Last modified: August 8, 2023

Fish Mackerel, Tuna & Jacks

Pacific Bonito

GDude (James Liu) and a large bonito from the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon

Mackerel and Tuna—Family Scombridae

Pacific Bonito

Species: Sarda chiliensis (Cuvier, 1832); from the Greek word sarda  (an ancient name for a European species of bonito) and chiliensis (in reference to Chile, South America, where the species was first recognized).

Bonito caught at the Balboa Pier in 2015

Alternate Names: Most commonly called bonehead but also given the names bone, boner, bonefish, flasher, bongo, magneto, and micronito (small bonito). In the past often called “poor mans tuna,” striped tuna, little tuna and, derisively, Laguna tuna. One of my favorites names—from the PFIC Message Board—Mr. Bojangles. Called bonito del Pacífico oriental in Mexico.

Identification: Tuna-shaped, elongated and pointed at both ends; a series of 6 to 8 finlets that follow the second dorsal fin and anal fin. Coloring dark blue above with greenish reflections and a metallic luster shading into silver below with several dark oblique lines on the back.

Two different patterns — both fish taken at the Cabrillo Mole in 2016

Size: To 48 inches although most caught from piers are less than 24 inches. For years the California record fish was listed as a fish that was caught in Malibu Cove in 1978 with a weight of 22 lb 3 oz. Today the record is listed as a 21 lb 5 oz. fish taken at the 181 Spot in 2003. I’m not sure why the new, lighter fish is the record. The diving record is for a 10 Lbs 4 oz fish taken at Catalina Island in 1967

SteveO and a bonito at the Cabrillo Mole

Range: There are two subspecies. One, the northern population, Sarda chiliensis lineolata, is found from southern Baja California, including Islas Revillagigedo and Gulf of California to Copper River, Gulf of Alaska. The southern population, Sarda chiliensis chiliensis, is found in the subtropical eastern Pacific, Máncora, Peru to Talcahuano, Chile. Most years the northern subspecies is common from Mexico into southern California. However, during El Niño, warm-water conditions, they are sometimes found as far north as Washington and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. In the El Niño year of 1983, while fishing off of Elk in Mendocino County, northern California, I witnessed several large bonito, all over ten pounds, being caught by anglers trolling for salmon.  

Bonito caught by Anthony at the Balboa Pier

Habitat: Nearshore epipelagic (upper open ocean) from the surface down to a recorded depth of 361 feet. Also enters bays, especially those with warm water outlets.

Rita Magdamo and a bonito at the Cabrillo Mole at Avalon

Piers: Common at many southland piers during and after warm-water years, both those in bays and those at oceanfront spots. Best bets: Ocean Beach Pier, Oceanside Pier, San Clemente Pier, Balboa Pier, Newport Pier, Cabrillo Mole (Avalon)—#1, Redondo Beach Pier, Redondo Sportfishing Pier (when open) and the Hermosa Beach Pier. Stearns Wharf (Santa Barbara) and Goleta Pier can be decent some years, especially in the fall.  

We even received notice one day of a 5-pound bonito being caught at the Pacifica Pier by Salty Nick. It was during one of the El Niño years (while others were catching salmon).

Kyle Pease and a bonito at Catalina

Shoreline: Sometimes taken by shore anglers fishing from jettys in southern California, especially the jetty at Redondo Beach.

A small bonito from the San Clemente Pier in 2017

Boats: One of the favored boat species although the numbers can show a drastic change year-to-year depending upon water temperature.  

My fishing buddy Mike Granat and a bonito from the Balboa Pier

Bait and Tackle: Bonito primarily feed on fish and squid and are taken on a variety of baits and lures. The best bait is live anchovies or small sardines fished on a sliding leader or with a cast-a-bubble. For years the best lure was considered to be a bonito feather affixed to either a cast-a-bubble, a wooden float, a Styrofoam float, or a golf ball—the bubble/float/golf ball causes commotion on the surface, which attracts the bonito and keeps the lure near the top. Today a wide variety of spoons and jigs, i.e., MegaBaits and Jigpara, have also proven effective.

Bonito caught by Angie at the Balboa Pier in 2005

Food Value:  Bonito are considered moderate in flavor, with large flakes, a dense texture and moderate fat content. However, that description is based on proper preparation. For best results they require cleaning soon after capture. If bled quickly, or even better if filleted and then put on ice, the flesh can be quite tasty. However, if allowed to warm up in a gunnysack on the nice hot surface of a pier the flesh can be almost inedible (which is true with many fish). Some parts of the flesh are dark colored—bloody and strong flavored. Remove those parts of the flesh unless you desire them for smoking. Given the relatively high oil content of the flesh, the best cooking methods are broiling or bar-b-cuing the meat; the worst are methods like deep-frying that would add more oil. In addition, smoked bonito and pickled bonito are also very good.       

