Smelting On a Frozen River in Bowdoinham

On a winter night Bowdoinham gets very dark very quickly. Often the only beacons of light are rows of smelting shacks lined up on frozen lakes. As my fishing party and I knock on the door to the “office,” which is not immediately discernable from any of the other shacks, to pay our rental fees, we are confronted by a man who, I can only assume, is the owner of the camp. He shines a flashlight on us before gesturing that we may enter, and once inside he sizes us up as we fork over $75.

“If you need football scores, I’ll be coming around every now and then,” he informs us and I remember that it is Super Bowl Sunday. Personally, the prospect of catching a barrel of smelts to take home and deep fry while drinking cold beer is far more appealing than any football game. From the office, the path to the shacks is a rickety, wooden dock, requiring the person in the lead to use a flashlight to guide the rest of the group to safety. Judging from small piles of provisions situated outside of each hut, I assume that they are occupied even though it is silent as death out on the lake tonight.

My smelting companions are Josh Potocki and his wife Katie, who run 158 Bakery in South Portland in addition to their successful catering company, Bread & Butter, as well as photographer Nicole Wolf. Josh, being a consummate outdoorsman who has been fishing since he was old enough to hold a pole, seemed like the perfect guide for this venture. I had actually been smelting a few times before, but each time I neglected to pay attention to a single thing, so Josh’s expertise would be invaluable. Plus having him along allows me to really focus on what I do best in this situation – supply both the entertainment and the Irish whiskey.

In coastal Maine, smelting is a time-honored tradition, a perfect way to pass the time on bitterly cold nights, warmed by the small stoves in each cabin. Traditionally, there are two long openings in the floor that expose the icy water, where we are to hang a row of fishing lines. The most common bait used is the bloodworm, which must be cut into small pieces to accommodate the size of the smelts. Because I must protect my delicate hands so they will still be able to open the bottle of whiskey, I delegate the task of butchering the foul-looking creatures to everyone else in my fishing party (i.e. the photographer and Katie).

While humming the chorus from Metallica’s “Welcome Home Sanitarium,” Potocki baits the lines and the fishing begins. Smelts are a small schooling fish that spawn in fresh water rivers and lakes, but live their lives in the ocean. The most traditional way to eat them is battered and fried, and generally they are eaten whole – bones, head, and all. Because the stoves in the shacks get quite hot, I have brought along my beat-up wok. I figure that I’ll get a bit of peanut oil ripping hot, toss in the fish along with some chili paste, give a quick fry, and garnish with a dash of sesame oil. The goal was not to overcomplicate things.

As Josh routinely shakes the lines in an effort to tempt the fish, the rest of us get caught up in an increasingly loud conversation. I actually start to get a bit self-conscious about the other fishing parties overhearing us, so we send a few beers next door as a potential peace offering which, as I am informed by my designated messengers, Nicole and Katie, was “completely unnecessary because they love us.”

When we finally caught a fish, it was my duty to perform the traditional ceremony of biting the head off raw, which I’m glad I did because it tasted of nothing but fresh cucumber. Also, I felt that in this very primal act I completely balanced out my unwillingness to touch the worms earlier. From my mouth the fish goes straight into the nuclear-hot wok, and, as I had predicted, my simple preparation yielded delicious results. Everyone is able to have a taste, and though we didn’t have much more luck on this particular evening, I felt vindicated knowing that at least I’d had a taste of the freezing depths below the shack.

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