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JERSEY SHORE SURF BONITO

A run of surf bonito along the North/Central Jersey Shore puts casters into some tasty homemade sashimi. Will pre-Halloween weather patterns put South Jersey casters into the mix next?
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  October 21, 2018
JERSEY SHORE SURF BONITO
Instantly bleed your bonito and put on ice; when home, flash freeze (15 minutes) and slice thin before serving with wasabi, soy sauce, spicy mayo and other accompaniments as you would with your favorite, fresh-caught tuna.

Stiff westerlies late last week into the weekend coupled with warmer than normal ocean temps brought speedsters inshore in greater numbers in recent days.

While Sandy Hook in particular is well known for yielding some of the very best chances for surfcasters to score on cagey false albacore in late summer and early fall, the surprise in 2018 has been the sheer number of small bonito in the wash all along the Central and North Jersey coast.

I was up at Bay Head in northern Ocean County late in the afternoon on Thursday the 18th and found loads of bait in the suds with birds wheeling and diving over pods of fish that were popping up, in and out of casting range.

Because I wasn’t sure of how far I’d need to cast, I came armed with a 10-foot, Tsunami Distance Series rod designed exclusively for longer casts. It was coupled with a new 4500 version of the PENN Spinfisher VI spooled with 20-pound braid; important of course because the lighter the braid, the better the casting!

The bonito chasing baits in the suds over the past week have been feeding on thinner rain baits, and just as casting at false albies, thin metals like Deadly Dick’s are key. While bonito have visible little toothlets, they must swallow their baits whole. Same as you’d target false albacore you would with bonito, though you may want to vary your retrieve.

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife says bonito vary in abundance over the years and frequent ocean ridges and lumps; but bait migration, water temps and wind direction last week put them in darn close. As field editor Nick Honachefsky put it while submitting his November edition Beach Talk report, “Without a doubt, this is the best, if not only year, that bonito fishing has been a steady attraction along the Jersey Surf.”

I caught a handful on Thursday and left ‘em biting before having to head up to Asbury Park for a fisheries meeting; those of us there at the meeting were often distracted by the sight of blitzing fish along the beach at Second Avenue. It was a struggle to leave the beach, but I had enough time to head home and slice up the filets which I socked away in the fridge for later.

A lot of folks don’t think of bonito as good eating; down in Central and South America there’s another species called striped bonito which our friends in the Southeast tend to think of more as marlin bait. Another problem is that some folks refer to skipjack tuna as bonito and vice versa. Now, we could have a separate debate about eating skippies, but Atlantic bonito (which about everyone pronounces as “bonita”) are darn tasty if properly taken care of. And that’s exactly why I returned to the surf on Friday evening with a cooler with ice.

The bonito I scored while steadily retrieving metals were unhooked, a filet knife thrust from one side of the gills to the other, and the fish allowed to bleed out in the sand. Every few minutes or so I’d pop one bled bonito into ice and go through the process again. If you have the opportunity and want to keep a goal in mind, one bonito per person makes up a healthy portion of sashimi at home as a dinner starter.

One thing with filleting bonito is that it is truly like putting a warm knife through butter. Dealing with the skin is a matter of your own personal preference. Of late, these have been small fish in the Jersey Shore surf, 1 to 2 pounds a the most. Once you have two halves, you’ll see little bones down the middle which would be near the spin; I cut lengthwise to remove, ending up with four little loins from each fish.

Friday night, I marinated Thursday’s little loins in Kikkoman’s soy sauce, fresh garlic and minced ginger, sticking Friday’s loins in the freezer for a spell while I heated up the grill. Don't marinate the fish you plan to grill or sear for any more than a half-hour - as for the flash freezing of the sashimi style, it made the fresh bonito flesh a little easier to handle on the cutting board.

Yes, bonito is awesome raw; my wife was impressed, and sliced thin with a little wasabi, soy sauce, and spicy mayo, she sent me back to the beach on Saturday in search of more. On the grill, just sear them on both sides. You might want to skin your bonito sashimi, but you can leave it on for the grill.

Atlantic bonito only grow to about 12 pounds or so, though New Jersey’s state record topped 13-1/2 pounds for Frank Lykes, Jr. off Sandy Hook back in 1945. A beautiful fish, they are primarily silver with blue-green dorsal fins and black stripes along the body. They’re part of the Scombridae family of the mackerels and tunas; as such the Atlantic bonito has the same body shape as the tuna species. The only difference is that Atlantic bonito are skinnier than tuna.

Though trust me, for surfcasters, they eat just like tuna if you take the time to treat them right. Hopefully, we’ll still be treated to a few more opportunities in the suds this week. Looks like another dose of W/NW winds for the week, which should make spotting bait and surface boils a bit easier.

Pack a cooler- just in case - and catch ‘em up!

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