Fly Fishing for Bonito

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By Cliff Budd

Lessons in managing chaos on Florida’s coastal waters.

After a successful catch, a bonito is sent headfirst back into the brine.

False albie. Bonito. Football. Hardhead. Bomber. These are only a few of the nicknames for the little tunny. All around the Florida coastline, from the northern Gulf of Mexico to the Florida-Georgia line, this small member of the tuna family can be caught in good numbers on fly tackle. In summer, when baitfish are plentiful, albies won’t be far behind. They hit like you hooked a car going 30 mph. They can go on as many as four long runs. This tends to create a problem when three people on the boat have fighting fish speeding in the same direction, but it’s a fun problem to deal with!

Here’s some advice from my experiences as a fishing guide out of Jupiter, on Florida’s southeast coast. I do a lot of fly fishing charters offshore, and false albies are always a popular target.

With multiple hookups on albies, it takes delegation and teamwork not to cross the lines. These fish zigzag at unbelievable speeds. When they run towards you, you think you’ve lost the fish, but just crank as fast as you can to get the line tight. Another tactic they use is to go under the boat. It’s really important to follow the fish around the boat quickly if you want to protect your gear. I’ve seen many fly rods broken like pretzel sticks because the anglers high-sticked them.

Short pumps are the way to fight albies-not a lot of rod-bending pressure. With the rod going straight up and down, the stress is directed at the middle of the rod. Whereas a half pump, the stress is in the top quarter of the rod. Lift off the water to about 20 degrees and reel down. The tendency for some anglers is to lift as high as 80 or 90 degrees, which can stress a rod to the breaking point.

It’s okay to extend your grip forward some to the upper part of the cork, for better leverage, but don’t reach out to the blank. Also put the butt of your rod on your hip to improve your angle. Don’t worry so much about recovering line-just focus on getting the bonito’s head turned toward you without breaking the rod. When the fish is going away, you can assist your drag by cupping the spool to add pressure.

If the fish is going under the boat, follow it around the boat quickly and use your rod to your advantage to keep the fish from tangling in the outboard, trolling motor or other accessories.

With two fish hooked up, follow the lines with your eyes. One fish going left, the other right, is the best scenario, but when they’re coming together, make sure you know which fish is going over and which is going under.

What do you do when the fight is finished? Larger bonito are useful for making trolling strips for billfish, wahoo and a variety of others. As for tablefare, the meat is dark red and some fishermen find it to be strong tasting. I sometimes eat the small ones and find them tasty; they are best if bled immediately and properly iced. Most of the ones we catch are released to fight again. At the boat, you can turn the fish upside down and it will become almost motionless. Dehook it, take a quick picture, and launch it headfirst torpedo-style straight down into the water to get it breathing again.

Tackle Advice

I prefer 10- to 13-weight rods and large arbor reels with a good drag system. We’ll rig one rod with a floating line, another with a sinking line. On charters I provide fly gear.

Albies aren’t the most selective feeders, but they are definitely leader shy. For tippet, I start with 20-pound mono. If it’s crystal clear, go to 20-pound fluorocarbon (I use the Trikfish brand exclusively). If that doesn’t work, I scale down to 15-pound mono, and if not that, then 15-pound fluoro. At that point, I instruct my guests to use a very light strip set, because these fish hit so violently. One little fray from the teeth and it’s over. We’ll also sometimes scale down on the size of the fly. Patterns that match glass minnows are usually best. I do a lot of chumming using glass minnows, and that really gets the fish going. I’ll also use Crease Flies and a Mossy Minnow pattern- basically anything that resembles the chummers we’re pitching. FS

First published Florida Sportsman Magazine July 2016

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