I have been to some wondrous places in my years on this planet – safari in South Africa, the best hotel on the Grand Canal in Venice, camping in the Aussie outback dining on camel, croc’ and emu, a month last year tearing around Europe, Tangiers, Patagonia and most nooks and crannies of this great country – but I reckon the three days I spent on a dark and secret river in the depths of south Westland are among the best I have ever had.

But before I get going on this yarn I am going to – as the old proverb goes – face up to the elephant in the room.

I am aware that in recent times whitebaiting has become, ah, unfashionable in some quarters. And I can understand why. Apart from the season, size of net, and a few other things, there are few restrictions. There is no limit to the size of catches, it is the only ‘fish’ you can sell without risking going to jail (thus there is a real grey market), and there is, apparently, a real shortage of research into whitebait.

The opposition to whitebaiting comes, mainly, on two fronts: a modern generation who find it detestable to kill baby fish and those who fear the extinction of the species.

Essential whitebaiting equipment - gumboots

I have no answer for the former, but for the latter, whitebaiting has been a national pastime and an industry for more than a hundred years without real restriction and if they were going be extinguished, they would have joined the Moa and the Haast Eagle a long, long time ago. Probably before Europeans knew the place existed.

As a kid growing up in Auckland, my mother used to treat the Dicks and Dickettes to something called “mock” whitebait fritters mostly on Sunday nights. I had no idea what whitebait were, so she could have saved the energy of saying “mock”. I don’t think my mother was a save-the-whitebait person and, looking back, I understand the only reason she used grated potato to emulate whitebait was that we were poor.

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