Fat Albert

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(This article first appeared in Waterlog Magazine in the late '90s. I've only changed the line about the president!)


Interesting people.

Two nations separated by a common language sort-of-stuff. We say tomahhto, they say t'mayta, we say bill they say check, we say buoy, they say boo-ey (really!). We say incompetent, incoherent, environment-plundering, warmonger, they say Mr. President.

The major difference between them and us can be summed up in one word, YEEHAAGH. Or maybe a second, WAAAHOO. These utterances are the stuff of everyday life to your average New Worlder. At the slightest pleasure. The least up-turn in fortune.

Even in a state of euphoria (an extra pickle in your cheese sandwich say) your average limey can only just manage a diluted ejection of " Blimey......" or maybe, in extremis and under his breath, and never with children present, "Flippin eck..... ".

Why this difference in cultures? What is it in American life that so invigorates and unfetters the US soul that allows utterances so......so uncivilised? Well, I know the answer.

Fat Albert.

What, the old bloke who used to be in Coronation Street? Well no. The Fat Albert I'm talking about is one of the sleekest, fastest, most beautiful things you are likely to see in all your piscatorial puff. Friends, let me introduce the False Albacore Tuna. Euthynnus allettaratus in Latin. Fat Alberts. Albies. FAs, to those on speaking terms.

False Albacore are one of the smaller members of the Tuna family, averaging between two and eight pounds in weight. A ten-pounder is big'un and anything over thirteen, well, can you imagine the kind of utterances you'd hear from a New Englander ?

Albies are pretty well distributed up and down the east coast of the USA, with year round fishing for bigger specimens in North Carolina, and seasonal fishing off the coasts of New England.

So? Why get all hot under the collar over a junior sized John West? What about the much bigger Yellowfin and Bluefin variety? You know, the 800lb ones that pull your arms off for four hours on tackle you could tow a tanker with.

Well, the nice thing about Fat Albert is that you can catch him on normal fly tackle from the shore. No need for poker rods and baits bigger than The Queen's corgi. No need (unless you really want) to invest in a day's boat charter at a cost equivalent to the QEII. Indeed, the only extra you'll need is a washing up bowl strapped around your waist to act as a rigid line tray.

And I'm here to tell you that there is nothing, nothing else that swims that will give you as much fun on an eight or nine weight fly rod as an angry Albie. Yup, we're talking knuckle bustin' runs of sixty to eighty yards without even breaking into a sweat. You know the stuff, "the reel screamed into action, a blur of black and gold, and then orange as the dacron backing steamed towards the horizon": good workaday saltwater fly fishing travel writing. Only this time you don't need to get to the Florida Keys (expensive guides), or Christmas Island (long, long way). Nope, you just need to hop on a plane to Boston, hire a car and drive to Cape Cod, Rhode Island, or Martha's Vineyard, to get your adrenaline a-pumpin'. That's what I did anyway.

Caudal peduncle. Say it again. Caudal peduncle. If there's a better couple of words in the dictionary of Ichthyology I'd like to hear them. I bet they were made up by an Englishman's butler, " If you don't mind sir, I'll expedite the landing of your salmon with a firm grip in the region of its caudal peduncle..."

If you don't already know, the caudal peduncle is the bit that joins a fish's body to a fish's tail. Yes, the bit on a tench which is nearly as wide as the tail itself (the tail itself is the caudal fin), the bit which I reckon gives the green one its stubborn staying power.

Anyway the caudal peduncle on a Fat Albert is, rather interestingly, thin.

So what? I'll tell you what. Fish with thin peduncles go like the clappers that's what.

Bonefish, Tuna, Trevally, Permit: thin peduncles.

I don't know this for certain, but if I remember my O level biology correctly, long muscles (thick peduncle) equal slower contractions but lots of stamina - marathon runners and tench. Short muscles (thin peduncle) equal faster contractions but less stamina - sprinters and Fat Alberts. And a Fat Albert's peduncle is as thin as they come.

It's not just the tail bits that make Albie fans holler like an Apache who's just stepped on a cactus. The rest of the fish is pretty impressive too. The Americans describe them as football-shaped, which obviously means rugby ball-shaped. Only this is the sleekest rugby ball never to see the inside of Cardiff Arms Park. Cut an Albie in half and it has the word "smooooooth" running through it. These fish are so cool that they've designed little recesses in their bodies which their fins slot neatly into, reducing drag coefficient at top speed. Even cooler, Albies are hot! Well-developed vascular systems under the skin keep their body temperature higher than that of the surrounding sea. This has a turbo-charge effect on the muscles and speeds the nerve impulses. Imagine Jeremy Clarkson with an aqualung: "aggressive, sleek, beautifully machined, faster than a fibre-optic on fast forward (lowers voice) THIS as a Fat Albert.....".

Albies dine on most small fish in the two to four inch size range, and dining Albies are exactly what you look for when you go fly fishing for them. Sight fishing. But not as we know it.

