Kiwis Love Whitebait - know the basics about whitebaiting
I have never been an early riser. In fact there are few things in this world that I like less than getting out of bed early. Of course that didn’t apply from mid August to mid November, when the alarms were eagerly set for 4:30 – 5:00 am and we jumped out of bed as soon as they went.
The Whitebait Season, that magical time of year, when it is completely reasonable to get up before dawn, drive miles to a secluded river bank, and wade in and out of the freezing cold river, and otherwise stand/sit there staring at the water for hours and hours on end. Normally if you saw someone doing this you would think they were absolutely bonkers, but not in the whitebait season. In the whitebait season if you aren’t doing this you are the one that’s bonkers.
Whats a Whitebait?
Without getting all Scientific, whitebait are simply little fish, usually between 30mm and 60mm in length, that migrate up rivers and other freshwater ways. Whitebait normally travel in groups, or shoals as they are commonly referred to, and a shoal may be as small as half a dozen, or it might it might be so big that it just looks like a dark cloud swimming past you in the water, that just keeps going and going. Whitebaiters use a variety of nets to catch whitebait, all consisting of a fine mesh to stop the whitebait from simply swimming through. The type of net used by a particular person is determined mainly by the where the person is trying to catch whitebait that anything else.
A "Scoop Net" shaped like a giant spoon is used in deep water off platforms called a “Stand”, and in River mouths where whitebaiters drag their nets through the water while the waves come in.
A "Set Net" is used with mesh screens in shallower water where the current and tidal effect is not so strong. The screens act as a mesh wall allowing water through while forcing the whitebait to go around them and hopefully straight into the net. There are many different types of these nets. Some even have wheels and are wheeled in and out of the river!
A “Stand” is like a wooden platform protruding from the bank into deeper water. A whitebaiter on a stand invariably sets up a series a “Markers” which basically are Lengths of something painted white to help the whitebaiter see when whitebait are swimming past. Stands must be registered with the local council, and on nearly all rivers must be taken down during the off season and rebuilt at the beginning of the season. Stands can be bought and sold much like houses and often sell for thousands of dollars, depending on how recent whitebait seasons have been going. My family owned one years ago, which we sold for over $10,000, It recently changed hands again for nearly $30,000. That’s nearly $30,000 for a recreational whitebait stand (Commercial Stands can change hands for much much more) that can only be used 2 and a half months of the of the year.
The Whitebait Patty
Whitebait patties/fritters are the most common and famous use for whitebait, and there are so many different recipes for these that it seems everyone does it differently. Recipes are easy to find on the net, and none of them are right or wrong, just different.
I am a big believer that the fewer the ingredients used the better, and the more whitebait in the patties the better.
As with most things, the fresher the better – there is nothing better than a whitebait patty cooked on the riverbank with whitebait straight out of the net!
Whitebait patties are much better cooked in butter instead of oil.
My absolute favourite way to have a whitebait patty, is between 2 pieces of fresh bread, lightly buttered, with a light sprinkling of salt. Beautiful!
Why I Love It
Whitebaiting was a family thing for me, and one of the best things about it was I got to spend almost everyday with my grandparents. They are both turning 80 in 2012, and my Nana is (just like every year) counting down the days to the start of the season. And just like every year she will be counting down the days until the end of the season as soon as it starts. They will be there on the river bank before dawn every day that the river isn’t in flood in the whitebait season, fishing the same spot they have been fishing for near on 40 years.
People from all walks of life love whitebaiting, and generally whitebaiters love to have a chat, just don’t expect them to tell you their secrets, and how much they have caught. People from all walks of life come together trying to catch whitebait, and it doesn’t matter if you are usually a labourer, a sports star, a priest, or a millionaire, in the whitebait season on the river you’re a whitebaiter, and there is nothing else you would rather be.