By TERRY TOMALIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 11, 2000
THE WEATHER BUOY -- Fifty-two miles offshore, a relentless August sun baked the brains of captain and crew.
The intrepid anglers had ventured to blue water in search of tuna, wahoo and dolphin. They had a new boat, good numbers and enough ballyhoo to feed Sea World for a week.
The only things missing were the fish.
Strike that comment. There were plenty of fish, just not the kind they were fishing for.
"Not another bonehead," lamented veteran angler Ed White. "Haven't we had enough of these?"
Six times a bait went out and six times a ravenous bonito, a k a bonehead, grabbed the offering before one of the more desirable game fish had a chance to even get close to the hook.
"Stop complaining," Capt. Darrell Parchman advised. "This is just a warm-up for things to come."
White didn't buy it. He handed off the rod to another angler, who was perfectly happy to fight any fish as long as it fought back.
"Keep reeling," Parchman said. "We don't want to be here all day."
Five minutes later, the bonito was alongside the boat. White grabbed the fish, turned it upside down to stop it from wiggling and deftly released the hook. "Now don't come back," he said.
Parchman, eager to score with a game fish of stature, rigged another ballyhoo and tossed it off the stern.
As soon as the bait hit the water, the rod bent from the pressure of a fish. White sighed, grabbed the offensive rig and handed it to another novice blue-water hunter, 19-year-old Andrew Halttunen. "You're up," he said.
Halttunen accepted the challenge eagerly. The bonito was slightly larger than the previous one and put up a noble fight. The battle won, Halttunen nodded to his buddy as if to say, "Oh, yeah ... isn't this cool?"
But the "old men" on the boat (I use that term loosely to define those among us who no longer get asked to show ID in a supermarket checkout line) had become bored with the bonito bonanza.
But why? These fish take off on ferocious runs and pull harder than my yellow Labrador trying to make off with another one of my wife's work shoes. A long day of battling bonito will leave an angler tired and sore. And when it comes to fishing, can you ask for more?
Parchman thought so. Just a few weeks earlier, he had caught a 25-pound dolphin off the same weather buoy. The area was also known for its blackfin tuna, wahoo and occasional sailfish. But on this sunny summer afternoon, the only thing biting was the lowly Little Tunny.
"If we don't catch something else soon, people are going to start calling me Capt. Bonito," Parchman quipped. "Reel in the lines."
The crew stowed the rods and the captain headed toward a nearby wreck. But en route, he stumbled across a weed line drifting with the current.
"Put 'em out," Parchman said. "There have got to be some dolphin hanging around here for sure."
It took just a few minutes to get four baits into the water. Soon, another line screamed as line ripped off the reel. But this time, the fish didn't shake its head like a despicable bonehead.
"Finally," Parchman said, admiring the brightly colored dolphin. Sure, it was a small, or "chicken" dolphin. But at least you could eat it.
Then another dolphin hit, and another. Then the weed line broke apart, so Parchman circled and headed back toward the weather buoy.
Halfway there, something grabbed one of the trolling lines and ripped off several hundred yards of line before anybody could even get a hand on the rod.
"Wahoo," White said. "That is the only thing that runs like that."
But before the anglers could even make a stand, the fish spit the hook. Then the weather buoy appeared off the bow and the anglers knew it meant one thing.
"Bonito," Parchman yelled as another bait disappeared.
Halttunen grabbed the rod and brought the fish to the boat.
"Just seven more," he told the captain. "Then we can catch something else again."
Also called bonito, little tuna, false albacore and bonehead.
One of the most misidentified fish in the Gulf of Mexico, the little tunny or bonito is a superb fighting fish but not much for table fare. Many anglers confuse this species with its Atlantic cousin, Sarda sarda, the "true" bonito, which is occasionally found in the Gulf of Mexico. Small in comparison to other tunas, the little tunny can reach lengths of more than 2 feet and weigh more than 20 pounds. Pound for pound, this hard hitter will put up a battle that rivals any sportfish taken on rod and reel.
World record: 35 pounds, 2 ounces, Cape De Garde, Algeria, Dec. 14, 1988.
Source: Dr. Bob Shipp's Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, The International Game Fish Association's World Record Game Fishes.