Frantic is the word to describe it, if we had time to describe it between second guessing where the next pod of Albies is going to crash into view. Up to your waist in the clear blue Atlantic you're surrounded by more bait-fish than water. A blue green missile or three career past, sometimes only feet away, often between you and the shore. Bait fish shatter the surface. Shards of silver explode at your feet. And they're gone. So quick you never even got into a back cast. Wait for the next pod. Maybe next time they'll break a bit further out, coming your way but giving you enough time to react.

Stand there, and debate with yourself whether it'd be better to cast blindly in the hope of intercepting a pod which must come past sometime, or wait. Wait for a measured and calculated shot at a sighted fish. Measured and calculated? Some times two or three pods come at you in quick succession. Jesus! here they come...quick gotta cast, damn it too late - oh hell another lot but on the left this time, just time to flop a short one...nope ignored that, another one - out in front - line's caught on some weed, too late. A brief respite for you to collect your wits and prepare for the next salvo. Try this standing on a stone jetty with fish breaking along both sides simultaneously. Show me someone who can make a calculated cast in that situation and I'll show you someone who should be in charge of the big bombs, come the four minute warning.

Blue-green missiles. Out of the water they are a wonder. Pewter and chrome sides, shot through with pearl. Above the lateral line, emerald green to deep ocean blue-black in a crazed pattern blown along their flanks by the speed of their attacks. To the touch, rock solid. No slack stomachs or flabby stew-pond muscle here. Even with the fish lying still in your hands you feel their raw energy, energy given to them by the waves and currents of the world's great oceans. Maybe you'll have stopped shaking by the time the next pod comes through.

Twenty yards away and almost silhouetted against the rising sun, a fellow angler suddenly seems to be at the centre of a storm as the Albies dash in for another smash and grab among the acres of bait. A hurried cast, followed by a steady hand-over-hand retrieve. Half way in the angler half tenses, and half exhales. His hands, working like pistons, keep on retrieving to set the hook as the line pulls tight to an Albie which thinks it's just nailed another silverside. Only when he's shuffled the rod from his armpit to his hand, and cleared the loose coils of line from his stripping basket and on to the reel, only then does he complete his exhalation, the sound of which harmonises beautifully in his mind with the sound of his reel breathing line into the horizon.

The first time this happens, you're dumb struck. As an English trout fisher, who never sees his backing from one season to the next, you cannot take in just how quickly you lost sight of the fly line in the distance. Just orange dacron backing, heading off on some impossibly flat trajectory to who knows where. Blimey.

The chap with the fish on has had a chance to calm down a bit. The fish has slowed to a steady pull about eighty yards out and, given the chance to take a few breaths and restore oxygen to his brain the angler takes a bit more control and eases on the pressure. Wheee! Another twenty yards sings from the reel. Surely he's hooked a monster. Eighty to one hundred yards with no effort!

The fish is now kiting to the angler's right and towards me. Sensibly the angler backs out of the sea to follow the fish along the beach. To avoid tangling I too back out of the water and give him a clear path to follow the fish up the beach. He passes me at a steady jog. A not unamusing sight, in full chest waders, washing-up bowl bobbing up and down at his waist, and winding the fly reel like a demented egg beater. God I wish I was him.

As he passes he gives me a guilty smile, an unnecessary apology for disturbing my spot.

"Wild fish" I say, trying to sound deadpan and wild-blue yonderish. "Yup" he replies, equally deadpan but trying to stifle a squeak as the Albie rips back another fifteen yards of backing.

We Albie anglers are fishers of single syllables.

He has to run another twenty yards up the beach before he can exert any kind of control over his catch. This Albert may be fat but he sure ain't slow.

Back to my spot in the ocean. Concentrate on catching my own fish. Maybe a change in the fly. Off with the Bonito Bunny, a cute concoction of white rabbit fur, crystal flash and epoxy, and on with a size eight olive and white Clouser Minnow. Exactly the same colour as the masses of silversides in front of me. So thick in the water they look like endless acres of long grass blown by the wind. Concentrate to thread the 10lb leader through the eye.

My formerly taciturn new acquaintance lets out a banshee wail as he finally slides a six or seven pound Albie on to the sand. He wasn't screaming at me. I doubt he even remembers I'm here.

Back to the knot. Grinning and grinnered, I'm back up to my waist in the salty stuff. Fifty feet away a supersonic missile ploughs a green and silver splintering furrow through the waves towards me. Gulp. Just enough time to flick the rod back, pause and lay twenty feet of line straight in front of me. The Clouser, looking for all the world like a dying silverside, sinks to meet the charging Albert. No time to even start the retrieve, on the first pull of my line-hand everything comes solid. Slow-mo seaspray, leaping line, and, at last, a whining reel and wildly bucking fly rod.

A deep breath, a preparatory lick of salty lips......."yyyYYYYEEEEEEEEHHAAAAAGHHH!!"



© William Shaw