A NIGHT TO REMEMBER – family fishing on a frozen river
“Be careful – they bite. It’s best to cut off their heads first.” We received this warning along with a small pouch of folded newspaper. A look of horror filled my eleven year old niece’s eyes as she took the packet of bait and we headed out into the chilly January afternoon.
Neither of us had been ice fishing before, and didn’t really know what to expect. We didn’t think we’d have to worry about being bitten by our bait, but more on that later. Dressed warmly and armed with a thermos of cocoa and a selection of snacks, we crossed the road toward a weathered wooden ramp leading down to the ice.
The Cathance River winds through the center of Bowdoinham, once a thriving business hub with several mills and dozens of commercial companies selling ice. The mills are gone, but as Jim McPherson will tell you – Bowdoinham is still the “Smelt Capital of Maine”. He should know. He’s been working at smelt camps here since he was fifteen and now owns Jim’s Camps – which is as authentic a Maine experience as you are likely to find anywhere in the state.
We had arrived an hour or so before dark with plenty of time to get our lines baited and into the water before the tide turned – bringing the smelt with it as the water shifts directions. Supposedly the fish are most active in moving water. For 15 dollars a head (children 12 and under fish for free) we got our bait, our firewood, and a little shanty perched on the ice to call home for the night.
Jim led us to our camp on the newly frozen river. It was early January and the shacks had just been put out a few days before. November had been frigid – but in true unpredictable Maine fashion – December had seen all the snow melt and record high temperatures.
A dozen squat little buildings line the river’s edge below the Bowdoinham Bridge. Woodsmoke billows from several of the stovepipe chimneys – the only sign of life at the moment. The place will be hopping once night sets in, but for now we’ve got the place to ourselves.
Smelting at Jim's Camps is as authentic a Maine experience as you'll find anywhere in the state
Our camp is no frills – or “Zen” if you prefer. Simple wooden stools are arranged around a small flat topped wood stove. A single bulb hangs from the ceiling. Two long “race holes” have been cut in the floor along each side of the cabin – and in the ice below – exposing a strip of dark water. A wooden “jig pole” is attached to the wall above each hole in the ice – ten weighted lines with hooks are wound around each pole – ready to be baited and lowered into the water.
With my father’s help we get to work baiting our hooks. As we separate the locally collected Sandworms from the seaweed they’re packed in, we discover (much to our delight) that it’s pretty easy to avoid getting bitten. After chopping them up, we bait each hook with a chunk of juicy worm. We lower our lines until we feel them hit bottom – then lift them up slightly so our bait can drift in the tide.
And then we wait.
For 15 dollars a head (kids 12 and under fish for free) we got our bait, our firewood, and a little shanty perched on the ice to call home for the night
And we wait…
Our eyes glued to the lines – looking for the tell-tale quiver of a bite. The small wood stove keeps our shack toasty warm, and the layers start to come off as we settle in. Each of us watches a different section of lines, waiting for the sudden jerk of a fish taking the bait. Turns out smelting is as much about waiting as it is about fishing.
Traditionally, you’d fry up your catch in a cast iron pan on the flat topped stove. Simply breaded and salted, smelt are considered a Maine delicacy. You can eat them whole – bones and all – but that idea doesn’t go over so well with my niece, so we dig into our “supplies”.
We’d packed a thermos of hot chocolate (Allen’s Coffee Brandy is the more traditional option in Maine) and some cookies, but if I’d known how perfect the stove was for cooking, I’d have brought some Jiffy-pop popcorn. I make a mental note to bring a cast iron pan next time – to try my hand at rustic stove top cooking.
Outside, the camp comes to life as dusk sets in. A family with four enthusiastic kids has arrived at the shanty beside ours, laughing and giggling as they get set up. A hard rock ballad drifts from a shack at the other end of camp. Ice fishing is traditionally a social activity in Maine – a way to get outside and make the most of long winter nights.
We wander past the other camps – peering into open doors to see what other people are catching. The man in the shack across from ours has a more serious set up. He’s brought his own lines – special tension bobbers mounted on the jig pole. He’s doing something right – because a jumble of silvery fish swim circles inside the plastic bucket by his doorway.
“It’s the bait,” he told us. “You have to keep changing it constantly. They like it fresh.”
"It's the bait. You have to keep changing it. They like it fresh."
We eventually return to our shanty and resume our posts, eyes glued to the lines – searching for signs of a bite. After lots of false alarms, we finally catch one little fish – maybe five inches long with slick silver skin. We aren’t entirely sure it’s a smelt, but decide it would make a good dinner for my father’s barn cat.
That ended up being our only catch of the night – but it didn’t make our night of smelting any less fun.
That’s the beauty of smelting. Sure, it’s exciting to watch your lines twitch and pull up smelt after silvery smelt. But you can have just as much fun if you catch nothing at all. It’s about spending time with family and friends sharing a night to remember.
Winter in Maine is always surprising me. I’m easily distracted by a book or a fireplace or a pot of something delicious simmering on the stove, but every time I head outside, I’m reminded how much I love this place year round. Most people think of Maine as a Summer destination, but those of us who live here know how special it is in the colder months. Ice fishing in Maine has been tradition for generations, and it’s a great way to make the most of our long Winter nights. For more ideas of how to enjoy Maine, check out the BAILEY ISLAND FAMILY GUIDE. If you’re interested in planning a visit, check out THE GILLS GROUP cottages – each oceanfront cottage is unique, and a perfect base for exploring (and enjoying) all that Maine has to offer – year round. If you’re interested in warmer weather ocean fishing, check out FISHING FOR STRIPER which my father wrote about fishing from the rocks in front of The Gills Group cottages.
Located in Bowdoinham (“Smelt Capital of Maine”) Jim’s Camps are a 20-30 minute drive from THE GILLS GROUP cottages on Bailey Island. Open January til thaw. 15 dollars a head includes bait and firewood. Kids 12 and under fish for free. 207 666 3049 / #4 Bay Road, Bowdoinham. Maine.
That's the beauty of smelting - it's just as much fun if you catch nothing at all