Jake Adams, left, and Jim McPherson push a smelt camp off the trailer Tuesday at Jim’s Camps in Bowdoinham. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

DRESDEN — Sharon James is spending her days in the latter part of January fielding phone calls for James Eddy Smelt Camps.

People are calling from across Maine and New England to find out whether enough ice has formed to start the annual winter season to fish for rainbow smelt, a species of small fish found in Maine’s tidal rivers.

“We had a skim across this morning, because it was like 10 degrees last night, but no ice, not yet,” Sharon James said Thursday. “We had some shell ice down on the cove, but the rain washed that away.”

For more than six decades, the James Eddy Smelt Camps have operated just off Middle Road from the banks of the  Eastern River, a tributary of the Kennebec River.

In most years, James said, enough ice has formed by the second half of January to allow the camps to be hauled out onto the ice for the smelt season. The ice needs to be at least 5 inches to 6 inches thick, but ideally it should be thicker to be safe to use.

“This is late,” she said. “We’re usually gone by the first week in January.”

James Eddy is usually among the last smelt camps to get on the river because of high water flow where it’s located.

On the other side of the Kennebec River, Jim McPherson, owner of Jim’s Camps, is spending this week getting ready for the start of his season on the Cathance River.

With about 4 inches of ice already formed where he is, McPherson predicted this week that enough ice will have formed to kick off his smelt season on Monday, Feb. 1. He likes to see about 6 inches of ice before he puts out his camps, he said.

“I am shooting for getting something done by Monday,” said McPherson, who has been in business for about 45 years.

Every winter, ice on the Kennebec and its tributaries means that smelt camps in central Maine open for a brief, furious season of catching the fish found under the river ice.

Generally, weather conditions shape the season. It starts when enough ice has formed on the Kennebec River and its tributaries in and around Merrymeeting Bay to support the weight of the camps and the people the who rent the shacks. It normally ends when the ice starts to weaken and is no longer safe; sometimes ice breaking operations on the Kennebec call a halt to the season. In either event, all camps must be removed by March 15.

Signs outside the office seen Tuesday at Jim’s Camps in Bowdoinham. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

While ice made a brief appearance on the Kennebec River in December, the river has been open since heavy rain on Dec. 25 washed it away.

For river ice to form, a number of conditions have to be in place that haven’t been so far this year, said Nick Stasulis, data section chief at the USGS’s New England Water Science Center.

The Christmas Day storm and subsequent rain storms have resulted in higher, faster flows Stasulis said, which keep ice from forming. It’s also been pretty warm.

“I don’t know that we have ice every single year on the Kennebec this time of year,” he said Thursday. “We’re starting to get to a point where it’s not normal.”

Detailed ice in and ice out records are available for other rivers in Maine, but not for the Kennebec, which in some ways, Stasulis said, isn’t a normal river. Its flows are regulated upstream by hydropower dams and the tidal swings affect the lower reach of river about as far north as Augusta.

“We don’t have any good data about what ice conditions are in Augusta and downstream because we don’t collect a lot of streamflow information in there,” he said, noting that there’s a stream flow gauge in Sidney, north of Augusta.

At the National Weather Service office in Gray, meteorologist Tom Hawley said Tuesday that warmer than normal temperatures in December and January in the Augusta area have contributed to the lack of ice. Temperatures in December were 4.8 degrees above normal and to date in January, the temperature has been 7.6 degrees above normal. Put another way, from Dec. 21 through Jan. 20, not one day was below normal for temperature in Augusta.

“It’s been very warm,” Hawley said.

The forecast shows the coldest stretch of weather will start Thursday and stretch to Saturday. But after that, warmer than normal conditions will return next week and above-normal temperatures are forecast for the first two week in February.

“I just don’t see any good news for the smelting people,” he said. “Maybe the tributaries will get some, but the the main stem of the Kennebec, I don’t see getting enough ice, unless we get awfully, awfully cold.”

James said normally the smelt season is about eight weeks to 10 weeks long. This year, it might be five weeks to six weeks.

While the official records for ice formation on the river system may not be robust, both McPherson and James have their own observations to call on.

McPherson said one year not long ago, his season lasted a only a week.

James recalls that year, too. She’s noted that about every four years, the weather delivers poor conditions for the winter smelt season and people can’t get out as soon as they think they should be able to.

The other factor that might affect the season, if it ever gets off the ground, is the COVID-19 pandemic that curtailed other businesses and activities since just about the end of last year’s winter smelt season.

Some fans have noted on social media that they’ll skip this year’s season over concerns about coronavirus.

But McPherson said he doesn’t think it will affect him that much.

“It may influence my out-of-state business. It may be hard for some of them to follow the guidelines, but there’s enough locals and there’s no restrictions on them other than all they have to do is stay 6 feet apart,” he said.

“Everybody’s ready to go fishing,” James said. “We just don’t have the ice yet.”

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