Editor Grant Dixon interviews Kiwi skipper and lure maker Bonze Fleet, who has helped many anglers improve their approach to pulling plastic for billfish…
A passion for fishing and a school project were two catalysts that sparked Graeme ‘Bonze’ Fleet’s lifelong involvement in game fishing.
It’s a spark that’s spawned a range of internationally recognised game lures and which has seen Bonze develop to become one of our industry’s characters – a man who has never been afraid to develop new styles of fishing and tackle.
Most people simply know him as ‘Bonze’, and this is the name on product labels that today extend well past his popular lures.
Bonze first fished at the age of three out of Paihia, and has been on or around the water and boats ever since.
When he started his final two senior years at Kerikeri High School, he aimed to fish three days a week – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – attending just often enough to keep the administrators off his back.
He did come unstuck on one occasion as a more senior student though, when he took the day off to go fishing, and called in at Urapukapuka Resort for a beer on the way home. There he was spotted by a teacher, who just happened to be at a school camp on the island.
“You’re not at camp – what are you doing here?” was the tricky question that not even the quick-witted Bonze could answer.
While he was no academic, Bonze owes his later career path to his schooling.
“I started lure making as a school project. A local skipper – Wayne Marshall off Gunslinger – bought the lure from me, and first time he ran it, he landed a 111kg striped marlin,” Bonze recalls.
With several other orders to follow, a young Bonze was officially in the lure-making business.
A fisherman first and foremost, Bonze couldn’t initially see how to make lure-making work fulltime, but it was plain that he would eventually make a success of himself around game fishing.
However, a builder’s apprenticeship initially kicked things off for Bonze; although short-lived, it played a big part in his fishing career, thanks to a twist of fate. Upon finding a competition entry in the building site’s rubbish pile, he filled it out, and to his amazement won the first prize of $1000 cash – ‘big money’ in those days for a building apprentice.
To Bonze’ credit, he put it to good use, giving up hammering nails in favour of the Paihia maritime school.
Under the tutorage of Keith Bradley, this was one education facility Bonze never considered ‘wagging’ for a day’s fishing – it was talking his language. As a result, he became one of the country’s youngest certified skippers at the age of 18.
Unfortunately, as can happen, the Bay of Islands’ game-fishing season was a relatively short one over the summer months, forcing Bonze to return to building during winter to supplement his income.
“That was not my calling, so I looked to expand my horizons, locking my sights on Kona, Hawaii, recognised as the home of lure fishing for marlin.”
Bonze bought a one-way ticket for what was his first overseas excursion, landing in Hawaii and not knowing anyone there.
“I spent the first night in a hotel, and at 5.00 the next morning was on the dock looking for work.”
He was invited to crew on the boat Spellbound, run by Mike Rand. But instead of the normal game tackle, there were spin rods and reels, along with a 50-Wide game reel loaded with braid
on board. A skipjack tuna was rigged to a piano wire-leader and trolled as a skip bait, a simple strategy that soon had them attached to a marlin.
“After four to five minutes spent chasing the fish hard in reverse, the angler using full drag, I was presented with a very green fish. Was I scared? Hell, yes!”
In typical Bonze fashion he dived in, the fish was secured, and a love affair with Kona cemented.
As it turned out, the angler that day was Jack Neilson, the owner of Accurate reels, who was on a gear-testing mission – and also resulted in Mike and Bonze hitting it off, leading to a four-year stint where Bonze deckied, fished and shared accommodation with his skipper.
Throughout this relationship with Mike and Hawaii, a passion for lures endured. Bonze fished with some big names in the industry, including noted lure maker Bart Miller and a number of prominent captains.
“They were all committed to getting lures to run right. Some were anal about it, right down to the way the mono leaders were coiled – get it wrong and you heard about it!”
Over that period Bonze was exposed to a multitude of ways to rig, run and tune lures, as well as theories as to how fish see and ‘eat’ a lure. It made him a stickler for fine-tuning his own lures.
“Hawaii is a perfect place to develop a lure, as the weather is good almost every day, producing flat-calm seas.”
