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Catching eels with my grandmother {Part 2}

Posted on : 08-07-2009 | By : Cindy | In : Maori kai, Traditions

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This is Part 2 of Haare’s story about going out and catching eels with his grandparents. ( Part 1 is here.  Also see added footnote at the bottom of this post, about my husband’s eel hunting experiences too) ..c

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It was late afternoon when we settled down beside a blazing fire with Wairemana positioning herself close to the edge of the river. Other kuia were settling down along the riverbank for some distance away.  We were positioned near a dark, swirling pool, which looked quite threatening.  Wairemana was adept and had great skill in catching the eels hungry for the bait with muka, threaded through its body.  The hand held muka line was suspended from her frail but anxious hand and as she dipped it into the water, the bite was immediate as dozens of eels rushed to grab the bait.

The swirl of the eels in the water and the rhythm set up by Wairemana meant that the eels, whatever their size, were flung with ease onto the shore.  With just a single effortless movement she flicked the line over her shoulder and with a quick flick, the eel let-go of the bait landing some way away from the river.  It was so quick; Rimaha and I had to work fast to recover the snaking fish in the dim light of the fire.

It was a joy to watch her in action.  So rhythmic and composed.  She had done this so many times before.  It looked second nature.

Yes, during the night she let me have a go as well.  But I could not flick the eel over my shoulder.

She held her position all night and by dawn we had several sacks of the choicest eels in the river.  All dead.  The smaller ones were put back.

As they lay stretched out on the ground, I was a little scared to even touch the gleaming black and grey yields of the river.  Eels everywhere.

Rimaha and I then cleaned the slime off them by passing them through the ashes of the dying fire.  And then clean them.  A job I hated.

Wairemana had earned the right to sit and rest with her torori tobacco pipe in her mouth.

Further along the river others were gathering around and cleaning their cache.  It looked like a great night for everyone.

After the karakia we said goodbye to the river and headed home.  Lady, our trusted old horse had a very satisfying load to take home.

Pawhera tuna (eels) everywhere.  They were opened up from the belly across its spine and along the back. It was then smothered in salt, rubbed in and hung out in the sun to dry.

This is tuna pawhera.  Each night the hundred or so eels were gathered in and put out again the next day. They took up every vantage spot around our kainga. And after a week of drying in the sun, the delicacies were ready to be stored away for special occasions and for our meals over a long winter.

“Mauria mai he tuna pawhera e moko kia tunutunua ki runga i te ahi o te kauta nei. Kei te rongo koe i te kakara, nera?”

“Tino rawe tena e Ma,” showing my enthusiasm to slowly smoke pawhera tuna above the smouldering embers of the open fire in our kauata.

What a meal.  Oil under the thick skin of the smoked tuna running down my cheeks and arms.  I can still savour its unique and special taste. Still taste it now.   ..Haare

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* Cindy’s footnote: My husband recalls his eeling days as a teenager on his tribal farm, Mangatu …

what22“I’ll never forget it!” my husband started. “I was about 15 or 16, and staying with my cousins on our farm – 50,000 acres of rugged sheep farming country in my tribe’s Mangatu farm blocks, Whatatutu, near Gisborne (you can see how rugged the country is on this google map). Freezing cold – a night just like tonight”  – at the moment we are sitting warm and cosy at home on a cold New Zealand winter evening as he tells me this story of his teenage eel catching adventures.

“We got up at 3am mid-winter and drove in the old Land Rover beside our river until the road ran out. We then walked inland another couple of kilometres through the river’s freezing water and up over cascading waterfalls in the pitch dark (no moon), except for light from our kerosene lamps. I’ll never forget seeing the eels (NZ long fin variety) once we arrived at our posy – the water was teeming with them, attracted by the lamps.”

“They just lie there on the bottom of the stream, blissfully unaware what’s going to happen next. You sneak up to them, whack the metal hook under their bellies, jerk up and fling them up onto the bank. It took four of us – Uncle Tiny, my cousin Laurie, another cousin and me – about two hours to catch 60 or 70 eels – huge black slimy monsters.

I’ve never been so cold in my life, frozen to the bone.”

“I’ll never forget that cold and carrying those massive eels back on my shoulders – thick bodies, and this long.”  He stretches his arms out as wide as they can go.

“How did four of you carry so many back?” I ask.

“I don’t know how we did it, but we did. We threaded them with No. 8 wire through their mouths. They were so heavy. And we had to trek back down those treacherous waterfalls and through the river. We got home about 7am – soaking wet, freezing cold, knackered! We dried and smoked the eels the next day for a wedding celebration at our marae (Tapuihikitea) that was coming up – all the trouble we went to, to get them, was worth it.”

My husband’s whanau (family) on the farm are strong, tough as, rugged types, Maori – if we all had to work that hard for our food we sure wouldn’t need gyms, weight watchers or protein powders! ..c

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Related articles:

For the nutrition part, read this: Maori diet of eel could help stop diabetes rise | NZ Herald
See Haare’s other story about cultivating Kumara

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Comments (1)

I enjoyed reading the stories pertaining to the traditional harvesting and storing of kumura, the catching and preserving of eels. This was motivated by the article in today’s paper re the drought (last 3 years) and how it has affected the kumura crops particularly in the Hokianga area. My wife andI lived and taught at Waiomatatini East Coast and Joy and Jack Blackbee were our good friends. Joy always had a great garden. A few years later, my family lived in Pukenui, Houhora, Northland. I learned about the Maori particularly up near Ter kao where they grew large crops of kumura and how they used a special sacred flat rock to dry the kumura before storing. The stories and the subjects – kumura and tuna are a only a fraction of the vast store of special Maori taonga.

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