Many years ago a boy used to drop a worm into a dark, bush-lined pool and a brown fish would dart out from where it had been hiding under the bank and snap it up. He called these fish mountain trout, or mud trout or native trout. In his ignorance he did not realise that there is no such thing. The only trout in our waters came from California; in fact there are no native trout or salmon south of the equator. Everywhere they are found today in southern countries they have been introduced from the northern hemisphere.
The stream that lured the youngster back time and again ran through a gully in a farm.
It was a 10-minute jog across the paddocks and down a short hill to the banks of a pool where the fish were always waiting. It was a wonderful environment to grow up in, racing through the long grass, gathering mushrooms under the pine trees, catching snapper and kahawai from the rocks, trapping possums in the bush and shooting rabbits with the pea rifle when not riding a bike to school along gravel roads. And it was right in the heart of Pakuranga. Where today very few giant trees remain to pierce the skyline among the endless houses. Some of the brown fish would be carefully carried back to the goldfish pond in a bucket. But they always disappeared in the night just like eels making their way through the grass in search of a stream. They resembled eels, with flat heads and brown slimy skin. But they were actually called kokopu, which is the Maori name for the family of fishes which produce what we know as whitebait. Our catch were the common banded kokopu, or galaxias fasciatus. There is also a short-jawed kokopu, dwarf kokopu and giant kokopu. Along with inanga and koaro they make up the family of galaxiids, named after the Milky Way for the scattering of white spots along their flanks. The adults lay eggs on rushes and grasses along the lower reaches of streams and rivers in early autumn, and a month later on a king tide the eggs turn into tiny hatchlings which are washed out to sea. There they grow in the rich saltwater and, while many fall prey to fish and birds, large numbers make their way back to the stream where they are eagerly awaited by whitebait fishermen sitting patiently by their nets. Their huts and camps line the riverbanks, and two generations ago the whitebait numbers were so prolific that the tiny fish were fed to chickens or dug into the vegetable garden as fertiliser. Today they are hugely valuable. Native bush has been replaced by grass and cattle and sheep graze the riverbanks - and the numbers of whitebait have steadily dropped. The adults are secretive fish, hiding in pools in the bush and are rarely seen. They are also susceptible to environmental changes and deteriorating water quality. But initiatives to encourage farmers to fence off stream banks and plant grasses and rushes have helped restore fish populations in the Waikato and Otago.
Whitebait is actually a generic name for many different small fish, and is commonly applied in other countries. The Chinese "whitebait" seen in supermarkets bears little resemblance to our little fish, as anyone who buys them soon discovers.
The whitebait season opened last week and reports of early runs at Port Waikato and the Bay of Plenty will fuel the enthusiasm of whitebaiters out looking for their first catch. Traditionally, the fishing starts slowly and improves throughout the spring.
Being weak swimmers the fish run on an incoming tide when the tidal flow eases their travel against the river's current, and they avoid the strongest current by choosing the more placid flow along the edges and in the inner bank of bends on the watercourse. Large tides, such as we have this weekend, should be good for whitebaiters.
Experienced 'bait fishermen will deploy a white board which lies on the riverbed downstream of their net - whether a set net or scoop type - which may be a painted plank or a section of plastic downpipe. The first slim fish seen wriggling over the board sets the heart racing, as it will be followed by a few more individuals and then, if there is a good run on, a whole school will suddenly appear in a mass. For the hopeful angler that is almost like winning Lotto.
Whitebait fishing is administered by DOC, not the Ministry of Fisheries, because they are native fish and unlike other fishing there is no limit to the catch and the delicacies can be sold without a licence. But there are rules, and the season runs until November 30 and fishing is permitted from 5am to 8pm, and when daylight saving starts from 6am to 9pm. Nets may not cover more than a third of a stream or river, to allow room for fish to swim upstream safely, and the size of nets is also limited.
A good indicator of whitebait are the kahawai which follow the schools of tiny fish, and can be hooked on silver lures like the Ticer, or on trout fly tackle with smelt flies. Large numbers of birds at the rivermouth is another sign of whitebait running.
Tip of the week
The traditional whitebait patty is made from just enough egg to hold the fish together, and pan fried in oil and butter. If the fish are scarce the fritters can be helped along with cornflour and milk and chopped parsley. Served on a slice of white bread - it has to be white - and drizzled with lemon juice a fresh patty is a slice of heaven.
Bite times today are 7.45am and 8.10pm, and tomorrow at 8.30am and 9pm. These are based on the moon phase and position, not tides, so apply to the whole country. More fishing action can be found at www.GTtackle.co.nz.