Bonze then set his sights on Cape Verde, off the West African coast, a remote destination with a reputation for big blue marlin and plenty of wind.
On the first of his three stints, Bonze was given a Bertram 33 to run, a boat he described as a ‘a bit of a handful’. Poor maintenance, coupled with a difficult vessel to drive and a crew which spoke little or no English provided its challenges.
“For the first month the fishing and weather were rubbish. I was so wound up and stressed out I couldn’t eat. The locals and crew gave me the nickname ‘Captain Kaka’ – Captain Shit.”
But this all served a useful purpose by helping Bonze to develop his fishing methods and philosophy.
“I had to come up with a way to make things as simple as possible. I ran just four rods, and numbered their positions as well as numbering the lures. We got it right, and began smashing the fish over, resulting in our boat heading the Atlantic blue marlin tag-and-release numbers.”
‘Captain Kaka’ had made good. Bonze says the turnaround was mainly due to sticking to the basics and doing them well. He then applied this philosophy over the next two seasons, targeting ‘the ones that aren’t hooked’. In other words, getting a hook into those fish that might otherwise have been missed.
Bonze encountered some big fish. His tactic was to back the drag off and let them go, before chasing them hard, all the while letting water pressure on the line keep the hook in place.
“It was only once we got a fair bit of line back, by driving at the fish, that the drag went up as the fish dived. When it came back up, we backed off the drag a little and chased it hard again.”
In recent times Bonze has become an advocate for lighter leader and finer-gauge hooks, a technique he picked up fishing off North Carolina where they would use leader as light as 24kg (50lb) on 140kg fish.
“The finer-wire hooks they were using eliminated most of the bill wrapping. It doesn’t matter what hook, it’s a matter of gauge. You can’t expect hooks to perform miracles – they need some help!”
Bonze says he tries to educate anglers in order to remove the variables. “I try to make marlin fishing like jigging, where each opportunity to hook-up is maximised.”
Over the years Bonze has fished a number of the world’s billfish hotspots and has turned the information he’s gleaned into a successful tackle business based around his lure range, which now consists of around 50 models. Add to that Kaizen stick-baits, leader, hooks, clothing, teasers and dredges, and you have a complete one-stop shop for billfish terminal tackle.
This has been backed up with a number of seminars run around the country in support of his stockists, and the organisation of the annual Bonze Skins Tournament, most recently fished out of Whitianga.
While his lures have proven themselves in many overseas destinations, getting them into the crowded offshore market has proven difficult – and expensive.
He now concentrates mainly on the New Zealand market, making everything but the skirts themselves. “I can tell you, it’s a lot more fun using them [lures] than making them.” Bonze’s favourite lure is the Ballistic – even though he says he probably has better lures.
“It was the first Bonze lure I caught a marlin on – a great fish close to a grander which was released – so while it can be difficult to fish, it has great memories for me.”
He says by having such a big range and skirt options, there is something for everyone’s perceived needs. His top sellers are the nine-inch models, probably reflecting our predominantly striped marlin fishery.
The Kaisen stick-baits have provided a challenge to Bonze to develop. “They have to be ‘pretty’ to catch the angler, while swimming well to catch the fish. Having got that right, I assure you the process is a closely-guarded secret!”
Bonze has also developed some philosophies around billfish conservation and tagging. He believes a fish should be deemed ‘caught’ when the swivel is at the rod tip or the crewman touches the leader, not when a tag is placed.
“Over the years I have seen some shocking tagging situations; it is the wrong reason to tag a fish, just to say it was ‘caught’.
“How do you explain to a client who has paid big money to go fishing and got a billfish to the boat, the leader in hand, but the hook has pulled without getting a tag placement, that his fish wasn’t ‘caught’?
“Clubs need to wake up and run separate competitions and annual sections for released fish. To my mind we kill and injure too many fish in New Zealand due to poor tagging techniques and placement. I appreciate placing a tag makes it easy to verify a catch, but with video facilities on our phones, surely a bit of footage of the business end of the capture is proof enough, in much the way a photo of a tag placement is used now.”
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