The traditions of catching and eating these tiny fish are based on the springtime migrations of the inanga, various native Galaxiid species. The fish are netted about estuaries and tidal river reaches as they run upstream in their multitudes to grow into adult fish.
Whitebaiters occupy a ‘stand’, a closely guarded personal position from where they can cast a fine net, or scoop up the fish as they run upstream. A few light coloured stones or a painted board on the riverbed serve to show up the transparent ‘bait’ as they ‘run’. Mature inanga lay their eggs in tidal reaches on vegetation drowned by the highest spring tides. When water covers them again the Whitebait hatch and run out to sea for a period before returning home in great shoals as semi-transparent young, each only about 50mm long.
Damage to tidal riverbanks and vegetation has affected Whitebait numbers but the ‘runs’ can still be spectacular, particularly along the West Coast. The price of Whitebait can be so high that it pays commercial Whitebaiters to hire aircraft to fly their catches out to the cities. The delicacies are often served in patties, the best are heavy on fish and lighter on the binding egg yolk and flour. The result is generally bland.
Excerpts from Kiwiosities, a book by Gordon Ell on the traditions and folklore of New Zealand.