Smelt camps line ice along the shore of the Kennebec River in Randolph. Smelting at night is usually more productive.  Credit: Courtesy of Christi Holmes

It doesn’t get more Maine than smelting. Cramped in a small shack, fishing for small fish — I love it. The coziness of the wood stove, the ease of just showing up and having everything you need ready for you. This tradition of fishing in the dark, retaliating against Maine’s long, cold winters is a welcome reprieve.

Last week, my friends Jarad and Brittany from North Carolina visited Maine for the first time. My fiance Travis and I brainstormed things to do. We could go see some lighthouses, eat lunch in the Old Port, hit up a couple breweries and go ice fishing.

“Let’s take them smelting!” I suggested. “Even if the smelts aren’t running, it’s still a fun evening cooking over the wood stove and hanging out,” I pleaded my case.

So we did.

And the smelts were running.

We arrived at Worthing’s Smelt Camp in Randolph on the Kennebec River around 5 p.m. It was an outgoing tide, and our shack rental was good for the entire tide, about six hours. Jarad, Brittany and I stood in the muddy parking lot while Travis went inside the office, an old single wide trailer, to check in and pay $80.

Bangor Daily News outdoors contributor Christi Holmes enjoys a red hot dog and Moxie while smelting. Credit: Courtesy of Christi Holmes

“We are Shack 26,” he announced when he emerged with a plastic baggie of blood worms.

Our foursome walked down the nearly level ramp onto the ice where shacks lined the shore, all glowing with their own lights. The ice cracked. The ramp would be very steep by the time we left, as the tide receded.

“Where we headed?” boomed a bearded employee in his 20s, waiting at the bottom of the ramp. He wore weathered Carhartts and tall Muck boots; a saltier Paul Bunyan.

“26,” Travis replied, and we followed the man through the row of shacks.

It was a Thursday night, and I could tell the people in the other shacks had been there a while. An empty bottle of Allen’s Coffee Brandy sat outside one shack. Guns N’ Roses blared from another shack, which smelled of barbecue. I heard cheers from a shack with their door open, and when we walked by, I spotted the flannel-wearing crew busy hauling up smelts.  

“Here she is,” the burly man said as he opened the door to Shack 26. The six-person shack fit the four of us nicely. The wood stove was already burning and our 6×10-foot shack was warm.

The shack was simple: wooden floor with six stools and two long, rectangular openings in the ice exposed the brackish tidal water on each side. Hooks and lines hung above the holes, waiting to be baited. Two light bulbs with exposed wiring hung in the center of the shack.

I grabbed a stool next to the wood stove as Travis cut one of the bloodworms into tiny pieces. I baited each of my three Sabiki hooks and sent the line on my jig pole to the bottom of the river and reeled it up a couple feet. Graffiti adorned the walls of the shack — names, phone numbers and Snapchat names. Someone named Jeff had caught 12 smelts the week prior, based on the tick marks next to his name.

I started setting the other lines in the shack when I saw the tip of my jig pole bounce gently. I squealed, “I got a bite!” and grabbed the small rod and started reeling quickly, bringing an averaged-sized, 6-inch smelt in the shack. Travis whooped and I hollered, letting the anglers in the neighboring shacks know we were on the board.

Rainbow smelts are anadromous fish, spending their lives in the ocean, but spawning in freshwater. They swim up rivers in January and February to their spawning grounds, where they feed and wait until they spawn at the end of March or early April.

I love eating smelts; the smaller, the better. Last year I caught 88 myself and froze most of them. When Travis went out of town, I thawed out a package and enjoyed them all to myself. They’re delicious and not fishy at all. I remove the heads and guts, then bread and fry them whole. The crunch from the bones and fins compliments the breading, and they taste like one big french fry.

Travis Elliott (left), Bangor Daily News outdoors contributor Christi Holmes and friends from North Carolina, Jarad and Brittany Osterhus, enjoyed a successful evening smelting last week at Worthing’s Smelt Camps on the Kennebec River in Randolph. Credit: Courtesy of Travis Elliott

I placed the smelt in our bucket and lowered the jig pole again. “Put it on bottom, that’s where I caught mine,” I advised the group. “And remember Jarad and Brittany, it’s tradition you have to bite the head off of your first smelt!”  

A few seconds later, the tip of my jig pole bounced again. “A double!” I exclaimed as two smelts emerged on my Sabiki rig. Brittany caught one next but refused to bite the head off. Jarad made up for it, by enthusiastically biting the heads off the first few smelts he caught.

Soon we were all on the board and began a good-natured hollering match with neighboring Shack No. 27. When someone in our shack caught a smelt, we hollered lies like, “It’s taking line! Maybe it’s a sturgeon!”

Inhabitants from Shack 27 hollered lies back like, “That’s number 942! We are switching to catch and release!”

We offered the shacks around us red hot dogs, and someone from Shack 25 gave us a can of pickled fiddleheads and told us the secret to catching more smelts was to pour some Fireball whiskey down the hole.

The bite slowed down around 10 p.m. and we left with 85 smelts, some empty beer cans and another fish story.

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Christi Holmes, Outdoors contributor

Christi Holmes is a Registered Maine Guide and Appalachian Trail thru hiker. Christi is the founder of Maine Women Hunters and works as a design engineer. She lives in Gray. Follow her @christiholmes on...