Ed Nowak–Bonito
Ed Nowak–Bonito

When you start out with the right people, the right fishing and/or sea conditions, and the right target species, it’s not hard to run things out to some powerfully stupid outcomes—boats parked high and dry beside a daymarker on the end of a breakwater, a guy heading for the emergency room with the stinger hook from a just-deconstructed spreader bar embedded in his scalp, a boat slipping beneath the standing waves in a rip bow-first as his ill-placed anchor fetches up. Men in boats plus Mother Nature times testosterone equals…well… Suffice it to say there’s almost no end to the destructive idiocy you might unleash.

That said, if it’s real, certifiable, weapons-grade stupidity you seek, and consistency matters to you, might I suggest some bonito fishing? I’d venture a guess that no other Northeast game fish so reliably sends would-be captors home to weigh pros and cons of selling the boat, joining a duckpin bowling league.

Other guys understand the shaky, potentially infuriating proposition of chasing isolated pods of greenies on hunger strike all over watery creation without so much as a strike or boil to remember the day by. Accordingly, until that purely theoretical stage of autumn fishing when big bonito form up into half-acre mobs and blitz- feed with reckless abandon—Watch Hill, Plum Gut, Montauk—most of us treat our favorite silver/green finned missiles as a high-value bonus that might come out of a full tide hunt for trophy stripers, fluke, etc.

Many areas—Block Island’s west side, the 30- to 80-foot drifts along the oceanfront “beach” either side of the Bay Mouth, Watch Hill to Sakonnet—offer good odds for a tunoid encounter in the coming weeks: As you go through your striper motions, keep a wary eye on your briny surroundings for signs of small fish-bait breezing topside, or better yet, a pod of greenies the size of an Olympic pool “porpoising” as they pummel tight balls of bay anchovies, spearing, or micro sand eels.

I have caught, or at the very least, observed, enough bonito—inshore and near- offshore—to have (1) a pretty good eye for their speedy antics, and (2) a solid handle on their feeding behaviors, and methods to get bites. Unfortunately, if you’ve logged any time chasing bonito or albies over years, you know it takes only a day or two of lukewarm tunoid reports to summon a massive herd of Jones Brothers’, Southports, Regulators, Contenders, Sea-Vees, and other purpose-built skiffs, each one carrying a mighty surplus of potential horsepower across its transom. Greenies generally invade Rhode Island coastal waters weeks to a month after offshore guys start pick them off trolling small high-speed lures meant for school bluefin tuna somewhere between the SE Fairway, the Mud Hole, Coxes, Tuna Ridge, The Suffolk, or inner reaches of Butterfish Hole—the outside action, underway by mid-June, often holds into November.

The Inside Game

The first scattered, unpredictable scouting parties of tunoids usually make their first, fleeting appearances along the South County beaches around Nebraska Shoal, Charlestown Breachway, Point Judith Light or outside the Center Wall sometime in or just after the first week of July. Generally, these sub-aquatic sprinters make better surprise guests when they pop up for 30 seconds–disappear, pop up, sound, repeat—and won’t likely support a directed fishery until sometime much later on— Mid August through early October.

The smart skipper accounts for early bones not by patrolling the 60-foot contour off the beaches starting July one; rather, he keeps a spare spinning rod or three semi- accessible in an overhead rack or up in the rocket launchers. He doesn’t go looking for them specifically, doesn’t chase them when he spots a small pod headed elsewhere at…well…at bonito speed.

But when you’re targeting bonito, strictly speaking, you can’t travel too far before you run headlong into a standing army of so-called “run-and-gun” guys, mostly fervent light-tackle guys, many of them with elitist/evangelical leanings in the fishing-methods department, in conjunction with a major-league sense of entitlement.

It’s the run-and-gun gang who generally rack up the greatest number of hours chasing bonito, and casting in the general direction of bonito. The R-and G contingent talks the best bonito. Ironically, though, it’s the sharper “generalist” fishermen who embrace the greenie for what it is—and “incidental” target species, so to speak—who seem, most seasons, to actually catch the most bonito. Some of the folks I know who put in solid annual work on tunoids are dedicated flukemen—the group of anglers who probably spend the largest number of fishing hours adrift on the 40- to 80- foot edges along Rhody’s oceanfront. The latter depth ranges seem to witness a fair percentage of an average season’s visible bonito activity.

The fluke guys, in drift mode, tend to work the same sorts of edges where bonito will actively chase bait. With an extra set-up rigged and ready, it’s a simple matter to pop off a quick cast when the pelagic speed demons erupt within range.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all run-and-gunners are inept. But unfortunately, as in so many other fisheries, it’s an ignorant, selfish, and overzealous 5 percent minority of throttlogically-challenged buffoons who give the entire method a bad rep.

