her expertly prepared Atlantic Bonito dinner, I realized that Byron was indeed correct. My first experience with the Atlantic Bonito has moved me to wax poetic.
Bonito, bonito, my beautiful bonit
You fight so hard and so tasty to eat
So shiny and speedy, with stripes underneath
And a great big mouthful of serrated teeth
Bonito, bonito, my beautiful bonit!
( my apologies to Deputy Fife)
We headed back towards the Inlet, now riding calm seas and making good speed. As we neared the inlet, we noticed large numbers of feeding birds diving headlong into the water along a prominent tideline moving away from the inlet. Soon we were near enough to discern the small splashes characteristic of bluefish attacking bait on the surface. I was disappointed not to see any greenback beauties among the mayhem occurring at the surface. Realizing that I had not cast to a single fish all day, I quickly grabbed my fly rod and cast into the midst of the action. I finally hooked up a fish on my fly rod, though late in the day. I caught a couple of smallish blues before turning to Byron and suggesting we steer a course for home. It had been an interesting day, and the sea state ealier had left me feeling like I had gone ten rounds with Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Bruised but unbowed, I stowed my rod and took a seat.
My affection for the false albacore remains unabated by the days events. If anything,my desire has enlarged manifold. I’ll be back in a few months, eager as ever to see my old love. I know she will be here, waiting for the gifts she knows I will lay at her feet.