Bonito caught at the Cabrillo Mole by Scott

When I was young, and lived in San Diego, I would often go out on the half-day boats to catch some bonito. Most of the bonito (in the gunnysacks) would wind up as fertilizer for my mom’s roses. However, a couple of the cooks on the boats would cook up some of the fresh-caught fish. A favorite method was to cut thin slices of meat from the head of the bonito (up behind the eyes) and then lightly cook the slices on a grill using just a little butter. Flavored with soy sauce, it was delicious.

Bonito from the Hermosa Beach Pier

Today, given that we’ve all become gourmands, we would probably serve the thin slices raw as sashimi and include a little dipping sauce, i.e., wasabi paste and soy sauce draped over a daikon radish. One recommended dipping sauce even includes fish flakes from bonito, it’s a sauce made from shōyu (a type of soy sauce), mirin (a sweet cooking wine) and the bonito flakes.

Bonito from the Oceanside Pier in 2018

Comments: Many people feel that bonito are among the strongest fighting fish, pound for pound, in the sea. For many years the place to go for bonito was the Redondo Sportfishing Pier in Redondo Harbor. This was especially true during the colder-weather winter months. That narrative was altered when the nearby power plant changed ownership and changed procedures. Instead of always being on, and sending a steady stream of hot water into the harbor (where it emerged at the famous “bubble hole”), it became a sporadic occurrence. Visitors never knew when the hot water, or the bonito, would be showing up.  Locals learned to check out the tall towers to see if they were emitting smoke. If they were, the hot water would be bubbling up in the harbor and bonito probably would be present. Today the pier is closed but hopefully will be rebuilt. Many also hope the warm water will return to the harbor.

Hashem Nahid and a bonito at the Cabrillo Mole

Bonito or bonita? The correct spelling is bonito but a surprisingly high number of people over the years, including journalists and writers who should know better, have used bonita as the moniker for these fish. One day on the Pier Fishing in California message board someone said his daughter had been called a bonito and she got upset until someone told her that the name meant pretty in Spanish. People then chimed in that she should have been called a bonita since that was the feminine name and bonito was the masculine name. As for the fish, given the strong, powerful fight they typically put up, I think I will stick with bonito as the name. 

A bonito I caught one day at the Cabrillo Mole

In my mind, bonito are another example of a crepuscular species that is primarily active during twilight, i.e., dawn and dusk. Often there is an early morning and early evening bite while the daytime action is slow.

Bonito caught on the Sea Wolf

My son Mike and his first bonito (along with a yellowtail) caught on the boat New Seaforth while fishing in the La Jolla kelp bed

Some large bonito caught from piers

11 ¾ Lbs. — Oceanside Pier, Data lost on person and date; Source: Oceanside Pier Bait and Tackle

10 Lb. 7 oz. — Balboa Pier, Joe Imbriano, May 5, 1996; Source: Joe Imbriano/PFIC

10 Lbs. — Ocean Park Pier, I. L. Noyes, May 31, 1908; Source: Los Angeles Herald, May 31, 1908

≈ 10 Lbs. — Balboa Pier, September 2018; Source: Snookie/PFIC

9 Lbs. 14 oz. — Belmont Pier, Jerry Summerfelt, September, 1966; Source: Long Beach Independent, September 22, 1966

9 Lbs. 13 oz. — Seal Beach Pier, Howard F. Laston, September, 1966 ; Source: Long Beach Independent, September 22, 1966

9 Lbs. 8 oz. — Seal Beach Pier, September 1966; Source: Long Beach Independent, September 22, 1966

9 Responses

  1. I used a spicy tuna recipe and swapped it out with bonito, and it was absolutely delicious. It tastes great sashimi style in my opinion!

  2. I used to fish off of Stearns wharf in Sanra Barbara back in the early to mid 80’s. It was not uncommon for Bonito to start a “feeding frenzy” not to far from the pier. I once caught one that weighed about 16 pounds. For me, Bonito was strictly a catch and release species. But man, I loved how they fought.

  3. Used to get them off the rocks in Redondo using bubble and feathers and crocodile spoons. They were all in the 5-7 lbs range

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