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Fishing for River Smelt as Winter Comes to a Close in Maine

Grant Fuller

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Bucket o' Smelt
(Sarah Breul/Salt Institute for Documentary Studies)
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Every frigid winter morning, the ice crunches under Steve Leighton's feet as he stomps out toward his 10 ice-fishing shacks to prepare for another day of action. Here at Leighton's Smelt Camps on the Abbagadassett River in Bowdoinham, Maine, people from all walks of life come to while away the New England winter inside a smelt fishing shack. Or camp. Or shanty.

"Whatever you wanna call 'em, I guess," Leighton says with a chuckle.

For his patrons, young and old, fishing for smelt is attractive for various reasons. Some are there for the fish, some for the company, and some for the beer they brought along.

"It's just a way to pass the time," says one smelt fishing old-timer.

"This is a New England phenomenon."

"I like sittin' in the shanty and just fishin' away."

As a small radio blares out a Tom Petty song, the first catch of the night slips away. The smelt bellies up onto the ice at the hole of the wooden shack and wiggles off the line. A young boy inside frowns at the sight. So close. In other shacks, the same frustrated tone reigns.

"Did he eat your bait?" asks a sympathetic mom.

Leighton's Smelt Camps resembles an old village on the ice, with its 10 tiny shacks sitting side-by-side and staggered. Each structure is eight feet square and six feet tall with two "race holes" through which the fishing lines are dropped. Where normal ice fishing holes are small and round, Leighton's are one foot wide and eight feet long, one on each side of the shack.

On a slow day, one man in his 20s prods his wife for dropping a fish at the hole. "I'm gonna drop you in the hole in a minute," she promptly replies.

Steve Leighton has been around these camps for the past 40 years. His father, "Chubby" Leighton, started the business in 1953 and Steve helped him run the place until his death in 1999. Then Steve Leighton took over.

Before every tide, Steve Leighton enters each shack to start the wood stove, which keeps his fishermen warm and happy. As he starts the fire, he takes a moment to relish the sound. "Some of them sound just like a jet plane takin' off," Leighton says proudly.

Most people tend to think Leighton simply sets the shacks on the ice and collects the money, but he says it's not so easy. He works 22 hours a day to keep the camps running. "All they gotta do is walk down, go into a nice, warm camp. They don't think about how come that camp is already warm," Leighton says.

Meanwhile, an old cartoon character of a man in camp nine is losing patience. "Lousy! I haven't even had a bite and I've been here for about four hours," he claims.

Leighton says he'll tell people the truth when the fish aren't biting, but some people will try their luck anyway, with mixed results. "I hate this," says another unlucky customer. "I don't mind not catchin', but this is stupid."

A spirited game of rock-paper-scissors breaks out among three boys in camp two, searching for a way to escape boredom. "See, this is just plain ridiculous," says an old man.

"If the fish aren't bitin', the people are drinkin', usually," explains his son-in-law.

In camp one, three college buddies are drinking and smoking as they listen to hip-hop music. "This is what you do when you're smelt fishing -- drink beer, freakin' don't catch anything."

It doesn't bother Leighton too much, as long as they keep it quiet and customers don't go there simply to drink and party. "They have bars or stay at home for that. I want 'em to come to try and catch fish."

Elsewhere, the action starts. A husband congratulates his wife on the first catch. A group of old friends joke around with their newfound smelt. "Say hello to my little friend!" yells one man as he holds his prize in the air.

A rainbow smelt is a bright silver, scaly fish that can be anywhere from four to 12 inches long. Most are on the smaller end of that scale, and their backs are greenish-blue.

"Hey, call the taxidermist, I wanna have this one mounted!" jokes a relieved old man after finally catching one.

Though their size is not impressive, smelt are normally caught by the bucketful. One couple brags of catching three or four hundred in one night before and another man says he twice filled a five-gallon pail with smelt. However, most people will be happy with 25 to 50 fish in one visit. "The five-gallon pail-full's are only good to walk by and show you, right? I mean, what are you gonna do with 400 fish?" Leighton points out.

A first-time family comes in and he gives them a crash course in smelt fishing. Though he loves to fish, Leighton gets more enjoyment from helping others learn how it's done. The fishing keeps getting better on this night, and Leighton says it's possible for some groups to catch over 1,000 smelts.

A frying pan sizzles over the wood stove in camp 10 as three hungry men cook their smelts fresh out of the river. For them, it's part of the experience. "Cut their heads off, rip off their belly and then fry 'em, bones and all," says one. "Roll 'em in flour, little salt and pepper, put oil. Just like fryin' an egg and it's over. Perfect," says another.

The plate of fried smelts is passed around the shack for everyone's enjoyment. After a long day of fishing, the people go home and Leighton cleans up. Dealing with a constant stream of customers all hours of the night and day, Leighton is a tired man.

"Sometimes I just don't know how I do it. I'll drop after the season."


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  • By john gonski

    From bridgewater, MA, 05/18/2012

    I have smelt fished, a number of times with the best smelter Bill Gillis and had many good nites at your camp. (ps.) you work hard to make things right. thanks much john gonski

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