Pacific Bonito: The Smallest Tuna

A successful angler shows off a quality grade Pacific bonito that was just landed aboard a party boat out of Newport Landing in southern California.

Pacific bonito (Sarda chiliensis) are some of the smallest members of the tuna family, and have been a staple catch of party boat anglers along the Pacific coast since the middle of the last century. Once maligned by those who did not know how to handle and prepare them correctly, the growing popularity of sushi and sashimi over the past few decades has given anglers the opportunity to view them in an entirely different light.

These fish can usually be found along the southern California and Baja coasts from late spring throughout early winter. In the Sea of Cortez, another bonito species (Sarda orientalis) is present, which is quite similar to its counterpart in the Pacific cousin. While bonito are spirited fighters, they were not particularly well thought of as a food fish for many decades. I’ll never forget when I was a teenager back in the 1960’s and used to call them every degrading name that I could think of, and would then disrespectfully refer to them as being ‘cat food’ back every time one would come over the boat’s rail. Bonito are excellent fighters and, once a school is aroused, they will viciously attack a variety of lures and baits.

Most Pacific bonito are taken by a using a combination of trolling and live bait fishing methods. Schools of bonito are often found by trolling and, once located, live bait fish or lures can be used while drifting nearby to catch even more fish.

Bonito are generally found offshore in 300 to 600 feet, but can also be encountered in the vicinity of kelp beds.

The maximum weight of a Pacific bonito is just over 20 pounds, but most anglers end up catching school-sized fish between 4 and 8 pounds. Pacific Bonito have ten or eleven back stripes running from their dorsal fin, and fifteen or more below their gill.

They are usually found anywhere from coastal inshore waters to over 100 miles offshore, and range between Vancouver Island, British Columbia to the waters of Baja California, Sur. These fish generally travel in schools and are likely to be caught by trolling or drift fishing near active congregations using live baits.

Chumming for bonito can be very effective, particularly along the outer edge of kelp beds during the summer months. Once a few bonito have been attracted, many more may quickly converge on the area to investigate the flurry of activity. The best live baits to use for bonito are either anchovies or sardines, but they will also attack Krocodile-style chrome spoons, small Rapalas and medium weight surface iron in a blue and white or chrome.

With the growing popularity of sushi and sashimi, however, the bonito has finally gained new respect. When properly handled and excruciatingly fresh, wafer thin slices of its translucent, white flesh are considered a gourmet delicacy when served along with a little wasabi and shoyu.

Additionally, knowledgeable anglers have always known how delicious fresh bonito can be when it has been smoked. So, if possible, one of the very best techniques for making sure that your bonito will turnout great as table fare no matter how you prepare it is to bleed the fish out, gut it and throw it under ice as soon as it is off your hook.

Looking back, it is no wonder why some anglers got a bad impression about the eating quality of bonito after their catch had been thrown into a burlap sack and left to sit out on a boat’s deck in the hot sun until it returned to port.