Albert is late this morning.
I sit on a salt-bleached log worn smooth from wind and tide, staring out at the flat-calm Atlantic. My stripping basket, buckled around my waist, rests in my lap. My 9-foot 8 weight sits in a cradle that’s molded into the rim of the basket. Intermediate line is carefully wound in loose coils. A 1/0 Surf Candy, loop-knotted to 10-pound fluorocarbon, sticks from the cork grip.
I am so totally ready.
Except, where is Albert?
Every September, from New Jersey to Nantucket, they arrive. Call them Fat Alberts, albies, false albacore, little tunny, Euthynnus alletteratus—whatever you’d like. They come when the first big cold front of the season flushes baitfish out of estuaries. They swoop in like squadrons of strafing P-51s, swashbuckling in a ballet of carnage. Silversides, bay anchovies, and sand eels shower in flight. Tunny stylishly leap after them, their emerald backs gleaming in the sun. They are audacious, these scale-model tuna, abandoning their pelagic home each autumn to gorge within a roll cast of the beach.
That is, when they feel like it. Oftentimes they do not, which leaves shoals of wader-clad fly fishers restlessly standing around sandy points or inlets, waiting. Some clutch flies between thumb and forefinger like an addict’s last cigarette. Their eyes constantly dart about looking for anything that could indicate the slightest possibility of a fish—a hovering tern, a dimple behind a wave. They seem to be in a perpetual state of distraction, but in reality they are as focused as an astrophysicist contemplating string theory.
Photo by Tosh Brown
You can catch many more albacore from a boat, no question about it. Anglers chase down surfacing schools then drift into them from upwind. They sometimes hook doubles or triples, then do strange dances around the boat as they fight their fish. Then they chase down another school and hook some more. One fish blurs into another. Catching an albacore from the beach, on the other hand, is beautifully inefficient. It’s like skating flies for steelhead instead of dredging with lead. Both techniques work; but you remember the single fish that came to the dry far more than the six you took down deep.
I stretch my legs in the sand, but remain seated on the log. The early autumn sun feels good on my face. A flock of sanderlings have alighted twenty feet away. They scurry to the sea’s edge, then come rushing back just ahead of the next wave. Don’t they ever get swamped? I look beyond them but all I see is an empty ocean.
Yes, Albert certainly is late this morning.
Sometimes, though, he is early. Annoyingly so.
His premature arrival usually comes by way of a report posted on a local surf fishing forum. It seems to always happen on a Tuesday or Wednesday when most of us are busy earning a living. Guys with handles like “SurfNut55” or “AlbieAddict38” (or is it 39?) may gush: “EPIC today. Fish busting everywhere!!! Arms killing me!!!”
Don’t these people work?
By the time I show up Saturday morning along with the rest of humanity, it’s blowing snot out of the northeast. And Albert has retreated to the 20 fathom contour to gorge on butterfish.
Damn you, Albert.
Photo by Zach Stovall
Even when Albert is on time, he can be fussy. There have been moments when I have stripped the most perfectly presented fly directly through two dozen gorging, slashing, marauding tunny and nothing happens. It’s hard not to take up golf after this. Last fall along the New Jersey shore, I watched for the better part of a morning while albacore boiled and porpoised almost nonchalantly in and out of the surfline. Over a couple of hours, three out of 50 anglers hooked up, random as lottery winners. Then I peered below the surface and could see the problem: thousands—make that millions—of half-inch fry hurrying along. God knows what they were, young-of-the-year bay anchovies? Juvenile sand eels? A size 14 Pheasant Tail nymph would have been too big. Eventually the school moved on and I went home, arms killing me, but for all the wrong reasons.
Other times, it’s a distance thing. Last year (again!) the surf turned purple as large numbers of hickory shad pushed a massive school of rainbait into a rip. It was a stunning sight: the white blossoms of busting shad erupting on the dark undulating clouds of baitfish, delicate terns hovering then diving into the melee. But the albacore stayed back, content to occasionally rip the surface 75 yards out. A 10-knot headwind quartering in from the east further handicapped me. I grunted and groaned and double-hauled as best I could. Each time, the fly landed impotently maybe 60 feet away. Then a surfcaster strolled up next to me, nodded, and cracked off a rifle shot with his 11-foot rod and Van Staal reel. His lure—a 2-ounce pink epoxy jig—sailed impossibly far. He cranked twice, then lurched back and hooked an albacore.
