Time to find a quiet river bank
Nā Keri Hulme
are an egg.
Thin-skinned, teetering on the brink of oblivion – if there’s too much rain, you rot. Not enough? You dessicate. Besides, it’s the loving touch of *salt* water that you really need.
The second high spring tide of your life!
And there you are, a tiny Galaxias maculatus, īnaka, whitebait; swimming free with countless thousands of others, out to sea.
What you do out there, among the planktonic masses, we humans don’t really know.
We’ve found you in sub-Antarctic waters. We’ve found you mid-Tasman Sea, sometimes with yolk sacs still attached.
Eventually, like salmon, enough of your natal river reaches out to – thee.
You ride that overwhelming current-call to get back; to get back where you were born. Back to where your parents mated and laid and fertilised you and your siblings (and then, generally, died…).
There are many obstacles in your way, all of them with mouths, and your only defences are your transparency (you haven’t even developed a gut yet) and travelling en masse.
So gulls and terns and many kinds of fish harry you offshore, and various ducks and freshwater fish gobble you up when you enter the rivers or lagoon mouths.
And there is another set of mouths waiting for you as you head upriver.
They are us, with a large range of nets…
I never baited until I came to the West Coast. I’d never actually eaten many of you before then – the few fritters I’d tried, fried in beef-fat, were pretty blargh. But – did I love the taste of fresh-caught ‘bait? And the lure of tidal fishing? And the joys of community celebration over a good run? As soon as I encountered them, deeply, passionately!
I have baited for 42 years.
This year will probably be my last season, catching the fresh-run fish. It’ll be river banks from now on, rather than the lagoon shores. A whole different game. It takes time to learn a place – fraught one day, relatively easy the next.
It takes time to learn your fellow fishers. The people change. Die. Become foreigners. Aren’t your neighbours any more. But I’ll try to learn to do that, next year. On the southern east coast – I would have caught and cooked* – and eaten – millions of ‘bait over the decades.
As a cooking medium, I use butter. Or a light oil (sunflower’s good, and so is extra light olive oil).
Simple is the way to go, with very little in the way of additives. I use a little self-raising flour (or cornflour), a little salt, eggs… I NEVER eat the ‘bait with pickled onions! Or put them in a white sauce…
I prefer to cook up half a kilo of ‘bait at a time (obviously more, if there’s more people around). And I generally cook them in these ways:
–Drain your bait (leave ‘em 10 or so minutes in a sieve. Remember to put a plate over the sieve if they are still lively.)
–Shake lightly in salted cornflour in a brown paper bag.
–Have a deep pot of hot oil* ready and drop in the lightly-floured ‘bait in small batches. Make sure they cook separately. They will be ready very quickly – about 30–40 seconds
I find. The flour should be golden, and the ‘bait *just* cooked. Much longer, and you will end up with carbonised critters…
The easiest way is to turn them into fritters:
–Mix 2–3 separated eggs (whip the whites until they peak: beat the yolks in another bowl, and then stir them gently into the whites.)
–Sieve in whatever flour you like until you have a light spongey mix.
–Salt the whitebait according to your taste, and mix in batches, adding the batter to the ‘bait.
–Cook in butter, until they are golden-brown each side. Eat as much as you feel like, and don’t worry if there are leftovers – they are very good cold also.
It may sadly be that you haven’t caught a pound? Maybe it’s more like a cupful? No worries – heat up some butter in a fry-pan, lightly salt the ‘bait (if you want – I find there’s enough salt in the butter) and cook, stirring carefully.
And then pour them out of the fry-pan onto a couple of slices of toast, made from your favourite bread. It’s a snack that is a definite consolation for the lack of more fish!
The places I’ve fished in at Big O all have names. Back-at-the-wharfshed. Out-the-front. On-the-North-Bank. Round-by-the-culvert. Pensioners’ Corner.
I never really thought of me getting so old I couldn’t fish the front any more, but I’ve been round by the wharf shed for the last three seasons. Time to find a quiet river bank, and be a bit less obsessive about catching ‘bait I think… but may I always be able to catch a feed for family and friends.
And for myself!