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Left without an aftertaste

I might be setting myself up for a right royal roasting here, but I’m going to publicly ask the same question that I have privately asked many times before around this time of year … what is it about whitebait that makes some people go bananas?

The new season started yesterday, in brilliant weather and with new regulations in place designed in large part to give the ecosystem a better chance of thriving. Thus, mad-keen fishers made their way to their preferred spot. The majority of those would have claimed a prized spot at Lake Ōnoke – one of Wairarapa’s traditional whitebaiting destinations – a salty bit of water separating Palliser Bay from the rivers and wetlands draining the lower Wairarapa valley.

There will be other spots no doubt; it’s a massive stretch of coastline after all, but their whereabouts will be a closely guarded secret, like many fishing spots are.

And I wish them every success filling their buckets. Not too full of, course, because a set quota will be monitored, as well it should be. [It should be noted that whitebait are the juveniles of six species of fish. Four of the six New Zealand whitebait species are classified as at risk of, or threatened with, extinction.]

But please, tell me … where is the flavour?

I’m a big seafood fan. Love it. Be it of the gilled variety or a crustacean with a protective shell attached, I’m in waders and all.

But whitebait simply doesn’t float my boat, or set my net, as the case may be. I struggle to locate the taste of this unique national delicacy.

And it’s not like I haven’t given it a decent crack. I’ve had my share of fritters. More than my share. I was fortunate enough to sit alongside an experienced practitioner at an inlet along Waikanae Beach a few years ago.

I have a strong feeling that, like all other forms of fishing, it’s the time away from the rate race that is the most appealing factor. A day on the riverbank, occasionally adjusting the position of the nets and sharing one or two tall tales with fellow enthusiasts compares favourably to a day in the office or on SH2 trying to fix potholes.

But still, where is the flavour?

You have to admire the determination of those involved. It’s a very short season, taking in just September and October; a month less than the duck hunting season.

There is plenty of tradition to uphold, of course. Whitebaiting has been handed down through the generations across the length and breadth of the country. And, as is often the case with many favoured New Zealand pastimes, myriad books have been written covering many and varied aspects, including history and the technique required to be a successful fisher. It’s not easy judging currents or the general direction whitebait might like to go.

Some of those books include recipes.

The most loved way to consume whitebait is in a fritter. Not an onerous task, even for the most culinary-challenged among us. A couple of eggs and some seasoning, and you’re just about there.

But still no flavour. Well, not that I can discern anyway.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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