Peter Quinn

‘bait!

On the West Coast, catching whitebait isn’t a hobby, or a sport, or even a business: it’s a religion. There’s something about these tiny, translucent slivers of life that transforms fishers into fanatics, and draws them each spring to where the rivers meet the sea.

Written by       Photographed by Peter James Quinn

The grandiloquent Robert Morley publicly scorned them, but for many New Zealanders whitebait are paradise with fins on. The main component of the whitebait catch is the juveniles of a small galaxiid fish called inaka (if you use the South Island Maori spelling) or inanga shown here about twice life size. A characteristic feature of inanga whitebait is the dark speckling along the back and sides of the body.
The grandiloquent Robert Morley publicly scorned them, but for many New Zealanders whitebait are paradise with fins on. The main component of the whitebait catch is the juveniles of a small galaxiid fish called inaka (if you use the South Island Maori spelling) or inanga shown here about twice life size. A characteristic feature of inanga whitebait is the dark speckling along the back and sides of the body.
Whitebaiting is as much a lifestyle as it is a profession or a pastime, and long-time 'baiters form deep attachments to the rivers they fish and the people they work with. Between tides, "Old Jack" down from Greymouth helps out with the washing up at his mate "Pluto's" crib, on the Moeraki or "Blue" River. Pluto is a professional whitebaiter, but after 20 years on the Blue, health problems are catching up with him, and his fishing days are numbered. So, too, are the lives of the picturesque (but often tumbledown) shacks and camps dotted along them Coast.
Whitebaiting is as much a lifestyle as it is a profession or a pastime, and long-time ‘baiters form deep attachments to the rivers they fish and the people they work with. Between tides, “Old Jack” down from Greymouth helps out with the washing up at his mate “Pluto’s” crib, on the Moeraki or “Blue” River. Pluto is a professional whitebaiter, but after 20 years on the Blue, health problems are catching up with him, and his fishing days are numbered. So, too, are the lives of the picturesque (but often tumbledown) shacks and camps dotted along them Coast.

It is eight o’clock in the morning, September the first. Technically, the season opened three hours ago, but it was quite dark then. I’ve brought my scoop net to the lagoon mouth, but I haven’t wet it yet. For one thing, the tide is nearly fully in and the waves coursing over the shingle are travelling fast. For another, we had heavy rain during the past week and there is a lot of debris in the water—sticks and leaves mainly, but also a brown filamentous seaweed, thick and clingy like sticky silk floss. Still, it is the first day…

I trudge back along the shore until I come to a calmer stretch. Stepping gingerly into the tide (the water is chill), I blind drag for 20 metres. Back on the bank, I sort through the junk, and there they are: three shining slips of life, translucent except for fine black speckling along the lateral line and on the fins, translucent except for the large silver-and-black eyes.

I pick them up with care and slide them back into the river, back to Takaroa, back to their long journey home.

I live on the West Coast of the South Island, where by far the greatest amount of whitebait offered for sale is caught. However, the place where I dwell—and fish—is not a prime ‘bait­ing area. Okarito does have the very occasional run, but here we fish mainly for fun (there is more to fishing than catching fish) and the odd feed. We use scoop nets—the rectangular kind with curved corners and an upbent top, and long pole handles.

There is a particular kawa, protocol if you like, attached to our area: we ‘bait in a moving line. You enter the water behind anybody already in, eventually getting your turn at the top of the queue. Rushing in ahead of everybody else, or hogging a particu­larly good spot, will bring unsubtle hints to change your behaviour, from muttered swearing to somebody standing on your net—or accidentally pushing you into the tide.

Set nets and screens are used sometimes, back up the river, but because of the lagoon’s shape and currents, the results are generally dismal. Traps (pockets like mini­ature fykes at the back of the net, whether set or scoop) are normally necessary.

Sunset on the Okuru River, and three Aucklanders down from the big smoke to "see how they do it on the Coast" pack away sock net and screens on a registered stand. Only on the West Coast is the whitebaiting serious enough (and the fish plentiful enough) for people to register their favourite "possies, " and build stands to fish from.
Sunset on the Okuru River, and three Aucklanders down from the big smoke to “see how they do it on the Coast” pack away sock net and screens on a registered stand. Only on the West Coast is the whitebaiting serious enough (and the fish plentiful enough) for people to register their favourite “possies, ” and build stands to fish from.

