I’d been dreaming of catching a false albacore—a feisty, hard-pulling member of the tuna family—for at least 20 years. I started fumbling my way around the internet and flipping through fishing magazines to find a guide. One name kept popping up: Capt. Sarah Gardner.
About two months later, my fishing buddy and I arrive at Harkers Island, North Carolina, a salty locale with access to the Cape Lookout fishing grounds. It’s early—about 45 minutes before sunrise—when we shuffle down the dock toward Gardner’s 23-foot Jones Brothers Marine Cape Fisherman, Fly Girl.
“How’s it going?” Gardner asks as we load our gear. “Fishing has been good! Let me take a look at your flies and tackle to make sure you’re rigged up the right way.”
Gardner examines everything we’ve brought along, swaps out a couple of our flies for ones that she tied, and then casts off the dock lines and sets a course toward Barden Inlet.
As we plow through the inlet, false albacore bust everywhere, greedily feeding on a school of bay anchovies. “Get up there, Gary!” Gardner shouts. She motors us into position, I aim my fly rod at the school, and then I flop the cast.
“Looks like we need to work on your wind casting,” she says, joining me at the bow. She tells me to cast lower to the water, to keep the fly line and fly under the wind. She stands beside me and coaches my arms with her hands. My cast instantly improves.
Another school of false albacore surfaces, and Gardner puts me into position again. This time, I’m able to keep the fly line under the heavy wind and land a Surf Candy fly into a boiling melee of bait and false albacore. A meaty albacore takes the fly and then heads for the horizon, screaming off all of my fly line and going deep into the backing.
“Yes!” Gardner exclaims. “That’s how it’s done!”
A few minutes later, Gardner pulls aboard my first false albacore on the fly, gives me a high five, and then takes a picture. She’s as excited as I am.
We go on to catch as many as 30 more arm-torturing fish each, making it one of the best fishing days of my life. It’s the type of bucket-list experience that’s made Gardner one of the go-to guides during the fall Cape Lookout season—an albacore Jedi, if you will.
Gardner has tangled with sailfish off Guatemala, giant bluefin off North Carolina, striped bass in Chesapeake Bay, roosterfish in Mexico, and bonefish and permit in the Bahamas, among many other catches she’s made around the world. She once was a licensed falconer, is an avid and skilled bow
hunter, is a former International Game Fish
Association record holder, and is an Ironman triathlete. She’s also one of the kindest, most considerate people I know.
“I saw something in Sarah when I first met her,” celebrated fly-fisherman Lefty Kreh said in 2017. “Sarah’s got natural patience and eagerness to share with people that plenty of guides simply don’t have. She’s an excellent teacher. Her instinct on the water is almost flawless, and she’s an excellent caster.”
Gary Bulla, who owns Gary Bulla Baja Adventures in Baja, Mexico, agrees: “Sarah’s one of the best anglers I know. She can cast with the best of them, has tremendous drive, and learns the ins and outs of specific fisheries very quickly. She mastered our roosterfish run and had the catches to prove it. Plus, she’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
Gardner was born October 29, 1964, on the campus of what is now Delaware State University in Dover. Her father was a history professor, and her mother was a librarian and social worker. She grew up with one younger sister.
“We lived within walking distance of the science building,” Gardner says. “All of my friends were children of professors or college staff, and we had free run of the place. We explored and ran around the campus unchecked; it was a great place to grow up.”
Her family home was on a creek that fed Silver Lake and the St. Jones River, which eventually pour into Delaware Bay. Those bodies of water are where Gardner took a liking to fishing.
“I remember all of my buddies fishing, so I was happy to go along with what they were doing,” she recalls. “My little sister and I also fished a lot together around there, but it was my grandfather and my three uncles who really got me into fishing. I paid attention to everything they did, almost to the point of hero worship.”
Gardner says that early on, all she and her friends had were sticks, string and hooks. Eventually, her grandfather gave her some tackle. And her parents, neither of whom were outdoors people, were happy to supply sinkers and bobbers to keep her busy.
