“THERE’S LITERALLY A GODZILLA-SIZED BROWN TROUT LOOKING OVER YOUR SHOULDER, AND YOU’RE TELLING ME NOBODY IN GORE SERVES TROUT AND CHIPS? ISN’T THIS SUPPOSED TO BE THE ‘BROWN TROUT CAPITAL OF THE WORLD’?” MY SERVER GIVES ME A FAMILIAR LOOK. IT SAYS: “YOU’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE, AND MAYBE YOU SHOULD STOP TALKING.”
The immense trout statue in the middle of Gore is there for a reason. (And yes, it’s still there. The viral story about plans to remove it after complaints from an offended vegan was #fakenews.) Boasting 150 kilometres of easy- access fishable waters, the gin-clear Mataura River has some of the best dry-fly fishing on earth. You should go there, you should take your rod, and you should catch fish. But even in this gilled Xanadu, you won’t find trout on the menu. It’s not just a Gore thing. Trout is not served in New Zealand restaurants, never, not at all.
It breaks down like this: the sale of trout is technically allowed in New Zealand, but the obtaining of trout to sell is not. You can’t farm trout, you can’t sell trout caught in the wild, and you can’t import the stuff either. Or, in the not-quite-verbatim words of John Travolta / Vincent from Pulp Fiction: “Yeah, it’s legal but it ain’t hundred percent legal, I mean, you just can’t walk into a restaurant, roll a joint / order a trout and start puffin’/ chowin’ away. They want you to smoke / eat in your home or certain designated places.”
In short, for reasons economic, historic, scientific and cultural, if you are hankering for a professionally cooked trout, you have to catch it yourself. Fortunately, some restaurants will prepare your fish for you, but we suggest you call ahead before fronting up with a bag of raw trout. Only some places do BYO.
Mo money, mo problems
One reason for the trout drought at your local café is economic, but it’s not a supply and demand thing. Brown trout, followed by the easier-to-catch rainbow variety, were introduced here in the 1880s. Thanks to a lack of predators and a wealth of spawning streams, they got big, and plentiful – so plentiful that in 2017 the daily bag limit in the Taupō fishery was increased from three fish to six because there were too many of the damn things.
Nonetheless, the Conservation Act 1987 prohibits the selling (including barter) of wild trout caught in New Zealand. This is due in part to a fear that if people could sell trout, people would poach em’, and damage the wild fishery. As for trout farming, it has been prohibited under the Conservation Act and Fisheries Act since the early seventies. Salmon, yes, trout, no. This is because farms can spread disease in fish populations and compromise genetic diversity. Google “Royal Family hemophilia” for a lengthy read on that topic.
“ framing hunting and fishing regulations, we gave the big middle finger to Mother England”
The wild fishery is worth a lot. For creatures that max out at 10 pounds each, trout contribute significantly to the national economy. (Fun fact: in fisher talk, fish weight is still measured in pounds, a throwback from the English. More on them later.) This is because fishers blow a lot of cash. More than $11 million worth of fishing licences are sold annually, plus there’s travel, accommodation, boats, trucks to tow the boats, clothing, chilly bins, beers to go in the chilly bins, and gear, lots of gear. According to the Department of Conservation, in Great Lake Taupō, approximately one fish is taken for each licence sold, with each trout worth about $725 in business turnover. Additionally, every 130 fish caught supports one full-time job. It just isn’t worth including this precious resource with the shark-and-taties offerings.
This is not England, or America
Our lack of trout takeaways is also – like saying “yeah neah” and happily spending five days waiting for the outcome of cricket match – a cultural thing. In New Zealand, the care of natural resources is part of our culture. Kaitiakitanga, the guardianship of sea, sky and land, is guaranteed by Article II of the Treaty of Waitangi. From early on, we rejected the United Kingdom’s “landed gentry” model and later, when framing hunting and fishing regulations, we gave the big middle finger to Mother England.
In the European tradition, the hunting of fish, deer, rabbits, grouse and the like was not food-focussed, but was a way for nobles to one-up each other by putting on knickerbockers and galloping around managed estates while the peasantry starved. OK, it was probably a lot more nuanced than that. But it is worth noting that one of the things Robin Hood (supposedly) rebelled against were the forest laws. Especially after the Norman Conquest, forests were more like modern-day reserves, but instead of being set up to protect wildlife, they barred hunting without the king’s permission. According to Professor Jane Winters of the Institute of Historical Research, the 12th- century historian Henry of Huntingdon noted that William the Conqueror “loved the beasts of the chase as if he were their father. On account of this, in the woodlands reserved for hunting… he had villages rooted out and people removed.” The punishments for the illicit gathering of game over the centuries have included imprisonment, mutilation and death. Or, in the case of Roald Dahl’s classic Danny the Champion of the World, a broken ankle from falling into a landowner’s tiger trap.
Game fishing, too, has a history as a rite reserved for the rich. Fly-caught trout, salmon and grayling became the domain of the upper classes, and in many cases remain so to this day. Public fishing, as we know it in Aotearoa, does not exist on trout streams in England. There, landowners might lease you a “beat” (section of water) to fish, but you better bring a bag of Nottingham’s gold coins. It can run you £500 or more to fish less than a kilometre of water on some of England’s most sought-after streams. The local fiefdom may also require you to lease a minimum of three “rods” (a per person fee) for each beat, and you’re out £1,500 before you’ve even had your crumpet.
It’s not a lot better in many of the other former colonies. In America, for example, many States honour versions of the Castle Doctrine (as in “your home is your castle”), which is known for, um, broad interpretations of the “it was self-defense, your Honor” excuse for the use of deadly force.
Her Majesty’s chain
Castle Doctrine or not, in Aotearoa we just don’t prioritise private property the way they do overseas. The most famous example of this is the Queen’s Chain. Since 1841, the right of public access to waterways has been enshrined in a reserve strip of land one “chain” in width – a chain was an old surveyor’s tool which was 100 links long, or about 20 metres.
It came from Queen Victoria’s orders to the then-Governor of New Zealand, William Hobson, to set aside land for public use adjacent to sea shores, rivers and streams. “Not on any account,” wrote Her Majesty (ironically, in light of what her forest-hoarding ancestors got up to back home), “…permit or suffer any such lands to be occupied by any private person for any private purpose.” The 1892 Land Act sealed it, protecting a chain-width strip adjacent to high watermarks along significant rivers, streams and coastlines. There’s debate about whether Victoria really meant for this marginal strip to be so universal, and there are missing links in the chain; it only currently applies to about 60 percent of waterways. But it’s a thing, and, similar to Pineapple Lumps, it’s one that New Zealanders are either immensely proud of, or hate.
However you feel about the Queen’s Chain, it is part of post-colonial New Zealand’s rejection of giving the privileged few exclusive access to resources just because they’re high ballers. Robin Hood would have nothing to do here, or, if he did, he would be stealing from us commoners, not the rich. Or the commoners and the rich, because, when it comes to fish and game, we’re all dancing to the same bush doof.
So long, and thanks for all the fish
You can’t order trout at a restaurant in New Zealand. Nor can you build a big-ass mansion next to the beach, put up a No Trespassing sign and take pot shots at people who wander past your bay windows while digging for pipi. Happy days, we say. Sight fishing a dry fly to a rising trout is not simply an affordable meal, it’s meditation, it’s silence, it’s a chance to forget, everything. Fish of the day? Nah. A self-caught trout will always taste better.
NATHAN WEATHINGTON & LAURA WILLIAMSON