Elsewhere on the Coast, different techniques and equipment are used: rough scoop nets on the Grey, for instance, pot nets on the Poerua, and massive trap nets with screens on the registered stands of the Cascade.

Fishers on other rivers throughout the islands have evolved still more forms of nets: the “Southland sock,” for example, widely used on the Mataura, and a diminu­tive squarish set net with a handle I’ve seen used in east coast waters. Local conditions dictate local methods.

There are strictly enforced limits on the size and placement of nets, whether used by a registered fisher or an amateur. For the 1992 season on the West Coast,conditions included the times you could ‘bait (between 5 am and 8 pm from September 1 to November 14 inclusive), the gear you could use (“net mouth not to exceed 4.5 metres in circumference or perimeter measured around the inside of the net” and “net shall not exceed a length greater than 3.5 metres”) and how you could use it (not allowed to fish or take whitebait from any area that isn’t tidal, or screen off more than one third of the width of a stream; must stay within ten metres of your net or licensed structure), and—important for the continuance of the fishery—listed the totally closed and protected areas, from the Kongahu Swamp in the north, to “all rivers, streams and tributaries in Fiordland between Yates Point in the north and Puysegur Point in the south”.

There are many more conditions than those I’ve given, and they differ according to the area, and can change from season to season: it pays to at least read a copy of the current fisheries regulations (or obtain an ‘Information for Whitebaiters’ pam­phlet from the Department of Conser­vation, whose officers enforce the rules), not least so as to ensure there are sufficient whitebait around for the next generation to enjoy.

[Chapter Break]

There used to be controversy over what whitebait were—the young of some kind of fish, obviously, but which? Smelt were proposed, and herrings; the com­mon bully and the (now extinct) gray­ling. Wild guesses included the fry of kahawai, but observant or informed people were pretty sure that whitebait were—at least mainly—the juveniles of inaka (inanga or inanga-tutuna in the north). The work of Robert McDowall, and others, has now irrefu­tably established that what we catch as “‘bait” are the offspring of five varieties of freshwater fish called Galaxiidae.

It wouldn’t be easy to identify any of them in a fritter, and on the riverbank we tend to know them as much by when they run as what they look like, but here is a catcher’s guide to which is what:

Inaka (Galaxias maculatus) is the most common and the longest. It is the one with obvious black speckling on the back and sides. A beautiful translucent little fish, it is palest gold when first caught, turning an attractive greenish shade shortly after. It runs throughout the sea­son—if the season is a good one. The first inaka to enter the rivers are called pukoareare by Kai Tahu, and the adult fish is known as mahitahi by Westland Maori—a name also used to identify the South Westland area.

Koaro (Galaxias brevipinnis) is the second most com­mon component of the fishery. It tends to look slightly opaque, or milky, when it is first caught (and sometimes has a disconcerting tendency to go slushy when you freeze it, whence the name “jelly bait.”) It is popularly known as “el­ephant ears” on the Coast, because of its large pectoral fins. If you’re catching fattish ‘bait with a ten­dency to climb up the side of your bucket (that’s where the large pecto­ral fins come in handy), they are likely to be koaro. Koaro are most common if the seas are rough, or just after a flood, and are known as hiwihiwi by Kai Tahu.

Koukoupara (Galaxias fasciatus), also known as the banded kokopu, is the fish that makes October rich; in a good season the clematis ramps through the bush, and koukoupara swarms in from the sea. If you catch a substantial pudding of this bait, it is instantly recognisable because it is a wondrous amber-gold colour. It is also relatively small—about 40-45 mm, as opposed to the 55 mm an inaka can reach.

Kokopu (Galaxias argenteus) is also called the giant kokopu or “na­tive trout”. This one runs quite late in the season, early November or so. If you squint at it, and have another sort of bait close by for comparison, you will note that it has a large mouth, and looks golden en masse.

The fifth variety of ‘bait (for which, interestingly, there isn’t a Maori name, not even among Kai Tahu) is the short-jawed kokopu Galaxias postvectis. I am not sure I’ve ever seen one. Apparently, you can’t dis­tinguish it from a juvenile koaro, and it isn’t at all common among the catch anyway.

