With numerous outfits opening up and offering camps rentals, smelting is big business in Maine

Beginning in December, when the ice forms on our coastal rivers, the annual saltwater smelt fishing season begins in earnest.

The limiting factor for this sport of the common man is ice.

It seems that in some years, the ice forms early enough, yet in other years, this one particularly, the ice comes and goes with warm temperatures and rain.

In any case, if you haven’t been smelting, you are missing out on perhaps one of the most enjoyable and traditional winter angling sports available.

Unlike ice fishing, smelt angling is big business.

Dozens of outfits open up this time of year and offer smelt shack rentals along Maine’s coastal rivers.

Most smelt camps feature rental shacks for two or four persons, complete with a gas or wood stove and electric lights. Most also offer bait for sale, and many even sell snacks and drinks.

Some of my fondest memories include driving toward the Kennebec River on a bitterly cold night, getting a bag of bait, and heading onto the thin Kennebec ice to a heated shack. We would often bring along baked beans and hot dogs to cook on the woodstove, and enjoy a hearty meal while pulling in dozens upon dozens of smelts from the tidal water.

To begin with, the rainbow smelt is the same fish that runs the streams inland each spring. The only difference is that these smelt reside in coastal waters and run up the rivers that empty into Maine’s ocean coast. The rainbow smelt typically runs between 6 and 9 inches long, but some “jack” smelt reach a foot or more in length.

It is a greenish-blue hue, with a thin stripe of purple running along the belly, hence the name “rainbow” smelt. Most anglers snip the heads off with a scissors, slit their belly to remove the entrails and dredge them in cornmeal before frying them to a golden brown. The tiny bones in the smelt cook up and virtually disintegrate during the cooking process. I like to scale my smelt with a dull knife right in the shack as I find they taste better without the heavy scales. A dozen or so smelt makes a good snack, and several dozen will feed two people. Not that long ago, many Maine restaurants served smelt this time of year.

The angling technique for smelt varies, but most who rent smelt camps use the house lines.

These consist of a long board suspended on springs above the race hole (a long hole cut in the ice, usually running the length of the shack). A series of weighted braided lines come off the board, and a section of monofilament holds a tiny hook at the end. Marine worms are the most common bait for smelt. These long worms are hideous to look at and feature a sharp, aggressive pincher at the head. Once you cut into the work, it bleeds profusely and gives these worms their nickname of “blood worm.”

I always cut the head with the pincher off first, and divide my worm into -inch pieces to bait my hooks. I prefer to bring along a half-dozen lightweight rods with 1-pound test mono line and tiny jig heads. I put a bit of worm on the jig head and set the rod alongside the race hole. The thin wire tip of the rod bounces when a smelt is biting. These rods are so sensitive to the faint strike of a smelt that I can usually out-fish someone using house lines by only using one or two of my rods.

Anglers rent the smelt camps based on the tide, fishing an incoming or outgoing tide. I prefer to fish the incoming tide, but it all depends on how late you want to fish. Most smelt camps take reservations and fill up quickly on weekend nights. I prefer to fish weeknights, as there is less of a crowd. Weekends also tend to see a rowdier group of anglers, so if you are taking children along, a week night works best. For a complete list of smelt camp rentals, visit the Department of Marine Resources Web site at www.maine.gov/dmr/recreational/smeltcamps.htm

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