Monday, 20 June 2016

Whitebaiting on the West Coast

(You might have noticed the header to my blog is missing, I have no idea why but I'm onto it!- I've now managed to resurrect at least something resembling the header I usually have but unfortunately I'm now unable edit the blog description which appears in one long line under the heading, so I apologize for the amateur look. Blogger have changed and updated the template I use, I'm now waiting for some answers)

Whitebaiting isn't a hobby or a sport on the West Coast, it's a religion. When the tiny translucent fish begin their run, people come from far and wide to stake their claim and set up camp on riverbanks up and down the Coast. Their prize is the iconic little fish (actually made up of 5 native species) that runs in shoals upstream each spring to spawn and can sell from $70-90 a kilo. Hence it's also known as 'white gold'. And while many do sell their catch, just as many fish for themselves, family and friends. Whitebaiting is a true Kiwi institution, a tradition carried down through many generations. 

On the deep still waters of South Westland rivers, whitebait stands aren't pulled apart after the season, they are pulled up, clear of the water. The West Coast whitebait season runs for ten weeks from September 1st until mid November unlike elsewhere in the country where it starts 2 weeks earlier and ends two weeks later. 

Under whitebait fishing regulations, owners are allowed to do maintenance and set their stand up two weeks prior to the beginning of the new season. In the case of these stands on the Waiatoto River they'd also have to bushwhack through the undergrowth to get to the edge of the river. The length of the stands vary from 5 metres to 30 metres depending on the width of the river. Here on the Waiatoto, the maximum length is 30 metres, it's a very wide river. 

The Turnbull River runs beside the Haast Beach Holiday Park at Okuru where we were staying. It's a very large camping ground and our lovely camp host Lorraine told us that come whitebait season, they are fully booked from one year to the next, with every available space taken by caravans, motorhomes, tents, fishing paraphernalia and people, with very little room to move. This reminds us of our delightful stay at the Collingwood camping ground two years ago, when unknown to us, the season was just about to start.

Each stand must be 40 metres from the next one and on the West Coast, the rivers have back markers after which no fishing is allowed. This is unlike the rest of New Zealand where stands and whitebaiters can stretch up the rivers for many kilometres. The Mataura River in Southland has 700 registered stands, here on the Turnbull there are just 24 permitted stands...

...and 47 on the Okuru. We drove into the Okuru River settlement to check out the stands we could see from the main road bridge. 

This particular stand was very well constructed and looked to have been re-worked last season. The top wire ropes were attached to two large concrete blocks anchoring and holding the stand up in the air. But we couldn't see the pulleys that would have pulled the stand out of the water.

The stand is lowered into the water for the entirety of the season, although it may be pulled up if there is bad weather forecast and possible floods. West Coast beaches are littered with driftwood and large trees, imagine the mess that would make as it came floating down the rivers. A bit like a pinball machine crashing and bouncing off stands along the way.

Once the stands are in the water, screens are placed along the front edge and the net, a large box net, at the end. As the shoals of whitebait make their way upstream they reach the screen barrier and, with their way blocked, they swim to the end and into the net where a trap prevents them from swimming back out. Although lifting the net is heavy work, whitebaiters with stands have a pretty relaxing day ahead of them. They can sit and read a book, have a yarn (shout) with their neighbour or take a snooze in the sunshine but they must not move more than 10 metres from their set net. 

We obviously took too long walking around and looking over the stand, because just as we were climbing back into the ute, a quad bike pulled out from a bach up the road and came down the track towards us. There's not much you can do in these small settlements without eyes watching your every move, especially when it's a quiet winter's weekend. This guy was the owner of this particular stand and although he told us he was just checking out the river, I think he wanted to know what two nosy people were doing around his stand. But at least we found out where the pulleys were- he'd taken them off.

He was only too happy to tell us all about the stand and fishing in general. From Hokitika, his family own a bach and the stand here at Okuru. They used to fish from his wife's parents' stand on a nearby river but once they passed on, the stand was sold (he said he'd wished they had held onto it). Stands for sale are like hen's teeth and when they do come on the market they command very high prices- one further south had a $70,000 price tag on it a few years ago . 

They then shared fishing from this stand with an elderly friend for many years. Once he passed on, they purchased it and, being an engineer, he set about rebuilding it. His wife is the whitebaiter and shifts down to the bach for the season. 

This is the map of the permitted stands on the Okuru River, number 1166 is the one we were looking at. It's a wonder any whitebait make it upstream to spawn with so many obstacles along the way. And this doesn't include all the 'baiters with scoop nets, pole nets and/or drag nets at the mouths of the many rivers. 

Although I saw a headline for a whitebaiter newsletter-

'Twenty five million whitebait are coming up West Coast rivers soon - are you ready?' 

- so I guess there's still plenty to go round, and get around the nets.


  1. Sweet memories come with whitebait. We owe our first taste of whitebait to a kind owner of a small restaurant near Fox Glacier. When we first visited New Zealand, Lonely Planet was our bible. From it we learned about West Coast's famous whitebait and put this on our must try list. However it said nothing about the season. We must looked very disappointed when we were told whitebait was out of season in February; so much so that the restaurant owner suggested us to return the next day to see whether he manage to find some for us. And yes he did find enough to serve us the classic whitebait patties! 11 years later when we revisited South Island, we stayed in a lovely B&B in Wanaka and had fabulous dinner with our hosts. While chatting away we came to this whitebait topic. We told them the above story. It happened that our host was a serious whitebaiter who frequented Turnbull River. The next evening we got whitebait patties as special treat and the rest was history.
    While visiting Southland in November we saw many people whitebaiting at river mouthes with various kind of method but nothing like these long stands. Very special.

    1. That's a great story Offstone, more unique experiences for you. Don't tell anybody, but I don't know what all the fuss is about regrading whitebait. Give me Blue Cod any day! :)

  2. Haha my other half shares the same opinion with you!


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