Whitebaiting gives me a chance to get outdoors as winter starts transitioning into spring.
The main whitebait season starts here on August 15. Two weeks later, the West Coast’s season commences on September 1.
The start of the season can be challenging, with often chilly water temperatures, so it pays to make sure your neoprene waders are sound before heading out.
Whitebait catches are often related to water temperature. A rise in temperature will boost the whitebait runs. The season is certainly earlier in northern locations such as Northland and the Waikato, which often have good August runs. Good runs can often be experienced in central New Zealand during September while catches in the lower half of the South Island often do not pick up until October.
Good whitebait runs often occur after several days of settled weather. For me, based in Canterbury, mid-September to the end of October is the most productive time. By November the whitebait start getting a bit gutty and it is time to give the little buggers a chance to breed!
Tides also play a big part in whitebaiting, with some of the biggest runs often coinciding with the push of the large king/ spring tides of September and October.
In many locations it is the final hour of the push from the incoming tide that gets the large shoals moving through and pushed close into the bank.
It pays to check your gear because the power of the current of these big tides picks out any faults. Be sure to firmly secure your gear – a few warratah fencing standards can be an asset for securing set nets and sock nets. A warratah also makes a good pivot to work a large scoop net from as the current pushes in. A few bungy cords can also help in securing gear!
Most whitebaiters are happy to fish for a decent feed for a few hours’ effort.
From a culinary point of view whitebait are a Kiwi icon and a celebration of spring that defines our unique cuisine.
Whitebait tastes best when it is cooked as soon as possible after catching. That is the best way to savour whitebait’s very delicate flavour.
A few classic whitebait and egg patties are mandatory at the start of the season – just make sure there is a high whitebait to egg ratio!
I like to place the whitebait on ice at the end of the session and then simply cook it for just a few seconds with a small amount of butter followed by a splash of mirin with a little salt and pepper. I then serve it on white buttered bread.
The simpler the dish the better the flavour, in my opinion.
For me, whitebait is the ideal sashimi with no bones of any consequence. Eating whitebait raw, sashimi-style, allows you to experience the real flavour, because any form of cooking changes the taste.
Just give your whitebait a soak in spring water and then dry them before eating raw. Avoid any whitebait that have a gut forming.
Serve raw whitebait on a bed of white rice – 6-10 whitebait on sushi – then wash the sushi down. Light wine styles like a sauvignon blanc or a light lager work well.
Increasingly, whitebait is being farmed to meet commercial supply.
Whitebaiting has been lined up in the cross-hairs – excuse the mixed metaphor – in recent years by conservation groups. Perhaps with some justification, but really, the main factor impacting on our whitebait runs is habitat loss. Harvesting whitebait is certainly secondary in my opinion.
Whitebaiters need to stand up as guardians of the river. Ensuring that important spawning reedbeds are protected is crucial. Whitebaiters are in many ways the eyes and ears out on the river, and we have a responsibility to report any environmental damage.
Going further, whitebaiters – along with trout fishers and duckshooters – can play a role in proactively creating more habitat for whitebait. Duckshooters lead this front. Already the placement of hay bales in some of Christchurch’s urban rivers has shown that they can provide extra spawning habitat for whitebait.
As whitebaiters, we need to take the lead with habitat protection and creation, and show the conservationists that we are not just taking from the resource but giving back to it too.
The whitebait fishery will change over the next few years and the reality is that in many areas good catches are becoming more erratic. Massive landscape changes in many regions as a result of dairy conversions, water abstraction, increased siltation, and even climate change, are impacting on the strength of our whitebait runs.
We are lucky to have another season coming up soon and there is no better time to go whitebaiting than now.
For many of us, getting out whitebaiting is a chance to relax and get away from the everyday pressures of life, a chance to tune into the wild elements of a free-flowing river, watching the herons stalking the water’s edge, the trout splashing, maybe even hearing the elusive booming call of the bittern.
But as whitebaiters, we need to stand up for the environment that yields its bounty to us.
Let’s cherish our whitebait fishery and make a stand for protecting the whitebait’s realm. Get involved in regional and district council meetings and meetings with DoC regarding our rivers; set up river care groups and social media channels; make a stand and alert the media when wetlands are being destroyed; and celebrate good news stories.
All these actions will bring incremental benefits to the whitebait fishery.
This article is reproduced with permission of