Other species can be distressingly common in your net when you are whitebaiting. Retropinna retro­pinna, for one. The common smelt—”cucumbers” to baiters because of the strong and distinctive smell—can swim in in hordes. You can liter­ally fill a net with them. They are edible (but you should scald them in hot milk first, unless you really like your fish to taste like cucumbers) and were an important catch for­merly, for Maori. We know them as rakiriri here in the south (inanga­papa, paraki, matamata and other names in the north), and while we used to dry them, and keep them as a winter food, now they tend to be discarded or taken home to give the cat a heart attack.

Another interloper is Dan Doolin ‘bait—the young of freshwater bul­lies. These are okay if few in number, lightly sprinkled among the real ‘bait, as it were, but if they pre­dominate they are a nuisance. Taste­less and gritty, is my verdict, and I’ve tried eating them several ways. Not so glass eels. Elvers at this stage (8-12 cm, and transparent) are deli­cious fried in butter—but extremely difficult to contain in anything but a sealed bucket. Lithe and sinuous, they wriggle furiously and success­fully out of anything else.

Sea lice, tiny shrimps, jellyfish, strange plastic-looking little salps, salmon fry (alevin) and smolt… all so much junk in the net as far as the dedicated ‘baiter is concerned, but a fascinating reminder that whitebait are sea creatures. Temporarily.

Galaxiids—the ones fishers are interested in—are diadromous, meaning that they spend part of their lives in fresh water, and part in the sea. In most cases the newly hatched larvae migrate from the riv­ers to the sea, then return as small juveniles a few months later.

With the snow-capped Southern Alps as a backdrop, Jat Miller empties a set net on the Mahitahi River.
With the snow-capped Southern Alps as a backdrop, Jat Miller empties a set net on the Mahitahi River.

It is difficult—at least for some­one with my kind of mind—to un­derstand both the huge numbers of fish taking part in these migrations, and the hazards attending their ultimate survival.

Consider the inaka: average-sized females produce 2000 – 3000 eggs of about 1 mm diameter, while a large adult can manage 13,000. The male produces such quantities of milt that the very creeks and farm races turn cloudy—hence its common Coast name, milkfish or cowfish.

In autumn, at full or new moon, great shoals of inaka stream down from the lowland waters which they inhabit to spawn in the estuaries. Taking advantage of the spring tides, the females release their eggs among vegetation on the banks. The sticky outer layer of the eggs enables them to adhere to grass, rush, flax and other leaves, and there they will re­main hidden until the next spring tide.

It may arrive in a fortnight, or it may be six weeks before the eggs are sufficiently wetted again. At Okarito, it happens this way: “The waves come crashing over the la­goon bar and stream up the south arm, diminishing to rollers to wave­lets to ripples as the land drags them down, but still washing onwards to fill all Takiri, the water rising and rising, reaching for the bank-tops, fingering the roots of reed and flax, lapping up the overhangs where some egg-masses are, drowning all the mud-banks and the wiwi that have eggs attached to them, ascend­ing inexorably though silently now until at last the mark of extreme high spring tide is reached, everywhere.

“And if the eggs haven’t been eaten in the meantime, or flood-rot­ted, or rained upon too hard and prematurely hatched, they will re­spond to the enlivening touch.

“Homai to waiora . . . within ten minutes, slivers of life are awash in the retreating tide. They flow away, out over the bar, into the secret-bear­ing deeps.”

In those secret-bearing deeps we are not yet quite sure what the larval ‘bait do. We know they feed and grow (their intestines, although transparent, are functional); we know they mingle with the plank­tonic biota (this is where their over­all transparency is useful: what isn’t immediately seen is more likely not to be eaten.) We know that they in­habit the coastal waters of New Zea­land during this period, but are com­monly found up to 100, and not uncommonly up to 200 kilometres off­shore, and have been recovered from subantarctic waters, 700 kilometres away (no identifying tattoos to say they were definitely from Aotearoa, however).

Scoop netters on the wharf at Greymouth guard their "possies" day and night, for in a town the size of Greymouth such prime locations are coveted. Sometimes two fishers wilI share a site, doing 48-hour shifts, sleeping on the river bank, and dividing up the catch 50:50. AlI along the wharf, hatches have been cut to alIow 'baiters to get to their own spot down below. Each hatch is padlocked when not in use.
Scoop netters on the wharf at Greymouth guard their “possies” day and night, for in a town the size of Greymouth such prime locations are coveted. Sometimes two fishers wilI share a site, doing 48-hour shifts, sleeping on the river bank, and dividing up the catch 50:50. AlI along the wharf, hatches have been cut to alIow ‘baiters to get to their own spot down below. Each hatch is padlocked when not in use.

