In recent times the whitebait fishery has been subject to plenty of media attention, comment and concern – so what has changed?
Well, nothing really; there are no regulation changes, so it is status quo. For many of us this is good news, as we can prepare for this season as we have for the previous ones. The timings are the same as always, starting on August 15 and finishing on November 30 for most of the country – except the South Island’s West Coast, which has a shorter September 1 to November 14 season.
The Department of Conservation (DoC) is in charge of the whitebait fishery and its regulations, which can be found on its website: http://www.doc.govt.nz/whitebait.
Beyond the regulations, a lot of whitebaiting is about common sense and courtesy. There are unspoken protocols for whitebaiting in many areas, so it pays to watch the locals first and tune in at the beginning of the season.
For many areas, getting out early is the key to securing a good spot as the season picks up pace, then waiting for daybreak before swinging into action.
There is nothing ground-breaking in the way of new gear. Indeed, one of the attractions of whitebaiting is its timeless tradition.
Having said that, tradition or no, many ‘baiters will adapt techniques to locations using some good old Kiwi ingenuity (in the spirit of Team NZ!), I’m sure.
Whatever your strategy, timing is everything with whitebaiting, so having a range of nets ready to use at a moment’s notice is critical. For many, a scoop net and set-net with a set of go-bys does the job nicely, with a ‘Southland sock’ also providing a worthwhile option at times. Others anchor fine-mesh ‘go-bys’ to seine the whitebait, a method that has been very popular in recent years, especially at large, sandy, river-mouth locations such as Port Waikato.
As the shoals often come in with big tidal pushes, there can be a physical aspect to whitebaiting if you want one. Many of the younger whitebaiters find the thrill of scooping the incoming surf while dodging the waves at river mouths hard to beat. Keen scoop-netters do not need to go to the gym!
But in your haste to catch these delicacies, don’t forget to put safety first – too many scoop-netters have drowned in the last decade. Wearing a buoyancy aid is a must, and if wearing waders, a wading belt must be cinched tightly around the waist.
The Southland sock has remained very popular in slow-moving water, and once set up does not require too much active work. This method certainly suits the older whitebaiters, leaving the young bucks to work the incoming surf.
Another important factor is temperature. The best whitebait catches come on a rising barometer and whenever there is a slight lift in the water temperature. This tends to occur between mid-September and mid-October, depending on where you live.
The first few icy weeks of the season can see hard fishing throughout much of the country, but the Waikato is certainly a good early-season bet, as are the rivers around Auckland and Coromandel.
In Canterbury, the big runs often don’t occur until late October. Having said that, this winter has been milder than usual, so we might expect some good runs from mid-September onwards. Other factors that determine whitebait runs are the tides. Big spring tides, and the days either side, are also the best times to be out on the river. Later in the season, slight freshes in the river get the whitebait running too, though it can be tedious removing all the debris from the catch. Think of it as a labour of love; I never tire of handling whitebait and the fresh smell from the ocean.
Preparation time: before the season begins, get your gear maintained and organised, scout out the river or estuary and get familiar with it, as the environment is always changing.
Keeping informed: Social media plays a big part, giving whitebaiters another way of connecting and being informed. The Kiwi Whitebaiters group is good for sharing information and comments. As a collective with over 5000 members, there is always something happening (key links: Whitebaiting-NZ and Kiwi Whitebaiters (NZ)).
Looking after the environment: In many ways I support whitebaiting because, with so many of us on the rivers and estuaries, we become advocates for maintaining the quality of the local environment. I therefore urge you to report any environmental damage you see when out on the river, and endeavour to put back alive any unwanted fish such as smelt, cockabullies and glass eels. If we are to continue enjoying whitebaiting, we need look after the whitebait’s habitat and the environment. These issues will determine our whitebait fishery’s future.
Stay within the rules: People who flout the liberal regulations are cheating us all; we all have a responsibility to report any illegal whitebaiting activity encountered (such as blocking off small streams). So, if someone is breaking the regulations, have a friendly chat first and make them aware they are in the wrong. If they persist, report them.
The future: I don’t doubt that there will soon be more regulations and controls on the whitebait fishery – it is not a case of if but when. At present, the NZ Conservation Authority has the status of the whitebait fishery at the top of their list to address, so get out and enjoy the opportunity NOW!
Whitebaiting lets us slow down, tune in to the environment and share time with mates. Then, at the day’s end, a good cook-up sees that old favourite, the whitebait pattie, enjoyed on a well buttered piece of bread, washed down with a chilled beer. It’s the perfect way to celebrate a great day in or by the water.
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