My first trip targeting False Albacore worked out better than I could expect--it took me two casts to get my first albie. My strategy was simple: use the same tactics that I used on the west coast for bonito. I had good timing on my side, when I pulled into the parking lot, I saw breaking fish. My first cast with a splasher and feather was well off the mark, but my second cast led the breaking fish by about 30 yards. I began my retrieve, saw a couple fish swirl beneath my fly, then in a big splash, the fly disappeared. I spent the rest of that afternoon fishing from a jetty and found myself in a steady pick of fish, scoring another seven albies on the splasher and feather.
I have spent more time fishing for bonito than any other fish. Living on the west coast, I chased bonito for more than twenty years from Los Angeles to Mexico. Throughout most of Southern California, Bonito are a summer time visitor, but in places like Redondo Beach Harbor and San Diego Harbor, they are year round residents. West coast bonito fishing isn’t as difficult as fishing bonito and albies on the east coast, shore fishermen routinely catch 20 or more fish an outing. Southern California has a number of very popular fishing piers and jetties that get packed every fall as the bonito bite turns on.
Pacific bonito are very much like atlantic bonito in appearance and behavior and the lessons learned from chasing pacific bonito are applicable not just to Atlantic Bonito, but also to other speedsters like false albacore, spanish mackerel, and skipjacks.
The lure selection used by west and east coast fishermen is basically the same, with one notable exception. Tackle boxes are stuffed with small plastics like Fin-S Fish, Zooms or AAs; metals like Kastmasters, Hopkins, or Marias, or lipped swimmers like Yo-Zuris, Rapalas, or Rebels. The one lure that you won't see in most east coasters tackle box is the splasher and feather. On the east coast, splasher and feather is often called casting egg and fly. This simple rig consists of a splasher, which is a wooden or plastic "bobber" that provides the weight for casting the feather, usually a standard bonito or false albacore fly. On the west coast splasher and feather is the most used lure in the box, but I have only met a few in New England who have even tried the egg and fly for bonito and albies.
With such a short and unpredictable bonito and false albacore season in New England it is difficult to try new things, after reading this article you should be motivated to try the splasher and feather. The splasher and feather, most productive bonito lure on the left coast should be in your tackle box!
Splashers come in many different shapes and sizes--they can be made from dowels or craft store eggs and some tackle stores sell plastic casting bubbles. I find that the plastic casting bubbles are very easy to use, they are egg shaped and slide on the line like an egg sinker. The plastic casting bubble is filled with water for weight and a fully loaded bubble weighs about 2 ounces. Many plugmakers also make casting eggs, Salty Bugger lures makes a casting egg that they specifically recommend for false albacore. Egg shapes are best for splashers because they cast better and make a fishy sound when they are popped in the water.
Fly styles vary by angler, but my preference is for flies that are sparsely tied and swim straight without spinning. A fly behind a splasher will be subject to long casts and the qualities needed are minimal wind resistance and not twisting the leader as the fly is retrieved. One advantage of the splasher is casting distance and a lightly tied fly has less wind resistance and adds extra distance to the cast. This is helpful when fishing from shore or chasing breaking fish. Flies that spin will twist up a leader and a twisted leader will tangle during casts. I never use off-set hooks and I tie my flies with a very thin profile to keep them from spinning.
The key is to fish a fly that you have confidence in, fly choice does make a difference, but with a splasher the specific pattern is not as critical as it is when fishing a fly only. One of my favorite patterns is four feathers tied on "praying hands" style, it is as basic a fly as can be tied and one of the most effective. I would caution against using weighted flies or heavy epoxies, they won't cast as well and you will break some off as they hit the rocks or your boat when you cast.
The splasher and feather rig is simple: slide a casting bubble on your line, tie on a swivel, then attach an 8' to 10' leader and tie the fly to the end of that. With a casting egg, tie main line and leaders to opposite ends of the egg and you are done. With this type of rig you don't want to add any additional hardware as it may create more tangles as you cast the long leader.
