As we trolled over the gentle rolling swells I divided my time between scanning the horizon for birds and watching the Furuno NavNet. Sitting there steering Strikezone further and further offshore, I couldn’t help but wonder how technology has changed the way we fish. I had already employed satellites to find the best water and to read the latest weather reports, and now the huge multifunction screen was telling me everything about what my engine was doing, exactly where we were, and – best of all – the Towcam I had plugged in meant I could watch the lures on television.
The Laser Pro lure vibrated enticingly in the centre of the Towcam’s viewer, as it had done for hours, when suddenly a shape materialised out of the blue behind it. For a moment, I just stared as I tried to identify it, when suddenly the shape turned into a solid albacore, easily identifiable by those big, distinct pectoral fins. It raced up, swallowed the lure and then suddenly all the rods were screaming. As the crew went to work on the hooked fish I started throwing out handfuls of chopped-up pilchards. It worked a treat and within seconds the water was boiling with a frenzy of fired-up ‘albies’.
This kicked off a great little session in which we caught albies hand over fist and it only got better as the sun set. Initially we had been searching for yellowfin, but no one on Strikezone was complaining about the albacore action. A lot of anglers get snobbish about ablies because they want to catch bigger tuna, but on days when nothing is happening albies are simply awesome. At the end of the day, beggars can’t be choosers and if it hadn’t been for those albies, we would have gone home empty handed … but instead we had a ball.
With albacore being smaller in size, you really should downscale to make it more fun. However, be warned: there is always the chance a big tuna will turn up and I guarantee Murphy’s Law will prevail and it will eat the lightest outfit. It’s like fishing’s version of Russian roulette.
It may surprise many anglers, but the humble albie is a wide-ranging species that is found in cool and temperate waters right around the world from New York to Samoa. A true pelagic, albacore rarely venture inside the Continental Shelf, preferring to ride the ocean currents well offshore for much of their life. While found right around the southern half of Australia, they are most prolific where the deep waters are close to shore, like off NSW and Tasmania.
The average-size albacore encountered usually weighs just 4-8kg and fish over 20kg are considered exceptional. Incidentally, the world record is a staggering 40kg, which was caught in Spain way back in the ’70s. Sadly, overfishing has seen fish of this calibre disappear over the years, although some of the biggest albacore I have seen were in the Hudson Canyon off New York, and they were all 30kg models. In Australia, if you want monster 30kg albies, then Port MacDonnell in South Australia and Eaglehawk Neck in Tasmania are the best places to fish.
Typically nomadic in nature, albacore favour temperate to cooler waters, but are also present in tropical waters. Interestingly, fish tagged off NSW have been recaptured in distant places like the Solomon Islands as well as up and down the Australian east coast from Tasmania to Stradbroke Island, which suggests a north-south migration that is most likely associated with the East Australian Current.
A schooling fish, albacore have oversized eyes, which indicates they are primarily a sight hunter. They spend a majority of their life in the depths, especially in tropical waters. I have caught them in water as cold as 13°C and as warm as 27°C, although they do favour water temperatures between 16 and 21°C. An opportunistic predator, albacore prey on everything from squid to small fish and even crustaceans.
Autumn and winter are the prime months to chase albacore, although in NSW there’s also a good run in the spring when the Tasman Front pushes down the coast. Water clarity is important to albacore and they definitely prefer clean water. It doesn’t seem to matter if the water is blue or green, it just has to have good clarity. Unlike other tuna species, albies aren’t very structure orientated, instead prefering to ride the ocean currents offshore, which can make them hard to find. However, technology has come to the rescue taking a lot of guesswork out of the game.
HELP FROM ABOVE
A true oceanic species, albacore ride the currents living their lives on the move. This can mean finding them is like the proverbial needle in a haystack, but the good news is there’s help from above. Sea surface temperature (SST) charts give us a bird’s-eye view of the ocean, highlighting the current’s edges and breaks. Subscription services like Seasurface.com and Ripcharts.com relay real-time data direct to your computer, making it all too easy. Even the free services will give you a good idea of where to start.
ON THE TABLE
Unlike other tuna, albacore has very white flesh and is poor for sashimi, but it is sensational freshly grilled on the barbecue and is often referred to as ‘the chicken of the sea’. After catching the fish, dispatch it immediately and bleed it out by cutting its throat. Then get it on ice to ensure it reaches the table in the best quality.
One of the best places to find albies is on the edge of an eddy. The variation in temperatures can be as little as 0.3 of a degree to create a prime feeding zone for pelagic predators like albacore. The warmer water colliding with the cooler water creates a nutrient-rich zone that causes phytoplankton to bloom. This starts a chain reaction: the smaller fish feed on phytoplankton and they are, in turn, preyed upon by bigger fish like albacore, which, in turn, fall prey to apex predators like mako sharks and marlin.
Currents are fickle in nature so the pelagics need to get onto it fast before it vanishes.
