I’ve read about and dreamed about fishing Cape Lookout for about as long as I’ve been fly fishing. After many years of virtual spectating, I booked a trip with Captain Sarah Gardner. Sarah is fly fishing royalty. She and her husband, Brian Horsley, have been in the fly fishing game for a long time, and are recognized as the top guides for NC false albacore, cobia, stripers, speckled trout, as well as billfish in Guatamala and bonefish in the Bahamas.
I only booked a single day, and with a buddy/coworker on board for the trip, we headed south to “Down East” North Carolina.
The weather forecast was abysmal, but that’s part of the game. Hurricanes, nor’easters, and lots and lots of wind for little reason – that’s life on the coast in the fall, and why you usually book 2-3 days when you go hunt albies.
We arrived in Atlantic Beach at our hotel and found an area bruised by hurricane Florence. Shingles missing on countless building, debris piled high along roads and in driveways. Buildings were still standing, but the town was alive with handymen, building contractors, and roofers.
The next morning we attempted to get breakfast on the way to meet Sarah, but the only game in town, a Dunkin’ Donuts, was closed save the drive through due to storm damage, and the line was 25 cars long. We skipped breakfast, and headed to Harkers Island to meet Sarah.
Arriving precisely 10 minutes late, we met Sarah as the other boats were heading out to fish. Being the terrible clients we were, we asked Sarah where we could get lunch (and breakfast). As it turned out, next door to Harkers Island Fishing Center was a general store that was said to sell sandwiches, and we hustled over to grab breakfast and lunch. Unfortunately they had no sandwiches (not sure they ever did), and no real selection of food (reminding me of how living in the city can spoil you). We bought, for breakfast and lunch: One box of pop tarts, a slab of chedder cheese, pistachios, fig newtons, and red bulls. Manly meals for manly men.
We speed-walked back to Sarah’s boat, and after a comprehensive safety briefing, we headed out to Cape Lookout, Sarah at the helm, my buddy and I scarfing down pop tarts, now manly men at sea.
We entered the S-shaped channel behind Cape Lookout, the wind howling, and soon saw albies crashing bait in the lee of the land, between moored sailboats and rising sand dunes. We idled towards them, but they just as quickly disappeared. Sarah described some days fishing albies as a game of “whack-a-mole”.
As all of the other albie hunters’ boats cruised the “bight” looking for breakers, they slowly gave up and headed out to the beach and open water. One by one, they roared off. We kept waiting for an eventual blitz behind the point, but it never came. Eventually, we too roared out to the beach in Sarah’s Jones Brothers center console.
Along the beach, the wind was blocked by high dunes and buildings, and we found pods of albies chasing bait into two feet of water. Sarah put us in position time after time, never driving through the schools of feeding fish, but always positioning us in a way that the fish would generally come to us. In the next two hours, I caught two fish on the beach front – a nice 7 lb fish on spin, and a 12 lb fish on fly.
After some success, and halfway through the day, I had my buddy take the bow. New to this type of fishing and having a hard time in general getting a bite, Sarah and I coached him up. I grabbed a spinning rod and took the stern, trying the same game. We would throw albiesnax plastic lures at breaking fish and skip the plastic lure across the surface.
Sarah continued to put us in front of fish for most of the afternoon (keeping us out late to try to help my friend connect) but the fish were fussy. With the sun high, and the moon full the night before, they seemed to be off the feed. We listened as the guides around us radioed their frustration, blaming the full moon and suggesting that drinking whiskey was the only thing left to do.
My friend did have one fish eat. In a single moment, he lifted his lure from the water as an albie appeared from nowhere, ate the lure, sounded, and broke his line. He was left standing dumbstruck on the bow, trying to figure out what happened.
Eventually we headed back in as the sun sank lower. It was a great day, despite only catching two fish. I learned a ton from Sarah, and she made every moment of the day enjoyable. Truly one of the best guides I’ve ever fished with, and I will plan to book with her again next year (probably for more than one day).
Of note here: With a strong north wind, the albies were practically on the beach throughout our day of fishing. We saw many people fishing for them from the beach, and it certainly looks doable to catch them from the surf here. The day we left, we walked down to the beach we had fished the day before, and again saw albies crashing bait within view of land.