Buffalo Stampede! Harker’s Island Giant Albies & More! - The Fisherman

Buffalo Stampede! Harker’s Island Giant Albies & More!

Affectionately nicknamed ‘buffaloes,’ the albies at Harker’s Island routinely eclipse the 15-pound mark.

Monster albies and exotic species galore!

Several years ago, as the annual New England albie run started to wane, I began to hear stories of diehards heading to Harker’s Island, North Carolina to fish the Promised Land for false albacore. This area has a much longer season, a robust biomass and was known as the place where the “buffaloes” roam (the buffaloes being 20-plus pound albies), triple-hookups are the norm, and over the course of a trip an individual could bring 100 albies over the gunnel. In the fall of 2019, after a period of research, I made this trip for the first time and let’s just say it will continue to be an annual destination for my fishing adventures. And if you think 20-plus pound albies, 30-plus pound amberjack and many other exotic species sounds like fun, you might want to start planning now.

Harker’s Island, Beaufort, and Morehead City make up the area adjacent to Cape Lookout in Central North Carolina known as the Crystal Coast.  To the east, across the Cape Lookout shoals you have a straight run towards the Cape Hatteras area and to the west miles and miles of sandy beaches all the way to down to Wilmington.  The rip over the shoals holds bait and predatory fish year-round and when the temperatures start to drop in the fall, the baitfish that have been summering in the miles and miles of warm backwater attached to the intracoastal (estuarine waters behind the barrier beach) start to flood out to the sandy beaches.  This migration of bait during October and November fires up acres and acres of false albacore for weeks on end. Although this area is known for world class albie fishing, it is also so close to the Gulf Stream that, given favorable conditions and a vessel that can handle the 50- to 70-mile run, you can fish some incredible inshore and offshore wrecks for a long list of exotic species.

Exotic species, like this record class African pompano, are within reach thanks to the island’s proximity to the Gulf Stream.

Land Of The Buffalo

I was lucky enough to have fished for albies with Captain Terry Nugent of Riptide Charters on Cape Cod, and when I learned that he ran his charter business out of the Harker’s Island area each October and November it just made logical sense that I’d look to him to guide my crew.  That first year we fished multiple days and caught dozens of albies on Hogy Epoxy Jigs including one for the crew on the first day that pulled the Boga down to 22 pounds. The next day when we were trolling for king mackerel 20 miles offshore, we had a 23-pound albie take a full menhaden on the kingfish rig.  These buffaloes were just an amazing sight to see. We also were able to cross the Cape Lookout shoals one day and one of my crewmates landed a 50-pound class red drum.  That first year got me hooked, and each year has gotten progressively better.

When we returned in the fall of 2020, Terry had found some new wrecks he wanted us to try.  I had brought my teenage son with me this time and I had promised him he’d get more than get his fill of big albies.  Terry had told us he had found some “promising” life on the inshore wrecks and with about 3 hours of daylight remaining the day we arrived we shot straight out to the wrecks.  Within 30 minutes we were drifting and jigging 7-ounce Hogy Sand Eels and before long we were tripled up on 30-pound class amberjacks.  Seeing my then 14-year-old son fight an AJ of that size was an incredible kickoff to the trip. We went on that week to catch our fair share of albies, AJs, almaco jacks, Spanish and king mackerel, gag grouper, and dusky sharks.

Bull reds are another species traveling anglers can tangle with at Harker’s Island, some of them weighing in excess of 50 pounds!

Dream Scenario

In the fall of 2021, we had the trip we will be chasing forever.  As we are accustomed to in New England, you can control many things, but you cannot control the fall weather. Our first day was just after a bad storm, and this had all but shut down the inshore albie bite. Terry saw a window on our second day where we could run far offshore to cleaner water. It was a rough ride out, but when we arrived on the offshore wrecks, we knew right away it would be a different day.

