Who you calling bonito? Let's straighten out the name game and put some food on the table.
Whether you're fishing the Gulf out of Pensacola or Marco, the Atlantic out of Jacksonville or Miami, odds are immense that you'll catch a silver-plated football with a forked tail, wormlike black markings on a green back and dark spots near the pectoral (side) fins. That would be our bonito. You might be trolling, you might be jigging, you may be bottom fishing for snapper and such. Try your hardest not to catch a bonito. Let us know how your research works out.
Yes, our bonito is edible. But that's only part of the story. For the whole story, you have to read this article. And on behalf of your dinner guests, we ask that you do.
Going back to the relentless silver football: Let's say you have an angler from New Jersey on your boat. He eyes your bonito and pronounces it a "false albacore"--or "albie," for short. Possibly, God help you, also numbered among your crew is an amateur ichthyologist, a sawed-off Guy Harvey in training. Now you have a "little tunny" on your hands. Carrying this scenario into full-nightmare, the alumni chair of your high school Spanish club is at the helm, wringing his hands over whether to apply the feminine a or the masculine o. "Bonita." "Bonito."
You don't care. This fish ID stuff is exhausting. You throw the football back, headfirst so water will flush through its mouth and over the gills, jump-starting the oxygen supply.
Or maybe you do care, and you cut that fish's throat--bonito, bonita, tunny, whatchamacallit--to bleed it out. Next, you pack it deep in ice and enlighten everyone on board as to how great this fish is. You'll dress it in honey and sesame seeds, or soy and steak seasoning, and sear it in a pan or hot grill, washing it down it with select mood-and-appetite-enhancing beverages.
You will live to tell the tale. Maybe even post it on the Forum. I have done so.
Some will like the beefy, iron-rich flavor of little tunny. Others will most assuredly not. But nearly everyone will agree that our bonito is a terrific day-saver. They are remarkably strong, fast fish. An 8-pounder--typical size--will wear out a pair of young arms pulling on 20-pound trolling tackle. The initial surge of a large bonito (they can reach 36 pounds) could justifiably be mistaken for that of a wahoo. But then the run stops and the characteristic deep, tail-thumping spirals begin.
Atlantic Bonito, Sarda sarda
If you take your game to slightly deeper waters--say 200 or 300 feet, primarily along Florida's northern Atlantic and Gulf coast--there's a chance you'll catch a silver football that looks a little odd. This one is longer and leaner, with faint vertical bars and horizontal stripes on its back. And, it has teeth. Now, you can do what you've waited all your life to do. You can smugly announce to your crew: That's not a bonito, THIS is a bonito!
It's true: There is a real bonito in Florida waters, one whose common name, Atlantic bonito, is recognized by the International Game Fish Association, National Marine Fisheries Service, Kells & Carpenter's Field Guide, and other authorities.
The Atlantic bonito, Sarda sarda, is relatively common in northern U.S. Atlantic waters. It's a well-recognized seasonal sportfish from coastal North Carolina up through Long Island Sound and Rhode Island and on into Canada. Four to 10 pounds is typical. World record on hook and line is 18 pounds, 4 ounces, captured in Portugal. The meat is mild, white and dense, something of a cross between cero mackerel and swordfish. It is delicious.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to predict when and where Atlantic bonito will show in Florida. A seamount 12 miles off of St. Lucie Inlet produces bonito catches off and on--as in on this past winter, then off for the next three years, then suddenly they're on in the middle of summer. Metallic jigs of 4 or 5 ounces (Butterfly, Williamson, Halco, etc.) ripped through the water column on spinning tackle is a good tactic.
Captain George LaBonte, who fishes out of Jupiter, says Atlantic bonito may arrive after south current events, when relatively cold, green water has been sliding down the coast behind the north-flowing Gulf Stream.
Captain Bouncer Smith, sage of the Miami charter fleet. also mentioned cold weather and recalled customers catching Atlantic bonito at night on headboats in the 1960s. Sometimes they'd get as many as 10 or 12 a night. Bouncer said, on 3-hook ballyhoo rigs drifted for king mackerel in 100 to 200 feet. Recently, Smith noted that an acquaintance was getting a few on speed jigs while drifting for swordfish out in a thousand-plus feet of water.
Skipjack Tuna, Katsuwonus pelamis
There is a slight chance of confusing Atlantic bonito with yet another small tuna species: the skipjack tuna, Katsuwonus pelamis. In some parts of Florida, anglers erroneously refer to the skipjack as "bonito," which really complicates things for the novice angler. Miamians for many years called these fish Arctic bonito, inexplicably. The skipjack has stripes on the belly, and its dorsal surface is an electric purple. The species is fairly common in deep blue water around Florida, mostly out beyond 200 feet of water. Sometimes they are found mixing with blackfin tuna; only rarely will skipjack be found with little tunny, bonito. The little tunny is more of an inshore species, frequenting bait-rich shoal water off ocean passes. Skipjacks are open-ocean hunters.