Photo by Tosh Brown
Virtually every albie I see landed is mechanically released. Anglers revive the fish by thrusting them headfirst into the water. This jump-starts them back to life, and they swim off stiffly wagging their tail like a wind-up toy. I release mine, too. Well, most of them, anyway. There’s a myth that false albacore are an inedible, foul, bloody mess. Pure hokum. The trick is to bleed the fish immediately, then gut it and pack the body cavity with ice. This cools down the endothermic muscle unique to tunas that enables super-fast bursts of speed. The muscle also gives off heat, which can spoil the flesh.
At home, I fillet the fish then cut out the center blood line. This leaves four crimson-colored loins. You can slice the meat very thin and serve it raw with ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce. Or cut the fillets into chunks and toss them in a marinade of soy sauce, white wine, ginger, olive oil, garlic, and dry mustard seed. Let it sit for an hour or two, then sear it on the grill leaving it rare in the middle. A beach-caught albacore served this way with sweet corn on the side, or maybe sliced Jersey tomatoes and fresh basil drizzled with oil and vinegar, makes for a fine autumn harvest. Pair it with a hearty Oktoberfest beer and all is well with the world.
Photo by Zach Stovall
From the perch on my log, I glance behind me—briefly of course—and see bird activity in the bayberry shrubs on this rare-as-gold undeveloped New Jersey beach. The birds are small and hyperactive, darting from branch to branch feeding. “LBJs” or little brown jobs—probably fall warblers, now olive drab having shed their springtime breeding plumage and song. One time while waiting for Albert to show, I heard a muffled thud then squawking overhead. I looked up to see two peregrine falcons following an injured shorebird one of them had just struck. It spiraled into the ocean and crash-landed just beyond the waves. The peregrines swooped repeatedly over the floundering bird seemingly unsure what to do. Perhaps they were juveniles and had not learned the fine art of administering the final coup de grâce. Just then, an adult black-backed gull that had been loafing on the beach casually took off, landed next to the shorebird, and ate it headfirst. I was as stunned as the peregrines.
Photo by Tosh Brown
I have seen other things, too. The spouting humpback whale perfectly silhouetted against an orange sun that had just risen above the horizon moments earlier. The summer flounder hurtling themselves out of the water chasing peanut bunker and looking like skipping Frisbees. The snapper bluefish driving onto the sand thousands of young-of-the-year fellow bluefish. The nude sunbathers strolling past me, waving. Sometimes, whether or not Albert shows up feels irrelevant.
Oh, but when he does.
Photo by Zach Stovall
I sometimes hear them first. It’s a sound like kids having a splash fight in a kiddie pool. Then I spot them in front of me, lunging through the waves. I’ll have four seconds to get off a cast. Haul once, then shoot. Tuck the rod and strip back fast. Don’t set the hook until you feel the full weight of the fish, even if you see one streak in and crush the fly. Otherwise you may pull it out of its mouth. I did this three years ago on a beach in Rhode Island, and it still haunts me. When the line comes tight, strip set, then watch fly line jump from the basket. Then: backing, glorious snow-white backing. Yards and yards of it dump off the reel into the Atlantic. After that, things you rarely experience: the very real thought you might actually get spooled; the strange whining noise backing makes when fully stretched; hand cramps. Eventually you back up and the ocean presents to you one of its lords. False albacore look like something imagined by Da Vinci—the ideal of the perfect fish. The high dorsal that folds into a slot and completely vanishes. The recessed panels where each pectoral fits perfectly. The scimitar tail. The swatch of blue green camouflage along its back. The large, ever-eager eye. All elegantly designed for high speed and pursuit.
I take in a deep lungful of salt air and exhale slowly. I unhook the fly from the cork and hold it between my fingers. It feels better there. I gaze at the ocean, ever-patient, waiting again for Albert.