Pictured above: These mysterious members of the mackerel family are prized both as great fighters and great eating.
This misunderstood late-summer visitor brings fantastic light-tackle and fly-fishing action to the Northeast.
The initial reports of impending pelagic pandemonium usually filter in from frustrated fishermen trolling umbrella rigs through “fish that won’t bite.” This news is often followed by the anxious laments of anglers casting large diamond jigs and tins to yet other fish that are “here one second and one-hundred yards away the next.” Chatter on the VHF frequencies becomes increasingly excited with tales of highly selective “bluefish.” And then come the impassioned pleas on the Internet for fish identification. One such request, with an accompanying photograph, was met with so many disparate responses that it became quite entertaining reading. The thread read something like this: “I foul-hooked this fish on a bait chunk. Can anyone tell me what it is?” The responses certainly covered all the bases…
“I think it’s a king mackerel.”
“No, it is definitely a Spanish mackerel.”
“You are both wrong, it is a salmon.”
The last guy to respond actually got pretty warm.
“It looks like some kind of tuna or maybe a false albacore…probably a skipjack.”
They were all wrong, but to many fans of saltwater fly-fishing and light-tackle angling, these mystery fish need no introduction. They are the Atlantic bonito, and they will aggressively eat a well-placed fly or small artificial.
To a fly- or light-tackle fisherman, hearing that Atlantic bonito are inshore means one thing – pure magic. There are no other members of the small tuna and mackerel clan that generate as much interest and curiosity among fly-fishermen and light-tackle anglers as these hydrodynamic speedsters. What gives bonito a slight edge in the popularity rankings is the shroud of mystery that surrounds their migration habits, feeding behaviors and the fishing techniques used to catch them. Atlantic bonito (Sarda sarda) are less prolific than false albacore, presenting the angler with the more challenging task of first finding the fish and then enticing them to eat.
Some will say albies fight harder, and that may be true, but bonito are seemingly as fast and often more difficult to catch. But for the inshore enthusiast, they are arguably the most misunderstood of all the tuna family. And large “bones” will put up all the light-tackle tussle you could ever want.
I caught my first bonito in 1976 on a small swimming plug. After that, it took me two years to figure out how to catch the species on the fly. But once I solved (somewhat) the puzzle surrounding the mysterious bonito, it quickly became one of my all-time favorite species to pursue with either fly tackle or light spinning gear.
Bonito are present in the tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia to Argentina. This widespread, ocean-roaming fish is also prevalent from South Africa to Norway, and is fairly common in the waters of the Black and Mediterranean seas. Bonito are seasonal visitors to nearshore areas in southern New England. They are members of the same family as tunas and mackerel, and they exhibit many of the best family traits. In the beginning of August, bonito make their initial appearances along the shores of Long Island and south of Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard. These fish will be hot on the tails of bait schools and will feed aggressively. The first reports of bonito often come from fishermen trolling for tuna south of Martha’s Vineyard, and then the fish will move onto the edge of Wasque Shoal, in the area known as “The Hooter.” Within weeks, the fish will move into Vineyard Sound, Block Island Sound, and western areas of the Long Island Sound.
As the season progresses, “bones” will expand their range, moving throughout southern and central New England. Their migration sometimes follows a path of serendipity. They can turn inshore sooner rather than later or remain offshore and travel with small bluefin tuna, albies or skipjack. Water temperature and bait are always key variables governing that movement.
When that first batch of fish arrives, they typically feed with gusto. This first grouping of fish will travel in tightly packed schools seeking out sand eels or spearing. A fly-fisherman or light-tackle angler that happens upon these first-of-the-season bonito will usually have numerous opportunities at surface-busting fish, since angler pressure at this time is comparatively light. Once the bonito zero in on the rafts of bait, they tend to break up into smaller schools. When this advance guard separates they can become very challenging and frustrating for the angler since the smaller hunting packs are often up and down in a heartbeat.
The initial wave of bonito will characteristically hang around for a couple of weeks and then seemingly dissipate, spreading out their ranks. There is usually a second, bigger push of fish that occurs immediately preceding or concurrent with the arrival of false albacore. One of the critical elements for a sustained bonito run is the presence of preferred bait: Atlantic silversides, or spearing. Historically, and in my own experience, the strongest runs of bonito track best with the presence of large schools of big spearing. While bonito will feed on peanut bunker, bay anchovies, sand eels and other small baitfish, they consistently show a marked preference for spearing. During the 2003 season, a massive number of bonito entered the Long Island Sound and zoned in on an equally prolific mass of oversized spearing. The silversides found conditions conducive to sticking around for an extended period of time and the bonito followed their lead. Anglers fishing for “bones” that season had numerous shots at them for a sustained period of about eight weeks. It was a blockbuster run of fish. The 2003, 2005 and 2007 seasons were all exceptional bonito years, three of the best I’ve experienced in more than 35 years. Not coincidentally, there were also large numbers of large spearing present during those runs. The 2009 run was also substantial, but the fish never quite moved deep into Long Island Sound waters, and instead remained along the Rhode Island coast and the eastern fringes of the Long Island Sound.
