Featured in Capital #25. Subscribe to get the real thing here.
Eric Matthews is a patient man, fishing faithfully over the past 60 years despite ever-diminishing returns. We talk to him about the allure of inanga.
“October’s the best month for whitebaiting,” says 80-year-old Otaki enthusiast Eric Matthews, who goes down to the river to catch the delicacy with his son Shane. “We don’t get very big catches these days. I remember a run a long time ago – a bloke across the river from me caught about 50 kilos. I got about 11 kilos.
“It doesn’t happen often, but you sometimes get more when you least expect it. Your little container is suddenly not big enough. On that big day I remember people using anything they could find to store the fish, even putting whitebait in their parka pockets; another took his trousers off, tied off the legs and poured his catch in there.
“lf we got a great big catch we wouldn’t be telling everyone else straight away because the spot would be overrun with people. These days we’re lucky to get even half a kilo – just enough for a feed. We eat everything we catch.”
Eric, whose family once had a beach cottage at Otaki, has been whitebaiting in the area for more than 50 years. He adds: “Before fridges were common people occasionally came home with more whitebait than they could eat or give away, they couldn’t store it, and it sometimes ended up round the fruit trees. Nowadays there seem to be fewer whitebait, there are many more people fishing, catches are much smaller, and of course everyone has fridges.
“It’s a great pastime, anyone can do it. You don’t need a licence, you just need a net and enthusiasm. Being able to drive to the spot makes it much easier too. We used to have to carry our heavy nets and extra clothes and whatever we needed to eat and drink a kilometre or so down the beach – which was fine until you hit a big northerly or southerly. And it’s great to see the kids having a go in the weekends; we don’t fish then.
“Fishing round the mouth of the Otaki can be dangerous” he says, “literally dozens of people have fallen in and had to be helped. If you’re fishing at the mouth you need to be careful, but most of the older people fish further up the river where it’s safer. There’s a bit of competition for the good spots though, and unlike the South Island we can’t own them. When whitebait are running you will see people sleeping out for the night so that they can be first on their special spot in the morning, and sometimes there’s a bit of discussion if someone puts his net in less than 12 paces away which we all think is a reasonable distance.
“Everyone’s got their favourite way to cook whitebait. These days people use garlic and stuff. I remember watching some Maori boys who’d caught some. They lit a fire on the spot, threw a piece of old corrugated iron over it to cook them on, and ate them right off the iron. Looked pretty good.”
Whitebait are the almost transparent babies of five species of small native fish which, although hatched in wetland’s drift out to sea to grow. When they come back from the sea, the majority (inanga) grow into a thin silvery fish almost 10cms long. Inanga are also native to Chile, Australia and Argentina. Other whitebait, including the native trout, can grow to as much as half a metre in length. Collectively they’re called Galaxids because their speckled skin is said to look like a galaxy of stars.
The whitebait season ends in NZ on 30 October (except The Chatham Islands). Net sizes are specified and penalties for illegal fishing are severe.