The Bait Box – The Whiskey fish

Dressed for the occasion back in the day – with appropriate supervision. Credit – NZ RLIC
Musings from retired fisherman, Norman Hawler

Like most New Zealanders I survived the sometimes challenging social engagements of Christmas and New Year and ate and drank more than I should have – an indulgence for which I am now suffering increased criticism of my expanded physical profile. Various comments from family and friends – ‘looks like you have been grazing in the good paddock’ being the mildest; ‘oi you fat bastard’ being pretty much the average – have prompted me to get a wee bit physical over the past few weeks.

In the spirit of good intentions for 2024 I went for a long walk along the coast and called in to see an old bloke who was once best mates with the ex-wife’s grandfather. Yes, I know it sounds a bit complicated, and the relationships were/ are and probably always will be. The ex-wife remarried years ago, her grandfather passed away before our marriage did, but truth be told I always got on better with her extended family than I did with her.

The grandfather was definitely one of life’s true characters. He was raised as a whangai child and maintained close ties with the marae on which he lived until he was fifteen. In his youth he had been tall and strong and a top sportsman. Regional rep for rugby, more than a handy cricket player and a very good swimmer. But his passion was fishing. He and a few good mates regularly made the long trek out to the coast and spent the day catching hapuku and kingfish off the rocks.

We are talking a bit of history here – back in the day stuff – the wayback machine experiences. The road to the coast was unsealed and prone to slips and even floods in bad weather. The only vehicle available was a Model A truck. Just enough room in the cab for three strapping young men; low enough geared in reverse to be able to back up the steepest of hills with a bit of a load on the back.

The modern rock fisherman – and a confident one with his chilly bin at the ready. Credit NZ RLIC

The fishing gear was rudimentary in comparison to what we take for granted today. No carbon fibre rods, or star drag reels; no braid or fluoro monofilament lines, and no fancy circle hooks, poppers, or jigs. Rock fishing was done with handlines and whippy manuka sticks spooled with the cat-gut material used to lace tennis rackets. The catgut was superior to braided cotton line in that it had some ‘give’ in it and could take the shock of a big kingie claiming a floating bait.

Hapuka on the rocks and on the hook. Credit NZ RLIC

On a good day the three fishermen would limit themselves to two kingies each person plus two hapuku, all of a good size too. Fishing success was celebrated by a tot of whiskey. Several more tots were considered to be medicinal protection against the wind and cold sea, and a tot or two extra were consumed just for general good luck. There were days when fishing was not so good – the long pauses between hook ups were filled with the chit chat of good mates and extra tots of whiskey. Never to excess of course – well almost never.

So back to my chat with the mate of my ex-wife’s grandfather who tells me of the day that the three young fishermen found that fishing was slow despite the usual reliability of the Maori calendar – ‘a bit too much swell until the tide came in’ – and the whiskey bottle came out earlier than usual.

Late in the afternoon the bite started and two very large hapuku were hauled in over the rocks. Then a few kingfish – one of them almost dragged one of the fishermen into the sea. Likely because he was off-balance due to excess whiskey consumption. It was time to head home, and the fish were consigned to wet chaff sacks and loaded into the Model A. The fishing protocols included a tikanga prohibition on cleaning and gutting fish by the sea so on the way back into town a river ford was a handy spot to head, gut and fillet the catch. All the meat in one wet sack and the guts, heads, and frames in the other. And of course, a few more whiskeys to celebrate a job well done before the Model A fired up for the final stretch home.

One final fishing protocol was to dump the heads and frames over the bank at the top of the last hill as the road left the cost. Steep cliffs, plenty of scavenging seagulls and no-one around to witness the offload. The now well lubricated ex-wife’s grandfather had the disposal job and leapt out of the truck, grabbed the sack of heads, frames and guts and hurled it off the cliff.

Except it wasn’t. It was not the correct sack. When the trio finally made it home an hour or so later they discovered that it was in fact the sack of fillets and steaks that was sent flying. The whiskey had impaired their judgement but totally impaired that of the ex-wife’s grandfather. So, it was hapuku cheeks and roasted frames for dinner, a massive telling off by mothers and grandmothers, and the catalyst for hapuku to be thenceforth known as the ‘whiskey fish’.

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