Whitebait the stars of Haast festival

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A dislike of whitebait was no barrier on Saturday for 11-year-old Ben Wright, who raced against the clock to beat nine other competitors in the children’s whitebait patty cooking competition at the Haast Whitebait Festival.

Some friendly rivalry in the adults’ competition kept the entrants on their toes, but it was local jet-boat driver Vicki Cain who was eventually announced the winner.

Now in its second year, the festival aims to bring the community together and celebrate all things whitebait. As well as cooking competitions, the day featured 20 market stalls, various raffles with prizes ranging from helicopter flights to kilograms of whitebait, and even whitebait racing, in which children equipped with water pistols encouraged the small fish down a chute.

The event also promoted other delicacies: stalls sold salmon, venison, whitebait patties and cakes. Later that night, bluegrass band The Dixie Prix had the crowd on their feet.

Wet weather was thought to have affected numbers, but organiser Rachel Norton said the event was still well supported by locals as well as tourists, with about 250 people, including plenty of families, passing through at various points throughout the day.

Whitebait season runs from September 1 to mid-November and attracts fishermen from far and wide. The region has nearly 3000 registered fishermen – about 10 times the population of Haast.

Mrs Norton said the festival was developing into an important annual event for the town.

“It’s about getting people together. This is such a busy time of year for us and we’re such a spread-out community.”

About 60% of the crowd were locals or regular whitebaiters, she said.

Next year, the committee planned to hold live entertainment throughout the day and introduce more whitebait events to expand the festival further, she said.