Picture this, you’re standing at the bow of a boat on a mid-September day on Cape Cod. You’re armed with a 9wt fly rod and a hunch. Well, it turns out that your hunch was right, because out of nowhere, small baitfish fly out of the water in every direction, quickly followed by the swimming torpedoes with a constant bad attitude known as False Albacore. You cast right in the middle of it all, but your fly doesn’t get touched. You, my friend, have just found yourself an Albie blitz. Frustrated, you pack it up and head home to do some research for the coming days. You type into google “what just happened” and conveniently, you click the first link and this article pops up (yeah, trippy).
A blitz is when gamefish work together to corral a school of baitfish into a ball (baitball), and then all at once munch on that baitball creating a large surface commotion. This creates a very convenient situation for all anglers, as the fish make their presence known, and you can often see what they are feeding on. Species like Striped Bass and Bluefish to False Albacore and even Bluefin Tuna all feed in blitzes, giving us fly anglers a shot at some of the most exciting fishing the world has to offer.
Striped Bass and Bluefish:
Throughout the New England saltwater season, the most common fish to find feeding on the surface are Striped Bass and Bluefish. These species are grouped together because they are often found feeding together in the same blitzes and display similar behavior while blitzing. When looking for blitzes of any variety, finding birds is key. These birds also feed on baitfish and take advantage of the surface action to feed. So, always keep an eye out for feeding, or “working” birds.
When talking about Bass and Bluefish blitzes, there are a few different baitfish species that rule the discussion. The vast majority of blitzing bass and blues are feeding on small bait species like peanut bunker, silversides, and sand eels. These small baitfish are all over the place, from deep in the backwaters to the middle of the bays and sounds. Smaller Striped Bass known as schoolies, and Bluefish of all sizes never pass up a school of these baitfish and can be routinely found feeding on them if you know where to look. My favorite spots to find these blitzes are the mouths and insides of backwaters. The small baitfish congregate in these backwaters and move in and out with the tide. While most of the fish you’re going to find are on the smaller side, you never know when a cow might show up, so be ready for anything. The best flies for these blitzes are simple. My go-to’s are Clousers, Deceivers, and Gurglers. There is no need to use anything fancy because it only takes one or two bluefish to tear just about any fly to a bare hook. The fishing itself is pretty simple, position yourself outside the action, make casts into the action, and strip steadily. Since the adrenaline does get flowing, many people end up stripping their flies too fast, which is definitely possible for Stripers and blues, so just keep it at a nice, medium pace.
It is impossible to talk about Bass and Bluefish blitzes without talking about Bunker. Bunker, also known as Pogies and Menhaden are a bait species in the same family as shad and herring. Unlike their juvenile form called peanut bunker, full-grown bunkers are quite large. Growing to around a foot long, Bunker are no small fish’s snack. Some of the biggest fly rod Bass and Bluefish caught each year are caught in bunker schools. Although finding an active bunker blitz is uncommon, they most definitely do happen and there are places where they happen more often depending on the year. If you do happen to find one, then you are in luck, but success is not guaranteed. When there are 30-40+ inch bass coming out of the water, crazy things happen. The best thing you could do is take a breath and try to stay all in one piece. You want a 10-11wt (some guys use a 12) fly rod with a sink tip line and a large white fly. The heavy rod gives you enough backbone to fight the big fish, and the sink tip lets your fly get down a bit while you strip it in. These blitzes can get pretty hectic, so as long as you stay cool, calm, and collected, you’ll do just fine.
False Albacore and Bonito:
Speaking of getting a bit hectic, let me introduce you to False Albacore and Bonito. These fish lie somewhere in a biological grey area between Tuna and Mackerel, but everything about them screams Tuna. Rampaging inshore waters throughout the late summer and fall as they make their way from Cape Cod down to the Carolinas and Florida, Albies and Bonito are a favorite target for many saltwater fly fishermen. They give anglers a taste of offshore fly fishing, sometimes without even needing a boat.
The Boat Approach:
The vast majority of Albie and Bone fishermen target them from a boat. The fish move very quickly and are quite sporadic, so the use of a boat allows anglers to cover more water searching for these fish, and to better position themselves to get higher quality shots. Positioning your boat on the outside of a blitz and casting into it allows you to get your fly in the right area while still keeping enough distance between your boat and the fish for them not to spook. Albies and Bonito may seem reckless, but they are very smart and aware of their surroundings. If you get your boat too close or your fly doesn’t resemble what they are feeding on, they will not cooperate. Everyone has their own preference for Albie flies, but I like small white or white and green baitfish flies with little to no weight fished on an intermediate line. I fish these flies because most of the baitfish Ablies and Bones feed on fall under the category of small white baitfish. Silversides, Anchovies, Peanut bunker, and sandeels are all favorite targets of Funny fish (another nickname for False Albacore and Bonito).
The Shore Game:
Fly Fishing for False Albacore and Bonito from shore is a game only for those few dedicated, hardcore funny fish anglers who love to be challenged. These fish often do feed close enough to shore to get a fly in front of one, but the limitations from fishing by foot make the shore game quite challenging. Your best bet is to find a spot that you have confidence in, and log some time there to figure out what tides the fish like, and how to best fish for them. All my favorite places are long jetties near the mouths of harbors, or along long sandy beaches. On an outgoing tide, the current flushes bait out of the harbors, and Albies and Bonito use these mouths as a food highway. As you may have assumed, Sandeels congregate in sandy areas, and Funny Fish will cruise up and down long beaches munching on them heavily. If you get lucky and are in the right place at the right time, these open beach blitzes can be nothing short of amazing both to see and to fish.
Hopefully, it has been made clear that fly fishing New England’s blitzes can be incredibly fun and productive, but also a bit crazy. When fish are coming out of the water everywhere, it can get pretty intense, especially when you add inexperienced or uneducated boaters and anglers to the mix. These crazy blitzes bring out some of the best fishing, but unfortunately on some occasions bring out the worst in a handful of people. The best thing you can do if someone is running over the fish, or just generally being rude is to ignore them. Everyone else around sees them and is likely thinking the same things as you, so there is no point in confronting them. Yes, it does slip out occasionally but for the most part, you will just escalate the situation. If you let them be, 9 times out of 10 they will get frustrated because the fish keep “disappearing” and will leave. The best way to avoid accidentally being this guy yourself is to know your etiquette. If there are other people fishing the same school of fish, don’t zoom around and cut other boats off, and make sure you don’t run right in the middle of the blitz. In general, just be courteous. If the fish pop up near another boat, don’t crowd them, let them fish to their fish and they’ll likely return the favor. Just follow the golden rule, treat others (including the fish) the way you would want to be treated.
Images courtesy of James Manning (A.K.A. @TheAnglersLens on Instagram) an immensely talented angler and creative photographer from the Northeast. You can find his work on his Instagram and on his website!