By Matt LaRoche
Smelting is one of the rites of spring for many diehard outdoorsmen and women. I certainly enjoy getting out there and dipping a few of the silvery beauties each spring. Dipping smelts is not for the faint of heart, because often the trip turns out to be waiting beside the brook for a couple hours with the harvest of only a handful of smelts to take home. Last year, I hit the smelt run just right and was able to dip two quarts in about an hour. It was truly a fun time!
There are two types of smelt commonly sought by the sporting community. Sea run smelt, that grow to maturity in the ocean and run up freshwater streams to spawn. These are usually caught by hook and line, in a shanty along the tidal sections of rivers and streams. The second type of smelt and focus of this article, is the landlocked smelt- commonly called the rainbow smelt.
The rainbow smelt grows to maturity in freshwater lakes and ascend tributaries to spawn in the spring. The spawning run can last from a couple days, to a couple weeks, depending on the waterbody. Peak activity typically only lasts for a few days to a week. Usually, the bigger the lake, the heavier and longer the smelt run. It has been my experience that the smelt run occurs at or just before ice out in the lakes of northern Maine.
I can still remember the first time I ever went dipping smelts. I was working at Chamberlain Bridge in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (AWW). Dwayne Larry, who worked for Great Northern Paper Company, picked me up about dusk. We drove as close as we could get to McNally Brook, on the Arm of Chamberlain, then we bushwhacked to the brook. We waited a couple hours by the brook without seeing a single smelt! Next night, we did the exact same thing. On the third night, the brook had several jack smelts 6 Š 8 inches long in it and we were able to get enough for a feed. On the fourth night, there were so many smelt in the brook you could catch a quart in one dip!
My brother, Mark came up a few days later to go fishing. We decided to try our luck at McNally Brook, to our surprise, there were large schools of smelt swimming in the brook in broad daylight. We had a trout net with us and were able to catch all the smelt we wanted with that small net. It was fun because the schools of fish would move when they saw our silhouette. We got soaked getting a limit of smelt. While we were chasing the smelts around, we noticed several big fish jumping and swirling in the brook feeding on the smelt. We werenÕt smart enough back then to hook a smelt on a line and throw it out in the mouth of the brook.
When I was working on the West Branch of the Penobscot, dipping smelts at Ragged Stream (now closed) was a spring ritual. One year, I took my two older kids, Anna and Levi smelting at Ragged. They were too small to handle the smelt net, but the run was so heavy that they just grabbed them by the handful. It was fun watching the kids shriek with excitement, as they grabbed handfuls of the slippery little fish.
Cleaning smelts is not much fun, as a matter of fact- once I have cleaned two quarts, I don't really want to eat any that night. I have a friend, Steve Day who doesn't bother cleaning his smelts- he just fries them heads and all. I have eaten them cleaned and uncleaned and there really isn't that much difference. But my wife likes them cleaned, so we clean ours before cooking.
The traditional method of cooking smelt is to mix flour, corn meal, and Cajun seasoning in a plastic bag. Put enough of the silvery little fish in the bag to fill the frying pan, then shake the fish in the bag until they are well coated with the mixture. Drop the smelt into a skillet of hot cooking oil and fry until they are cooked, then scoop them out of the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels, serve hot.
My wife's recipe- uses the the same mix as above, but instead of frying them- she places them on a cookie sheet and drizzles butter over the seasoned fish. Then they are cooked in the oven at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes. They are best when eaten hot, right out of the oven. I eat them just like french fries, except I don't eat the tails. At the end of the meal, I have a nice little pile of fish tails on the side of my plate.
For ice conditions, or general information on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, go to: www.maine.gov/allagash for an information packet call 207-941-4014, or write to the Department of Agriculture Conservation and Forestry's Bureau of Parks and Lands, 106 Hogan Road, Bangor, ME 04401.
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