The false albacore, known as a “bonita” in these parts — and not to be confused with the more toothy Atlantic bonito — are a blast on light tackle, and save many a charter from being skunked. Anglers for the most part are not keen on making them for dinner, but sport fish sure are.
“Everything eats ’em,” captain Bouncer Smith of Miami Beach said. “They work well for sailfish, tuna, kingfish, grouper, swordfish; wahoo love ’em. And you can’t go shark fishing without a bonita.”
As ballyhoo has grown more expensive, bonita has become the bait of choice for many offshore captains, with the appeal coming from durability and adaptability. It’s all in the rigging.
Trolling bonita strips is perhaps the most common use.
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“You can cut a small bonita strip and have a small profile so any fish can eat it,” said Smith, who typically trolls strips four to seven inches long rigged behind a Sea Witch at 6.5 knots. You can also troll small 12- to 15-inch bonita on a big circle hook as a teaser for marlin.
“Under 2 pounds, and they’re one of the best live baits you can get,” Smith said.
With these smaller baits, he also likes to bridle them across the nose on a 9/0 circle hook and slow troll them for sails and big dolphin while running a wired trailer J-hook pinned near the anal fin. If a wahoo or big kingfish bites the tail, they get the wire, and when a sailfish attacks the head, they get the mono and circle hook.
Smith practices daytime deep dropping for swordfish in 1,300 to 2,000 feet of water all year, and uses larger, thick bonita side strips and bellies, as they present a bigger, meatier profile, and can survive a swordfish’s brutal battering. He also said that at this time of year, with small, 12- to 15-inch bonita around, you can drop a butterflied bonita down so the fillets flap behind the head. Run a big J-hook from the pelvic fins up through the mouth.
With their high oil and blood content and tough skin, bonita make for good chunk baits as well. Toss them at dolphin or drop them down to the bottom for snapper, grouper and tilefish.
“One trick that works really well for muttons and grouper is to put a big chunk of bonita on a big long-shank hook and then rig a live pilchard or a pinfish on the bend of the hook,” Smith said. “The live bait wiggles and looks like he’s chewing on the chunk, so the predator fish swims up and says, ‘Oh, that looks safe.’ ”
When targeting sharks, butterfly the bonita, run a 12/0 hook through the lips and a 12/0 hook on a trailer wire through one of the slabs, and drag the bait against the current so sharks follow the scent in to the boat.
HOW TO CATCH BONITA FOR BAIT
Bonita are here year round, but from now through December you can find smaller baits ideal for the live rigging mentioned above. Look for them throughout the water column in water 75 to 250 feet deep, in areas along the continental shelf, or near wrecks. Rig four or five small jigs sabiki-style with a cigar lead on bottom and work through the water column, or troll a Clarkspoon at 6.5 knots north-south behind a small cigar lead.
Another highly effective method is to troll a blue or red 3.5-inch Drone spoon on 100 feet of 100-pound mono behind a #4 #5 or #6 planer board, which should put the spoon at about 30 to 60 feet deep.
HOW TO MAKE A STANDARD TROLLING STRIP
These baits run four to seven inches rigged with a Sea Witch and are ideal for kingfish, wahoo, sailfish, mahi-mahi, tuna and marlin.
▪ Put fillet skin down. Shave meat off of the skin, shaving from tail to gill, as even in depth as possible. The tail end of the fillet will actually become the head of the strip. This ensures the grain of the muscle does not clash with the water flow.
▪ Cut the silhouette of the strip from the lighter colored bottom half of the fillet.
▪ When cutting the silhouette, bevel knife inward so skin side is slightly broader than meat side.
▪ Square off the nose of the strip (this is actually the tail end of the filet) so it’s about 1/3-inch wide.
▪ Pierce the nose of the strip with knife tip perpendicular to the length of strip. This creates a hole that won’t rip out.
▪ Use 1.5 inches of Monel wire to tie the strip to the eye of a 7/0 hook.
▪ Pierce hook tip up through belly so strip lies flat, shiny skin side down. Rig a Sea Witch on the head of bait.
HOW TO MAKE A DEEP-DROP SIDE-STRIP FOR SWORDFISH
▪ Create a larger, nine- to 12-inch version of the above. Leave more meat on the bait for durability.
▪ Use two feet of wax thread, a bridling needle and pyramid knots to tie each side of the flat nose of strip to the eye of a 10/0 to 12/0.
▪ Top the strip with a plastic trolling skirt to make a more streamlined head, and stitch the skirt on through the strip several times for durability.
BELLY STRIP FOR SWORDFISH
▪ Cut a 12-inch section of belly out. This should look almost like a flattened canoe.
▪ Use four pyramid knots, one through each side of hook eye, and one on each side of shank, to attach the belly to the 12/0 hook. The rear knots should tie down the pelvic fins flush, for better hydrodynamics, and should fold the strip up “like a taco,” said Smith’s mate, Abie Raymond.
▪ Trim a trolling skirt by half and trim nose off as well. Use wax thread to sew it onto the head of the hook and belly through the skirt each time. Wrap thread around the premade groove in the skirt firmly, but not so tight as to bunch up the skirt.
As you’ll likely precut bonita strips, it’s wise to salt them heavily with Baitmasters Magic Brine so as to toughen them to an almost jerky-like durability. Do this as soon as you cut the baits, even before rigging, and either freeze them, or put them in a sealed plastic bag over ice.