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.
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.
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 5am and 8pm 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.
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 millimetres, as opposed to the 55 millimetres 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.
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 to 3000 eggs of about one millimetre 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).
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 kilogram 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 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.
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. CJ 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.”
CJ 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.
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
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.
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.
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, Māori methods for resolving differences are less legalistic, less confrontationary, more communal, more let-us-find-a-solution-acceptable-to-everybody than…
(Yep, tribalism is a problem. Yep, there are as many greedies within Māoridom as within Pākehādom. 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 millimetres 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 six to seven millimetres 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 five to six 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 kilogram, 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.
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.
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 bs 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).
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.
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!