False Albacore and True Friends: The Cape Lookout Albacore and Redfish Festival
“Now’s the time to break out that fly rod,” I said to my young fishing partner as he stood in the front of the boat looking unsure of himself. The wind was still up a bit but that’s part and parcel of saltwater fly fishing, especially along North Carolina’s Atlantic Beach which is ground zero for the annual Cape Lookout Albacore and Redfish Festival. I’d been looking forward to this weekend for nearly two years since the event had been canceled as a result of the pandemic. I was eager to see many of my old friends and to help chronicle the festival because it’s one of the few saltwater fundraisers for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, a national nonprofit that helps veterans deal with physical, mental, and emotional challenges through fly fishing.
My fishing partner for the past two days had been Kole Wilmot, a 21-year-old Marine who’d never landed a fish with a fly rod in his life. We were both the guests of Tyler Hudgins and Travis Brown, co-owners of Drum Roll Fishing Charters, who had only recently discovered the annual event but were quick to lend their support. “As soon as we heard about the festival and what it does for our veterans,” said Hudgins, “we reached out to Chris Thompson, one of the organizers, and offered to take anyone who wanted to go fishing with us.” Lucky for me, Thompson needed someone to take a few photos. Wilmot was fishing solo, so there was room for me on the boat.
I’d met Wilmot at the dock that morning as Brown and Hudgins prepared to launch the boat. Earlier I’d followed Thompson’s instructions and brought along lunch for myself and all of the crew, compliments of the festival. After a quick introduction and a safety talk, four virtual strangers set out looking for false albacore and anything else that was biting. The morning was a bit brisk, and the wind—which never seems to stop blowing here—let us know it was not going to be an easy day of fishing. There are days when you can just “look for the birds” that often hover in circles along the surface of the ocean, scouting for baitfish being pushed up from predators below. Today wasn’t one of those days. No birds were visible, and the boat was a bit rocky.
We were there to fly fish for “albies.” Much like Wilmot, however, I was ready and willing to catch anything. Brown stared out at the horizon as he drove the boat, occasionally tugging at the strings dangling from his hoodie and cinching them down to hold out the wind, which better secured the hat tucked under his hood. Hudgins began rigging a spinning rod with a double rig and handed it to Wilmot as I stood behind Hudgins to stay out of the way. “We’re supposed to be fly fishing today,” said Hudgins, “but the wind is pretty tough. So let’s start with a spinning rig.” The boat soon came to a stop, and Wilmot made his first cast, but not before leaning into the side of the boat to secure his footing. Apparently Marines know how to handle themselves on a boat.
“Good cast,” said Brown, “but next time let it sink a bit before you start reeling. It needs to get down to where the fish are, since they aren’t up on the surface.” Wilmot made another cast, and this time he waited a bit. Still nothing. This is what fishing is like sometimes, even in waters as teeming with fish as the North Carolina coast. “I’m really glad to just be out here today,” said Wilmot, who had been looking forward to the event for some time. “I know it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Wilmot continued to cast, pause, and reel, but he was landing nothing. Still, he seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly despite the slow fishing. “Being on this boat and fishing with you guys is so cool,” he said as he continued casting, remaining focused on the task at hand. Like many of the veterans I have met through Project Healing Waters, Wilmot is grateful for the opportunity to connect with like-minded folks who understand him. “I suppose I’m lucky just to be alive, much less to get to fish today,” he said as he continued to cast.
“Not long ago,” said Wilmot, “I was involved in a motorcycle wreck that nearly cost me my life. I came around a blind curve with a buddy who was also riding his motorcycle with me. The driver of an oncoming car in the other lane was too far over the line in our lane, so I had to make a split-second decision.” Wilmot ran off the road, flipping his motorcycle to try to avoid the other driver. He was thrown off his bike, slammed into a tree, and then nearly crushed as the bike landed on top of him. He showed us the tremendous scars on his arms, joking that he’d never get through another metal detector without setting off the alarm because of the numerous bolts in his arm and collar bone.
The weather didn’t improve much that Friday, but Wilmot landed his first saltwater catch: a small bluefish. He mentioned in passing that, as the drive back and forth from his base was so long, he would either sleep in his truck that evening or head home and not return the next day. Hudgins, who overheard this comment, slipped to the back of the boat to call Chris Thompson, who promptly texted me: “Have Wilmot follow you back to the guest house where you’re staying tonight. There’s an open bed there, and I want him in it.” “Roger that,” I replied to Thompson, himself a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant.
The next morning we were back at the dock to register Wilmot for the tournament again, when I spotted my good friend Marty Laksbergs, former Program Lead for the Project Healing Waters Program at Marine Corps Base Quantico, checking in participants. “Fancy meeting you here,” I greeted Laksbergs with a smile. “Aren’t you a long way from home?” “I heard Chris Thompson needed some help with the festival, so I stepped up. And by the way, what did Wilmot do wrong to get stuck with you as a fishing partner?”
