Taking the daily constitutional along the banks of the Waihopai one can't help but note the "baiters" on the river bank trying to catch their next meal.
It reminds me of the days when I worked weekends at the Grand Hotel which allowed me to have weekdays off. This in turn gave me the opportunity to join my father-in-law on the banks of the Waimatuku, where we patiently waited for the elusive bait.
We would check the tides, pack up the nets along with our egg and chive sandwiches and a flagon of our favourite brew and head out, searching for what we hoped would be a successful spot on the bank close to the river mouth.
We would also pack a cast-iron pan and kindling along with a bowl, a couple of eggs, salt and pepper, fresh bread and spread and a whisk in the hope that we would catch enough bait to also cook up a feed on the bank. Funnily enough that never eventuated.
However, it was an extremely relaxing time resting on the bank of the river with our books and chat as we waited in hope.
A few years later, while living in Ashburton, friends took us down to the mouth of the Rangatata River on several occasions.
We would try our luck with a scoop net in the surf. A very different method of trying to catch the whitebait, however, we had far more success that way than we ever did with the set net out on the Waimatuku.
One of the greatest hauls of whitebait I ever saw was while we were visiting relations in Chelmsford St way back when I was a kid.
Uncle Vernon (better known as Joe Stenton) and his lads had been out baiting for the day. They arrived home and one of the lads came inside with a biscuit tin (the old square type with the sharp lid) with the bottom barely covered in bait, announcing that was the result of the day's work. A few minutes later one of the other lads arrived with a similar-sized tin full of bait, then followed uncle with a kerosene tin full of bait.
As you will have guessed, the pan was immediately put on the stove, the eggs (straight from the hen run) whipped into the bowl, whisked up with salt and pepper and the bait added until we all had our fill of fresh whitebait patty sandwiches.
Inanga (whitebait) is one of the most abundant native fish we have in this country. They migrate from the sea during spring and are most commonly found in unpolluted wetlands or coastal lowlands where the water is relatively still or of a more gentle flow.
Inanga feed largely on the larvae of midges and similar insects, minute crustaceans and spiders that fall onto the water's surface.
In autumn the adults will migrate downstream to spawn in the salt marshes and estuaries during the time of extra-high tides. The eggs will be left moist, being stranded in the vegetation above the water for about two weeks. They hatch when the next spring tide arrives, flushing them back into the water again.
The young inanga spend the winter at sea then re-enter freshwater as whitebait, migrating upstream to adult habitats, where they mature to renew the cycle in the autumn.
Female inanga will lay several thousand eggs, each about a millimetre in diameter, with the hatchlings being about 7mm long. By the time they return from the sea in spring the slender, transparent juveniles are about 50mm long. Most adults die after spawning.
There are several adult whitebait species including inanga, branded kokopu, koora, giant kokopu, short- jawed kokopu and common smelt, and all can find their way into baiters' nets.
Whitebait is not uncommon in other countries, with perhaps Japan and China being the most prolific.
The whitebait in China is certainly of a poorer quality than we catch in New Zealand and the Japanese type is more like our smelt.
The Japanese cook whitebait somewhat differently, passing the fish through seasoned flour (the flour will be seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika) and deep frying the fish in hot vegetable oil. This way it crisps up and is served with a simple dipping sauce.
The Chinese more often serve their whitebait as a flat omelette with vegetables included.
In my humble opinion, the simplest and best way to enjoy whitebait is to break four fresh, free- range eggs into a bowl and whisk, adding salt, pepper and a little lemon juice. Add about 500 grams of fresh whitebait to the egg, and mix.
Heat a pan that has been lightly greased with butter and add spoonfuls of the bait mixture.
Cook on one side until the egg is set and flip over. Remove from the pan as soon as the egg is set.
Whitebait, like oysters and scallops, need very little cooking. Any further cooking once the egg has set will deteriorate the quality of the patty.
Graham Hawkes operates Paddington Arms at the Queens Dr/Bainfield Rd roundabout.
- © Fairfax NZ News