Living Sanibel: Little tunny and bluefish found around the islands
Rarely seen in water less than 25 feet deep, the little tunny is the most common member of the tuna family found in the Gulf of Mexico. Farther offshore, starting in water 80 feet deep, the far more desirable blackfin tuna can be found, and farther still, starting around 100 miles offshore, the prized yellowfin tuna can be caught. Schools of little tunny rarely come close enough to shore to be seen from land.
The bonito, as it is often called, feeds predominantly on glass minnows and smaller schooling fish. As it feeds it slashes across the water, sometimes in schools numbering in the thousands. Offshore, these patches of feeding behavior look as if small sections of the gulf are in a rolling boil. Small white jigs no longer than two inches tossed into just such a feeding frenzy and retrieved as fast as possible will often result in hook-ups.
In the Keys, the little tunny is a favorite bait for marlin and swordfish anglers. It was just such a bait that hooked the great marlin in Ernest Hemingway’s novel, “The Old Man and the Sea.” Although a fun sport fish, the little tunny is seldom taken for anything other than bait. Its flesh is dark red and has a strong flavor. As cut bait it is commonly used to catch shark, but if cut into one-inch cubes it will also take mangrove and yellowtail snapper. The little tunny roams most of the Atlantic, as well as the Mediterranean.
Primarily a winter visitor, the bluefish is commonly found around Redfish Pass during the coldest months of the year. The bluefish found on the gulf coast of Florida is much smaller than the schools that work the Gulf Stream along the east coast, where the Florida record was taken. A strong fighter, the bluefish’s nickname, “chopper,” aptly describes this aggressive fish. Once worked into a feeding frenzy, the bluefish becomes almost piranha-like in its behavior.
It travels in schools and will attack shoals of mullet and other fish with unbelievable ferocity, killing and cutting up far more fish than they can eat. In New England, these schools are easily found by the large flocks of gulls, terns, and seabirds that follow the marauding bluefish. The bluefish also takes crustaceans and cephalopods (squid and octopus). Its distribution is worldwide, from the Indian Ocean to the North Atlantic.
Once located, the bluefish is as easy to catch as tossing in a shiny silver spoon or any live bait. Because it has small, sharp teeth, wire is recommended. Once in the boat, the bluefish has been known to bite, so care should be exercised at all times when handling this fish. Although a fair table fish when fresh, the bluefish’s oily flesh does not freeze well.
This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.