We know also, from the study of otoliths (fishes’ ear bones, which can show daily growth rings—I take this information on trust, having never delved into a whitebait’s inner ear) that the fish are aged between four and six months when they be­gin to migrate back to the rivers. But what their numbers are, what their predators are, how many are dis­persed and lost by wayward cur­rents, what diseases and parasites they may have, and how pollution affects them—we do not know.

Our ignorance is compounded by not really knowing what triggers their migration back into fresh wa­ter. Fishers’ lore holds that the water must be warming up, and the sweet water must be going well out into the sea before whitebait will return. The spring floods certainly bring the ‘bait in, but erratically: they can run in on the tide following a flood, or three to five days later. Fishing lore also says that heavy blooming of the flax (or ti rakau, or kowhai, depend­ing on your district) means a good season; my whitebaiting diaries ex­tend over 22 years and aue! show no correlation between flowers and fish whatsoever.

What can make or break a season (from the fisher’s point of view) are current patterns. A slight southward flux in the Tasman gyre and we can kiss the fish goodbye here in Okarito (as happened in 1991, a dismal fish­ing year). The gyre holds steady and, all the other uncertain or unknown parts of the equation for easy migra­tion being favourable, the whitebait will be abundant (1992 has been ac­claimed as the best season on the West Coast for two decades).

That abundance can be over­whelming. Catch stories on the Coast (and everywhere else, I sus­pect) are so much smoke: tracing them to the embers is almost impos­sible. So-and-so is rumoured as hav­ing caught 2000 kg on Monday’s tide. You ask him about it, and he winks, and polishes his new four-wheeler. Te-mea is said to have sold a hundred kilograms on the riverbank to a Christchurch couple. She smiles vaguely and says, Yes, it wasn’t a bad day, but not that good. Not nearly that good.

The largest commercial whitebaiting operation is that on the Cascade River in South Westland. For more than 40 years Cascade whitebait has found its way from this remote corner of the South lsland to waiting palates around the country. The river is controlled by a company with 12 shareholders, among whom the Buchanan family features prominently. 'Bait is caught in large box nets, which can be winched up when full. Access to the stands (and transportation of the catch) is by boat only.
The largest commercial whitebaiting operation is that on the Cascade River in South Westland. For more than 40 years Cascade whitebait has found its way from this remote corner of the South lsland to waiting palates around the country. The river is controlled by a company with 12 shareholders, among whom the Buchanan family features prominently. ‘Bait is caught in large box nets, which can be winched up when full. Access to the stands (and transportation of the catch) is by boat only.

The reason for the reticence is not just perverseness. Although it is legal for amateur fishers to sell or trade their catch (whitebait are not regarded as a commercial fishery under law), the Inland Revenue De­partment is very interested in their sales figures. The shadow economy, which is in operation everywhere, sees a great deal of unsourced ‘bait bought for cash—which has ramifi­cations for the fishery as a whole.

I have seen over 90 pound of ‘bait in a sock net, and just under two hundred kilos in a block-and-tackle lifted trap net (in both instances, buckets were used to bail the ‘-bait out so the nets wouldn’t break under the strain). In the 1992 season these are not regarded as exceptional catches. Even scoop netters at our lagoon mouth were getting frequent two- to six-pint lifts (the latter makes a pudding in the net end about the size of a basketball).

Catches like these give substance to the old stories about getting so much ‘bait there wasn’t any alterna­tive to feeding it to the chooks, or digging it into the garden for ferti­liser. (Mind you, the old stories gen­erally neglect to point out that there weren’t home freezers in those days.) And they seem to give the lie to concerns that the whitebait fish­ery is declining.

[Chapter Break]

The first settlers prized inaka (ina’a is the name used for a small bright fry in Tahitian waters, and versions of inanga, for the young of, or small, fish, are found throughout the Pa­cific—hinana in Hawaii, inaga in Sa­moa and Mangareva, inaka in the Marquesas) both as fresh and dried food. They were reliable, a seasonal fish readily available for a little ef­fort and ingenuity. The ‘bait were taken in finely-woven hinaki-like trap nets, in dense mat-like drag nets and in small beautifully constructed scoops. Cunning diversion trenches were made (taking advantage of the inaka’s preference to head upstream in the slacker water), with screen nets winging off to direct the fish towards the trench. The names alone, for nets and fish, for stages of fish development and ways of processing and keeping the catch, are manifold; I have well over a hundred, and I am sure there are many more.

