When 15 August and the start of the whitebaiting season rolls around it is still winter. Frosty mornings aren't unusual and the river water will be cold. That doesn't deter the keenest whitebaiters though who appear at first light the moment the season opens.
They drive down to the Waikawa Beach river mouth and set up 'camp' in their cars and vans, or on their quad bikes, and position nets at their chosen spot in the water's flow.
Many of the whitebaiters are locals, but others arrive from elsewhere, nets adorning car roofs like alien tracking devices.
Waders, of course, are required, but parkas and wooly hats help fend off the chill. Even icy sou'west winds don't deter the staunchest. They are, after all, keen for a feed, or perhaps just a few hours fishing.
Many of them 'clump up', chatting as the tide washes through the nets, maybe tossing out bits of bread to keep the gulls away from their catch. Others though are loners, working their spot in splendid isolation.
And why not? On a calm and sunny day there's clean sea air to enjoy, the water washing by, the peace and quiet of the shore, the distant horizon.
Sometimes the fishers arrange driftwood into shelters, or seats. Other times they bring their own camp chairs or sit in their vehicle where they may also brew up a warming cuppa.
As the season wears on, all the way to 30 November, the numbers of whitebaiters fall off, though the hard core keep going all the way to the end.
No-one ever seems to admit to having had a great catch — maybe just
enough for a good feed for the family. And debates continue between those who say whitebait are threatened and those who deny any problem.
Whitebait are the juveniles of five species of fish: giant kōkopu, banded kōkopu, shortjaw kōkopu, inanga, and kōaro, and are part of a group called galaxiids. They need good clean water in the rivers and streams to thrive, and adult whitebait need dense bankside vegetation for spawning. Those are good incentives for sorting out the many degraded waterways in this area.
Published in Ōtaki Today, September 2020, Page 16.