In this Feb. 9, 2019, file photo, fishermen put smelt in a box during a traditional winter smelt fish festival on Lusiai lake some 74 miles north of Vilnius, Lithuania. Maine's smelt population appears to be continuing a rebound after years of decline. Credit: Mindaugas Kulbis | AP

Maine’s smelts, a small fish beloved by ice fishermen, appear to be continuing a rebound in population after years of decline.

Rainbow smelts come to shallow freshwater streams to spawn every spring, which make them a popular target of ice fishermen in the winter. Ice fishing shacks on frozen rivers are a common sight in some Maine towns, where fishermen sit for hours in the hopes of catching the fish and eating them fried and with the head on.

But the health of the fish’s population is in question, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed it as a federal “species of concern” in 2004. The Maine Department of Marine Resources has described the reasons for the decline as not well understood. Loss of habitat is one possibility.

Maine made it more difficult to fish for the smelts about five years ago with new restrictions, and recent years have shown positive signs. Reported catches of smelts from areas such as the Androscoggin and Damariscotta rivers have been above average, in terms of the size of the fish and the numbers caught per tide, said Michael Brown, a fisheries scientist with the state.

“We remain optimistic that the fisheries on the large rivers will be just as good this year,” Brown said.

This year’s ice fishing season was delayed somewhat by warm weather. State officials have warned fishermen and others to exercise caution on potentially thin ice.

But Steve Leighton, owner of Leighton Smelt Camps in Bowdoinham, said he expects a good year even with a slightly late start.

“Last year they started doing really good again. Had one of the best seasons I’ve had in a long time,” Leighton said.

The Department of Marine Resources is conducting a survey of smelt populations this year. The ability to perform the survey depends a lot on ice conditions, and on commercial operators being able to keep their fishing camps out on the ice, Brown said.