“You should have been here yesterday” or “You should be here tomorrow” – these are terms that apply perfectly to albacore fishing. “Albies” are constantly on the move, and can cover great distances in a day. Ask any skipper that loaded the boat one day and got zip the next. But that’s albacore, and for every wide open trip there will be many others that pick off only one to two fish per person, if that! In these cases, the majority of fish will be caught by 2 to 3 fishermen. The purpose of this article is to help you become one of the fishermen catching the lion’s share of the fish on an albie trip. If you plan on sitting in the galley drinking beer, don’t expect to catch very many albies. Consistent success in albacore fishing requires that you be willing to work for your fish, and go above and beyond the usual pattern of “sit around, wait for the trolling jigs to get hit, and fly-line a bait.” With some dedication and the right techniques, you can easily nail ten to twenty fish on a trip where the other guys get only one, or even none!
The wide-open bite is obviously the dream of all who chase albies. Here, the fish congregate at the surface around the boat, actively feeding on the chum and hooked baits. But this is the exception – you’re lucky if you hit this kind of bite in one out of five trips. The norm is the notorious “pick bite”, where the trolling jigs get nailed, followed by everybody frantically rushing the bait tank, with the first few guys in the water taking fish while everybody who follows gets to stand around watching their fly-lined anchovy or sardine swim in circles. When this occurs, most point the finger of blame at the the fish: “albacore are picky eaters”, “albacore are line shy”, etc. That’s part of the issue, to be sure, but a lot of the problem for those fishing for (and not catching) albies is simply the failure to match the fishing technique to the albacore’s typical behavior. Think about it – how often on albie trips have you seen two, three, or even all four trolling jigs get hit simultaneously, and the first two to three baits in the water hook up almost instantly? That doesn’t sound like “picky eater” to us. More likely, the blame for a slow bite is on the fishermen – those anglers fly-lining baits on the surface are fishing where there’s no fish to be caught!
Where’s the Albacore Fish?
So let’s take a quick look at what is known about albacore behavior, and how we can use this knowledge to get more bites. The tunas in general are known for constantly being on the move, and that goes double for albacore. Albacore swim at 15-30+ MPH all of the time, and the majority is as a coordinated school. In other words, you’ll rarely find a school of albacore just milling around in one spot, or willing to hang around under the boat, picking off the occasional bait. Also, the school generally travels deep, below 100 feet or so, but will come to the surface to feed. That’s the whole point of trolling: the commotion of the boat brings the fish near the surface, and the trolling jigs give them something to eat. And let’s think about this: a fish that swims really fast all of the time is burning a lot of energy, and really can’t afford to be too picky about what it eats. If there’s food, they eat, which is why so often multiple trolling jigs get bit. So at least the trolling part of the “standard” strategy holds.
So if albies are so voracious, how come everyone’s bait doesn’t get hit when the boat stops? The answer is simple: albies move fast and with purpose. By the time the boat stops, you fight your way to the bait tank, and actually get in the water, the school may be long gone (horizontally, vertically, or both). Albacore schools may contain thousands of fish, and they’re hunting for big bait balls to feed on. A few chum and hooked baits milling around the surface will not, in most cases, carry enough attraction to keep the school in the area. The other thing to remember is that the school lives and moves in three dimensions. For every fish on the surface, there’s probably a hundred in the water column beneath it. So fly-lining is a severely limited technique in terms of the number of fish that get to encounter your bait.
So let’s look at what usually happens when albacore get picked up on the troll. The boat noise and wake turbulence bring up the school. The lead fish jump on the jigs, the boat shuts down, and chum and bait goes out. A few fish on the surface eat these baits, but there isn’t enough going on to hold the school in the area, and they dive back down and continue on their way, while 37 out of 40 guys soak bait on the surface and pray for the wide open bite to start.
The Good Stuff
So, how to we overcome these albacore behaviors and put more fish on the boat?
First thing is to get on every trolling rotation you can. The ONLY guarantee on an albie trip is that the trolling jigs will get bit (unless the boat gets totally skunked, which is pretty rare). If someone doesn’t want their rotation then volunteer yourself. A lot of guys are lazy, and would rather spend their turn on trolling rotation sitting in the galley. Take their turn for them, and you’ll get their fish too.
Since albies are usually caught on bait, rigging is fairly simple. We prefer lighter line (12 to 25 lb.) – while albies do need to eat at every opportunity, they also have excellent vision, and unless you’re on a wide open bite they will be line shy. Deck hands will disagree with the light line approach – they don’t want to deal with tangles, and you will lose more fish. However, you will usually get three times the hookups and land more than you lose, so by the end of the day you will have out-fished everyone using heavy line. Better even than light nylon monofilament is fluorocarbon line, either as a leader or just wound on the reel. Fluoro is virtually invisible in water, and you’ll get as many as ten times the bites over mono. A very impressive line that we have been using lately is Berkley Vanish 17 lb. test. It’s perfect for this application.Take a rod with heavier line in case the bite does go off. Be sure to use good hooks, sizes #2 – 3/0. We prefer the VMC hooks, but there are many premium hooks on the market and they are worth the price.
There are few tricks for bait fishing. The one you need to try is using some lead to get your bait down. Try 1/4 oz. to 1/2 oz. sliding egg sinkers or 1/2-1 oz. rubber cores. This will put your bait below most of the other baits and into the main body of the school, where it will be a prime target for albies. Remember that by the time the boat stops, the school may be headed back down, so you need to put the bait where the fish are. The most important part of bait fishing is to be ready when the trolling rigs are bit. Commonly, the first couple of baits in the water after the strike are the ones that hook fish, and the only way to guarantee this is to hang around the bait tank. So even if you’re not on trolling rotation, you need to be at the ready to grab a bait and get it into the water before the mad rush.
There are times when artificial baits can increase your chances significantly. “The slide” is that time right after the initial strike on the trolling jigs, when the boat is coming to a halt. On the slide, the following method is a simple and productive one. Have a rod rigged and ready with an artificial when the jig strike happens, cast your bait over the side rail, and let it slide back to where the trolling rigs are. Thumb the spool to hold the bait in place and get ready – what you’ve done is place a bait right in the path of the school as they come up to investigate the commotion around the jigs. The artificial lures of choice for this method are soft plastic swim baits with a 3/4 -2 oz. lead head. The best colors are dark back/ light belly and a center stripe of blue or green, like our 01-Chil ‘Chovie, and other variations of this color. These have been around for years and do work well. The hard baits of choice are candybar jigs or “iron”. The best size is the #2, being smaller and heavier , which seems to get hit more (remember that albacore, like most tuna, often prefer smaller baits like anchovies). The best colors are 06-Blue & White and 11-Silver & Blue. These particular lures work very well on the slide.