Of the three known bonito species to inhabit our waters, two are of interest to anglers along coastal New South Wales: the Australian bonito and Watson’s leaping bonito. Both species should be out and about over the coming months and are fantastic sportfish as well as top-notch bait and table species.
The more common Australian bonito roams the waters from the Tweed coast right down to the Victorian border. They tend to venture within shore-based casting range towards the end of summer, and then stick around for a few months. The best sizes and numbers are generally found between Forster and Wollongong, with swarms of smaller ‘jellybean’ bonito often prolific off the mid north coast.
Aussie bonito grow up to 10kg in weight, but a specimen of 2-3kg would be considered big by most anglers. The smaller Watson’s leaping bonito grow to 2kg or slightly more, although most are around 1kg or less. Both species may be encountered together, with the Watson’s tending to be more common north of Port Stephens.
Leaping bonito are mostly caught by anglers targeting Australian bonito or other small pelagic fish. However, in places like Trial Bay at South West Rocks they may be specifically targeted by casting small metal lures during April and May. Another similar fish, the frigate mackerel, is also common here, showing up around the same time of year as well.
In general though, it’s the Aussie bonnie that grabs most of the attention, so here we’ll run through the gear required to catch them, along with a few techniques and tips. Simply downsize lures and tackle and you’ll be more in the running to hook Watson’s bonito or frigate mackerel.
Gear for chasing bonito from the rocks is a bit different to what works best from a boat, but one common factor is the reel, which needs to be robust, reliable and fast. Overheads or spin reels work well, but most anglers find high-speed spin reels easier to use.
Due to the demanding nature of this style of fishing, any weak points in a reel will soon become evident. Loose or wobbly handle assemblies are one of the first symptoms, followed by grinding gears or a broken anti-reverse system. So if you’re going to be chasing bonito a lot, buy the best you can afford and go for a reputable brand name so any defects or warranty claims can be taken care of.
Bonito, as do many pelagic speedsters, really go for lures travelling through the water at a fast pace. This is where the reel’s gear ratio comes in. Larger reels naturally retrieve more line than smaller reels, but as a starting point look at a ratio of at least 5.7:1.
An ideal length rod for rock fishing is about 3m. This will enable good casting distance without putting too much hurt on the angler during the heat of the action. It’s possible to get away with shorter rods when casting from ledges that drop straight to the water at your feet, but a slightly longer rod can be beneficial at some locations where the rocks slope on an angle to the water. Of course, boat rods for bonito can be much shorter again.
Modern, fine diameter braid or PE line is great for gaining extra casting distance and helps set the hooks on the strike. However, it’s vital to incorporate a longer leader to absorb shocks from casting and fighting fish. Without a leader, or if using one that’s too short, plenty of fish will quickly shake the hooks.
Nylon or fluorocarbon mono can be used for the leader, although I would strongly recommend old-fashioned nylon, as it tends to have better stretch and knot strength for this type of lure fishing.
Depending on the rod, reel and location to be fished, a 5-10kg main line and a 7-12kg leader should be about right. Go a touch lighter or heavier to suit your own requirements.
Chrome metals like the 40g Surecatch Knight or Halco Twisty are very reliable for bonnies, as are similar metal lures. White is also an excellent choice when it comes to lure colour, and a splash of bright pink, green or chartreuse will help score more bites at times.
Bonito respond very well to trolling lures over reef or adjacent to headlands, islands and bommies. One of the very best types to troll is a simple white feather/leadhead lure, but a large white fly is another great option. Some good hardbody lures for trolling include the Maria Duplex, Lively Lures’ Mack Baits and Rapala X-Raps.
Try trolling at around 8-10 knots or slightly faster if the lures aren’t popping out of the water too much. Once a patch of fish is found, it may be better to pull up and try casting in the vicinity. Sometimes though, the bonnies will only respond to a trolled lure, which is possibly due to the boat’s noise or wake attracting them.
When we think of aggressive pelagics like bonito, it’s easy to assume they’re quite an easy fish to catch, and a much simpler lure fishing target then bream or whiting for example. For the most part that’s reasonably true. However, after many years of chasing bonnies, I can assure readers that they can be just as tricky and frustrating as any other species.
On a good day bonito will eagerly smash lures (as long as the lure is a suitable type), cast amongst the fish and retrieved with some pace. The problem is though, bonito aren’t always like this and they’ll be seen following lures without actually taking a swipe.
There are a few tricks to help score fish when they’re in such a pedantic mood. Firstly, downsizing lures is a good step. Sometimes this translates to less casting distance or the lure may not sink as quickly as you’d like, but most fish, including bonito, are less hesitant about hitting a smaller lure.
Secondly, be sure to allow the lure enough time to sink down, rather than commencing the retrieve too soon. Sometimes bonnies will get all fired up about a lure skipping across the surface, but more often than not strikes will come as the lure is travelling up from the depths.
Of course, changing over to an entirely different type of lure is another idea. Nine times out of ten a simple chrome metal lure is best when casting, but a white metal, diving hardbody or even a slinky soft plastic may turn the tables in the angler’s favour.
From personal experience, the main thing to try before anything else is to experiment with the retrieve. Speed is the first aspect to address, as it’s possible the lure simply isn’t going fast enough for them. If you’re confident the lure is travelling at warp speed and your arm will explode if you try and crank any faster, the next step is to incorporate a few sudden stops or pauses during the retrieve. Bonito really love this and many hits come the instant a lure stops.
Apart from that, there is the odd day when a much slower retrieve will work. Still though, a few fast rips and jigging movements with the rod always help the cause.
Bonito are sought after as a top sporting fish that will keep the angler entertained when using lighter tackle. Even with heavier gear the bigger bonnies can be stubborn opponents. Their fighting qualities and the general style of high-speed lure fishing approach is what I like most about them.
Many keen anglers like to stock up on some bonito fillets to be used as snapper, bream or jewfish bait. They really do make excellent bait and I like to cube the fillets into bite size pieces and salt them down for bream fishing.
A lot of people may not realise just how good they go at dinnertime. In fact, I would actually rate them higher than kingfish. The key is to look after the catch so the flesh cooks up nicely.
Firstly, be sure to take care of the fish as soon as it’s landed. This means quickly dispatching it, bleeding it and them keeping it in a cool place, preferably on ice, until it’s time to head home.
The fillets can be cut into cocktails, battered and deep-fried, chucked on the barbecue, or if you’re keen, try smoking them. Yes, they have a stronger fishy flavour, rather than being mild like whiting, but they’re quite a tasty fish. So give them a go if you’re yet to try eating bonito.
This tidy bonito fell to a chrome metal lure cast from the rocks at first light. A high-speed retrieve is a key factor when it comes to spinning for bonnies.
Trolling is a good way of finding bonito. This fish took a bibless minnow trolled over shallow reef behind a beach.
Overheads or spin reels work well when it comes to bonito. Here we see a high-speed overhead set with a lure trolled behind the boat. The same reel can also be put to use for casting.
Three common small pelagics sometimes found feeding alongside each other. From left to right; striped tuna, mac tuna and bonito.
Most of the time it’s best to start with a chrome metal lure when spinning the rocks. Second choice is a white metal, as shown here.
The smaller Watson’s leaping bonito has distinctly different markings and is a more colourful fish than the Australian bonito.
These bonito fell to a simple pink Christmas tree trolled past an inshore island. Although many anglers use them as bait, this lot was kept for the table.
A good selection of very reliable bonito lures. White and chrome always go well, but a splash of pink, green or chartreuse can be beneficial.Reads: 3133