Whitebait are caught in fine-meshed nets that are hand held or set along river banks below the high-tide line. Hand-held nets have round hoop frames and long handles. Known as scoop nets, they are used along the river’s edge. In the breakers at river mouths, small, short-handled ‘pot’ nets are used.
In the 1930s West Coasters improvised whitebait nets with supplejack vine for the hoop and a net of cotton mosquito netting. The frames of modern hand-held nets are made of lightweight aluminium, and the netting is nylon mesh. The catch was typically stored in kerosene tins until these were superseded by plastic buckets.
Before refrigeration, commercial whitebaiters also kept their catch in ‘live boxes’ – wooden crates covered in mesh netting and placed in the river. Live whitebait could be kept captive in this way for a few days.
Fixed nets (or set nets) are placed facing downstream to catch whitebait as they swim upstream. Early models had frames of supplejack covered in cotton mesh. These were placed in gaps in river groynes that were built at right angles to a river bank. (Building trenches or groynes or otherwise altering the river bed is now illegal.)
Fixed nets vary in their design. The most common have metal frames with fine metal mesh. Triangular or box-shaped, they are often fitted to a stand – a rough jetty at a right angle to the bank. Long tapering nets are also fixed to stands, and dubbed ‘Southland socks’.
Screens, sticks and boards
Screens (which cannot exceed 3 metres in length) are staked in the river at right angles to the bank. They help guide the fish out from the river edge and into the net.
Although it is illegal, some whitebaiters use a ‘waggle stick’ – a 2–3-metre stick with a white flag on the end. This is said to encourage the fish to swim into the net.
Often a spotter board (a white plank) is placed on the river bed at the mouth of the net. This allows the whitebaiter to see the fish as they swim over it. The whitebaiter then empties the net before the whitebait swim out again. For the same purpose, previous generations used to chop down cabbage trees, peel their bark to reveal the light-coloured wood, and lay them in the water.
In South Westland, catching whitebait was usually no problem, but getting it to market could be difficult. Whitebait did not keep well. With no natural ports, boats had to cross river bars, and they could not always get in. Much whitebait spoilt before it could be sold.
No arguing with Nolan
In 1950 Henry Buchanan had his first season fishing the Ōkuru River in South Westland. Din Nolan, owner of the canning factory that bought whitebait, let him net the river. Buchanan grossed £600 (in 2023 this equated to $48,000), and recalled:
‘Old Nolan – he was ruling like a Czar, and he’d tell you where you could fish and where you could go. … He had a boy on every river – he had five boys, and if he had a boy on the river you weren’t allowed to fish there, otherwise he wouldn’t take your fish.’ 1
Before refrigeration, canning was the only way to keep the fish. Canning was first established on the Waikato River in 1887, and that same year whitebait were being canned on the West Coast at Paringa. By 1930 the firm of Irvine and Stevenson had canneries at Karamea, Westport, Greymouth, Hokitika and Dunedin.
In 1928 Din Nolan set up a canning factory at Ōkuru. At that time, South Westland was very remote and members of the Nolan family often had an entire river to fish for themselves. As their cannery was the only outfit buying whitebait, they could set the price. The Ōkuru cannery was probably the country’s largest, due to the prolific catches. In 1944, 54.4 tonnes was canned and the catch was carted to the cannery by the drayload. The factory ran until 1952.
Flying whitebait out
As early as 1936, planes were flying whitebait out from South Westland. Airstrips were hacked out of the bush, or the planes landed on the beach. After the Second World War, large quantities were flown out in light aircraft by returned air force pilots such as Fred ‘Popeye’ Lucas. Des Nolan, son of cannery owner Din Nolan, got his pilot’s licence in 1946 and flew out whitebait for seven or eight years.
However, the harvest did not always get picked up, as poor visibility sometimes prevented the pilots from landing. There were numerous crashes and near misses.
Decline of the canneries
The arrival of refrigerators meant that whitebait could be cool-stored rather than canned, leading to the demise of the South Westland canneries by the 1950s.
When the Haast Pass road was completed in 1965, flying became less important – except for the isolated rivers to the south, such as the Cascade.