That there are so many names, and many different ways of preserv­ing inaka, emphasises the fact that the catches were large. In the south, we sun-dried, or briefly steamed and then sun-dried, the fish. They were laid on flax mats (papaki)—I have been told that these mats were el­evated by a frame improving air cir­culation, “otherwise the flax made the fish bitter”—and turned until snappable and amber in colour (the eyes go electric blue). The dried inaka, which would keep for many months, could be steamed in umu­kai or kaopipi at need. (When I tried this, the result was a rather vile fishy porridge. Either I did something wrong, or tastes have markedly changed.)

The second wave of settlers also found the fishing easy: “The Grey River was very rich in whitebait in 1867. There was no difficulty in get­ting bucketsful in a very short time. Maoris gathered it and sold it very cheaply. Close to the edges of the water and below its surface level the loose shingle contained many of these little fishes. Little boys used to make small holes in the gravel and lift them out.” Presumably with lit­tle nets—supplejack and curtain muslin predominated for a long while. C. J. Pfaff, who put together The Digger’s Story (Or Tales and Reminiscences of the Golden Coast from Westland’s Early Pioneers), from which that quotation comes, goes on to add, “. . . we found some diggers camped at the Terrace. They invited us to have some whitebait of which they had a kerosene tinful boiled. They were the first I had eaten and I relished them so much that I ate more than was good for me.”

C. J. Pfaff, you are not alone!

Huge catches were reported by Pakeha; huge shoals observed. The chooks got bloated, the eggs tasted fishy, and the kitchen gardens ran riot.

And yet . . .

Ted Buchanan reflects on 43 years of fishing the Cascade River. One of the originators of the Cascade Whitebait Company, along with his brother Bruce, Ted has retired now, but still returns from Nelson each year to the peace and solitude of the Cascade. The rest of the camp runs on generated power, with electric lights and microwave ovens, but Ted prefers a kero lantern and coal range to those mod cons. Ted's mere was carved from a piece of greenstone he discovered near the campsite.
Ted Buchanan reflects on 43 years of fishing the Cascade River. One of the originators of the Cascade Whitebait Company, along with his brother Bruce, Ted has retired now, but still returns from Nelson each year to the peace and solitude of the Cascade. The rest of the camp runs on generated power, with electric lights and microwave ovens, but Ted prefers a kero lantern and coal range to those mod cons. Ted’s mere was carved from a piece of greenstone he discovered near the campsite.

There were poor seasons—sev­eral pre-World War One years have been noted as lean. And a disinter­estedly inquiring mind might won­der why there were a number of karakia, and charm-enticements, and prohibitions connected with the earlier fishers. (I am not referring to traditional first-catch offerings back to Takaroa, or “the water”; that rite, still practised by many, is simply precautionary good manners.)

The records are either non-exist­ent, or show wildly-fluctuating catches, and are, anyway, not the whole story. A significant percent­age of caught ‘bait doesn’t show up on any record (my two-decade in­formed opinion is a third over and above the estimated commercial and amateur catch.)

Whitebait have many predators. There are reports, not authenticated, of fish as different as kahawai and red cod eating them at sea. (I’ve caught kahawai stomach-heavy with ‘bait in the estuary.) It is certain that black flounder harry them (I’ve had several so blind in their pursuit of ‘bait that they jam them­selves in the trap at the back of my net), and:

“the incisions herons make 

in a shoal;

the smugly accurate dives

of the kingfisher;

the gape of eels suddenly out

of the murky darkness;

the coiling rings as trout and

salmon fatly browse . . .”

and, far upriver in the seeming-safety of the home stream:

“hear the tolling of 

putangitangiatoa

paradise shelduck trumpeting

to its ever-faithful mate

`Come eat! Come eat! come eat!'”

In the surf, the gulls and terns work the waters for the little fish, and further up the lagoon or river, shags and torea fish and seize any ‘bait within their beats.

Brown trout, in particular, have very recently been shown to be ma­jor predators of adult galaxiids, and significant competitors for territory and food. While exotic species such as trout and salmon undoubtedly have been of benefit to the country, their introduction may have long­term repercussions on whitebait abundance. (Nobody is quite sure why the grayling died out, but as it declined, the trout flourished . . .)

