The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 7 (October 2, 1939)
What are Whitebait? — The Life History of the Delicate Little Fish
“Get your net. They're coming up in shoals.”
Across a gap of years you can hear it… and you take the net once more, the tin, the billy or flour bag, and join in the procession to McKenna's Creek. The size and nature of the receptacle depends, of course, on the reliability of your informer and your optimism, which was never a minus quantity.
Do you remember McKenna's in the lovely, soft September days, when the kowhais made a stately fringe on the banks and dropped their petals to float away like golden moths on the water? Do you remember the groups on the bank, when no one dared speak above a whisper and vengeance was vowed on the misguided who allowed his dog to follow him? Do you remember the tuis and the shy native robins when all that little world was one of shallow brown water, warm shingle, sunlit patches in the dim aisles of bush, a strip of blue sky above … and the silent fishers?
How steadily they hold the nets, how patiently they wait, and then how eagerly the nets are lifted out dripping and heavy and the shining fish emptied into the tins!
Early New Zealand history makes frequent reference to the abundance of whitebait. It appears that rivers and lakes were swarming with them before the introduction of the trout. James Cowan, in his book “Legends of the Maori,” tells a story of a basket of whitebait and the mischief it caused. One Kotiora commanded his wife Te Aoniwaho to cook some for him, so she prepared the earth oven and set a flax basket containing the inanga, or whitebait, therein. The cooking was to be by a process of steam heating, but when Te Aoniwaho uncovered the oven, she found, to her dismay, that the fish was not cooked. Kotiora demanded that the meal be brought to him, and on finding that it was not fit to be eaten, he fell into a rage and threw the contents of the basket over the head of the unfortunate Aoniwaho. She was outraged at this treatment and brooded on her revenge, while Kotiora went off to secure food from his tribesmen.
That night Te Aoniwaho went to the lakeside and launching a small canoe paddled up the west arm of Koteehu and finally reached the little bay below the Whangaikoru pa where her relatives lived. The village was aroused, and Te Aoniwaho told her story. When page 63 she related the throwing of the whitebait over her head the whole tribe arose in anger. All the neighbouring villages were awakened and by night swift canoes paddled away to where Kotiora slept. The village was sacked and Kotiora found himself bound hand and foot and lying in the bottom of a canoe in which he was taken to Whangaikoru where he was killed … and eaten.
Just what are whitebait? There has been considerable controversy as to the history of the fish, but it is now generally assumed that they are a young stage of the native minnow or inanga, a fish which reaches a maximum size of about six inches. They are found in many rivers and streams, at the mouths of which they usually spawn. The spawning fish arrive at the tidal waters about March or April, and when the tide rises they go to the edge where there are many grasses and rushes surrounded by water. The eggs attach themselves to the stems of the plants and are left high and dry until the next spring tide—in about fourteen days. During the period the eggs go through the stage of incubation and when the tide arrives, the young fish go out with the out-going tide. Under the old conditions the eggs were safe, but now man and cattle destroy them in thousands. It seems that if we are to preserve our whitebait we must make sanctuaries of the spawning grounds and not allow cattle to graze there.
Besides being an established industry whitebaiting affords a pleasant and remunerative pastime, crowds at every opportunity taking advantage of the suitable tides. Though always a delicacy, the fish is even more palatable at the beginning of the season because, as time goes on, it tends to become larger. The banks of the various streams are well patronised and it is surprising the amount earned by energetic people in this manner.
An old book, “Rambles on the Golden Coast” by R. C. Reid, says that the minute but delicate whitebait which, singly, weighs but the fraction of an ounce, collectively exemplifies the old adage that “union is strength.”
It is said that, formerly, whitebait were so plentiful that there was little demand for them and that, as a consequence, they were simply thrown on the gardens. This is not true to-day, because it is an established fact that they are becoming relatively scarce. The chief causes for this appear to be, as already stated, the destruction of the eggs, and probably the lack of restrictions as to the catching.
Where whitebait is plentiful, practically every house has a net, and people of all ages and occupations join in the catching. Of course, there are those whose livelihood for some months is more or less derived from the industry, and the canning companies buy quantities of the fish for canning purposes.
(Photo., J. A. Brown).
A goods train arriving at Ranfurly Station, Central Otago, during the recent severe snowstorm.