“Maybe it’s my inner introvert, but it was so much easier to grab some worms and go fishing than to do things other kids were doing,” she says. “I’d water down the backyard and catch my own worms, steal them from my parents’ compost pile, and then head out fishing with the friends I had who also liked fishing.”
Nature and the outdoors have always been a big part of Gardner’s life. She remembers being in the Youth Conservation Corps, being a junior naturalist in the Delaware Nature Education Society, and getting into birding with her father.
“I had some great science teachers who got me into bird-watching, which my dad also loved to do,” she says. Her middle school science teacher, Mr. Long, also was a big influence. “He saw the passion for the natural world in me and pushed me to learn more about fish, birds and the environment around me. He was pivotal in my development as a person.”
Around age 13, Gardner discovered fly-fishing. Tagging along with her best friend and one of her brothers, she watched as he caught sunfish and bluegills one after the other. “He had a clear bobber with a tiny fly tied on beneath it,” she says. “The fly looked like a little mosquito, and the fish were just tearing it up. I just had to have some of that.”
It wasn’t until college when Gardner would actually pick up a fly rod and cast it. “Falconry was a massive part of who I was from high school through much of my 20s and 30s, so I took some occasional time off from school to spend some time out West taking care of people’s birds, learning the sport, and getting my falconry license,” she says. “One of the falconers I knew had a roommate who was a fly fisherman, and he gave me my first real fly-casting lesson. I fell in love with it immediately. I just wish I’d spent more time fishing the spectacular trout streams out there.”
Gardner studied illustration and graphic design, eventually earning her degree from Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She bounced around a bit during and after college, and then settled down near Annapolis, Maryland, securing a job at a graphic design firm.
“I just wasn’t up for office politics or any of the culture of office life,” she says. “I ended up getting fired after about two years. I never looked back, honestly.”
In her early 20s and without a job, Gardner scrambled for solutions. “I was a frequent visitor to Anglers Sport Center, a tackle shop in Annapolis,” she says. “I didn’t have any retail experience or
tackle shop experience for that matter, but I asked for a job, and they gave me one.”
The place was packed with fly rods, bows, hunting rifles and all sorts of outdoor gear. Gardner used every spare cent she had to fill out her gear locker, taking advantage of the employee discount.
“I bought my first fly rods at Anglers,” she says. “I wasn’t making any more than about $20,000 a year, but I made it work.”
She also began to develop her fishing resume. “I took a job doing fly-fishing trips at Pintail Point over on the Eastern Shore and started fly-fishing more around the bay and its tributaries,” she says.
Gardner was working in the Anglers’ booth at a fly-fishing show in College Park, Maryland, when she met an editor from Fly Fishing in Saltwaters magazine.
“About a week or two after the show, someone claiming to be Lefty Kreh called me at around 8 p.m. one evening,” she says. “I spent the next day trying to figure out which one of my friends was pranking me. So, I called back the next evening, and lo and behold, it was Lefty Kreh on the phone. It wasn’t a joke.”
A few weeks later, Gardner drove up to Kreh’s house in Cockeysville, Maryland, where he worked with her on her cast and asked her about doing some writing.
“I realized then that I couldn’t go back to graphic design and that I needed to get on some sort of career track, but I had no real working experience, so I needed a push in the right direction,” she says. “Lefty worked on improving my cast and told me he’d tutor me in writing for as long as it took. Everyone else in my life was screaming for me to get my crap together and get a real job, but that wasn’t me, and Lefty knew it.”
For years to come, Kreh would help Gardner get her articles into magazines, connect her with people in the fly-fishing industry, and encourage her to keep doing what she loved.
“Without Lefty, there’d be no Sarah,” she says. “He opened a lot of doors for me that would have been very difficult to open on my own. He helped me to realize that I could make a living doing what I loved. No one else had ever done that for me.”