However, what really threatens the continued existence of galaxiids is their biggest and most efficient predator—us.

[sidebar-1]

Because there aren’t accurate records, we cannot tell whether the ‘bait are being overfished, but the suspicion is there, and common­sense says that if there are a hun­dred nets working the river where only ten fished a generation ago, more pressure must be on the re­source.

More damaging—and known definitely to affect whitebait num­bers—is the modification or destruc­tion of habitat. Some galaxiids seek small streams with forest cover as habitat; remove the forest, and the adult fish die out. (Inaka seem to survive quite happily in a large range of habitats, which is why their offspring are the most numerous to­day in the whitebait catch.) All galaxiids are affected by the killing of wetlands (farmers tend to call it the “drainage” of wetlands) , and the alteration or pollution of estuar­ies. If there are fewer places for the adult fish to live, and fewer places for them to breed in, and more hazards for the eggs or lar­vae (sawdust from timber-mills, cattle trampling banks or stream-beds, pesticide and effluent con­tamination, and increased siltation all wreak havoc) it doesn’t take a genius to figure out there are going to be far fewer galaxiids around than there once were.

Unless we do something positive, and fast, about preserving remaining wetland and estuarine areas, and increasing these where possible; unless we take effective measures to conserve forest-shaded streams, and prevent the hideously varied forms of pollution from occurring, whitebait runs will be a thing of the past. There will be just a few sad stragglers coming in from the sea.

[Chapter Break]

Mean while, contrarily, it’s a boomer season in 1992.

We’ve got kilos and ki­los packed away in the freezers. The annual whitebaiters’ ball (gumboots not compulsory, but de rigueur) has been held, we’ve fed the rellies, friends and lucky chance-guests, and eaten so much ourselves that, well, frankly, just be­tween you, me and the gatepost, I’m sick of whitebait, buttered, frittered, or sashimi’d.

But to those of us who want to see the festivities and the surpluses con­tinuing, the question of whether we are doing enough to preserve the fishery is often on our minds. Sev­eral suggestions have been made . . .

We could rahui-for-conservation­ purposes an entire season: no fish­ing anywhere for a year, and just see whether the following season is hugely better (galaxiids are not long-lived fish, and one season’s ‘bait are generally the next season’s breed­ers). However, whitebait—according to the inadequate records—are er­ratic insofar as numbers are con­cerned. Should we have a two-sea­son rahui? A five-season?

We could regulate matters so that only registered commercial fishers (who would have to flash licences with current photographs, signa­tures, finger and retina prints, for which they would have to pay heaps) could sell or trade ‘bait. Any­body who bought or sold (or swapped or raffled or whatever’ed) the stuff would have to have signed, retina-printed, etc, evidence that they had obtained whitebait from a registered person. This would stop the (very large, to my certain know­ledge) underground trade. At least then we’d know how much was go­ing where. Oowee, would we be hated!

We could hand control of the fish­ery from DOC to the local iwi au­thority, on the principle that the sec­ond wave of settlers have made such a hash of fisheries in general that the first-comers can’t do worse. While this, semi-jocularly, ignores rakatirataka (which is the basis for one West Coast runaka claiming and seeking legal authority for control over the entire Coast ‘bait fishery—the claim is very much disputed, and emphatically not just by Pakeha fishers), it emphasises the fact that we are still ignorant of much con­cerning galaxiids, and different per­spectives can bring in different and exciting knowledge. And, Maori methods for resolving differences are less legalistic, less confron­tationary, more communal, more let-us-find-a-solution-acceptable-to-everybody than . . .

Whitebait slide into the pan on their way to becoming succulent patties. Not everyone can cope with those big ‘bait eyes looking up at you from the skillet. Coasters tell stories of city folks who resort to scissors to behead the fish before cooking them.

(Yep, tribalism is a problem. Yep, there are as many greedies within Maoridom as within Pakehadom. Yep, we’ve made horrible mis­takes—where are the moa?)

We could breed the little beggars, farm them, eh? This is very interesting: recently, whitebait have been induced to breed in captivity, and, according to McDowall, “There are no problems rearing freshly run whitebait to maturity. They can be 100 mm long by the end of summer and ripe for spawning. Egg numbers are high, with big females contain­ing thousands of eggs. There is prob­ably no reason why ripe adults could not be stripped and the eggs fertilised artificially. Otherwise they could be induced to spawn by estab­lishing an artificial tide.

