Photos above by Gregg Elliott
On Saturday night Greg and I headed north past Portland, following route 1, and then turning down a long dirt road into pitch darkness. It was a balmy 12 degrees out, we were bundled up, our truck packed with supplies, ready to experience a real Maine tradition, smelt fishing in February. Smelts are found in the salt waters of Maine as they run upstream to spawn. The most common way of fishing for them in Maine is by setting up a shanty on the ice covered tidal estuaries in the winter months. River Bend Smelt Camps in Bowdoinham rents shanties fully equipped with a stove, wood, electricity, lines, and bait. We called ahead and booked a shanty on the outgoing tide; 8pm to 2 am with my brother Gregg and fishing guide Greg. Yes, it was me and three Greggs. Strange I know.
We headed out across the ice seeing about a dozen shanties in the distant. I started to breath heavy as I realized I couldn’t see where the ice began or ended. “We’re on the ocean, right?” I yelled ahead. How could this be safe? Does salt water even freeze? I calmed myself by looking above at the star filled sky. “I won’t die”, I kept telling myself. The boys were already about 20 yards in front of me completely unfazed.
Inside the shanty was a wood floor, wood burning stove, a cord of wood, and several wooden chairs. Along the outer walls of the shanty are long gaps exposing the water below the ice. Above hang a series of lines with hooks mounted on a pole. The pole allowed us to jiggle all the lines at once enticing the fish below. We brought along a small rod to get the full experience.
We caught about 8 fish; 5 smelts and a few perch. We battered them in cajun seasonings and then fried them in a cast iron skillet on a camp stove inside the shanty. The boys cut off the heads and tails and swallow them whole. I was a little pickier. I used the fresh lemon and a fork.
As the night went on the shanties around us got louder. Groups of men were singing and telling stories were the “f-word” was the subject and adjective. The ice around us cracked as the tide went out. After a few beers, my fears were replace by, “did you hear that one?”
Looking for a fishing guide in Maine? Greg Bostater came with us on our trip. Great guy. Check out his site maineriverguides.com.
River Bend Smelt Camps
24 Wallentine Rd (off Route 24)