SaltyShores Close-Up: Gold Coast Bonito
Jan S. Maizler
I’ve always loved bonito. Not only are they one of the strongest fish in the sea, but they are not hunted very often because many anglers find them un-glamorous. Even better, since it keeps their numbers up for anglers like me. But maybe folks that don’t like bonito are fishing for something else. Perhaps if they pursued them as a primary game fish, their perspective would change.
Bonito (or false albacore) are easy to catch and can be taken by trolling, drifting, and jigging- almost all methods can take them. For some anglers, this is less of a challenge and for others, it’s a boon- particularly practitioners of light tackle. And without doubt, the most exiting way to encounter them is when they are feeding on the ocean surface. This happens in response to live chumming on Florida’s Gold Coast or feeding on migratory minnow schools off Florida’s west coast. This latter scenario is when bonito really show off their stuff.
Light Tackle Challenge-
When the gamesters erupt on the surface, they are especially vulnerable to lures, and jigs that “match the hatch”. All of these offerings are the stuff that is fished with light tackle. While bonito are strong enough to put a strain on heavy boat gear, on light tackle they feel like freight trains. Light tackling for them with lures is an apex moment in the marine game fish lexicon. Despite their strength, they can be leader shy if they are feeding on small baits like minnows or small whitebaits. If they are hitting large live baits like greenies or herring that are thrown as live chum, they will hit large artificials like topwater plugs with abandon- and they’ll tolerate a heavier mono leader better as well.
If you’re on your own vessel, be aware that surface feeding bonito gobbling minnows and other “non-chum” migratory baits pop up and down quite often. Rather than running down the predator schools, either ease over to the school on electric motor(s), a slow RPM outboard, or cut the engine in their projected path- if you can determine that. Above all, do not scare them with your outboard or inboard engine(s).
Get Started the Easy Way-
The best way to get anointed in the Bonito Game is to go with a guide that’s experienced with light tackling for these species. And that’s exactly what I did in arranging a trip with Captain Dave Kostyo, and enlisting Captain Ken Collette for photo support. Though I spoke to Dave in the early spring, I was not surprised to hear we’d have to wait for the placid days of summer to encounter the schools of bonito that mass off Florida’s Gold Coast.
When the time arrived, Ken and I assembled at T.N.T. Marina in North Miami, where Captain Dave keeps his center console vessel, Knot Nancy. I’d brought two eight-pound plug rods onboard as back-up to Dave’s huge tackle arsenal, since it’s become evident that revolving-spool casting equipment is less common in marine “cast-angling” than spin or fly gear. The only other items I brought were two-dozen ½ ounce white Spro bucktails.
As we idled out of the canal to the open bay, Dave said we’d have to get bait before going through Haulover Cut into the ocean. Since it was summer, Dave told us that while the pilchards had departed, we should be able to catch a bunch of herring on the sabiki rigs and possibly even net some small assorted whitebaits along the island shorelines. As it turned out, we got live bait using both methods. We filled up the livewell in an hours’ time. And, soon we were passing through the mouth of the cut into the open ocean.
The Fishing Begins-
Since we were off Miami, we’d be having none of the bonito blitz of Florida’s west coast in twenty feet of water. Indeed, Dave took us right out to the “edge” in depths of around 150 feet. He deployed live baits on a “free” line, a weighted line, and one on a downrigger. In a half hour we only had a couple strikes so Dave took us shallower to around ninety feet. Almost immediately after re-deployment, all three rigs “went off.” The rods bent deeply and the drags screamed like a Star Wars trio. All of us were sure these were bonito by the long runs and rapid changes in trajectory paths. It was a perfect match of Man versus Fish- three on three- and we landed our gamesters in short order.
I was personally satisfied that we were into the fish but needed some really light tackle action. I pulled out one of my light plug rods from the rod holder and had it “at the ready” when I asked Dave to throw some live bait off the stern. As soon as the herring landed, bonito exploded under them. Some of the baits disappeared, some went airborne, and a bunch shot under Dave’s twin engines for shelter. I cast into the fray and after two sweeps of the rod hooked up with a mean bonito machine. This time the fight was much longer than with the “heavier” twelve-pound tackle. It took about ten minutes, but eventually we saw color as a big bonito pushing over twelve pounds came to the top. Dave leaned over and tailed the fish for photos.
Now it was time for Ken and Dave to get into the act. Both of them grabbed light spinners and rigged up with tiny whitebaits. As soon as their baits landed, both anglers were hooked up and smiling like Cheshire cats. As Ken got his fish within “seeing color” distance, he shouted that there were other fish alongside it. I quickly free-spooled my bucktail to the right level and jigged the rod barely twice before it heeled over. Once again, we had three-way pandemonium onboard. We repeated this action a few more times until we got the right photos as well getting ourselves to the point of exhaustion.
It’s rare to get a successful fishing trip in such short order, but with some good planning and a great captain like Dave, such things are possible.