Home' Greymouth Star : November 1st 2014 Contents Greymouth Star
Saturday, November 1, 2014 - 5
tories abound on the West Coast of the days when
whitebait catches were so big the excess was used
for compost in the garden.
In fact, that was less to do with massive catches
than with the lack of refrigeration, but why spoil a
These days, instead of the garden, the modern whitebaiter
buries his catch in the freezer, and for some the return of sales
in deep pockets and bank accounts. Word on the street in recent
years suggests that some South Westland operations netted well
in excess of two tonnes in a season; indeed, some caught a tonne
on a single tide — and not too many seasons ago!
Tony Negri has been fishing off the rocks of the Grey River
since he was a boy. He knows every rock and ripple along the
Blaketown side of the river.
The same rocks are still there and the same number of
whitebaiters fish the river today, but he says some aspects of this
West Coast pastime have changed.
“I’ve done a wee bit of whitebaiting in my time and I’ve had
some great catches as well, but you can only refer to quantities
caught when comparing seasons,” Tony said.
“In the early days on the Grey River you could only use drag
nets, there were no set nets anywhere on the Grey. I’ve been
fishing Blaketown since just after the Second World War and
there was an unwritten law down Blaketown — primary school
boys were allowed only as far down as where the Blaketown
pavilion is — it was local law. ”
Spotter boards were never used when he was young as the
rocks were clean and only recently added from the Cobden
“The rocks were new limestone rocks and basically ser ved as
“They didn’t catch big shoals in Blaketown because of the
movement of the ocean. The shoals weren’t massive but they
were consistent day after day. There was no stagnant water then
in the lagoon either, and the bait were always crystal clear. This
was before the sewage went into the river.
“The Grey is becoming polluted from the farms upriver, which
go right down to the waters edge. The effluent obviously gets
into the river and there are the poisons as well. What effect is
Today, whitebaiters have the ‘luxury’ of using aluminium poles
and hoops, but prior to the arrival of the light metal, wood and
supplejack was the combination of choice.
“ We got white pine poles out of the bush and used a large
carpenter’s spoke shave to shape the pole,” Tony says.
“ We used supplejack to form the ring, but more often I used
a green white pine sapling and would bend it a round while
still green, and attach it to the top of the pole — light years
ahead, no pole through the middle, and it looked similar to the
aluminium ones today. They were the Rolls Royce recipe,” he
Kevin Herring has also been fishing the Grey River since he
was a boy and says while there were big catches in his early
years, the bait are still there today.
“If you get good weather you will get the bait. The bar and the
weather provide the right conditions for whitebait,” Kevin says.
“In the days before aluminium I would go up to the King
Domain and get a white pine sapling, make chocks — the pole
never went through the centre of the ring — they were the
in-thing back then.”
Sections of the river have changed and he believes the number
of people fishing the river has increased.
“There are more people now, a lot of strangers, people I’ve
never seen before.
“The rockwall has been extended and where I fish by the
town clock, where the original ‘Big Rock’ was, there would be
23 people fishing in front of me and 40-50 behind me on a
weekend. I think this season there has been more bait coming
up in September compared with recent years, whereas they were
there all of last season.”
Kevin says there are trends with whitebait and the pattern
changes in a season, but big catches are folklore when it comes
to the good old days.
“I’ve been whitebaiting for nearly 70 years and have had some
real big catches in my time. I remember coming over the bar
in Briggsy ’s (Damien Briggs) boat the Karoro, and the bait
were jumping in the Blaketown lagoon, being chased by trout. I
grabbed the net and went on the river and caught 357 pound in
two hours. There was just one continuous shoal of bait coming
up the river. You will never see anything like that again, as there
are more whitebaiters.
“I remember one time a woman in front of me put her net in
and pulled up 100 pound in one drag.
“Personally, I think to a degree if the weather is right the bait
will be there, but those days of the old Big Rock — you will
never see bait caught like that ever again — huge catches.”
The Taramakau River is another plentiful fishery over the
Longstanding Taramakau fisherman Russell Fairhall says
whitebait seasons are simply unpredictable.
“I have always fished down the lower end, on the Greymouth
side. Probably for 50 years I’ve fished the Taramakau, and there
have been some good catches this year and other years as well.
In other years the bait just aren’t there. The Taramakau has been
up and down like most of the rivers.”
Russell says he cannot explain the unpredictable fluctuations
of whitebait catches but he believes it is the combination of
mother nature and human inter vention.
“ Whitebait naturally spawn on spring tides and if you get a
big flood a couple of weeks later it must have an effect. I also
believe a lot of the whitebait habitats for breeding have been
destroyed. Farms have had an impact, and the effect 1080 might
have at this stage is unknown.”
The Taramakau has been traditional for fishermen using drag
nets towards the mouth and set nets and stands upriver.
“In the late 1980s and 1990s catches were poor and they
were talking about how could they save the whitebait. They
were scarce everywhere, in fact. In 1993 and 1994 we had two
exceptional years. I remember one chap who had a stand got
800 pound two days running. Probably my best catch that year
was 100 pound on one tide,” Russell says.
“I also remember Martin Pierson telling me his father fished
the Taramakau all his life and had records of catches. In the
1930s the records said there were a couple of bad seasons with
no bait at all in the Taramakau. It is just so hard to predict.”
With every mediocre
whitebait season comes
another round of dire
nets. But memories are
short and only a couple of
seasons ago buckets were
filled and some overflowed
with bumper catches up
and down the West Coast.
So, as Karamea enjoys the
fruits of a plentiful season
in 2014 and the rest of the
Coast makes do, reporter
PAUL McBRIDE asks
some well seasoned
is it really as bad as it
Whitebaiter Jimmy Jamieson tries his luck on the Grey River in the 1960s.
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