Bonito are somewhat more tolerant of temperature variations than false albacore and will often stay in local waters longer than albies, sometimes remaining through the middle of the fall. I have caught bonito well into November. Find the bait and locate suitable water temperature and chances are good for enjoying an extended bonito season long after others have given them up for gone. Bonito are a schooling fish so find one and there will be plenty more around, usually in the form of small schools or groupings that work in concert to corral and push bait to the surface. Flies, swimming plugs, tins and plastics that imitate spearing, bay anchovies, sand eels and at times even larger baitfish will yield results.
Bones are built for speed. They are slightly more streamlined than stouter tuna or false albacore. They have mouths full of distinctive teeth that are more than capable of handling larger baitfish. When keyed in on big spearing, bonito are not at all shy about eating larger artificial baits.
The standard fly-fishing or light-tackle technique for bonito involves visual observation of feeding fish. Their tendency to leap from the water after prey gives away their presence. Diving birds, which will follow feeding bonito, are another indicator of activity. You will often observe terns or gulls behaving somewhat differently than when atop schools of feeding bluefish or stripers. When following bonito, as with other pelagic species, movement of the birds is much more frenetic as they attempt to keep pace with the fast-moving fish. Very often it is but one or two birds that reveal the presence of bonito.
The speed of bonito is what presents a real challenge to anglers. They will move from point to point with incredible velocity. Flipping a fly or lure into the melee takes speedy casting, accuracy and a degree of discipline, especially with the fly rod. Bonito can be finicky feeders, and at times are difficult to hook, but they will more often than not take well placed and deftly retrieved artificials.
The traditionally accepted approach when fishing from a boat is to get into the feeding zone and wait for the bonito to bust bait on the surface. The angler should attempt to determine as best as possible the direction the school is heading and try to intercept that path. When the fish surface, make a quick, accurate cast ahead of the fish. Retrieves can vary, but one of the more popular methods with a fly rod is the double-overhand retrieve, stripping line with one hand, then the other at a rapid pace. A stripping basket comes in handy when retrieving in this fashion. In my experience, I’ve found that getting the fly in motion quickly can often be a key to hook-up success when targeting surface feeding-bonito. When the bonito are in an area, you can follow them as they appear on the surface or remain in the zone where it is likely that they will cycle back. With spinning gear, a rapid retrieve works well, but at times letting the small tin or swimming plug flutter down slowly will also draw strikes.
Bonito, like other opportunistic predators, will readily take the easy meal. Once a school of fish slashes through baitfish, they will often remain in the area to pick off the remnants of the carnage. I’ve often watched injured spearing – victims of bonito blitzes – flutter slowly down the water column, only to be snatched from their free fall by a supercharged bonito materializing from the depths. Bonito will hang around to capitalize on these easy meals, and as such, a “do- nothing” retrieve will often work well. After the initial casting to breaking fish, allow the fly or lure to simply descend with minimal action. Every once in a while during the descent, move the line ever so slowly, as if the fly or lure were an injured or stunned baitfish attempting to regain its stability. When employing this technique with a fly rod, it pays to have a fly that will display flash while flickering down, and to use a higher density sink tip. I make it a point to keep a rod rigged with a sink-tip or full-sinking line at the ready for just these situations.
Bonito can also be caught from the beach, jetties and other locations where they are able to trap baitfish. Catching them by wading is a tough affair since they move about so quickly, but it can be done with a reasonable degree of consistency. The best approach for this type of fishing is to select an area the bonito are known to frequent and wait until they show. This game takes patience and a bit of good fortune. Try to position yourself in such a way so as to be close to areas where the bonito corral bait. Irregular contours along a beach line or the points where the inside edges of jetties meet the sand are ideal ambush spots.
Going light is the key to consistent success. On spinning gear, thin-diameter line, like 15- to 20-pound-test braid, allows for longer casts to reach feeding fish at a distance. The lack of stretch of braid also allows for solid hook-ups. When using the fly rod, my preferred line is an intermediate density with a 15-foot clear sinking tip. While you can certainly subdue bonito on a 7- or 8-weight rod, I choose to rig a 9-foot, 9-weight. Most of the bonito in the New York and New Jersey area are between 6 and 8 pounds, but they do reach sizes of 12 pounds or more.
Some of the more popular flies for Long Island bonito are small- to medium-size slender Deceivers, medium to large Clouser Deep Minnows, Mikkleson Epoxy Baitfish patterns, Bonito Bunnies, Foxy Bones and Glass Minnows. Patterns that replicate bay anchovies (rain bait), spearing and peanut bunker are especially effective.
Artificial lures like Yo-Zuri’s Edge Trembler Minnow, Rapala’s Flat Rap, Sebile’s Magic Swimmer, and other minnow-style plugs and stickbaits are excellent bonito lures. The same goes for metal lures like the Deadly Dick, Point Jude Po-Jee, A.O.K. T-Hex, Acme Kastmaster XL, small diamond jigs and any number of slender holographic jigs.
A touch of color helps draw more strikes. Bonito seem to react favorably to green, blue and orange tones. Adding a strip of colored holographic tape to the sides of the diamond jigs or other small swimming jigs will help to get the lure noticed among large schools of baitfish.