Bruce Trujillo looked at a dozen boats bobbing for position in the water around him. Choosing a path, he flipped a couple of Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow deep divers in the boat’s wake and began trolling for Atlantic bonito.
“When everyone is jockeying for position, they scatter the fish and run them deep,” he said. “If I can’t see them on top, I troll to find them.”
Trujillo’s target on plenty of April and early May trips, the Atlantic bonito, is a tasty, football-shaped and football-sized member of the tuna family that makes an annual run along the coast of both Carolinas in early spring.
Marked by a series of dark stripes on the back above the lateral line, they are often confused with false albacore — which have worm-like markings on their backs and are generally considered inedible — and the skipjack tuna, which has dark stripes below its lateral line. And they are generally the first pelagic fish to show up in these waters, giving anglers plenty to do after a long winter at the dock.
Trujillo, who runs Tight Loop Charters (910-675-0252) out of Wrightsville Beach, N.C., calls Yo-Zuri’s deep-diving plugs his “search and destroy” lures. Besides bonito, he said they will catch Spanish and king mackerel that may lurk in the same areas; one of his favorites are the 5-Mile Boxcars (AR 372) out of Masonboro Inlet, and he’ll catch them at the 10-Mile Boxcars (AR 376), the Mears Harris Reef (AR 370) and the Phillip Wolfe Reef (AR 378).
“You can’t fish a Yo-Zuri wrong,” he said. “I put out four of them: one long, one medium, one short and one in the prop wash. I use 40-pound fluorocarbon leader, not wire, because they are leader-shy like other tunas. They are enigmatic — here one day and there the next.”
Trujillo also keeps close at hand spinning lures with metal casting spoons tied on in case the bonito surface. They may only come up for a minute or two, leaving you just enough time to make a cast or two, before they head back below the surface.
Jamie Rushing of Seagate Charters (910-232-9693) fishes many of the same areas as Trujillo, but he’ll venture farther northward, to the areas just off Topsail Beach.
“Atlantic bonito arrive around the second week in April and stay through Mother’s Day, when the water temperature hits about 67 degrees,” he said. “I fish the artificial reefs off Wrightsville and Topsail, as well as Sheepshead Rock and High Rock off Fort Fisher, where they often mix with big Spanish mackerel. On those hard bottoms, they eat at first light. You have to go early and look for birds working baitfish schools to find them. On cloudy days, they stay up a little longer.”
If the fish are on top, Rushing casts a Sea Striker casting jig. If the winds are up and the seas are heaving, with waves making fish hard to find, he casts or jigs some heavy metal.
“If you are using one of the heavy, metal lures like a Diamond Jig or Stingsilver, you should buy a model with a single hook,” he said. “If it has a treble hook, you should replace it. Treble hooks are harder to remove and are not as strong as a single hook. The single hook also results in more reliable hookups, with better odds of landing the fish.”
Like Trujillo, Rushing sometimes trolls Rapala and Yo-Zuri lures. He also fishes with fly tackle, casting Deceivers, Clousers and jelly minnows on an intermediate line to surface-fish feeding. When casting a fly, it is important to use a heavy monofilament leader, not a wire leader, because the fish are leader shy.
“If they go deep, I add a piece of lead-core line to help the fly sink,” he said. “You might find multiple schools at different depths and the lead core will let you fish down to 50 feet.”
Jay Baisch of Fishfull Thinking Guide Service in Murrells Inlet, S.C., said the Atlantic bonito run begins in late April at Little River Inlet.
“They might stick around until June,” said Baisch (843-902-0356). “I find them in 20 to 25 feet of water, usually within 2 miles of the beach. When they are churning up the surface on a calm day, they are not hard to find. They are really boat-shy, so I put the throttle in neutral and cut off the engine to let the boat drift into them.”
His favorite lure is a Got-Cha plug. He exchanges the treble hooks with the same No. 2 short-shank hooks he uses as nose hooks on king mackerel rigs.
“The Got-Cha is heavy and aerodynamic, so you can really rip it out there 100 yards,” he said. “You have to reel it so fast you think nothing can catch it. The minnows they are eating are so much smaller than the lure that you have to draw a reaction strike. Slow retrieves equal short strikes, meaning you will miss a lot of fish.”
Baisch fishes at the Paradise (PA-09) and Pawley’s Island (PA-11) reefs. On the way out, he begins looking for fish by running about a half-mile off the beach.
“I look for the birds feeding on glass minnows,” he said. “The fish disappear and come back up. They corral a school of glass minnows and run them to the top, then go down and run them up again. If you watch them carefully, you can run the boat in the direction they are heading to get in front of them. When they come up again, you should be in position to cast. You may only get in one or two casts before they go down again.”