Christine McKay: White gold not the real reward

By Christine McKay

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Christine McKay reminisces about her father.
Christine McKay reminisces about her father.

It's not Father's Day or his birthday, but the start of the whitebait season brings memories of my Dad flooding back.

Dear Dad has been dead for more than 25 years now, but our whitebaiting days are as fresh in my mind as if they were just yesterday.

Out of bed in the cold, dark of early morning, my feet shoved into woolly socks and sturdy gumboots, it was off in our old car, with its running boards and nets strapped on to a make-shift roof rack.

I can't imagine that arrangement would pass any warrant of fitness these days.

Driving the short distance from Runanga to Coal Creek, there was just enough time for Dad to light up a ciggie and for me to wonder why I was here again this year.

Arriving above the banks of the Grey River at Coal Creek, we were surrounded by a thick, wet fog which clung to you like a sodden blanket.

Down over the fence, across the paddocks - I presume Dad had permission to trespass - hauling our nets, marker, billy and lunch bucket we'd go.

In the gloom along the river bank other hopefuls were setting up in their possies, murky figures barely visible through the grey fog.

Once the marker was in the water, I was encouraged to walk down the river, spotting. Going quietly - I didn't want to scare the elusive bait - I'd struggle over the stones and stop for chats with familiar regulars.

Dad would haul his heavy, homemade net through the water and I'd squeeze the bottom and flip the wriggling "white gold" into our billy.

But looking back now those shared moments waiting for the bait to run and the fog to lift, weren't about fishing at all, but a bonding time for father and daughter. Dad, with his ciggie hanging out the side of his mouth, would share memories. Not of working down the coal mine or of when times were tough during the 1951 miners strike, or when mum was run over by a train and left mangled and fighting for her life, but stories which I now realise had quite a strong message.

"Chrissy," he'd say (Dad is the only person to call me by that name), "you know when ..." And then he'd tell me about the first move he and mum made. Dad carried all their worldly possessions on his back and mum, just pregnant with my big sister, carried what she could. No car, they trudged the West Coast roads from one sawmilling job to another, sleeping in the fern bracken on the way. No wonder working down a coal mine seemed such a doddle.

Dad never said it was rough, or tough, just something you did. He talked about making a commitment and sticking to it. That message washed over me at the time, I simply couldn't imagine anyone walking from one home to the next, with just a few sticks of furniture, clothes and pots. It seemed like a fairytale gone wrong.

Now with the wisdom of hindsight I realise Dad was gently instilling the message hard work never hurt anyone and if you decide to do something stick with it.

Giving up was easy and my Dad never gave up on anything. Though I did wish some bitterly cold mornings on the banks of the Grey River he'd do just that. I love whitebait, but it was hard work when I could be home riding my bike, swinging from a tree or just mucking around. But every year I'd stumble out of bed, clutch Dad's hand and head off once again to trawl for our feed of whitebait.

Christine McKay is the Dannevirke News chief reporter.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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