Fishing for Atlantic Bonito in Key West
The speedy Bonito fights well on light tackle and is easy to catch once a feeding school is found.
Atlantic Bonito (Sarda sarda)
(Florida Record 6lbs. 8oz.) The Atlantic Bonito is a member of the Scombridae family which also includes Mackerel, Tuna and Spanish Mackerel. Bonito are differentiated from Tuna by their compressed rather than round bodies, a lack of teeth on the roof of their mouth, and differences in coloration. Bonito typically have metallic grey or grey-green backs, with dark wavy stripes above the lateral line and extending forward to below the first spine of the dorsal fin. The fish may also have vertical stripes of grey on their sides that fade after death.
The sides lighten in color down to a grey-white belly. The Bonito looks similar to the Little Tunny (Euthynnus alletteratus) and the Skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis), and fishermen often confuse the species. However, the Little Tunny has a series of distinct spots below the pectoral fin, and the first spine of the dorsal fin is much taller and more vertical than that of the Bonito. In Key West waters, Bonito commonly run about 4-5 lbs. and up to 2 feet in length.
Bonito Habitat and Behavior
Bonito are found in tropical to temperate coastal waters throughout the Atlantic and into the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean and Black seas. In the western Atlantic, Bonito generally range from Massachusetts to the northern Gulf of Mexico, but some have been taken as far north as Nova Scotia. It is uncommon around southern Florida and is not found in the Caribbean Sea. Bonito is an important food fish species and it is exploited by coastal fisheries throughout its distribution.
Bonito typically travel through open water in large schools that may have a mix of other species including Little Tunny, Mackerel, and Bluefish. Bonito prey on various species of small fish depending on the locality and season. They eat alewives, mackerel, menhaden, sand lances, silversides and other fishes as well as squid and shrimp. Both juvenile and adult Bonito are also known to be cannibalistic.
It takes approximately 3 years for Bonito to reach sexual maturity at an average size of 15 inches. Spawning season and size at maturity vary between regional populations. In the northwestern Atlantic, Bonito spawn during June and July and small 5-6 inch fish are commonly found off Long Island in September.
Fishing for Bonito
Around Florida, Bonito are usually found at or near the surface 15-20 miles offshore. They are strong, fast swimmers and are known to skip or leap out of the water in pursuit of prey. As with many inshore gamefish, schools of Bonito are usually indicated by flocks of diving birds following the fish feeding in open waters.
Bonito bite readily when they are feeding and take both bait and lures. When located, they can be caught by trolling or floating bait or lures, or by casting into the school of feeding fish, which will hit nearly anything that comes their way. Any small pelagic schooling baitfish, squid, cut fish, strip baits, or shiny artificial lure will catch Bonito. Trolling small lures baited with mullet or ballyhoo or dressed with colored feathers is popular, as is casting small, brightly-colored metal lures that imitate the small baitfish the Bonito are feeding on.
Bonito are hard fighters when hooked on light tackle. Around Key West, Bonito are generally not considered to be good eating fish, but their oily, strongly-scented flesh is often used as bait to catch other species. Cut Bonito stays on the hook well and releases a lot of oil into the water to create a scent trail, so it is often used for Shark fishing.