Work-up fishing 101 - Part one

By Scott CushmanNZ Fishing World
Work-up fishing 101 - Part one

Summer work-ups are one phenomena that not only get nature's participants excited but fishermen as well. As the water warms up in springtime, snapper start to move into the gulf, usually from a northerly to southerly direction.

What is a work up?

While this has been described in numerous articles, here is the basic mechanism of a work up. 

Schools of baitfish (often pilchards but also anchovies) are pushed to the surface by predators, such as kahawai, kingfish and dolphins. The circling predators push the bait into a ball, where the prey shelter close to each other for protection. 

The predators feed off the edges of the school, rather than charging through the middle (although whales sometimes ignore this protocol), to keep the bait in a confined area and expend less energy in harvesting the baitfish.

As the bait is pushed to the surface and within reach of sea birds, the activity then often attracts the attention of birds such as gannets, terns and petrels, which start to congregate and feed as well. 

The frenzy of pilchards being devoured often creates scraps, which then gradually drift to the bottom into the snapper zone.

Snapper are often found in the vicinity of these work ups, but one of the keys is learning to understand which direction the scraps are drifting underneath. Find where the scraps settle and you will find the snapper.

X-factor style work ups involve scale and time. When these two factors are increasing, the likelihood of snapper being present also increases substantially, as do the size and number of snapper.

Pre-work up preparation

Getting your ear to the ground so you know what general area to start working can save time and money.

Snapper don't move long distances over night, so starting where the recent activity has been encountered is a good start. 

Getting the latest reports from charter operators or joining a fishing forum and connecting with like minded fisherman can help you get the right information. 

Chasing work ups

While there can be several key factors to successfully fishing work ups, the first one is locating the work up.

Finding the action and arriving in time is the factor between a full bin or an empty one.

Weather can play an important role here. Calm conditions that assist good visibility of birds gathering on the horizon and then allow safe speeding to the location of baitfish being slaughtered can be crucial.  

Sighting birds is step one.

An eager crew scanning 360 degrees is a good start, with someone on board with a pair of suitable binoculars scanning the horizon or checking potential activity that is sighted in the distance. See the break out section on what factors are involved in selecting a good pair of binoculars. 


Overhead softbait style outfits are a good choice for work ups but of course spin style outfits work too. I prefer overheads particularly when fishing lures that are attacked on the drop.

Watching the clumsy or sometimes sticky pattern of line peeling off a spin reel can often make it difficult to ascertain if a fish has grabbed the lure.

Spin outfits however have the advantage of being able to cast lighter weights further than overheads, so searching water around the boat means the spin outfit can score when the overhead doesn't. 

150-300m of 3-5kg braid on either style reel on a 1.80-2.10m rod is a good set up.

I generally use 1.5-2m of 10kg fluorocarbon leader attached to the braid via a twelve-turn bimini in the braid and Yucatan mono connection.

A back-to-back uni knot is also a good choice, finished with a connection to the lure via a Lefty's loop, clinch or uni knot. Lefty's loops are popular because the lure has more freedom to swing and move and hopefully entice a bite.

Another system of attaching the leader to your lure is to attach a stainless snap. This is good for changing lures often as it doesn't require extra tying of the knot every time you change lures.

Fluorocarbon has a slightly faster sink rate than non-fluorocarbon and has good abrasion resistant qualities. Sometimes changing down in leader strength to 6kg or lengthening the leader can be subtle changes that help land more or bigger fish. 

The business end

This may come as a shock, but in the days before jigs, fishermen would use bait. Not highly sophisticated but still effective were ledger and strayline rigs adorned with pilchards.

Lures however have made a huge impact on the angling scene and have demonstrated numerous advantages over bait.

Lures don't have to be refrigerated, aren't messy to use, are re-useable many times over and while bait can be bought in a few different types and cut to size, lures come in a hundred different choices. 

This can be a costly problem though when trying to keep up with the latest lure revolution.

Check out part two of this article for a run down on different styles of lures that can be employed to target work up.


This may seem overly simple but if you are trying a new style of lure, watch the lure in the water beside you and experiment to get the best action out of the lure before dropping it into the strike zone. 

Lift it quickly or slowly, retrieve line simultaneously or try different twitching to see what it does to the lure. Have you ever tried holding the rod grip and tapping the butt with your free hand? Give it a go and see what it does to the lure, it could be your next secret weapon.  

Don’t forget in addition to lures, leader and your rod and reel, there are a couple of other important tools.

Sea anchors (drogues) are important to keep the boat drifting at a slow rate. This means you won't drift over the action too quickly and gives you a chance to effectively work your lures or present your baits.

Another useful tool is a pair of pliers. The thin, sharp hooks hidden in squid style skirts will catch fish but are equally adept at embedding themselves in soft wet flesh. A thrashing fish with swinging hooks is best handled with a pair of pliers.

Nets are good for securing fish, especially as some jigs have very thin gauge hooks and will bend out when too much pressure is applied.

Hoisting a good fish aboard may end in tears if your hooks are too thin. Nets that have the plastic style mesh are good because they won't snag hooks as badly as nets that have cord style mesh. 

Some fishermen prefer to change the original hooks for heavier gauge ones, especially if kingfish are present.

The first generation lures with twin hook rigs were criticised for their lack of strength, however it's worth considering playing your fish without too much horse power as work up activity often occurs in areas where the bottom doesn't hold ugly foul to cut you off from your fish.

See part two to learn which lures work best, and how to read bird behaviour

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