Today, Gardner’s casting is a sight to behold. It’s late January at the Fly Fishing Show in Edison, New Jersey, as Gardner warms up her arm for a seminar with about 50 people gathered around a casting pond. Her teaching style is fun, and she provides tips that are immediately deployable in the field.
“Your backcast is as important as your forward cast, especially if you can make your cast from that position,” she says. “Being ready is important, so I always teach my anglers how to water haul. It’s a great way to pick up and reposition your fly line quickly.”
She proceeds to strip back about 50 feet of fly line and then reposition it about 70 feet farther than her first cast. Gardner’s casting is elegant, powerful and inspiring.
After her tutelage with Kreh—around the mid to late ’90s—Gardner was writing for a variety of publications, fishing as much as she could, hunting, and working at Anglers. Part of her duties as a writer was to call on professional charter outfits and guides, a task that opened some fishing doors.
“I talked with these guys every week, so I started going down there and fishing with them,” she says. “I fished with Rob Pasfield at Harkers Island Fishing Center, some guides in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Brian Horsley, who guided around Oregon Inlet and Harkers Island. I learned a lot from them, and it was a blast.”
Pasfield remembers her being eager, wanting to soak everything up. “Now it’s difficult to think about doing a fall season without her around,” he says. “She’s a fixture here, and everybody just loves her. She’s great to fish with.”
Around 1995, Gardner’s relationship with Horsley evolved. “Brian had recently separated from his wife, and we began talking on the phone,” she says. “The nature of our conversations changed quite rapidly. It wasn’t long before we both realized that we’d found the right person.”
In 1996, Gardner moved to North Carolina, persuaded a banker to help her finance a Parker 18, and started guiding. She worked the summer season around Oregon Inlet, and the fall off Cape Lookout. She and Horsley grew together as a team, on and off the water. The couple married in 1999 on Harkers Island, with Kreh and other fishing luminaries on hand.
“She is the best thing that ever happened to me,” Horsley says. “I feel lost without her.”
But duty does call. And guiding eight to 10 months out of the year can be grinding, brutal and sometimes lonely work, Gardner says.
“We go weeks without a day off sometimes, and that is surprisingly lonely, especially up at Oregon Inlet,” she says. “Most of our friends live on or visit Harkers Island in the fall, so there’s more socializing there.”
The occasional isolation she felt at Oregon Inlet led her to the local YMCA, where she made friends who were into triathlons.
“First, I did a triathlon relay, where I did the cycling portion, and then started training more intently for a full Ironman,” she says. Gardner completed her first full Ironman in Texas in 2013, swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and running a marathon.
“I had to stop at that point because of my back, but I still have those friends I made while training,” she says. “I miss it, for sure.”
Gardner is also a strong advocate for women in fishing. She hosts an annual bonefish school for women at Blackfly Lodge in the Abacos, was a founder of the Chesapeake Women Anglers, and has many female clients.
“I love that fishing has become much more inclusive of women,” she says. “There are so many great female anglers out there, but some are intimidated by our male-dominated sport. I want to help change that when I can.”
Today, Gardner and Horsley also offer hosted trips to far-flung locales such as Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, the
Bahamas and South America.
“We have such a great group of dedicated anglers who’ve become part of our family,” Gardner says. “We catch sailfish, roosterfish, marlin, dorado, yellowfin and a variety of other species on the fly. The winter and early spring trips are a great way for us to break up our seasons.”
This year, Gardner will head to the Reel Action Alaska Lodge on the Kanektok River in Quinhagak, Alaska. She’ll sleep in a tent, battle mosquitoes, and guide clients.
“Brian and I went there last summer and just fell in love with the salmon and trout fishing there,” she says. “It’s just an amazing opportunity and challenge. I’m so excited.”
After Alaska, Gardner plans to return to Harkers Island and Cape Lookout for the fall season. “I’ll get back just as the false albacore start running again, so the time is great,” she says. “I’ve got a full book of clients for the fall, and I’m excited about what the next season will bring. The unknown is one of the aspects of fishing I really enjoy.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue.