Does deep-sea fishing for yellowfins with an inshore boat during the problematic weather conditions of April make you a little - OK, a lot - nervous?
Believe it or not, anglers can catch a comparable tuna-like fish aboard an 18- or 19-foot boat this month.
As the cool weather retreats and the dogwoods begin to bloom, tackle-testing Atlantic bonito swing by for a brief visit along the northern reaches of the South Carolina coast. The overlooked Atlantic bonito arrive within 6 to 12 miles from shore for a short period during late March through May.
Atlantic bonito are much smaller than their well-known cousins, the yellowfin tuna. However, these speedsters slash and dash on light tackle, yielding a courageous fight and, better yet, taste similar to yellowfin tuna (just don't invite over your neighbors to share some seared false albacore or little tunny you mistook for bonito or you'll be looking for new neighbors).
As bait moves closer to shore in the early spring, near shore pelagic fishes follow. Atlantic bonito travel in schools near other pelagics, such as small mackerel, bluefish and Fat Alberts (false albacore).
Atlantic bonito prepare to kick off their May-July spawning season by feeding aggressively near shore, gorging on schooled baitfish to build fat reserves. Their presence coincides with the smorgasbord of bait that appears each spring when the water warms sufficiently.
Bonito, as with all tunas and tuna-like fishes, are quick-moving voracious feeders. They're known to skip and leap over the surface of the water in pursuit of prey. They'll also cooperate to get a meal, congregating and corralling schools of baitfish near the surface.
Atlantic bonito are readily confused with little tunny and skipjack tuna. Depending on an angler's point of origin, lots of time all small tunas are called "bonito," whether they're false albacores or bonito.
Unluckily (perhaps luckily for anglers who know the difference), bonito often inherit the same culinary classification as little tunny or fish bait from anglers who don't recognize them as gourmet items.
It doesn't help that during spring migrations, little tunny and bonito school together occasionally and are confused by anglers as the same species. Both travel in large schools and feed simultaneously and erratically.
However, it's really easy to tell the difference. Bonito have a clearly undulating lateral line with seven to 12 slightly sloping dark stripes than run forward and downward along the dorsal section of their body. The little tunny (or false albacore) have four or five distinct dark spots scattered between their pectoral and ventral fins and distinctive, wavy markings found dorsally above the lateral line towards the rear of the body. False albacore also have a larger mouth with less prominent teeth than bonito and, as a result, seem to feed on larger prey. Skipjack tuna are also similar but never will be confused with bonito or little tunny during an inshore trip.
Skipjacks reside in the tropical Atlantic and never travel close to shore in temperate waters. Morphologically, skipjacks differ - their stripes are along the lower sides of the belly.
Bonito are relatively short-lived fish, with 10 years of age the usual limit. In the natural world, a short life usually means rapid growth and bonitos fit that bill. They potentially could reach 35 inches in length and 26 pounds, but the world-record Atlantic bonito weighed 18 pounds, 4 ounces. D. Gama Higgs caught it off Faial Island in the Azores in 1953.
Charles Adams of Tabor City holds the title for South Carolina's record bonito that weighed 7 pounds 11 ounces. Adams was fishing off the coast of Little River Inlet in 1993 when he caught his whopper bonito.
The nearshore run along the S.C. coast occurs at the northern reaches of the state near the N.C./S.C. border. Bonito still make inshore runs further south but generally don't venture toward the shore in sufficient numbers to become an inshore-targeted species.
Two groups of charter captains, Shallow Minded Inshore Charters of Little River and Ocean Isle Fishing Center Charters at Ocean Isle, N.C., discovered the opportunities for bonito several years ago and developed successful techniques to catch good numbers of bonito. Their captains take charters targeted at bonito each spring.
As April arrives, Captain Mark Dickson of Shallow Minded Inshore Charters chases Atlantic bonito off the coast of North Myrtle Beach and provides his clients with fresh fillets for sushi at the dinner table.
"Bonito arrive in moderately-sized schools usually from late March through April," Dickson said.
He concentrates his search efforts to water depths from 50 to 60 feet.
The 390/390, Little River Offshore, General Sherman, Hole east of Sherman, and the 65-Foot Hole frequently hold schools of bonito each spring, Dickson said.
His bonito and Spanish mackerel techniques are identical.
Dickson trolls small spoons using planers and surface lines until he finds a school of bonitos, then his clients cast flashy jigs into schools of breaking fish.
Dickson is a life-long resident of North Myrtle Beach and a full-time guide who takes pride in catching fish and educating anglers about the conservation of the diverse Little River area.
Depending on the season and water temperature, he targets in-season inshore species, including flounder, redfish, trout, mackerel, striped bass, bluefish and bonito. He also fishes the backcountry and tidal creeks near Little River Inlet and northward towards Shallotte, N.C.
Fishing out of a Triton 240 LTS bay boat powered by a 2005 Mercury Verado 250 outboard, Dickson books light-tackle charters, specifically for the April Atlantic bonito run.
Just a little further to the north, Brant and Barrett McMullan of Ocean Isle Fishing Center at Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., regularly target bonito during their brief spring run along the Carolinas' coast lines.
Ocean Isle Fishing Center employs some of the area's top captains and specializes in "beyond the breakers" species including, tuna, king mackerel, grouper, wahoo, billfish, dolphin and bonito. OIFC has six charter boats within its fleet to accommodate up to 30 anglers within six fishing parties any given day, including five offshore and one inshore/backcountry. The OIFC fleet consists of three Contenders, an Albemarle Express, a Gillikin Custom and a Ranger Bay Series craft.
"We're on the water almost everyday," Brant McMullen said. "Bonito usually start showing up in good numbers in our waters from mid April through mid May or until the Spanish mackerel show up. As the Spanish mackerel show up, the bonito disappear and retreat seaward.
"If you can find a school, typically, you can get double digit (catches) with relative ease, but it's all about finding the first fish."
McMullen said his captains have had unusually good luck landing bonito that weigh from 5 to 8 pounds.
If the fish have arrived, locating schools of Atlantic bonito is fairly simple. Surfacing fish can be spotted feeding on glass minnows jumping and splashing around under the umbrella of a flock of gulls during calm days.
During rougher days, McMullen said he relies on his fish-finder to located pods of glass minnows. Glass minnows are the primary forage for bonito during the spring run along the Carolinas.
Areas of live bottom and artificial reefs attract glass minnows and other baitfish that entices bonito and other predatory fish into the area. Ocean wide, Atlantic bonito prefer water temps from 62 to 80 degrees.
McMullen said he looks for water temperatures in the range of 62 to 68 degrees in 40 to 60 feet of water, including locations such as 390/390, General Sherman and AR 460. Infrequently, bonito travel into shallower water at nearshore reefs in less than 40 feet of water to ambush schools of bait when adequate conditions exist.
Pulling and casting lures that resemble glass minnows of similar size produce the most strikes during this time of year. Matching lures to forage is no secret to anglers from mountain trout fly-casters to ocean-going bluefin tuna captains, who know that technique generally produces best results.
After he finds baitfish schools, McMullen said he trolls No. 3 silver Clark spoons with No. 1 and No. 2 planers until he crosses a school of bonito; then the light-tackle action begins.
McMullen said he likes to use Stingsilver-type lures with light-tackle rod-and-reel combos and casts to schools of feeding fish.
Depending upon weather and water conditions, different colors and sizes produce better results than others, but the classic silver is usually the best, McMullen said.
He advised anglers to be sure to cast adjacent as well as into schools of bonito because these fish are extremely aggressive and will find at lure and hook themselves. Since bonito have small mouths, smaller baits are more effective.
As with all pelagic (ocean-migrating) fishes, bonito must swim fast to pass enough water over their gills to get required oxygen or face swift currents while ambushing prey or traveling. So casting lures or trolling with the same direction of the current usually produces more hookups.
Some days bonito won't surface to feed. But anglers can spot schools of bait - and bonito - with a fish-finder. With the aid of planers, weights, or down-riggers, angler can outsmart subsurface fish.
During the spring bonito run, as previously noted, it's not unusual to catch a little tunny or two. They should be returned to the sea or used for bait because their food value is inherently different than bonito.
Bonito and little tunny are classified within the same family, but their food values are miles apart. Until recent years, recreational anglers overlooked bonito for their exquisite food value.
"(Bonito) are incredible to eat they are in line with yellowfin tuna," McMullen said. "We grill them or eat them sushi style."
The flesh on bonito is dark and firm, similar to other tunas. Bonito is best grilled, seared or eaten raw. Yellowfin tuna and bonito, cooked side by side, are comparable in flavor.
"Bonito are the first topwater fish into the nearshore waters and are hard-fighting and tons of fun, especially when you get them on light tackle," McMullen said.
If anglers find a school of them, they can catch bonito in great numbers. But these fish often retreat back towards the Gulf Stream overnight. When bonito are present, anglers should take advantage of the inshore run but never keep more than they - or their friends - can consume.
The supply of bonitos, just as with every other pelagic fish, is finite. Biologists believe bonito numbers are declining world-wide and in the Atlantic because commercial netters working South American waters have put extreme pressure on the fish.
So, to quote Bill Dance, "keep what you can use and release the rest."