Alice Gilsenan knows a thing or two about whitebaiting – she should, she’s been fishing on the banks of the Buller River for the past 42 years. Her mum, Hinemoa Gilsenan, and her grandmother Heni Mahuika were also keen whitebaiters, and a childhood spent growing up at Inangahua Flat in the Upper Buller is filled with memories of fishing for the famed white gold.
It’s a beautiful day in Westport and the sun is sparkling on the Kawatiri. We’re at Alice’s place, not far from the river mouth. It’s a picturesque spot, one many of the dozens of whitebaiters crowded along the breakwater would happily trade their prized pozzie for. Bathed in sunshine, it’s a far cry from the inclement weather of February, which saw massive storm surges engulf dozens of homes in the area, including Alice’s. But that’s another story, we’re here for the bait.
The season on the West Coast is a little shorter than elsewhere, running from September 1 to November 14. Throughout the rest of Aotearoa, fishers are allowed to put their nets in from August 15 to the end of November (on the Chathams, whitebait season is December 1 till the end of February).
Many whitebaiters report that their catches are smaller than they used to be (four out of the six whitebait species are classified as At Risk or Threatened), but today they are running.
“Of course, same years can be better than others,” says Alice, “and each side of the river can be different.
“But I just love it, even if you’re not getting any.”
Alice has fished on both sides, but these days prefers the pozzie in her own backyard. I ask her if she can remember her biggest day on the river. Can she what: “465 pounds,” she fires off without hesitation.
Alice is such a familiar sight on the banks of the Buller, just as her grandmother was. “It was taken as read that if she (Heni) wasn’t on the river there was no bait running.”
How about cooking methods, have they changed over the years?
“Mum and Gran would dry it – on tin – turning it over. They would dry it and they would just keep turning it and turning it. They’d grab lots of it, ties it in hanks and hang it in the wash house, where the copper was. In winter, they’d boil up cabbage and grab a couple of hanks of whitebait and throw it in.”
Her mum Hinemoa also liked it done with “just a little bit of butter and milk in a pan”.
But for Alice, nothing is better than a fresh whitebait pattie.
“You just can’t beat it.”
Alice’s whitebait pattie recipe
Alice’s recipe is simple and delicious. For 1 pound of whitebait, use 3 eggs, beaten, salt and pepper and a big squeeze of lemon juice. But the real trick is, forget about cooking the patties in olive oil or butter – fresh dripping is the only way to go.
Improving whitebait management
The Department of Conservation is asking the public what they should do about managing whitebait, and while not a formal consultation, you can have your say. Go to the DOC website to take a short survey and find out more.