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Bonito Fish Guide: How to Catch, Clean, & Cook Pacific Bonito

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Recently I was down in Ensenada on a fishing trip.

I set the troll line and waited…

Suddenly the reel took off and I had a fight on my hands. After what felt like ten minutes, but was more like five, I had a nice size bonito on the boat.

Catching bonito down in Ensenada
One of two good size bonitos I caught down in Ensenada, Mexico.

In this guide, I’ll be covering everything you need to know to catch bonito!

Let’s get started.

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Bonito Fish Facts

Around the world, there are four species of Bonito in the genus Sarda. One is found in the Atlantic, two are found in the Pacific, and three total are found in Mexican waters.

Common Name Bonito, Skipjack Tuna, Skippies, Striped Tuna, Victor Fish, Watermelon Tuna.
Scientific Name (Genus and Species) Euthynnus pelamis. (Pacific Bonito: Sarda chiliensis lineolata)
Family Scombridae
Identifying Characteristics Straight horizontal markings on their sides while False Albacores have dark jagged markings.
Habitat Coastal fish that will inhabit areas close to shore.
Depth Range Typically not more than 15 feet
Fishing Information Bonito follow groups of schooling baitfish. Bonito will bite live bait as well as hard plastic lures.
Size 5-7 pound is common for juvenile bonito. Adult size is 13 pounds
Largest Recorded 18 pound 4 ounces March 13, 2000
Mercury Risk Bonito is listed in the top 5 highest mercury levels.
Endangered Status Least Concern

What Kind Of Fish Is a Bonito?

Bonitos are a tribe of medium-sized, ray-finned predatory fish in the family Scombridae. a family it shares with the mackerel, tuna, and Spanish mackerel tribes, and also the butterfly kingfish.

Also called the Sardinia tribe, it consists of eight species across four genera. three of those four genera are monotypic, having a single species each.

To define bonito, it means “pretty” in Portuguese and Spanish, but it is unclear whether the name of the fish is related to this.

Bonitos have striped backs and silvery bellies and grow to a length of about 30 inches. Like tunas, they are streamlined, with a narrow tail base, a forked tail, and a row of small finlets behind the dorsal and anal fins.

 

Bonitos are of both commercial and sporting value. Four species are generally recognized. Sarda of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, Orientalis of the Indo-Pacific, Chilensis of the eastern Pacific, and, Australis of Australia and New Zealand.

Bonito is a fish with no scales and being a member of the mackerel family, it tastes great with light seasonings. Because the flavor of the fish alone is delicious. The bonito is best served fresh and it’s a dark fish similar in taste to the tuna.

It is thought that Bonito spawn during the warmer months of the year when they are least active. Are bonito fish big? The average weight for an adult bonito is 13 pounds. The world record stands at 18 pounds 4 ounces.

Where Are Bonito Fish Found?

Bonito inhabit cool, inshore, coastal waters with shallow reef and structure that hold large numbers of baitfish. Coastal rock walls and headlands are great places to locate Bonito from shore.

Pacific bonito occur from Chile to the Gulf of Alaska, with the greatest area of abundance in the northern hemisphere. Occurring in warm waters between Magdalena Bay, Baja California, and Point Conception, California. Atlantic bonito can be found along the shores of both sides of the Atlantic.

Bonito eat:

  • mackerel
  • menhaden
  • alewives
  • silversides
  • sand lances
  • other small fish
  • squid.

So they can usually be found feeding around larger schools of small bait fish.

In Southern California, they can sometimes be caught from shore which makes them accessible to any angler. Their oily flesh makes them good baits for sharks and other large predators. They are a good fish to get kids started on fishing.

When fishing or trolling from a boat, it is a good idea to look for schooling baitfish. This will usually mean that bonito are close by. Some fishermen will chum the water to bring in schools of smaller fish.

Atlantic Bonito vs. False Albacore

What is albacore? The albacore, known also as the longfin tuna, is a species of tuna. It is found in temperate and tropical waters across the globe.

False albacore, also called Bonita, is a fish that very closely resembles the bonito fish but is very different when it comes to taste.

The false albacore, little tunny, or little tuna is not the one you want to eat. It can be identified by the worm-like markings on it’s back and the fingerprint sized spots on its stomach.

Can you eat false albacore? You could but they may not make the best eating fish (they are sometimes referred to as ‘trash fish’)

They are known to put up a serious fight. They can make initial runs at over 40 mph and will attack topwater lures with some major enthusiasm.