In the late summer, especially, you might find skippies pulverizing dense schools of anchovy-like minnows, with flocks of terns moving quickly to follow the carnage. Looks like a sure thing for the angler, but they're actually pretty wary. Try small feathers or spoons on 40-pound mono leader, and troll them 60 to 100 yards back. No need for a big spread of teasers and lures--these fish are already up feeding. Your job is simply to get out in front of them and present a few appropriate-size lures. I'll often pull a 3-or 4-inch Williamson Flash Feather in black-and-purple on one rod, and a 3.5- or 4-inch Clarkspoon on another. Around those skipjacks it's also smart to pull at least one standup-class, medium-size marlin lure. Try something that smokes and swims at 5 or 6 knots, like a Mold Craft Standard Wide Range or Live Wire Sasquatch. Blue marlin feed heavily on skipjacks.
It's also fun casting small, mackerel-style jigs, such as the Gulf Stream Flash Minnow in 1/2-ounce, on medium spinning gear. Keep in mind skipjack can grow big, upwards of 40 pounds. Typically they're in the 10-pound range, but if you hook a good one on light tackle, expect to see 200 yards of line disappear pretty quickly.
The fillet of skipjack is somewhat dark and the quality nearly indistinguishable from that of the ever-popular blackfin tuna. Skipjack do not require the salesmanship of little tunny--they are straight-up good eating. I have enjoyed them raw, grilled, seared, boiled, you name it. You've no doubt eaten skipjack, too, right out of a can. Skipjack is none other than chunk light Charlie Tuna. They are the world's most voluminous commercial tuna catch.
Finally, there are two smaller tunas Florida anglers might refer to as "bonitos," due to the characteristic shape and wavy lines on the topsides. These are the frigate mackerel (Auxis thazard) and bullet mackerel (Auxis rochei). One characteristic differentiating these two from the little tunny is the prominent space between the forward (anterior) and rear (posterior) dorsal fins of the Auxis cousins. These fish rarely surpass two pounds.
As for bag limits, seasons or size limits, for the Florida fishes that go by the name bonito, there aren't any. It would be reasonable to keep only those of about 18 inches or greater, as that's the range at which skipjack, Atlantic bonito and little tunny hit maturity. Also, none of these are particularly good candidates for freezing, so it's prudent to limit your catch to what will be enjoyed fresh. Smoking or rendering tuna salad of leftovers is one way to stretch the supply.
Very important: You will need a federal Highly Migratory Species vessel permit to keep skipjack tuna. This is the same permit required of anglers seeking yellowfin, bluefin, swordfish and other big-game. The Angling category permit costs $20 per year. You can buy one right now online at HMSpermits.noaa. gov; you'll need your vessel registration number.
The HMS permit is not required for taking little tunny and Atlantic bonito.
As indicated in the main story, the dark-fleshed little tunny (a.k.a. bonito) and skipjack are well-suited for high-heat, medium-rare cooking methods: grilling, pan searing. Sashimi is delicious but an "at your own risk" proposition: Restaurant-grade raw fish has been blast frozen to kill bacteria and parasites.
Table quality for all the tunas is vastly improved by bleeding the fresh-caught fish while it is still alive. Methods vary--some anglers spike the fish with a short knife behind the pectoral fins. Others use a swift cut through the throat latch and gills.
The Atlantic bonito is white-fleshed and stands up to a wide range of cooking methods. Here's a recipe I came up with:
Scotched Bonito 1 lb. Atlantic bonito fillets (4 each about 1-inch thick) Flour Salt and pepper 1/2 stick of butter Tbsp. brown sugar Scotch whiskey (Balvenie 12!) Lime zest Dust fillets (up to 1-inch thick) with flour. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat cast iron skillet and add a few pads of butter, about half a stick total. Sear fillets until browned, less than a minute per side. Place fillets in a baking pan in oven, 350F, cooking to preference (medium rare is mine--core will be translucent). Meanwhile, to remaining butter in skillet, add a teaspoon of minced garlic, a heaping tablespoon of brown sugar, a pinch of salt, a half-cup of Scotch whiskey and a pinch of lime zest. Sizzle and stir. Pour the gooey sauce on the fish and serve.
By Jeff Weakley, Editor
Caption: Euthynnus alletteratus: Florida's common "bonito," otherwise known as little tunny, false albacore or bonehead.
Caption: Little Tunny (Bonito) Wavy black lines on a greenish-blue dorsal surface; usually black spots around the pectoral fin.
Caption: Atlantic Bonito Black stripes on dorsal; often faint vertical bars; small scales; prominent teeth.
Caption: Skipjack Tuna Horizontal stripes on lower half of the body.
Caption: Atlantic bonito hooked by the writer while speed-jigging-Push Button Hill off Stuart.
Caption: Another strike while drifting with the Gulf Stream toward a contour change shown on sonar (below left) and iPhone Navionics (below right).
Caption: Skipjack taken while trolling over the 409 Hump off Islamorada. Late summer finds huge schools of "skippies" out there.
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2017|
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