Dealing with a difficult albie run.
In any given year, I don’t give albie fishing much thought until some morning around mid-August. It could be any morning; the date isn’t fixed. But on that morning, the wind will blow smooth, clear, and cool, unlike anything in the blowtorch reign of mid-summer, and without fail I’ll remark, “feels like albie season.” And in that moment, “albie season” comes out of the mist of things to come, and starts to very much enter the near future, a point in time that feels alive courtesy of memory and expectation.
A good albie season leaves its mark in sore arms, smashed epoxy jigs, and yards upon yards of fly backing that you’ve probably seen more of than your significant other.
Requiem For 2021
Well, 2021 was not one of those albie seasons. Granted, it wasn’t like that one year where the Grinch stole albie season and the fish didn’t show. But, it was a certifiably tough season. I hesitate to use the word “poor” because I do in fact remember worse seasons, but 2021 wasn’t a peach by any means. I also hesitate on the “p-word” because pockets of truly exceptional albie fishing did develop in the region. Largely, this was a boat fishery in Cape Cod waters, although the late season push of shore fish on the Vineyard was nothing to scoff at and that last gasp in Long Island Sound was no slouch either.
But I’m a shore-based guy whose stomping grounds are Southern Rhode Island, so my season, like that of most other fishermen, was tough. Despite the fish showing well in late-August, the season basically fell flat and limped on from there. Fish were around through September and October, and even into November for the truly persistent, but the fast and furious bites of the good years never developed. Instead it was a pick: days of one or two fish, sometimes more, but then followed by several days of dead fishing spurred by bad weather. Everyone at some point was on the receiving end of “You should have been here yesterday.” You likely were more than once. I know I was. But this isn’t meant to be a whine session or an autopsy of an albie season. No it’s not, because there will be more seasons like it. Tough seasons happen, that’s fishing. No requiem for an albie season or intricate dissection and theorizing on why this one sucked is going to change that. Bad seasons happen, but good fishermen play the hand they’re dealt. Just because the fishing isn’t on fire doesn’t mean that you can’t salvage decent catches. It does require a certain approach, and that is something that deserves a closer look.
There’s no shortage of reasons why a season can be tough for any species. But, endemic, widespread poor fishing (there, I said it) is only caused by one factor: a lack of fish. Like a first attempt at homemade pizza dough, a small population of fish will get stretched out in a haphazard manner, with plenty of holes and thin spots within the edges. It won’t smell like burnt semolina flour, but the stench of failure will still hang in the air.
I’m not entirely sure why some years we only get meager pushes of albies from offshore, nor do I think anyone is. A lack of southerly wind and an excess of tumultuous weather seem to have something to do with it, but beyond that, I won’t bother to hazard a guess. The “why” has little to do with the “how” of dealing with it. However, the acknowledgment that there are not a lot of fish around is really what shapes the strategy. Every element of it flows from this acknowledgement.
We all know that not all fishing spots are created equal. To paraphrase Buck Perry, “most of the water contains no fish.” This only gets exacerbated by a lack of fish. In a banner year, albies won’t just be at the glamour spots, they’ll be off of every little point, rock, and marina dock at some point during their stay. On a bad year however, the opposite holds true: only the first-string spots are going to produce reliable fishing. An intimate knowledge of the waters that you fish is going to be the most crucial in narrowing down the list of locations. I don’t know why some of my albie spots are better than others, but I just know that some simply are based on years of experience. Augmenting any gaps in that knowledge though are fishing reports.
If loose lips sink ships, then albie fishing is about as watertight as a pasta strainer. No bite stays secret for long nor does any lack of a bite either. I do my best to ignore fishing reports during albie season; I find them to be distractions that disrupt my albie instincts. But, if everyone and their mama is saying there are no albies along a certain stretch of shoreline, I’m not so proud to prove them wrong. I’m also not so proud that I will ignore reports of steady fishing. Related to this is that once you find a pick of fish, stay on them! Remember, there are not a lot of fish. In trying to find greener grass, you’re probably going to be trading your pick for a skunk and burn a lot of gas in the process.
