Monday, February 28, 2011


What fish-loving Mainer wouldn’t relish a plate of fresh smelt, Osmerus mordax, rolled in fine cornmeal and fried in rendered salt pork? Even health-conscious types, those who would use olive oil instead of pork, must admit that smelt are one of the tastiest fish to swim in Maine waters.

A friend just returned from a night of smelt fishing on the Kennebec River. He gave me a package of smelts, cleaned on the spot inside the ice shack. These supplied enough for two meals.

But ice fishing isn’t the only way to catch smelt. Each spring, smelt, thousands and thousands of them, ascend tidal rivers up and down the Maine coast. They don’t all go back to sea with the tide, either, as evidenced by the huge number taken by dippers in South Brewer on the Penobscot River.

People also fish for smelt with rod and reel, too. In fact, smelt bite 24 hours a day, not just at night. Those hardy souls who dare to go out now with a spinning outfit, some shrimp meat or even a small jig such as Swedish Pimple, stand a chance of taking a good mess of smelts.

While not exactly a game fish in the same league with trout and salmon, smelt fight quite well given their diminutive size. Toothy, aggressive and willing to bite on almost anything, smelt are a real joy to catch on ultralight fishing tackle.

Here’s another thing. Down in coves and tidal rivers in Knox County, smelt make an annual, fall run. People buy telescoping poles, line attached, from outlets in Rockland. The prescribed method here requires going out at night on an incoming tide, baiting the four hooks (attached via a spreader) on the end of the line and holding the spreader and its little knob that serves as a strike indicator, just above the surface.

When a smelt bites (sometimes two or three bite at once), the knob turns, signaling that its time to raise the pole and grab the silvery, wriggling smelt.

Finally, smelt used to run in Belfast Bay when Stinson Cannery was still in business. I used to catch lots of them from the old footbridge and also, from my canoe, which I would tie to the Stinson wharf.

Smelt season is here. Even if you don’t go fish for them yourself, try and buy enough for at least one or two meals. You’ll be keeping alive a wonderful, old-time Maine tradition.

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