Watch, Learn

It’s sound fishing strategy no matter what you target or how to get in the habit of hanging back for some period of time to observe patterns at work beyond the chaos you perceive in your immediate fore—particularly when multiple boats are working in a confined area or on one single mass of fish (more so when most boats are charter or commercial fishermen). More often than you might guess, you’ll often see there’s at least a loose order—a system—allowing all those boats to effectively work on fish in close quarters.

Often, multiple boats will rotate through a productive drift zone, set in at one end of a drop-off, boulder field, or network of hard pieces, drift with the tide (or wind) to some second point, hitch up the engines, jog outside the rough drift track to avoid a tight-quarters navigational clusterfufu or scattering surface-feeding fish, and finally run back up to the head of the line for another pass. It’s surprising how many boats can effectively work a tract of bottom when all observe a system.

Conversely, when one boat charges right into a pile of breaking fish or decides to jog into the middle of the rotation and idle along against the “grain” of a drift pattern, it only takes one nincompoop to flush a good thing down the toilet. Don’t be that guy.

Etiquette notwithstanding, a watch-and-learn approach to tunoid fishing is always the most reliable way to maximize the number of shots you get at these pelagic speedsters. If, the second you spot them, you hammer the throttles and rocket toward rolling bonito, you’ll disrupt any longer-frequency patterns in their feeding or movement. If you keep your cool, spend 5 or 10 of 20 minutes watching a pod—or several pods—of bones in the area, you’ll often note fish popping up repeatedly in certain spots.

Numerous times along the south side of Fishers Island, outside Charlestown Breachway, or the Harbor of Refuge walls in Point Judith, or in the channel into New Harbor, Block Island—and a half-dozen other known tunoid haunts—I’ve watched bonito or false albacore run back and forth along a specific depth contour or in a certain part of a seam between two clashing current influences, chasing bait.

Fish Smarter

Sooner or later, you face the choice: Will you fish an area, drift an edge perhaps, and wait for the fish to erupt within reach of your best cast? Or will you give chase, attempt to pursue porpoising greenies without putting them down via engine noise or careless maneuvering? You can catch fish both ways.

The former drift-and-wait strategy can be infuriating—as much an exercise in anger management as in being patient and mindful—and it does require some seasonal timing. That is, it’s not the right play if you’ve seen only one fleeting appearance by a lone pod of green bonito. When you start to spot four or five little bodies of the fish on the steam out, and see them crop up multiple times within a fairly confined space as you drift along, it’s getting safe to assume there are enough tunoids out in circulation to think about an ambush.

When you’re forced into some form of run-and-gun, you need to follow a few basic boat-handling guidelines. One, boat noise can travel fast and far, and conditions that affect your speed one way or the other have the same general affect on sound: Do not approach from the up-current or upwind side of the fish, and pay particular attention to both your forward momentum and your wakes, as you don’t want to overshoot your intended “safe-distance” stopping point and run over the fish. The boat, like a lure cast at a fleeing school, should lead the fish.

Conditions depending, you can use wind or tide to brake forward progress, and more importantly to fend you off while simultaneously helping to deaden sound that might spook wary tunoids.

A third option, perhaps the best one for prospecting mode, is to troll a handful of “mid-speed” tuna lures—the old Rebel Fas-Trac or smaller Rapala Jawbreakers, small Jap feathers and the like through areas of recent sightings.

As a bit of a side note, be sure to keep your bearings relative to not only other boat traffic, but to jetties, beaches, piers, and other places shorebound casters might be standing by with binoculars, praying that the top of the tide finally ushers a shot of bonito they’ve watched for three hours into casting reach for two glorious minutes. Do your damnedest not to put your boat between tunoids and surfmen—to inadvertently fend those l-o-n-g-awaited exotics away from the shallows through your own laziness.

Tackling Tunoids

Last but not least, the part we’ve all heard 12,381 times: Bonito and false albacore are sharp-eyed, mega-persnickety feeders. It bears repeating here because the day you get 24 legit shots at the fish and can’t close the deal due to terminal tackle will be one of your top-three moments in piscatorial self-loathing. Good news? It’s not rocket surgery, but there are a few big no-no’s. First, braided line does most things well, but it also lights up like 3-strand anchor line, especially in clear water: Either run mono on bonito rods, or cover up the business end of your light braid with a 3- to 6-foot topshot of light fluorocarbon leader (10 to 15-pound-test) via a modified Albright or another braid-to-leader-approved connection.
Second, avoid any hardware that serves no mission-critical purpose. The only thing I can imagine in that category would be the tiniest possible barrel swivel to combat line-twist when you’re throwing metals like Acme Need-L-Eels, Yo-Zuri L-Jacks, Deadly Dicks, or small Crippled Herring. Tie lures direct to forego a bulky, sloppy, snap.

Third, perform basic drag-burn countermeasures. Be sure to wet-pack your casting spools so line lies as tight and even as possible, and be sure to back drags off at least a hair from your normal settings. Tunoids are renowned for their “holeshot” speed— can smoke a sluggish drag system, or bury loose line in the spool and break off.

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