Whitebait: The New Zealand Delicacy

Queenstown is the best place to try White Bait

Each year around September, the country goes into a tailspin over some very tiny fish. Whitebait is a New Zealand delicacy, our very own caviar or truffle. And with an eye-water price per kilo, it’s no wonder that New Zealand's whitebait season generates such fervour. If you're inQueenstown during whitebait season, don't miss your chance to try it.

Whitebait are a small fish with a big following. Similar to a European herring but much smaller, whitebait are the fry (young) of native New Zealand fish and are found in freshwater waterways including coastal creeks, streams, rivers and lakes. Whitebait season typically runs from mid-August to mid-November with the short season aiming to protect these juvenile fish stocks from being overfished.

The West Coast of the South Island is the heart of the whitebait scene, and the best fishing spots are a closely guarded secret by locals. Patient fishermen and amateurs alike cast their nets in the hope of pulling up a bounty of the fish that are no bigger than an earthworm.  


Catching whitebait is not particularly easy, but it is lucrative. Fishermen will tend their hand-held nets constantly to bag a catch. With the best spots highly coveted and a short catching season, it’s no wonder that whitebait is the most expensive seafood in New Zealand.

Like any national treasure, the whitebait has its own festival. The Westport Whitebait Festival is now in its second year; held each in October in the West Coast township of Westport.

Fishing for elusive Whitebait


The tasty little fish are eaten whole and require no prep work. The flavour of whitebait is so good that a serving of whitebait seldom comes with much embellishment. The most common way to do whitebait is the humble whitebait fritter. Even the finest of establishments will serve a fritter - a mix of egg and whitebait pan-fried. All good Kiwis enjoy their fritter served between two slices of white bread and a lashing of butter. If you want to go upmarket, you could add a dash of salt and a squeeze of lemon. You can always measure the quality of a whitebait fritter by the ratio of egg to whitebait. Too much egg and not enough fish is an indication that you have fallen on hard times.

Cooking variations include dusting the whitebait lightly in flour and sautéing (ample butter should be involved). We've heard of whitebait being mixed through pasta dishes, but many would consider this sacrilege.

If you're looking for whitebait in Queenstown, you will find plenty of options during the season. While the seafood restaurants are the obvious choice, you'll also find whitebait on the menu at any good establishment. While whitebait can be frozen and eaten throughout the year, most restaurateurs prefer to serve up the fresh catch.

Whitebait is a New Zealand institution. If you see it on the menu at a Queenstown restaurant, you've got to try it!