As we started our jigging session, we were hooking up almost instantaneously with albies, Spanish mackerel and small king mackerel. Amber and almaco jacks joined in, but not long after that, things jumped into hyper overdrive!  I was jigging a 7-ounce Hogy Sand Eel in about 100 feet of water when something much larger than anything else we’d caught took off with the lure.  A powerful fight ensued, and when we finally got color Terry was calling for the gaff to make sure we did not lose this fish of a lifetime. It ended up being an African pompano that, had we certified it, would have been the 80-pound class world record (hindsight of course).

We celebrated that catch and I quickly dropped the same jig back down. A few minutes later, my drag started screaming again, so I knew that once again this was a unique fish. After a solid fight, we pulled a 30-pound class blackfin tuna over the rail.  Not long after that my crewmate, Whit Holden hooked and, after a 30-minute battle, landed a 60-pound class amberjack on an albie setup! And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, as the sun began to dip low on the horizon a buffalo stampede fired up with 15-plus pound albies crashing flying fish on the surface!  We had so many albies taken at boatside by 6-foot barracuda and dusky sharks we simply lost count.

When the sea conditions are too rough for fishing out front, anglers can pitch live shrimp to sheepshead, redfish and sea trout in the backwaters for a completely different side of the Harker’s Island fishery.

Backwater Options

The next day the weather did not allow for a beach or offshore trip, so we made the best of our last day by finding a local guide through Chasin’ Tails Outdoors. Captain Chad Morgan took us to places only the locals know about and we checked a few new species off the list including red drum and speckled trout.  When the weather around Harker’s is not cooperating out front, I highly recommend the inshore backwater fishing as a solid backup plan. We filled a cooler that day with weakfish, black drum, and sheepshead in addition to the speckled trout and red drum.  The backwater live bait fishing (all with live shrimp) was such a unique experience, not to mention an incredible way to explore the local back waters.

The biomass of albies around the island in October and November is huge and double hookups are common when you get on them.

A Special Place

In November of 2022 I made my fourth consecutive trip to the Harker’s area and while we had the toughest weather forecast yet, we made the most of the days we could get out and landed albies whenever and wherever we could find them.  I also used some of our downtime to explore the many outdoor / sportsman shops in the area.  Besides Chasin’ Tails, we visited EJW Outdoors and the Sportsman’s Warehouse; they all have many great products at prices much lower than we see here across the Northeast.

By car, the trip is going to take anywhere from 11 to 13 hours depending on where you reside in New England. Having your own vehicle allows you to bring your gear and gives you the flexibility of driving to various beaches and backwater locations so it has its advantages. I have been flying to Raleigh / Durham (1.5-hour flight) and renting a car (2.5-hour drive) as I find this to be the most flexible option.  You also could connect into New Bern (35 min away) or Wilmington (75 min away).  Most of the visitors to the area will stay in either Morehead City or Beaufort.  This is rural small-town North Carolina so depending on how long you’re staying, a short-term rental / VRBO might be the best bet for your crew.  October / November is in the early part of the offseason so it’s not hard to find a decent place for a fair price. In terms of food there are lots of options, but I’ve been favoring a few local staples:  Cox Family Restaurant, Dank Burrito, El’s Drive in, Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q, and Casa San Carlo (Italian) all offer great dining at an affordable price.

When I asked Captain Terry Nugent what makes the Harker’s area so special, he summed it up by saying “The best part about the Crystal Coast is that it’s not easy to get to.  In the offseason especially, that keeps the crowds down and allows for some world class fishing.  The variety of species in the area is simply amazing.  You can go from bluefin tuna to wahoo to weakfish and sheepshead in the same day. What’s truly unique is the vast variety of species in play, and the quality of fish (record and certification class) is there as well”.

If you are looking for a same time zone trip to a frequently overlooked fishing location, I hope that what I shared might open your eyes to trying the Harker’s Island, NC area for your next destination fishing trip.  Even if it’s just for a long weekend, if the conditions are right, you will have the opportunity to certainly chase quality fish either in the backwaters, along the beaches, or offshore.


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