"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, spearing the water then popping up with a glittering anchovy grasped firmly in their sharp beaks. The water churned as dolphins and tuna slashed and splashed. There were thousands of birds and just as many fish.

The turmoil was awe-inspiring. It spread over a square kilometre of ocean, often more, and we quickly dropped lures and with four lines on the half-plane the 6m Sharkcat followed the furious activity. It was only a few minutes before two of the rods bent and lines screamed out. A third went off before we could recover the other lures, and the boys jostled for position around the cockpit as they worked the 24kg short-stroke, stand-up outfits.

In six minutes the first yellowfin tuna was at the boat and gaffed, then another and the last one was soon flapping in the cockpit.

Our tuna spike was a Philips screwdriver with the end ground to a sharp point, and the coup de grace was delivered midway between and forward of the eyes, sinking deep into the brain at 45 degrees. The tuna would arch quickly, then relax in death. A knife thrust into the flank on the lateral line exactly three fingers' width behind the pectoral fin severed a main artery and the thick, red blood flowed. Then the fish were hosed down and slipped into a large coffin packed with salt ice. It was a slick operation.


That was in the 1980s at Waihau Bay on the East Coast. Every day late in the afternoon the schools of tuna would surface, usually about half a mile inside Cape Runaway across the wide bay.

Blind trolling was out of the question so we followed the birds. Some of our crew were deerstalkers so they were used to peering at the horizon to pinpoint quarry. The birds were easy to find, and after catching our tuna we would race to the next work-up.

A bin with eight or 10 yellowfin from 20kg to 65kg was common in those days of plenty, and it was legal to sell the fish to pay for the gas. The catch would be hung in the local commercial cray fisherman's chiller and the fish truck would come by every second day.

How things have changed.

The tuna have gone; intercepted somewhere up in the Pacific Ocean long before they reach our shores. If you sell any fish without the necessary commercial licences and quota you can lose your boat and vehicle, and contribute a hefty dollop to the national coffers.

But the value of searching for and following the work-ups is still as powerful as ever.

Now, however, we expect to find kahawai and kingfish with the dolphins and, lurking underneath, the snapper, which are the main focus.

As we head out from Paihia, Whangarei, Leigh, Auckland, Tauranga or Whakatane, or anywhere around the coast, the activity we find in the green water will usually consist of "kahawai birds" - the dainty white terns that 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 that govern our fishing.

Then, as the water colour deepens to blue, the terns will be joined by 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 kahawai are joined by kingfish, snapper and other visitors like john dory and trevally and, in winter, barracouta.

When fishing work-ups the first item to go aboard should be binoculars with good optics. Standing on a seat you can search the horizon for the telltale swirling white specks. At times you will see gannets and other birds sitting on the water as if waiting for something to happen. It is always worth checking 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, and if the boat is pushed along quickly by wind and current, and there are fish there, you can always drop the anchor. For this a drogue or sea anchor is a good investment, for if it is 40m deep you will have trouble reaching the bottom.

If you are in 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. Then the rods bend.