Whitebaiting on the West Coast of the South Island with Margaret Fenemor

Whitebaiting on the West Coast of the South Island

with Margaret Fenemor

Whitebaiting on the West Coast. One good shoal. Things are looking up.
One good shoal. Things are looking up.

The weather is idyllic, confounding all the popular beliefs about the whitebaiting on the West Coast. We bask in the hot sunshine on the river bank, with blue sky overhead, larks carolling in the bushes, and crystal clear water below.

Whitebait seen are few and far between, even by the most experienced white-baiters. Many of the all-season regulars have given up in disgust and gone home, so we are told. In previous weeks it has been wet and cold, with the rivers often being in flood. The seers of the riverbank expound many theories to explain why the run has not yet begun. The sea is a few degrees too cold, the rivers are far too cold, it has been too wet; it is now too bright and clear. They have an equal number of predictions concerning the likely behaviour of the tiny elusive fish. They will come with a fresh in the river; they will run as it starts to drop.

One bearded sage states with undeniable authority that they will come with the waxing moon and the higher tides. Later, it appears that all these theories contain some element of truth. We note with some amusement that the most knowledgeable fishermen are invariably those who are newcomers to the sport.

The halcyon days drift by, while we suffer from sunburn, sandfly bites, and some boredom, in spite of books and crossword puzzles. From the negligible amounts of the catch taken home, we estimate that some hopeful friends are going to miss out on gratis whitebait this season. Also, time is running out as we do have a deadline for departure. Convivial evenings are spent in the township tavern, established in 1906. It is an old wooden building, but on cooler nights a blazing fire warms the huge bar. This appears to be a meeting place for many locals, as well as for the whitebaiters who return year after year.

We enjoy listening to the river talk, eating crisply cooked chips, and playing the Pub Charity machines, with varying degrees of success. The generous sized bar meals are delicious after hours of snacking on sandwiches and fruit.

Several more familiar faces are missing, as age or sickness overtakes them. Another old timer has died with a heart attack while fishing here this season. Our favourite stream has been renamed “Coronary Creek” or “Cardiac Creek” by the locals. Nevertheless, we feel it is much safer to be here, rather than on the treacherous banks of the wide, swiftly flowing the main river.

As we leave the tavern one evening we are almost knocked down by a bicycle ridden erratically at speed. “Dinna worry, it’s only Jimmy,” he croons, as we scatter hurriedly.

Jimmy is a small, wiry Scotsman who has retained his broad accent. A painter by trade, he worked for many years in the Nelson area. His story is that he came to the Coast to do a job some time ago, and “just never got back.”

In all our years of fishing here, we have found the local people both friendly and helpful, and we have come to know a number of them well. We are careful, however, not to encroach on local territory. This season, our usual housing arrangements fall apart shortly before we are due, through no fault of the owner. A dairy farmer and his wife volunteer with beds for us. Only knowing us by hearsay, it is an unbelievably generous offer to accommodate four total strangers in their lovely home. We visit them and find them to be delightful people. It will not be forgotten, though we feel we cannot impose in this way, and luckily we find an alternative. Opposite us on the river we have a mother and daughter team from a nearby valley who we see every year.

The daughter is, not very obviously, seven months pregnant, but this does not seem to affect her prowess with a scoop net. Scooping can be extremely hard work, with a lot of standing, and intense concentration.

After a week the weather deteriorates. Grey clouds roll in from the north, to be followed by cold, drenching rain. Heavy falls up the valleys during the night cause the rivers to rise rapidly. It is almost impossible to see in the murky water, and evidently, the whitebait cannot see either, as we get our best catch for this trip.

The next day it clears again, and while the catch is still good, the fish are much more astute with the improved visibility. Our last fishing day dawns with heavy cloud. Later it clears, with typical West Coast speed. In the direction of the Heaphy River, the conical hill, usually shrouded in mist, is faintly blue in the distance.

Early in the day, I am excited to see a marked disturbance further down the river. I watch intently as it moves up, not crossing the spotters, but eventually arriving as a dark mass beside the screens. Patience is the name of the game at this stage. After much drifting to and fro, the shoal at last passes into the waiting net, and I lift it quickly. The whole exercise has taken about thirty minutes. Our hopes are high, but this shoal proves to be the only good one of the day, and this well before the tide. The local fishermen gradually pack up and leave soon after high tide.

We come home with about half the quantity of bait caught over a similar period last year, but at least we have some. Weary but content, we tackle the usual backlog of overgrown lawns and unkempt garden, masses of dirty washing, and this time, a most persistent swarm of bees in our chimney. Then we concentrate on altering our sleep pattern. It takes a few days to adjust to not leaping out of bed before daylight.

Several days later, storms batter central New Zealand, and the West Coast rivers are in high flood. It will be interesting to see if a last minute run comes in as the water drops, and before the Coast season ends shortly. Rumours are rife concerning the huge shoals seen by commercial fishermen in the open sea. Another rumour circulates about whales consuming the fish off the northern West Coast.

If there is no significant run, at least this valuable resource may be conserved to build up stocks for future years. As we do not sell any of our catch and make the annual pilgrimage for recreation only, we still feel that we have had an enjoyable break away from routine. There is something special about whitebaiting on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

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