It can be an easy temptation to lug more gear out with you as your confidence starts to erode in the face of bad fishing. The 2021 albie season saw some jetty jocks bristling with so many different rods that a set of outriggers and a green stick would have completed their ensemble nicely. Normally, I’m an advocate for well stocked tackle trays when it comes to albies as sometimes the “screwball” lure is what gets it done. However, in seasons like this past one, I stick to what I place my highest confidence in. This amounts to three lures: Albie Snax, Deadly Dicks, and some sort of epoxy jig. That’s it. Epoxy jigs cover the topwater, Deadly Dicks punch wind and imitate subsurface bait, and the Albie Snax are for everything else. For 2021, I dialed up my albie masochism and fly fished most of the season. Just as with lures, I dedicated myself to a basic trio of offerings. All of my fish came on bunny flies, albie whores, and candy flies. That’s it.
One day this past season, I was short on fishing time with a late start to boot. Circling parking lots and elbowing my way into the “big spots” wasn’t appealing, so I hit a smaller spot in what was considered a dead zone for 2021. I had a spinning rod, pliers, and a pack of Albie Snax in my back pocket. No overt signs of life were present, but the conditions felt “fishy.” Cast number five was interrupted by a soft take that turned into a hard run. The hooked albie had two thick-shouldered followers as I landed it, but the next hour and a half produced nothing.
Obviously, there were not a lot of fish. But the Albie Snax not only enforced their worth as fish-catchers, but as search lures as well. All of these lures (and flies) mentioned have this ability to some extent. They vet the waters for what’s there, and what’s not. In a lean year, that’s a sharp distinction and by fishing high confidence search baits, you’ll sort the two out quickly. Bringing too many lures results in pointless lure rotations; an empty act for idle hands that makes you feel like you’re “doing something” even when you’re just fishing dead water. It’s the fishing equivalent of worry beads. Instead, fish a handful of offerings and move if you get no response.
Conditions talk comes down to two words: just go. If you have the time, conditions are fishable, and the water is clean, GO! In a more typical albie year, I very well may catch up on sleep whenever the marine forecast calls for northerly winds and flat seas. I’m less likely to do this during a tough year as I’ll be catching fewer fish so I’m not going to pass up a fishable day even if it’s not ideal. Also, the fish will do what they do and sometimes they’ll be highly active on those seemingly subpar days. In fact, throughout 2021, the hottest fishing near me was during bouts of northeast wind. This wild card nature leads us to that “you should have been here yesterday” scenario, which is more aggravating than a shorts’ load of fire ants. All that can be done is simply going when one can and making peace with the fact that you’ll likely be fishing on plenty of off days.
Back in my undergrad days I had a chemistry professor whose advice for taking her exams was, “fall back on your training” by which she meant that we all knew how to solve the problems, it was a matter of not getting flustered and applying the basics. The same approach works with fishing, especially when the going gets tough with albies, a species of fish that’s maddening even on a good year. The biggest challenge doesn’t end up being the fish, the wind, or the waves. It ends up being our own psychology. Spotty fishing breeds uncertainty as doubts and second thoughts ricochet around in our minds. By reducing the fishing to fundamentals and taking a more Spartan approach, there’s going to be a lot less of that distracting mental chatter.
It also bears remembering that fishing is meant to be fun. Go easy on yourself and take it in stride. Slow days of fishing are still days spent fishing, a reward that becomes a little more precious as fall wears on and winter looms. It also doesn’t hurt to take off the albie blinders here and there. It’s not unusual that some of the best striper fishing of the fall occurs around those storms that shut down albie fishing. Also, the deep, rocky nature of many albie spots make them fantastic blackfish spots. Fishing for tautog with an albie rod on the side is a great way to keep things interesting and not feeling like a chore. Heading home with some tasty filets ain’t too shabby either.
But perhaps the most vital thing to keep in mind, is that part of what makes albie fishing addicting is that we never know what we’re going to get for a season. In albie fishing, highs and lows get juxtaposed regularly. The differences from season to season are no different. It wouldn’t be albie fishing otherwise. Boom seasons only stand out in the relief of the slow ones. Albie season 2021 was what it was, here’s to hoping 2022 will be something different when that late-August wind blows smooth, clear, and cool.