Friday, February 19, 2021

Tales from the outdoors: Smelting a popular winter fishing activity in Maine

By Bob Chapin

Special to The Windham Eagle 

One of the most enjoyable things you can do up here in Maine during the winter is to go smelting. Smelt are a saltwater fish that make a spawning run up freshwater rivers at a time when the ice is safe to walk on. You are fishing for the larger saltwater smelt not the bait fish in many of our freshwater lakes and ponds. It is a good activity for families and small groups of compatible guys.

There are several commercial “camps” that will begin to operate as soon as we have enough safe ice. Most of these consist of a structure roughly 8 x 10 feet with a source of heat inside such as a wood stove or a kerosene heater (I prefer the wood stoves because I can modulate the heat to stay warm while avoiding overheating and the smell that your clothes and hair will acquire after a short time in a kerosene-heated hut).

Inside the hut there will likely be one to two long trenches cut through the ice through which you will fish. Most will have fishing lines tied above the trenches, about eight per side, complete with leader, sinkers, and a small hook. You are welcomed to bring your own gear. When you check in you can buy or may be given a package of sand worms in seaweed to use as your bait.

You decide how deep you want to fish and unwind the appropriate length of line, bait it with a small section of worm (Caution-sand worms have pincers that can puncture your skin so find the head-first, and then remove it), drop it into the trench, and you are in business. The smelt bite can be very subtle so pay attention to your lines. These are relatively small fish… six to eight inches average.

What time of day, or more precisely what time in the tide cycle, determines when you should fish. There are lots of opinions about the best time but if you are there an hour or so before high tide you should be in great shape as the smelt tend to come in on a rising tide. The commercial guys track the tides as well and know the preferred times. They will probably offer you a couple of different times and you can decide what best suits your crowd.

Usually, four to six fishermen per shack works best, more than that, get a second shack. You contract with them for about a six-hour time slot before you give up the shack. Prices vary but most are very reasonable, say $20 for the shack per person and $4 for the worms. These are very social outings, and the camaraderie is what makes it fun.
You may wish to avoid Friday and Saturday nights if you are sensitive to folks who imbibe too much adult beverage, or use crude language around children and wives, just say’n.

Some regulars use a board with four reels attached to it and sensitive spring steel bands, salvaged from old corsets or broken ice tip ups. The line is threaded through a loop near the end of the stays going directly to the baited hook. When a fish bites it pulls the stay down and the fisherman knows he’s got a bite. Smelting tends to be “hit or miss”, meaning you either do very well filling a 5-gallon bucket or you only get a few. The ones you do get are delicious when cleaned and fried up in a fish batter or just plain. The diehards don’t even clean them sometimes!

Things you should bring to make your time more successful and enjoyable include:

** Camp chair with cushion (a seat will be provided but they are often very primitive)

** Ice creepers for your boots

** Your own tackle – short rods, small lures, small hooks, sabiki rigs, small weights

** Knife to cut bait

** Reading material; cards

** A bucket to carry your gear in and to store fish

** Small cutting board

** Rag/paper towels

** Phone/Ipad with camera; video games

** Lots of food, snacks, drinks for you and to share – this can save a slow night!

Watch local papers and sporting magazines for places advertising smelting opportunities or point your browser to “Maine Smelting Camps.”

Here are a couple to get you started:

Baker’s, Route 27 Smithtown Road, 207-582-4257

James’s Eddy, Route 127, 426 Middle St., Dresden, 207-737-2596

Jim’s Camps, Route 24, Bowdoinham, 207-666-3049 <

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