“There are no problems, either, in getting the eggs to develop and hatch. But this is where, in my view, the trouble starts. When they hatch, the larvae are very tiny—about 6-7 mm long. They can be induced to feed on newly hatched brine shrimps, or on other small plank­tonic animals, and can be reared to the whitebait stage and beyond. But mortalities are high, and of hun­dreds of larvae that hatch only a few reach the whitebait stage—and you need about 1800 to make a kilogram.

“Obtaining enough suitable food is one problem: keeping mortalities down is another. But the chief prob­lem is that no matter how high the survival is the annual growth is so slight. The weight of the larvae at hatching is so little as to be near enough to nothing. If they can be made to grow at the same rate as they do in the wild, then each fish puts on about half a gram in 5-6 months.”

Farming would need large areas of clean, appropriate water, and there would be large technological and environmental details to con­sider. To say nothing of keeping the prices to around their current—how can I put it nicely? Obscene? Rip‑off?Choke-your-gut,-honey?‑prices: between $11 (all-time low riverbank price per kilogram this year) and $179 (per kg, judging by the contents of a rather interesting sashimi mix a mate of mine got in Auckland. The recipe was lightly steamed whitebait, a little, very good, olive oil, lime juice, smidgin of cumin, walnut, lettuce leaves, and lots of expensive hype).

The serious prices—West Coast prices—ranged between $15 and $25 a kilo, retailing at $39 (Christchurch), $69 (Dunedin) and $75 (Auckland) according to my lo­cal moles.

[Chapter Break]

It’s a bugger of a day. Rain, rain, rain. The incoming sea is muddy, thick with wood bits, flood relics, rubbish. You scoop, then empty out your set net dutifully over the wrig­gle board.

Wiggle/wriggle boards suddenly appeared at Okarito in the very early ’80s. A simple construct of stand and mesh, they enable a fisher to pour the net contents over a slide so the ‘bait sort themselves from the debris (very handy if you didn’t have your father-in-law with you). There are a lot of refinements to cur­rent whitebait-catching technology that occur like that, im­promptu. Someone is smitten by A Good Idea,tries it out—and it is a good idea—and every last bastard on the river‑bank notes it, and copies it, immediately. Nobody ever gives the credit of the inventor’s name to these things.

It’s still a bugger of a day. More rain rain rain.

Nothing useful coming in. Half a cup scoured over the wriggle board.

One of the traditions of the whitebaiting season is the annual filleting contest. Contestants have two minutes, and the team with the most fillets wins. Each slippery fish must be deheaded, tailed and sliced down the middle. Here, second placegetters in the Westport contest, Diane McKinlay (left) and Joane Smith, race the clock.
One of the traditions of the whitebaiting season is the annual filleting contest. Contestants have two minutes, and the team with the most fillets wins. Each slippery fish must be deheaded, tailed and sliced down the middle. Here, second placegetters in the Westport contest, Diane McKinlay (left) and Joane Smith, race the clock.

It’s getting very cold. Why am I continuing to do this?

People ‘bait for (a) eating the catch, (b) money, (c) pleasure of it. You can be a bca, or a cab, or an ac or ca, of course. Pure b’s are nasty, and should be removed from the game.

(If that sounds elitist, consider this: there are fights, and vicious ac­tions, that take place on almost every major ‘baiting river each year. These aggressions are almost always caused by people who want to profit from something that belongs to everybody. People at Haast sites slash tyres. Fishers at Whataroa have punch-ups over net sites. My neph­ews in Canterbury are heavied by locals who claim priority to this wa­ter (with no right). Netters from the North Island come to Okarito and try and impose their greedy kawa here.

Here in the wet, it is a hard day. You scoop and you sieve and you sluice; you drip, you feel tired and bored and achey—what is this all for?

There is something in human be­ings that only feels satisfied when we have caught and killed and eaten some other being. Fishing is a rap­turous, and good, way of satisfying that human need. There are risks—every year people die on the Coast whitebaiting—but the game is con­sidered worth the candle.

Most of all, for most of us, the inconvenience, the boredom, the difficulties, are amply repaid by the dish . . .

