Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Full nets at the bend in the river

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Whitebaiters know there's still good money to be made but if you're caught napping you can lose the lot.

Whitebaiter Edith James netting in front of her cottage on the lower reaches of the Waikato. Photo / Peter Calder
Whitebaiter Edith James netting in front of her cottage on the lower reaches of the Waikato. Photo / Peter Calder

'Best you leave me out of it," says Morrie Keary as I step into the shallows and back on to dry land. "Write about those other people."

The "other people" are the whitebaiters fishing at the turn of the tide near what they call the Elbow, the long slow curve the Waikato River takes before running its last braided few kilometres to the sea.

Keary, who has appointed himself my guide for the blisteringly hot morning, has been out before I arrive, checking on who would be prepared to talk to me and who wants nothing to do with a bloke from the paper.

But an hour or two in his company as he steers his tinny across the gingery water makes it plain that he's the senior member of this loose-knit band.

He's 83, he tells me, and he started as a kid, coming down after school with a four-gallon kerosene tin with holes punched in the bottom. On a good day, he and his cobbers would get two tins.

Those were the good old days, and Keary will tell you that they aren't gone. We're overstocked with stories of failing fisheries and falling catches, but for the whitebaiters of the Waikato the next good day could be tomorrow.

The 3-month season, which ends on Saturday, started out a shocker, he says. "We had virtually nothing for two months. We were just about to close up and walk away and then - bingo! - they started running."

Not far west of the Elbow, we meet Edith James, the only fisher on that stretch of river who's doing it the old-fashioned way. In front of her pin-neat tin-clad cottage, she stands chest-deep in the water and holds her net at just the right depth to catch a passing shoal.

Her grandmother used to fish like this, she explains, but - she tugs at her wetsuit and lifejacket - "she had none of this gear - she would just stand in the river in her skirt and socks".

It's been a moderately good morning for James, though much of her catch has been the larger fish that Maori call porohe; they're often disdained, she says, but "we dry them out and our old people like them in a boil-up because they've got plenty of taste".

The young of native freshwater fish migrating upriver as juveniles in the spring to spawn in the autumn, whitebait go by many names, though the main species are inanga, koaro or kokopu. Some find them bland but they have a delicacy's price tag: at $120 a kilo, they make snapper fillet and blue cod seem budget choices.

Little wonder that the fishing spots - small jetties, often floating, that the fishers call stands - are well attended during the season.

Gordon Pryor has been coming for 50 years to a stand he inherited from his father-in-law. His substantial generator-powered bach includes Sky TV ("You don't want to miss the game"), a freezer for his catch and a fridge that looks like it could hold a lot of beer.

The river looks nice today, he tells me, but "it can be 2m high if you get the tide and the wind right. It can be very ugly. You'll still catch fish - how and why I'm buggered if I know, but you do get them".

What with whitebaiting and duck shooting, Pryor's here almost as often as he's not and the fishing is worthwhile. He is coy about specific numbers but he's hauled in "several hundred" kilos this season and his best day earned him $8000.

"But you have to spend 24/7 at it," he explains. "It's no use being at home and hearing tonight what's happened today and coming down tomorrow and expecting to do well. It doesn't work like that."

All the fishers tell the same story - your luck can change in a moment. Willie Watson, a 35-year veteran on the north side, tells of the time he had a nap and awoke to a net so full it burst as he pulled it in.

This stretch of the Waikato has a proud whitebaiting history. You can still see the ruins of a cannery that closed in 1965 after 80 years of operation.

These days, it's strictly fresh or frozen, but whitebaiters don't gorge themselves on their catch.

"Yeah, I like it all right," says Pryor when I ask why. "But I hardly ever eat it. It's too expensive."

- NZ Herald

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