Quietly waiting for whitebait

Peace in the willows . . . Kaitangata man Mac Oliver enjoying the spring sun at his whitebait stand. PHOTO: NICK BROOK


Whitebait season began last Thursday with barely a breeze across the glassy currents of the Mata›Au Clutha River.

Cribs cluster atthe two river mouths, but upstream on the banks of the Northern, Matau branch of the Clutha, spaced out among the trees were more basic stands like the one 81›year›old Mac Oliver set up his net for the first of the 2022 harvest.

‘‘We’re a bit early,’’ Mac said, ‘‘We probably won’t see any whitebait til after 1 o’clock.’’

Low tide was at 12.17pm and the following, incoming tide would counter the power of the river›mouth current, allowing swarms of young fish known as galaxiidae to enter from the open sea and make their way upriver.

Some galaxiids live in fresh water all their lives, but whitebait species have a part›marine lifecycle where larvae hatch in a river, are washed into the ocean and later return as juveniles to complete their development to full adulthood.

Born and bred in Kaitangata, Mac said he had been whitebaiting hundreds of times and explained the basics as he set up his rig.

‘‘You don’t need a licence or to pay anything to set up a stand. You just have to be 20 metres apart, and your screens can’t be more than six metres,’’ he said.

Mac’s stand was a lean›to shelter on a tethered raft, with a rickety gang›plank to a shed on the bank.

Screening nets ran from the mud and willows out into the water to his sock›net, which was dipped just above an array of painted white planks lowered into the water; a whiteboard to help him see the transparent, two› to five›centimetre swimmers.

‘‘I used to bring a book to read while I waited, but found myself looking upto check the water so often there wasn’t much point.’’

Mac said he’d first gone whitebaiting with his father when he was a boy and these days there were several stands his extended family shared.

‘‘It’s not such a huge tradition for me as for a lot of the whitebaiters around here. There’s been years where I haven’t bothered and I don’t really eat whitebait myself.’’

The travel and set›up seemed like a lot of trouble to go to for a man who didn’t have a taste for the New Zealand delicacy, and Mac had a leisurely think about why he was there.

‘‘My wife likes it, and my neighbours. There are always plenty of people to share it with, and if I get a good catch I don’t mind selling it.’’

With the whole day ahead of him, Mac slouched back in his seat under the warm spring sun and gazed out over the peaceful water.

‘‘Other than that, I’m not really sure why I do it.’’