By identifying these areas on your computer you can drive directly to the hot spot, wasting minimal time in dead water. This is very different from the old days, when you simply went to sea and hoped to luck onto some good water. Offshore fishing really has changed and these days if you don’t use technology, you’re simply behind the eight ball.
Using the best SST charts will only put you roughly in the right area. Once there, you still have to find the albies and in a massive ocean this is a tough job. As a result trolling, which allows you to cover the ground effectively, is often the best option. Covering the ground also allows you to search for signs like temperature breaks or patches of birds, or even concentrations of bait like sauries.
When it comes to lures, albies are greedy little buggers and will eat anything from a 14in marlin lure to a tiny metal slice. Having said that, smaller 6in to 9in lures are usually the most productive. Christmas trees and jet heads in metallic silver are always reliable in my books.
As good as skirted lures are, you simply can’t run a spread without at least one deep diver, especially the infamous Laser Pro. This lure is deadly offshore and has caught more albies for me than any other. The trick when targeting tuna is to set the spread further back than if you were targeting marlin and it certainly pays to always have a lure in the shotgun position. Way out the back on its own it is like a sitting duck and is a favourite with albies.
When you get a hook-up on the troll don’t stop. Instead, keep trolling and try to score a double or even triple hook-up. The action of the hooked fish will often draw the rest of the school up and while you fight the hooked fish, start tossing cubes over to get the rest into a frenzy.
Albies love a free feed and simply can’t resist pilchards. Throwing pillies out is like setting kids free in a lolly shop and the albies go just as mad … without the sugar. One trick I can suggest is to only use Aussie pilchards; the imported stuff is crude. There are variations in the Aussie stuff, too, but at the end of the day nothing beats WA pilchards. Unfortunately, bait isn’t cheap, so I generally like to cut pillies in half or even thirds at times. Remember – you want to attract them, not fill them up, so keep the trail sparse, but consistent.
When it comes to baiting up, the key is to take the time to really present the bait so it appears as natural as possible. Light leaders are essential for cubing, and it is important to take the time to hide the hook completely inside the bait. One trick I often employ is to stop the trail now and again and see if anything turns up. If I don’t see anything, I throw a pile of cubes in, including one with a hook in it. This often tricks cagey fish into making a mistake.
As good as cubing is, you should always hedge your bets both ways and have a few livies swimming about in the trail as well. Not only do they give the fish another option, but their nervous vibrations help attract the tuna’s attention.
I like to run one bait about 10m down under a balloon which sits directly in the trail, while the second bait sits down on the thermocline with the aid of some breakaway lead. Interestingly, this has been the most productive bait for me over the years. So, when it comes to catching albies, think outside the square a bit and you will be amazed at your success.
According to recent studies, albies spend the majority of their time in the depths, with a distinct preference for the thermocline. For those who don’t know, a thermocline is a horizontal temperature break that is usually found at a depth of around 100m. Finding the thermocline isn’t as hard as many anglers may think and can be done simply by fine-tuning your sounder. On my Furuno 585, it shows up as a thin misty layer, and I manually twig the gain knob to get the best picture. Often fish will hold up on it, which only makes it easier to detect. Finding the thermocline is essential when drifting because this is where you should suspend live baits.
A livey isn’t the only way to reach these fish. A metal jig is one of the most under-utilised techniques for catching tuna down deep. When you are cubing, working a jig up and down through the water column can be a highly effective way of catching fish. Interestingly, I have regularly caught albies on the jig, but at the same time failed to draw a bite on a livey.
The downside to this technique is that it’s hard work, but still deadly if you are willing to build up a sweat while working the rod. If you hook up, try working the jig a bit harder to entice the rest of the school to fire up. Obviously, for this style of work heavy jigs are best and the outfit should be the toughest you have just in case a yellowfin jumps on.
Albies may be the poorer cousin of the bigger tuna, but they are still great fun in their own right. Sure, they don’t have the size, but on the right tackle they are great sport. Best of all, they are sensational on the table.
AL’S QUICK TIPS
1. Use lighter leaders and smaller hooks when cubing.
2. Troll a mix of deep divers and skirted lures.
3. Pilchards cut into thirds make the best cube bait.
4. If you hook up on the troll, don’t stop – try to keep trolling to turn a single strike into a multiple hook-up.
5. Try working a heavy 300-400g jig while cubing to cover more of the water column.
Port MacDonnell, South Australia Autumn
Portland, Victoria Autumn
Eaglehawk Neck, Tasmania Summer/autumn
St Helens, Tasmania Summer/autumn
Bermagui, New South Wales Autumn/winter/spring
Jervis Bay, New South Wales Autumn/winter/spring
Sydney, New South Wales Autumn/winter/spring
Albacore are opportunistic feeders. They will feed at any time of the day or night, but the peak period is dusk. It really is my favourite time not just for albies, but all tuna. As the sun sinks, the tuna always come on the chew.