Yes, despite all, you’ve caught a pound of whitebait. You’ve cleaned away the weed and woodchip and gravel (we have teensy pieces of white quartz in our waters that look exactly the colour of cooked ‘bait; your teeth don’t stand a chance if such a bit has been left in with the fish). There they lie, a splendid little heap, the gold colour gone but the grey-green translucency still appeal­ing to the eye. But now it is the tongue’s turn: how are you going to cook your catch?

There is a school of thought (ad­mittedly, very small) which holds that you shouldn’t cook the things at all—that such a delicacy demands a sashimi approach. I have seen peo­ple eat them raw and still wriggling straight from the bucket. I have tried it myself. The texture is resistant; the taste, negligible (except for a trace of iodine).

As long as you're catching fish, who cares about the weather?
As long as you’re catching fish, who cares about the weather?

So, cooking . . . how do I cook it for me and other loved ones?

My preferred method is simple. Catch a pound or so, and rush it back to the kitchen. Bring a quarter of a pound of butter to the sizzle. Drop in the ‘bait and slam the lid down quick (you don’t want to see what happens next.) After 30 sec­onds, unlid, and stir gently. Con­tinue cooking until the fish are just turned milky-white. Whisk the pan to the table where lies ready—you did this before you went fishing of course, being a natural optimist—a large plate with two or three slices of your favourite bread on it. Ranged by the plate is a peppermill (mine is full of black peppercorns), a quar­tered lemon, and perhaps some seasalt crystals. Carefully, lovingly, tip the whitebait on to the bread. The butter-juice will soak into it while you enjoy paradisical food.

Some people like the taste of egg and ‘bait. Well, each to their own. You can stir in eggs directly-3 or 4 to a pound of whitebait is an ample quantity. Cook them in butter (or salted olive oil) in tablespoonful lots, and eat when you feel like it (they taste as good cold.)

There isn’t just you and the pound of ‘bait? All your family has arrived? And friends you haven’t seen for months?

Well, in such desperate straits, the following two recipes may be resorted to:

Minehan’s Battered Bait

Separate four eggs. Beat the yolks with a little water, then add in about a cupful of sifted flour with a half-teaspoon of baking powder.

Whip the whites to stiffness, then stir into the rest of the mixture care­fully. You should now have a very light spongy batter.

Salt the fish (preferably a kilo, but a pound will do) according to your taste, and add to the batter.

Have ready at least two frypans with medium-hot oil. Cook table­-spoon-sized fritters as quickly as possible so the batter doesn’t get a chance to lose its puff.

Crêpes Maloney

Make your crêpes to your favour­ite recipe (but they should be unsug­ared, and the thinner the better)

For every crêpe, have available 100 g of ‘bait (in emergencies, this can be reduced to 50 g), 20 g of but­ter, 1 tablespoon of very finely chopped fresh coriander (or pars­ley), salt according to taste (sprinkle on the ‘bait at the last moment) and a squit (yes, that is squit—the sort of dribblet that the pepper-timid let slip out of the bottle) or a slop or a largish slurrrp of (this is a secret in­gredient) Trappey’s “Chef Magic” Jalapeno sauce.

Stirfry the ‘bait in the fizzing but­ter for approximately three minutes. Add the coriander or parsley and the Jalapeno sauce, and cook for an­other minute. Tong out on to the waiting crêpes. Roll ’em up. Pour remaining herbed-peppered butter over the crêpes. (Curiously, the pep­per sauce and coriander enhance the taste of fresh whitebait, rather than kill it.)

There are many other ways of cooking the little fish. Tuff’s Third Commonsense Cookery recom­mends washing and drying them and then shaking them well in flour. “Put into deep smoking hot fat and fry quickly until crisp (two or three minutes).” Yum. Carbonised critters.

There is also a recipe for stewing them in a white sauce. I know of (but don’t practise) ways of making whitebait cocktails (remember the reddish gloppy sauce we used to im­mure perfectly edible goodies in?) and whitebait mornay (complete with grated nutmeg and grated gruyere.) But—surely?—the idea is to taste the fish?

You haven’t caught a pound? In fact, you can count each one? (For those of a particular turn of mind: there are roughly 980 whitebait per pound, depending on species and condition.) Never mind; butter-fry them, and pop them on a nice slice of bread, which you have toasted only on one side. It makes a pleasant snack and—better luck next tide!

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