September is definitely a time of change. Those changes can be good or bad, depending on one’s point of view.
For instance: The fact that kids will be back in school for the next nine months can be depressing if you happen to be a kid. For the rest of us, however, watching the little beggars grudgingly march off the streets and back into captivity is one of life’s true delights.
September days are noticeably shorter, and the nights begin cooling down a bit, making sleep possible without the hum of air conditioners and sky-high electric bills.
But there are other reasons I’m psyched about the approaching end of summer. For the fraternity of inshore saltwater flyrodders, September means tuna. I’m not talking about giant bluefins or yellowfins. The pursuit of those species requires long hauls in expensive boats and specialized equipment, things that most of us either can’t afford or don’t want.
The tunas I’m referring to are bonito and particularly, false albacore.
Hooking a false albacore (albies or Alberts in local parlance) is like hooking an express train. Once the fish has the fly, the angler has at most, a second or two before the fish takes off on a sizzling run. If your line is tangled or wrapped around your reel, it’s going to be a short fight and a lost fly.
The first run is often followed by another run directly at the angler. This is when it gets tricky. A lot of slack line will have to be picked up quickly. Subsequent runs are usually shorter, and a little added pressure will bring the fish in close enough to be landed and released.
Releasing a tuna is a little different than releasing, say, a striped bass. For all their muscle and speed, false albacore are extremely fragile and will not survive much handling. If the fish is not returned to the water immediately, it will not survive. Holding a tuna out of the water to show it off will usually result in a dead fish.
The proper way to release an albie is to plunge it headfirst back into the water. That will force water through its gills and jump-start its engine.
Unlike their bonito cousins, false albacore are slightly less palatable than oven-roasted skunk. The meat is dark red, bloody, and altogether unappetizing. I remember my mom cooking one when I was a kid, and not only was the meat inedible, it took a solid week to get the smell out of the house. So you see, there’s really no excuse for deliberately killing one of these magnificent fighters.
I use barbless circle hooks exclusively for tuna flies, which makes unhooking the fish a snap. A circle hook will always lodge in the corner of the fish's mouth and can be popped out in no time. Barbs are completely unnecessary on circles.
Of course, before you can release the fish, you have to catch it. One mistake I often see inexperienced (and occasionally experienced) anglers make is to retrieve the fly too quickly. Tuna move so fast that the window of opportunity is small to begin with and a fast retrieve will shrink it even further. The most successful albie fishermen I know use a moderate to slow retrieve, or even a dead drift at times. That gives the fish time to get a good look at your fly.
When it comes to flies, there’s a wide variety of patterns that work. Just about anything that imitates baitfish is effective, as is some far-out stuff that doesn’t look like much of anything.
I like ultra-slim deceivers in olive/white or yellow/white tied on Mustad circle streamer hooks. Epoxy minnows and bunny flies will also do the trick.
I prefer a 9-foot leader with a tippet of abrasion-resistant 20-pound fluorocarbon. You hear a lot of talk about tuna being leader-shy, but in my experience, that is not the case. Most veteran albie fishermen use tippets in the 16-20 pound class, and if the fish care, it’s news to me. A sturdy leader will increase your hookup-to-landing ratio.
For anglers looking to hook a tuna from shore, the best spot to try is the West Wall in Galilee, RI. There’s plenty of casting room for everybody, and more albacore are caught there than any place within driving distance of our area. There are other spots, to be sure, but disclosing them here would have a devastating effect on my reputation, not to mention my health. Good luck - I hope to see you out there.