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Episode 4: Precious Catch

Episode 4, Precious Catch

A love of whitebaiting has lured a South Island family to move from town to live in the South Westland bush year-round.

Tony and Moana Kerr's family traditionally holidayed at a spot near Haast to catch whitebait.  The couple liked the lifestyle so much that they've moved there permanently and established a thriving business selling the delicacy. 

Moving with young children from a big house in Hokitika to a bach on the Waita River has been a challenge.  "We've gone from being just two minutes from the supermarket, to the closest one being 160 kilometres away," Tony says.

But it's proved the perfect place to establish a whitebait business which is supplying fish to fine dining restaurants around New Zealand and feeding hungry tourists who pass the Kerrs' shop on State Highway 6. 

The West Coast whitebait season runs for just 10 weeks each spring - and the Kerrs' entire income for the year depends on it.

Their two sons, Ernest and Jacob, are the fifth generation in the family to whitebait in the area, and Tony says there's something special about the place.

"I think all fishermen are dreamers and optimists, and this is a good place for dreamers and optimists to hang out," he says.  "First thing in morning the sun beams over the hill, the kea are flying, the trout are plopping up and down - and the whitebait are running.  I can think of worse offices." 

Tony's father John, who's also part of the business, agrees.  "If you catch some it's a bonus, but the main thing is the thrill of not knowing what's coming up next.  Besides that, they're very nice to eat!"

Tony and Moana catch plenty of whitebait themselves but also buy from others in the area to meet demand. 

However, a good portion of their fresh whitebait never makes it out of Haast.  Moana says so many tourists were calling in and asking where they could get a whitebait patty, she decided to start making them herself.

"Other parts of the country are known for their individual food signatures - Kaikoura has crayfish, Bluff has oysters and on the West Coast it's got to be whitebait," says Tony. 

"Hopefully the tourists leave here not only having enjoyed a delicious patty, but knowing a bit more about the area and its people." 

It's very much a family business. Even the name - Curly Tree Whitebait - came from Ernest and Jacob.  On the drive home from school each day, the boys would know they were nearly home when they passed a particularly gnarled and wind-swept tree beside the highway.

"They named it The Curly Tree and it seemed an obvious choice for a trading name for us," laughs Moana.

The Kerrs know they won't live in Haast forever but say the area will always be special to their family.

"At the moment it's a great place to live and for the boys to play, grow and get to know their granddad," says Tony.  "But the day will come when they'll need to spread their wings. When it's time to go, we'll know, but it's somewhere we will always come back to."

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Jeff Aldridge

Field sound
John Patrick

Offline editor
Brent Whitwell

Online editor
Alex Wright

Sound mixer
Ian Leslie

Vivienne Jeffs

Network executive
Jude Callen

Consultant producer
Frank Torley

Associate producer
Dan Henry

Production manager
Robyn Best

Dan Henry

Julian O'Brien