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Follow the birds - Spring work-up guide

15 September 2015
Follow the birds - Spring work-up guide

From marlin to tuna, kahawai, kingfish and snapper; the white specks in the distance are our eyes in the sky. But the fish underneath are not always a cinch to catch, and Editor-at-Large Geoff Thomas looks at how to turn the work-ups to our advantage.Birds – over there!” shouted Graham. We raced over and soon we were circling among shining yellow-headed gannets as they wheeled and dived like Stuka bombers, searing into the water then popping up with a shiny, silver anchovy firmly grasped between their sharp beaks.

Work-ups are the key

As we head out from Paihia, Whangarei, Leigh, Auckland or Tauranga or Whakatane or anywhere around the coast the activity we find in the green water will usually consist of the ‘kahawai birds’ – the dainty white terns which follow the schools of kahawai which have, thankfully, been allowed to rejuvenate. But they, too, are far from the abundance we are accustomed to and it is to be hoped their magnificent sporting values will be recognised by those who make the rules governing our fishing.

As the water colour deepens to blue, the terns will be joined the heavyweights of the sky, the sleek gannets. As the size and speed of the birds increases, so does the fishing activity below them.  It is exponential. The dolphins are often joined by whales, and the kahawai are joined by kingfish, snapper and other visitors like John dory and trevally and, in winter, barracouta.

Mattie Peters leans into another snapper out off Gannet Rock in the gulf, and the result is a nice one for the pan.

The seasons

Fishing work-ups is a common practice and many charter boats at Westhaven rely on them from autumn through to early summer. During the hazy hot months from Christmas to March it is not necessary to burn the fuel to head out wide. There are plenty of snapper in the harbours and in Auckland small work-ups can be found inside Rangitoto Island.

But the transitional seasons when we are waiting for the sea temperatures to creep up, or they are dropping, is when the work-ups provide the most consistent fishing.

They can be found in the Hauraki Gulf right through the year, but when the water is down around 13 degrees in mid-winter the activity and the bite is short-lived.

From August things change slowly, and September is still tricky but come October and we start getting serious. November usually brings the welcome temperatures which are nudging 17 degrees, and it just gets better as snapper school up for spawning.

Fishing work-ups

First, find your fish. It sounds simple, but the first item to go aboard should be a pair of binoculars with good optics. Standing on a seat you can search the horizon for the telltale swirling white specks.

At times you will come across gannets and other birds sitting around on the water, as if waiting for something to happen. It is always worth looking on the depth sounder for signs of fish below, and it is also worth dropping a jig, soft bait or cut bait to ‘test the water’. This may be all that is needed to get into the action, and if the boat is being pushed along quickly by wind and current and there are fish there you can always drop the anchor, along with a berley bag.

If you are amongst a full-on work-up with birds wheeling and diving, fish splashing and dolphins tearing past it can get the heart rate speeding and fingers fumbling as baits or lures are deployed.

The white terns indicate a school of kahawai.

A drogue or sea anchor is a good investment, for if it is 40 metres deep you will have trouble reaching the bottom if the boat is moving quickly.

There are not always snapper underneath such activity, but more often than not you will find them. They will usually be down current from the surface activity as they wait for scraps and injured bait fish to drift down through the water column. So you might want to start fishing behind the activity, although is tempting to plan the boat right in the middle of the action.

Jigs or lures like soft baits offer a fast way of testing the water. They can be cast ahead of the direction of drift and if heavy enough will sink quickly. The deeper the water, the heavier the lures should be.

It is all about getting to the bottom quickly and efficiently, without having too much line out.

With braid line of seven or 10-kilo test, a half-ounce jig head will sink fast. But if it is rough, a heavier model can be used. Some anglers will carry two outfits ready for use – a light one with a half-ounce jig head and a heaver rod and line for one-ounce heads.

Metal jigs work just as well, and the rule of thumb is 40g jigs for four-kilo line, 60g for six-kilo line, 80g for eight-kilo line, 100g for 10-kilo line and so on. That was in the days of monofilament line, but the same principle applies to braid in terms of ratios.

The rod should match the weight of lure but there is more leeway. Obviously, a 100g metal jig is not going to be matched with a light soft bait rod as the rod will fold over and the jig won’t perform properly.

But lures are not for everybody, and dropping a bait works very well. It is tempting to cast out a whole pilchard, but it will sink slowly and will be snatched by a passing kahawai long before it reaches the zone where snapper are lurking.

Double on snapper is common when fishing a work-up.

A ledger rig with a teardrop-shaped sinker will slide through the water efficiently, pulling down a couple of baits or a flasher rig. Cubes of bait will work fine, as will small strip baits, and squid, bonito, pillies or fresh bait will all catch fish.

Again, in deep water a heaver sinker will be needed, maybe going up from a six-ounce to an eight-ounce weight. It is just a question of matching the dynamics involved - depth and current speed – so the baits finish up beneath the boat and not angled back 100 metres away.


It is common to see boats racing through a work-up with lines trailing out the back as they troll lures for kahawai. This is an easy way of catching fish, but it is not smart to charge through the middle of the action as the boat will often put the fish down and you have to look around to see where they pop up again.

Fishing around the edges will catch plenty of fish, and if you can’t get a hook-up it will be because you are not doing it right, not because of where you are fishing.

Kahawai can be the easiest of fish to catch and they can be the most frustrating. It all depends on the size of the bait they are preying on. It may be pilchards, small anchovies or tiny juvenile fish like whitebait.

Two factors come into play when trolling – the lure and the depth at which it is presented.

The old green plastic kahawai jig with the double hook is the standard trolling lure, and it comes in a variety of colours and sizes. This is often all you need. But if the fish are ignoring your lure, try a very small silver spinner, or trout lures like a silver toby or clown Tasmanian devil. Smelt flies like a small silver Grey Ghost are very effective on kahawai.

But the problem with light lures like flies or trout lures is they have no weight, so a ball sinker needs to be added above a swivel which can be about a metre ahead of the lure.

One rig which is very effective on kahawai is the standard trout lead-core trolling line. You don’t need all 100 metres, just two or three colours of line (10 metres per colour) with a long trace, and it will get down to where the fish are. You will catch fish this way by trolling in the general area even after the surface activity has died away.

Casting lures

During summer when out wide in the blue water there will often be kingfish feeding in a work-up and some very exciting sport can be had by casting surface lures. The traditional methods of catching and putting out a live bait of kahawai will always work well on any kings in the area, as will jigs like speed jigs and knife jigs.

But a popper or stick bait cast out and retrieved will soon tell you if there are any kings around. They are drawn to them like magnets, and can be seen chasing a lure as they compete to get to it first.

Kings like fast-moving poppers so the slim pencil poppers skipped across the surface as fast as you can wind will get them excited. But the new stick baits are a totally different story, and they are fished with a wide sweep, winding in line between sweeps, and they slide through the water erratically, just under the surface.

This is visual and exciting, and it is well worth carrying a casting rod ready to fling out a lure into the middle of a work-up. Like casting poppers for giant trevally in the tropics, the tackle used for stick baiting has to be top quality, with reels like a Quantum Boca or Shimano Stella rigged with 37kg braid on a powerful rod which can handle the bruising runs of a powerful kingfish.

Saltfly aficionados are also drawn to work-ups like gannets from afar, and casting a fly into the churning surface and stripping it back quickly is about as good as gets with a fly rod.

Like all fishing, being prepared for a variety of scenarios is important when heading out from the launching ramp with the binoculars ready to search the sky.

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