By Matt Curry
Now if one doesn't recognize the meaning of this headline, this immediately shows that they have never been smelting out of a shanty on the rivers of Maine – where this winter pastime is looked forward to each year by many dedicated Smelters.
This year we made the trip to Pittston, just below the Gardiner bridge to Baker's Smelt Camps, run by Mike Baker and Verna Damon. We arrived at three o'clock PM to fish the coming tide; the party consisted of daughter Sue, son Arthur, grandsons Logan, Brandon and Chase, along with daughter-in-law Cheryl, her niece Jen, Neil McKay, and Yours Truly.
If you haven't figured it out yet, this smelt fishing is a fun-filled evening that a family can enjoy, laughter emits from the thin-walled smelt shanties as bodies having fun laugh easy. Small events like someone catching a very small smelt, or some one squawking because they lost a smelt just as it was coming out of the water, or one being squeamish at pulling a hook out of the smelt’s mouth, or mock anger at another for catching a smelt on the line they were tending, and it just goes on and on. The bottom line is people sharing moments with family and friends during a mutual enjoyable pastime.
Five-year old Chase soon caught on to what to watch for when a smelt was biting on the line. He would snatch at the line and hook the smelt all by himself, no smile is any wider than on a child that is holding a line that he just pulled out of the water with a fish on the other end. These smelts are small, and the smallest movement or circular motion to the line tells all, once this observation is mastered then the fun begins when one begins to pull smelts up though the slit trench in the ice. We had hired two smelt camps, one that held six bodies and one that held four, and both had a small woodstove, with a flat top where fry pans or pots are used to cook. The temperature was hovering at two above zero yet at times it was so hot in the shanty that the doors had to be left wide open. The camp is equipped with two slit trenches in the ice on the sides. Small home made benches are provided and above the trenches is a two by two that has numerous lines wound up on pegs. These are spaced about twelve inches apart.
Once we arrived at the shanties it wasn't long in baiting the hooks with small sections of blood worms, then letting them down at different levels of depth into the river water. The day had turned out from a snowy start to a brilliant sunny afternoon. Even though everyone was already in happy moods, this kind of day really put the frosting on the cake. It wasn't long after the first lines were let down that the familiar cry of “I got one,” then as if echoed, “I got one too.” It is always great to be smelting but what makes it even greater is when the smelt are cooperating. One asks how can anyone get so excited over catching a small fish six to ten inches long? It doesn't matter how big or small a fish is, what matters is that we are fishing and are actually doing it.
Ask my daughter-in-law Cheryl what she enjoys about fishing and the answer would be: EVERYTHING. Let me tell you this woman loves to fish, this was her first experience at fishing for smelts and - guaranteed - we will not be able to "EVER" get to go smelting without her again. Grandson Logan had a good time this being his first excursion at catching smelts from a smelt shanty, the next day he said to me, "Gramps I had a blast last night". Come to think on it, I guess everyone there had a good time, including Gramps. Grandson Brandon was so excited the day before, for he is a little veteran at this smelt fishing. He sure did catch his share of these pretty silvery sided fish.
The night as stated was a cold February one, but what a scene as one stepped outside of the shanty, a full silver moon was over head illuminating the length and breadth of the river, the ice and snow on the river reflecting different rays according to which angle they caught the moon’s light. The surrounding banks with the trees silhouetted by the light of the moon gave off a feeling that one was caught up in all this night time river scene, the ice shanties were lined up in two rows, the wood smoke streaming from the tin stove pipe chimneys, also the crisp smell of the smoke mixed into the cold clean river bottom air made one want to breath deeply and take as much into the lungs, while the eyes looked around and put into ones memory bank to recall this scene from time to time in the future. OH Yes, Life is Good.
The Baker’s office is a small building setting up on the high bank, a hard packed trail leading down to the river where it ended and a dozen wooden pallets continued the walkway out to the double line of shanties. A four wheeler pulling a two runner horse wood scoot, atop which was a pick-up cap tipped up side down, in this was loaded the fitted wood for the stoves and some gallons of kerosene to instantly start the fires inside of the stoves of the shanties. Neil commented at the resourcefulness of these people, they recycled the pick-up top which most would have heaved to the dump. I commented that they didn't do nothing that I wouldn't have done, and this observation made me like these bodies even more so. First impressions are always the best and these people were friendly and accommodating, seeming to want to please all. When I went back for more bait they asked if we were catching any smelts – at the time we had around forty or so in the bucket – he was outwardly and genuinely pleased that we were catching smelts. Nothing makes a body feel better than when someone is outwardly friendly and pleasant toward you, and these people sure were that. They are closing up the camps for this season but rest assured that come next year our family and friends will be a knocking on their smelt doors. As ten o'clock neared the tide was over, although the fishing slowed down some we started winding up the lines, little Chase was looking weary and winding down, the rest of us were all satisfied that we had another great adventure together, vowing that we will be at it again some other night as long as the ice holds out safely. Just then someone said grab that line nearest the wall, sure enough another smelt the last of night was thrown into the bucket, PLOP—BIPERTY—BOPERTY—BUMPERTY.
Matt Curry, 145 Lincolnville Ave, Belfast ME
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