A story about catching bonito (false albacore) in Florida.
Bonito: Spanish, from bonito, pretty, related to and resembling the tuna. w/c 1,138
You’re standing on the flush bow deck of an open 20’ fisherman. The swells of the dawn ocean lift you up and ease you back down. You’re looking. Swiveling your head from horizon to shore and back. And then the water erupts!
The calm sea turns into a churning maelstrom with thousands of silver baitfish leaping and diving, while being strafed by hungry gulls and pelicans from above and torpedoed by hungry fish from below. The captain yells, “Hang on…here we go,” as the outboard motor roars to life and the boat races to within casting distance of the acre of chaos. The excitement of the hunt is only increased by the necessity to keep in contact with a bouncing pounding deck.
Such is the thrill of ocean fishing for bonito, a smaller relative of the tuna. These 10-20 pound “little tunny” are voracious feeders and literally swim with their mouths open as they scoop hapless glass minnows, pilchards, and menhaden. In fact, bonito don’t close their mouths when hooked. As odd as it sounds, the ones we had on light tackle—fly rods and spinning rods—were still swimming around chasing minnows after they were hooked.
For any fisherman, the opportunity to catch something that will truly test your ability and that of your equipment is always hard to turn down, so when Capt. Randy Dumars called me from his cell phone on the ocean side of Sebastian Inlet below Melbourne, Florida, I listened. “Hey, Geezer, you need to get on down here, the bonito and Spanish (mackerel) are tearin’ ‘em up outside the inlet!”
A couple of quick phone calls to some local fishing buddies, Mark Pullen of Waxhaw and Steve “Nightcrawler” Patterson of Lake Park, and we hurriedly arranged to drive the 550 miles from Monroe, NC to Melbourne, FL.
We met Capt. Randy at 6:30 a.m. on a comfortably warm Florida morning. Though dreary-eyed and coffee-stained, the adrenalin was pumping and we hopped aboard as soon as Randy’s boat touched the shallows at Sebastian Inlet State Park. Quick hellos and we rigged rods while Randy maneuvered through the often tricky currents of the inlet. The sun was thinking about coming up by the time we were in open ocean, looking for schools of baitfish. We didn’t look long.
I was still threading my fly rod when the water was churned to a froth off our port side. “Toss over there!” Capt. Randy yelled to Mark holding his spinning rod. As soon as the jig hit the water Mark was holding a bending rod. No subtle “nibble” here. These fish hit like George Foreman. After 20 minutes, Mark finally brought the subdued fish to the boat.
If you’ve never seen a streamlined pelagic fish fresh from the water, you’ve missed one of life’s visual treats. These silver and blue bonito are iridescent. Beautiful. But we didn’t spend long enjoying the eye candy. Another school of baitfish surfaced 50 yards to starboard, so it was “hang on and run” again.
Steve was casting with his 8 weight rod on the stern platform and I was casting my 9 foot, 8 weight Temple Fork Outfitters rod from the bow. Lady Luck favored me first. I stripped in line as quickly as I could after my cast landed the streamer fly near the edge of the frenzy. I saw a wake race to my fly and bam! I remembered to lightly grip the fly line in my hand, as it tore off the reel. Sometimes, in the excitement of the moment, a forgetful fisherman will grip the line in his hand in an attempt to “set the hook.” You don’t have to set a hook when the fish grabs it going 40 miles per hour. And if you have your line in a “death grip”, well…you’ll probably only make that mistake once.
My Temple Fork fly reel holds 250 yards of line and backing and a football field’s length had been taken off the reel in less time than it took to write this sentence. I knew this was going to be a rather lengthy battle. Then I heard Nightcrawler let out a hoot as he connected. There we were, fish going in opposite directions, Mark trying to video the activity, and Randy offering encouragement and keeping the boat headed into the waves. Remember the term “Chinese fire drill”? My TFO rod, a 9’, 8 weight, was bent to what looked like its limit so many times I stopped looking…and worrying. I was to busy hanging on and blinking off the sweat dripping into my eyes…and the sun was just coming up.
Finally, after a half hour, I brought my fish to the boat. We lifted it up to remove my fly and I noticed its mouth was crammed full of baitfish. I was staring into a cave that had over a dozen eyes staring back. That was an unusual experience.
Nightcrawler managed to subdue his bonito, and we took some quick photos before we released the fish. It was apparent all four of us aboard had something in common—our shirts were soaked through-and-through…and it wasn’t with sea water. The activity of chasing fish and fighting them after hook-up had worn us all out. Randy, the youngest of our group, does this sort of thing for a living, so I’m sure his muscles didn’t cry, “Aleve” like ours did.
Writing this article two days after the event I can still feel the tightness in my neck, shoulders, and lower back…and arms and legs and…. But, oh what fun it was.
After a couple of hours of this “fun” we were whipped and came back through the inlet into the Indian River to fish in more serene waters. We caught sea trout, small snapper and grouper, and crevalle jack (an exceptionally strong fighting fish). Mark was reeling his crevalle to the boat after a spirited battle when a 5 foot bonnet head (relative of a hammer head) shark decided it wanted lunch. Through quick maneuvering from both Mark and the hooked jack, the shark narrowly missed getting its mouthful.
The brackish water of the Indian River is a huge nursery for many saltwater species of fish. And since Sebastian Inlet is the only inlet for over 20 miles north and south, it is a truly wondrous place to fish and enjoy marine life. Looking down at the turtle grass when the tide is bringing in clear ocean water, is like standing above a huge aquarium, watching another world go about its business. So, yes, there is something else to do besides going an hour west to Disneyworld.
If you're going:
Contact Capt. Randy Dumars at:
Randy's Saltwater Specialties
Captain Randy Dumars
413 17th street
Saint Cloud, FL 34769
Sandy Shoes Motel
3455 South Highway A1A
Melbourne Beach, FL 32951
Phone: 321 723 5584