When I tell people about this rig their first question is how often I hook myself with the long leader. My answer is never, I'm not worried about hooking myself, I'm worried about hooking the guy standing next to me! The casting motion keeps the fly away from the angler doing the casting; it is only when there is a crosswind that you have to worry about getting hit by the fly. I have used leaders up to 30' in length and these leaders are more difficult to cast, but with a little practice and a smooth casting motion any length leader can be cast effectively. When fishing this rig, the most important thing to remember is to check that no one is too close before each cast. With a long rod and a 10' leader, you can hit someone standing on the other side of a jetty.
The key to casting the rig well is to begin your next cast at the end of your previous cast. Keep the fly moving as you end the cast, open the bail or pop the reel into freespool, then lift the rod, swing back and go directly into your next cast. This will keep the fly in the air and will not allow it to hit the boat or jetty. If you do find yourself hitting things as you cast, work on your timing and shorten the leader a foot or two.
Appropriate tackle for this type of fishing is an 8' to 10' rod capable of casting up to 2 ounces. I prefer baitcasting reels but spinners work fine as well. The longer rod helps you get the fly in the air for the cast and gives you the distance to hit breaking fish. The long rod is also helpful to work the fly all the way to the boat or jetty; the extra length allows you to lift the splasher from the water as you continue to work the fly all the way to your feet.
Splasher and feather is an easy lure to learn to use. I usually tell people who haven't tried it before just to cast it out and reel it in--don't impart any additional action to it. Just as a subtly presented popper is often more effective for stripers, a quietly presented splasher is often more effective for bonito and albies. An overly noisy presentation is often not a recipe for success, but there are days when more noise is what it takes to get bit. My go to retrieve is to reel at a walking speed pace so my splasher makes a vee on the surface, then I use my wrist to add an occasional pop, a few pops per cast is usually the most effective presentation.
It is important to recognize that you are not trying to present a fly on a spinning or conventional rod—you are using a splasher to call the fish in to your fly. If you go out and just try to swim a fly with the extra weight of the splasher you will catch some fish, but won’t use the full potential of the lure. The splasher is the dinner bell that you are ringing, work the splasher, but keep your eyes focused on the feather!
Try varying the speed to get the attention of the fish. There are times when fish will follow the fly or swirl on it without taking; this is when you need to refine your tactics. One reaction to fish boiling on your fly is to speed up--this usually results in the fish breaking off pursuit or an absolutely spectacular hit. Speeding up will often cause the fish to jump out the water in pursuit of the fly. Another tactic with chasing fish is to stop the fly--if the fish are following deep or if you are at the edge of a jetty this is often the killer tactic. Periodic stops in the retrieve, with stops as long as 10 seconds often cause deep fish to bolt up and eat the fly. When you are at the end of your retrieve and you don't have much more room to keep the fly moving, stop. Watch the fly slowly sink, fish will often nail it as it slowly drops. Don't be afraid to try a few casts where you reel as fast as you can. No one can reel as fast as a bonito or albie can swim, and sometimes the commotion of a high speed retrieve will get strikes when nothing else will.
When not casting at breaking fish, most hits occur just after the lure hits the water or just as the lure hits the beach or jetty. As soon as the splasher hits the water, get the line tight and begin the retrieve. Fishing from piers, I have often seen whole schools of fish turn toward a splasher when it hits the water; getting it moving gives them a target to chase, but a pause will give the fish time to turn away.
The best thing about fishing the spasher and feather isn't how effective it is, it is watching the take. If you like topwater fishing, splasher and feather will become an addiction! Hits range from a subtle swirl under the fly to a whole school of fish leaving the water in pursuit of your fly. Every fish has their own style of eating the fly--bonito tend to hit it just under the surface leaving a large swirl where the fly was, albies tend to hit it very hard and fast making a big splash as they eat, spanish mackerel often get airborne on the chase and hit. Splasher and feather is one of the most visually spectacular lures you can fish!
