At The Box, Waimate. Ajr
I’ve had some terrific encounters with whitebaiters in the name of journalism. Last year I did a story on the fishermen who trawl for whitebait within the residential stretches of the Avon River in Christchurch; I’ve watched the men at The Box, just off the coast near Waimate, fighting the treacherous seas to fill their buckets with their favourite delicacy; and I’ve interviewed the kaumatua of Arahura on the West Coast for one of Ngai Tahu’s Te Karaka magazine kai features. It was for the latter that I spoke with Te Maori Raukawa, who told me she was 83 the last time she went whitebaiting at the Arahura River mouth just north of Hokitika. We were all sitting down on the banks of the Arahura River, the sun on our backs, the skylarks singing, the sock nets in place in the river and chef, Jason Dell moving his spatula with a calming rhythm that lulled the hungry kaumatua into a state of mouth-watering anticipation.
It was a happy scene that reminded Te Maori of the hundreds of times she and her late husband, Hector, had scooped at the river mouth for hours on end, going out on one tide and staying until the next. “It was hard work but it was lovely when everyone was fishing. They’d all set up in their own places and we were all related, so it was a very social time. But the bait are not as thick as they used to be,” she lamented at the time. I remember being amazed at the time when they told me stories of having so much whitebait in their nets – far too much for family needs - that they used it for garden manure. When sales for whitebait became a reality, the Arahura excess catch was sent to Christchurch on the 5pm goods train. It was put on the market at Ferron & Sons the next morning. Eli Weepu remembers the trains too.
“No one had fridges back in the thirties, so if we got too much whitebait it was always sent across to Christchurch,” he told me. He was just five when his father used to take him down to the river mouth on a horse and sleigh.
“Our dads used to teach us how to make the scoop nets from the straight branches of the lancewood. Long before that, back in the old days, they used to weave the nets out of flax fibre.
“And if the whitebait were running everyone would be down at the river in those days. But we never set nets. We usually only fished for enough for a feed and the best way to eat it was straight out of the river and cooked loose in a hot pan with a bit of butter and eaten with salt and bread.”
Back on the Avon in Christchurch Bill Espie is a regular whitebaiter. He’s one of dozens of urban whitebaiters who frequent the banks of the Avon and Heathcote Rivers during the annual whitebaiting season and when the tides are right he heads for his tried-and-true spot beside the Stanmore Road Bridge. He’s a regular there and locals often stop for a chat. That’s half the attraction Bill says. It’s a pleasant distraction in a long whitebaiting day that starts at 7.30am and ends around 6pm.
“I come here every day during the season. If it’s raining I can sit under the bridge but when the weather is good I can sit up here near the footpath and heaps of people stop and talk. It’s a nice relaxing way to spend a day and if I’m lucky I can get enough whitebait for a feed,” he says. Bill has been whitebaiting since he was seven – over fifty years – and although the catch varies he considers it a good day if he gets 1.5 kilograms of bait – and he does, often. “I got around 31 kilos for the whole season last year. I can’t afford to buy it at around $100 a kilo, so it’s great to be able to go home and make a fritter or two.”
Whitebait it seems – and the act of fishing for them – is addictive. They all say the same thing: it’s not just about getting a good feed, it’s as much about the act of fishing and the social encounters, the sharing and the inherent hunter-gatherer spirit that they all share.