Once on board again with Brown and Hudgins we headed back out to a likely looking spot that Brown knew, but still we spotted no birds preying on fish below. Occasionally a small group of albies would pop up here and there, but none stayed on the surface for very long. It was a constant game of cat and mouse, and we were coming up short.
Suddenly Wilmot let out a shout: “Woah!” he cried, his rod deeply bent and reel screaming. “I don’t know what this is, but I don’t think it’s a bluefish!” Hudgins and Brown responded almost as one, “I think we found the albies.” For the next few hours Wilmot steadily landed fish. After one nearly endless tug of war, he brought a false albacore and a Spanish mackerel up on the same rig. At that point, no one was going to wipe the grin from his face. Fly rod or no, this was fishing at its best.
When the afternoon’s action eventually died down, I suggested we move closer to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse so I could snap a few good photos of Wilmot with the landmark behind him. After taking a few quick shots, we noticed a group of birds working on a school of breaking fish. Brown instantly turned the boat around, and Wilmot reached for his spinning rod. “You’ve landed plenty of blues and a fair amount of albies on that spinning rod,” I said to Wilmot. “Now it’s time to break out that fly rod.” Wilmot hesitated, and I added, “Look, you know you can land them on a spinning rod. You’ve proven that. It’s time to take it up a notch.”
Brown and Hudgins held their peace, but their eyes said it all: They both believed Wilmot was ready. Brown handed him an 8-weight fly rod with a floating line. Wilmot took hold of the rod with authority and launched the best cast he could muster into the wind. It might not have been described as a “pretty” cast, but it certainly did the job. A bluefish struck his Clouser Minnow, and we were treated once again to the angler’s favorite tune, the music of the screaming reel. Then Wilmot did it again. And again. It was the perfect end to a beautiful day on the water.
By 5 p.m. that Saturday afternoon our entire crew was sipping beer at the Tipsy Turtle Tavern, a local hangout that had partnered with Thompson to be the official rallying point at the end of the tournament. Wilmot didn’t win the tournament, but he certainly turned in respectable numbers for a rookie. We consoled ourselves by meeting lots of other veterans and guides (as well as Hudgins’ wife and daughter), feasting on outstanding North Carolina barbeque with all the fixings, and clapping for anglers who took home trophies in a variety of categories like Best Overall Youth Angler, Best Overall Conventional Angler, and Best Overall Fly Angler. Some folks won outstanding fishing gear from sponsors like Temple Fork Outfitters; others won usable artwork like a beautiful handmade leather holster for fishing pliers from Cory Routh of Ruthless Fishing.
The Cape Lookout Albacore and Redfish Festival depends on thousands of volunteer hours to pull off. The logistical challenges, practically endless, include negotiating with sponsors and vendors; preparing and providing boxed lunches; ensuring chairs and tables are available and ready; hosting the all-important pig pickin’; arranging for guides; and coordinating lodging. The public hears about official sponsors, but rarely do we think about, for example, the person who donated his beach house for the weekend.
“We really weren’t sure how it would go after COVID,” said Thompson. “We were hoping for perhaps 15 competitors from across the Southeast.” In the end, Thompson had 26 competitors; more have said they would come next year. One of the most popular competitors this year was Tyler Chocklett, son of famed fly tyer Blane Chocklett, who was guided to victory by longtime guide Jake Jordan. Now, it is true that when your dad is Blane Chocklett and your guide is Jake Jordan you stand an excellent chance of winning a fishing competition. It was clear, however, that fame hadn’t gone to Tyler’s head as he seemed more interested in his plastic dinosaur than in the rod and reel he won. Kids these days… what are you gonna do?
Marine Alex Colonna won Best Fly Angler. His prize was a great TFO rod-and-reel combo, which he turned right around and handed to my new friend and fishing partner. Stunned at his generosity, Wilmot asked Colonna why he would give up his prize to someone he hardly knew. “Why? It’s simple,” explained Colonna. “That’s what this whole endeavor is about. Project Healing Waters is about more than just going fishing. It’s about us helping each other and being there for each other when we need it.” Smiling, Colonna proceeded to hand over hundreds of dollars worth of fly-fishing gear. “Put this to good use,” he said to Wilmot, “and I hope to see you back here next year.”
Most of my 2023 is currently open, but I know what I’m doing in October. I’ll be at the Cape Lookout Albacore and Redfish Festival, where I hope to renew my acquaintance with Wilmot, our friends from Drum Roll Fishing Charters, and the rest of the dedicated volunteers who have turned this event into a highlight of the year. They may be fishing for false albacore, but it sure seems like true friendship to me.
Beau Beasley is the Director of the Virginia Fly Fishing & Wine Festival and the Texas Fly Fishing & Brew Festival. His latest book “Healing Waters: Veterans’ Stories of Recovery in Their Own Words” is scheduled for release in the spring of 2023.