The types of strikes that you get often tell how aggressively the fish are feeding. The most aggressive fish are always the easiest to catch, they take the fly hard and go after almost every type of retrieve. For the most aggressive fish, leader length usually doesn’t matter, short or long, they will eat. When you start getting swirls under your fly, but no hit, the fish are becoming less active. A good reaction to less active fish is to increase leader length and slow down the retrieve. To catch inactive winter fish in Redondo Beach California, I often used leaders 20' to 30' in length.
Most of the small tunas go through the same feeding pattern everyday: they are very active at first light and early morning and the action tapers off as the day wears on. They usually turn on again in the afternoon and evening. Of course the presence of bait can keep the fish up and feeding at anytime of day.
Splasher and feather is a versatile tool, but like any other lure it is more effective under certain conditions and matching your approach with the feeding patterns of the fish will improve your results. First light is the best time to fish splasher and feather, fish are going on their first feed of the day and the splasher calls the fish up like a dinner bell. At some point in the morning fish usually become a bit less active and are less willing to hit the surface, metals and plastics fished deeper in the water column work better at this time. Breezy afternoons and evenings are also a very effective time to fish splasher and feather. Wind chop on the water makes the fish much more willing to hit the surface than they would be on a calm day. The weight of the splasher casts well against the wind and allows you to cover more water than small jigs or plastics, so it is a great search tool. On windier days, a more aggressive approach with the splasher is needed, harder and more frequent pops will bring the fish up. Conversely on calmer days a slower quieter approach is more effective.
One of the big differences in the approach of west coast and east coast small tuna anglers is that east coast anglers spend more time looking for breaking fish. From my experience, picking a good spot and repeatedly casting will produce big results on days when you don’t see a single break. For shorebound anglers, breaking fish always seem to be just beyond casting range and some boat anglers may spend all day chasing breaks only to have the fish disappear as they arrive. Splasher and feather is not just a tool for breaking fish, it is a tool for calling in cruising fish. In many areas fish will circle often running along structure and passing certain areas at regular intervals. Positioning yourself in an area where the fish are cruising and constantly casting is a very effective technique.
I have always found the splasher and feather to be the most effective lure when fish are breaking. Breaking fish are keyed in on baits that are on the surface and an unweighted fly will stay in the strike zone at any speed where a heavier lure needs to be worked faster to stay on the surface. Working the edges of the breaking fish is very effective with many hits coming as the lure is worked away from the center of the action. When fish have stopped boiling, try a long cast over where the action was, the splashing will often bring them right back up.
From a boat, you do have to be more careful casting to avoid hooking the boat or your fishing partner, but splasher and feather should be a part of the boater’s arsenal as well. When the fish are up and breaking, having a splasher tied on will give you more shots at breaking fish because you can cast further than most other lures. When trolling, splashers are an important addition to your spread. Just as tuna fishermen use teasers, bonito and albie trollers should put a couple splashers in the spread. My standard trolling spread was 2 lines with splasher and feather and two lines with swimmers like Yo-Zuris or Rapalas. The swimmers should be positioned behind each splasher so the fish that are drawn up by the splasher see the swimmer.
Bluefish can present a challenge when splasher fishing. When the blues are around, you need to have a few spare rigs ready. They don’t eat the splashers very often, but it does happen occasionally and I always lose a few extra flies when there are blues around.
I have tried many techniques and tactics to catch fish over the years, but splasher and feather fishing is my favorite technique to use. Using it I have caught a number of different small tunas including mackerel, atlantic and pacific bonito, Spanish mackerel, false albacore, cero mackerel, skipjack tuna, and yellowfin tuna. It is also a very effective lure for striped bass, but that is a different article! Give it a try this summer, and watch the fly closely, after just a couple hits, I bet you will be addicted!