False albacore averages about 15 pounds and makes good bait when targeting larger tuna and billfish.

When anglers in North America say “bonito”, they are typically referring to the tasty Atlantic bonito.

 

The easiest distinction between bonito and false albacore are the markings on the back. Atlantic bonito have straight markings on their backs, while the false albacore markings are more squiggly.

The bonito also has more teeth than a false albacore. One easy way to tell the difference is to put your finger in the fish’s mouth. If it comes back out bloody, it’s a bonito. On average, bonito are smaller than false albacore. A good one would be about 8 or 9 pounds.

Both false albacore and bonito are schooling fish, and will sometimes school up together. It wouldn’t be uncommon to catch a false albacore and a bonito on the same day in the similar water, which definitely adds to the confusion.

Bonito Lures

Small hard bodied lures 10 -20cms in length are ideal for both casting from shore and trolling from a boat.

Bonito do have teeth so heavy nylon or fluorocarbon leaders are generally required to prevent bite offs.

Bonito are often caught trolling shiny Rapala type plugs. Once located, they can be cast to with shiny spoons such as Krocodiles.

Luhr Jensen Krocodile Spoon, Chrome, 1-Ounce
  • Versatile, multi-species minnow design
  • Heavy-duty construction
  • Corrosion-resistant finishes

A steady retrieve with an erratic lure (such as the Krocodile). Or an erratic retrieve with a steady running lure (like a Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow) should work. Make sure your lure has lots of flashes.

In California, a prime bait is a nice lively anchovy.

The second choice would be a small sardine if anchovies aren’t available.

Sabiki Rig Assorted 16 Packs Freshwater/Saltwater Sea Fishing Rigs, Bait Rigs with Ball Bearing Swivel for Bass Trout Walleye Red Fish
  • [FISH ATTRACTION] Soft fish-skin rubber ensures...
  • [FULL COMBO SET] Glow beads + rubber + bright silk...
  • [WIDE APPLICATION] Size from #8-#15, packed...

If you are fishing from a pier, you can catch live bait with a sabiki rig shown above and catch Bonito and other fish that way.

Bonito are caught on both bait and lures. They like flashy lures with silver in them. They can be chummed to the boat and are not usually shy.

Live yellowtail, blue and scaly mackerel, small herring and whiting will all make great live baits for common bonito. With unweighted mullies also producing results.

Bonito Fishing Gear

Your reel must be large enough to handle the powerful runs and have a smooth drag as it will be put to the test when bonito fishing.

The Daiwa Saltist 4000 has the overbuilt Digi Gear. Providing nearly 40 inches per turn retrieve speed, which may become a critical feature when the bonito turns races back at the boat.

Daiwa STTBG30H Saltist 30 HighSpeed Black Gold Conventional Saltwater Reel
  • Aluminum one-piece frame and side plate
  • Ultimate Tournament carbon drag (utd)
  • Machined aluminum spool

It is smooth and reliable due to Daiwa’s proprietary Mag Seal a vicious, magnetic material that dynamically lubes and seals the Saltist.

Another reel with a big performance in a small package is the Van Staal VR150 with 37 inches per turn and all the drag you will need.

Shimano is always known for smoothness, and the Twin Power 5000 XD is no exception the 41 inches per turn is best in class.

Bonito tackle should be scaled to the size of fish targeted. Bonito caught from piers are nearly always under 6 lbs or so, so 10 lb line should be fine for keeping them out of the pilings.

At the offshore islands and banks the fish get larger so scaling up to 15 lb or 20n lb tackle might be wise. Few if any anglers go offshore to target these, so they are usually an incidental catch when targeting other species.

Whatever tackle used for the other species targeted should be sufficient for bonito. For the smaller ones, a Daiwa Certate spinning reel in the 2500 size or so works great.

The benefits of a braided line are priceless when chasing bonito, it offers some distinct advantages.

Most notably, the positive impact it has on casting distance, which is a distinct advantage with this fast-moving and hard fighting target.

 

Consider the smoother eight carrier braids like Power Pro Super Slick and Daiwa J Braid 8x for maximum distance. Also, the strength to diameter ratio helps the line cut through the water during a bonito’s drag testing run.

As for leaders, many anglers feel the eagle-eyed bonito give good reason to upgrade. Fluorocarbon leaders like Ande and Seaguar in the 10-15 lb range work well.

