“Are bonita fish big?”, Dale asks in the comedy film, Step Brothers. Truth is, they aren’t that big, nor a “trophy fish” as claimed in the movie. But what they lack in size, they make up for with speed and power. Their average size in Florida waters is 6-10 lbs., with the State record at 32.8 lbs. Bonita, false albacore, albies, little tunny–whatever you call them, one thing’s for sure, they are super fun on a fly rod. They will test your tackle and raise your spirits again and again.
While they go by many names, they aren’t actually a tuna species, hence the designation “false albacore.” Scientifically, they are Euthynnus alletteratus and are a member of the mackerel family. Their lookalike, Atlantic bonito, is distinguished by the unique diagonal stripes that run from their back to their belly. The discussion about which fish is which is an old one and has been a hot topic across many barstools and online forums. Both fish can be found locally, but we more commonly see false albacore in our Tampa Bay area waters.
In the Fall, albies invade our bays, shipping channels and beaches. The easiest way to spot these speedsters is to look for diving birds. It’s often a run and gun game in which you motor from school to school to get a shot at them. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a school of Spanish mackerel, thinking it was albies. There are a few ways to tell the difference between the two kinds of schools. Take a close look at the topwater blitz. You can usually identify Spanish mackerel skipping around in the same place. False albacore, on the other hand, are constantly on the move at speeds up to 40 mph! Another way to distinguish them from macks is by their bright green sides. If you cast into a blitz and get broken off, they’re toothy macks. If you cast into a blitz, lose all your fly line and get deep into your backing in the first 10 seconds, it’s an albie.
What makes these fish so special is their incredible speed. While they’re chasing bay anchovies, aka silversides, they do it with conviction. When you hook up, it’s important to have your fly line managed well. There’s no stopping the train that’s about to expose your backing, so it’s imperative that your line is free of knots or tangles. In Tom Gilmore’s classic book, False Albacore: A Comprehensive Guide to Fly Fishing’s Hottest Fish (2002), he describes the power of a false albacore as, “It’s like hooking into a speeding SUV.” He also goes on to say that the truth about whether an albie or a bonefish is the harder fighting of the two, “Well, if you tied the tailfin of a little tunny to the tailfin of a bonefish, the only question would be, how long would it take for the bonefish to drown?” That’s a powerful statement.
While fly fishing for albies has become more and more popular on both Florida coasts, it’s been popular in the US Northeast for ages. One of the true hotspots is Montauk, NY. Some of these northern anglers are crazy for the little tunny run and will follow them from state to state. Another Atlantic hotspot is the Outer Banks, NC. These fish migrate down the eastern coastline from Massachusetts to Florida each Fall, though it’s not uncommon to find them into late December.
An 8-weight fly rod will get the job done, but a 9 or 10 is preferable, as albies tend to die if you fight them too long. Just make sure you have plenty of backing, or you may never see that bullet train that ate your fly. They’ll hit a variety of different flies, but matching the hatch is your best bet. A tan silverside imitation is great. Short, fast strips usually get the strike. You’ll hook up using either a floating line or an intermediate line, but I like to have both onboard, depending on the bite. Albies have great eyesight, so use the smallest leader possible – 15 or 20 lb. is ideal. False albacore on fly–get it while it’s hot!