When fly fishing for bonito, the standard fly fishing or light tackle technique for bonito involves visual observation of feeding fish. Bonito have a 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 differently when above schools of feeding bluefish or stripers.

When following bonito, movement of the birds is much more frenzied 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 speed. 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.

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 hookups. When using the fly rod, the 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, most 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.

Bonito Fishing Techniques

When fishing for bonito it is important to maintain a constant speed.

Bonito can cruise the water fast so there is not much chance that you can out reel them. Variations in speed, however, can cause problems. Too slow gives your lure easy pickings to an opportunistic tuna, too fast can cause your lure to “skip” across the water making it harder to get a good hook set.

When you come upon breaking fish, try to position the boat upwind or up current of the school, and shut off the motor.

This way your engine noise does not disturb the feed ahead of the arrival of the bait. This should give you and other anglers the best opportunity to put your offerings on target. Try to lead the fish by 3-4 feet, allowing them first to see, and then take your offering.

Trolling is a very effective way to catch bonito. Just about any lure, you can cast, you can troll.

This can be a highly effective method if bonito are not showing in the water or popping up.

When handling Bonito they tend to really fight, making it hard to remove the hook.

This is an example of where a good pair of fishing pliers would be handy to have on hand.

They tend to calm down quite a bit if you hold them sideways upside down. That actually works on many fish.

Make sure you handle them with wet hands if you are going to release them to avoid removing their slime coat.

Cleaning Bonito Fish And Preparing To Cook

This is where a good fishing knife will come in very handy.

Before anything as soon as you catch a bonito, you need to bleed it. They will spoil quickly if possible put them on ice.

Filet down the whole side. Flip it over and cut down each side of the center bones to get two boneless halves from each side.

Fillet as normal, run along midline for some little bones, you may end up ‘loining’ it.

Cleaning Bonito

Pan Fried Bonito Tacos Recipe

Full Bonito Fish Tacos on the Table
Nothing beats sharing fish tacos with your friends, especially when it’s caught the same day!

Step 1
Make sure the bonito is cleaned and gutted. This includes taking out the bones and removing the bloodline. Slice the fish into steaks for simple cooking. Rinse the fish and pat it dry.

Step 2
Rub the fish down with your favorite spices. Some spices we recommend are chipotle chilies, crushed garlic, Mexican oregano, salt, lime juice, and olive oil. Combine the ingredients to form a paste and rub it into the fish.

Step 3
Cover the dish and place it into the refrigerator and allow it to marinate for at least an hour or two.

Cooking bonito fish in a pan
If you don’t have a grill, putting some oil in a pan works well too.

Step 4
Fire up the stove or grill and add oil the grill grates or pan to prevent the fish from sticking to it.

Step 5
Cook the fish over direct heat for about 3 minutes, until the flesh begins to char. Flip the fish over and cook an extra minute so that it is still slightly pink inside for medium-rare.

Cook the fish 3 minutes longer for medium-done. Prepare the taco condiments and grab the cervesas!

Bonito Fish Tacos
Bonito fish tacos are some of the best tasting and unique tacos you can have 🙂

Bonito Fish Final Thoughts

Bonito is a fun fish to catch that puts up a heck of a fight. Bonitos are a great fish for the whole family to go for.

Are bonito good to eat? Eating bonito is very healthy, they contain, Protein, Iron, and Niacin.

Bonito is low calorie because it contains fat lesser than Tuna. It contains protein and iron at the same level as tuna. It also contains taurine which promotes decomposition of cholesterol by the liver. And niacin(nicotinic acid) which is a kind of vitamin abundantly.

There are several good recipes for bonito online. It can be prepared in many different ways.

As we covered, fly fishing for bonito is very challenging but once it is mastered, it is one very exciting trip.

Jon catching bonito in Ensenada Mexico
I hope you catch a bunch of Pacific bonito. Also, go visit Sergio’s Sportfishing down in Ensenada if you can. They are awesome!

Since bonito can travel so fast and exhibit sudden bursts of speed, once you hook one it is not unusual for them to run straight at you.

When you land on a school of bonito, you will be catching as long as you can reel and unhook.

Some saltwater fishermen view the bonito fish as a nuisance especially when kite fishing or fishing for sailfish.

The presence of bonito is not necessarily a bad thing though. That is a sign there are smaller baitfish schools in the area that the bonito are following, more than likely with the kite and sailfish.

If you have never been fishing for bonito, we at Cast & Spear highly recommend you give it a try. You will not be disappointed!

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