Kennebec on Ice
By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
Trying for smelt before the ice melts.
Even in February, the ice conditions are iffy. Were driving through the Kennebec River towns north of Merrymeeting Bay, looking for fishing camps. Catching a bucket of smelt is our goal. But the frozen surfaces are thinner than usual this year, where theres ice at all. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I drive north from Bowdoinham through Dresden, Pittston, and Randolph. Thin, silvery-pink fish often not much longer than an outstretched hand, rainbow smelt are known to live primarily in saltwater bays, but spawn in fresh waterfamously, under the ice of the Kennebec River. For a couple of winters, weve been wondering about the ice fishing shacks we sometimes see clustered on parts of the river. Neither of us has experienced the tradition of fishing for smelt before. Were eager to get on the ice.
It feels good to be out and about, driving in 30-degree temperatures and sunshine. At the hand-painted sign for Bakers Smelt Camps we follow a long, unpaved driveway to the frozen Kennebec River. Amid miles of lonely countryside, this patch of riverbank is buzzingpeople unloading coolers from cars and trucks parked under the bare trees, lights on in a cabin-like store/office, a teenager stacking split logs in a wood shed, and a door thudding shut on one of the portable toilets. We get out of the car and walk around. Down on the iced-over river, I see people walking between several dozen ice shacks arranged in two long linesrectangular shanties no bigger than garden sheds, in colors from aluminum gray to apple green. Kept on the shore in other parts of the year, the buildings are outfitted with chimneys, and smoke from wood fires is rising from many of them. Weve arrived at a temporary, compact fishing village.
By chanceand because we could see actual icewe chose Baker’s from more than a half-dozen smelt camps that pop up each year on frozen stretches of the Kennebec River and its tributaries. “This is a sweet spot,” claims Cindy Lougee. The Pittston site is situated at a bend in the Kennebec that creates an eddy; the spawning fish like to feed in the calmer water, she says. Lougee helps owner Mike Baker, a logger, to coordinate the ice fishing at Baker’s Smelt Camps. In a lined notebook, she keeps a handwritten record of the shack reservations. “People book them for a tide, and stay six or seven hours,” she explains. While we talk, guests come in to the wood-panelled office to buy beef jerky or homemade cookies, or just to soak in the heat and conversation. Peter Frank and I explain that we’re here for reconnaissance. We’re planning a trip with friends who’ll be visiting from our hometown back in South Carolina. (This couple has never been to Maine, but they are game for a February visit.) Lougee smiles at hearing our plan, and suggests that we go down on the ice and choose which shack we’d like to reserve. She shows us what I think at first is a pizza box, but then she opens it to reveal a bed of seaweed and tangles of long red sandworms. These, she says, are hand-collected on the Maine coast; some people cut them up into small pieces to use for bait. Yes, we are in a new realm of fishing.
To get to the ice, we descend the bank and step onto a narrow wooden boardwalk. The surface is slushy on either side of the planks, but no one seems concerned. I can hear several radios playing from different shacks. We peek inside a few that are empty and see similar layouts inside of each: a plank floor down the center, a woodstove at the rear, and a trough of open water along the length of each side, where the ice has been cut. That’s a surprise. After seeing only round holes for fishing, I didn’t expect these lanes of open water. The overall feel is rustic, precarious, and somewhat cozy.
A few of the teenagers who work at the camp, delivering firewood and keeping things tidy, catch up with us. One of the young laborers, Steve Potter, is pulling a load of firewood on a sled and says his job on the frozen river has its odd moments. “Earlier, I saw a four-wheeler go by on the river pulling a La-Z-Boy with a guy strapped to the seat for the ride.” Two other workers, Airyn Jewett and Katie Baker, are both from Gardiner. They say they’ve been coming to the camps for years, and that their fathers helped to clear the snow for an ice-skating oval a few yards from the shacks. The teenagers tell us most people hang bait lines from a horizontal post, but they’ve had good luck catching fish on handheld “jigger” poles with a short, heavy line, using the poles to jiggle bait in the water and then hook the fish. It doesn’t look like there’s room inside the shacks for jiggling or much of anything else, but I’m told some of the structures can hold up to six people who are actively fishing. We reserve number 35, a smaller shack with wooden benches and a decent-looking woodstove.
Before we leave, we take one more look around. The sun is still beaming, and people in sweatshirts or T-shirts are standing outside. A couple of teenagers are skating on the cleared patch of ice beyond the lines of shacks. A group of people who are cooking and eating hot dogs tells me the fishing has been very slow. They’re joking about the dismal catch when someone inside the shack yells “fish on,” and another person yells “liar.” But when a fish is shown as proof, I realize that some of the other people on the ice must be first-timers, too. When the slender, silver fish is dropped in a bucket of water, I hear someone say, “So, that’s what a smelt looks like.”
Nearby, three generations of the Feeney family from Hermon are packing up. They have some smelt in their bucket, so we ask them for fishing tips. They suggest fishing at night, dangling a light bulb close to the water to attract the smelt. We keep talking and find that the eldest man in the group, 72-year-old James Feeney, has been fishing for smelt on the Kennebec since he was eight or nine years old. “Back in the old days,” he says, “there was a lot more fish. You’d find a guy who’d built a shack and you’d walk out to it. He’d give you some firewood, but not much.” In those days, Feeney says, they’d bring along some lard and a pan and cook some of the fish as soon as they caught them. “That was our snack all night long,” he recalls. “Oh, I think those rainbow smelts are the sweetest, best little fish.” When the river wasn’t frozen in Dresden or Bowdoinham, he says,”we’d stand on the bank and use nets, and we’d always come home with a bucketful.”
SMELT LOVE, FRY PANS
We have tried the fried smelt dinner at the Anglers Restaurant in Searsport, and eaten the hot, whole fish almost as fast as we eat good French fries. And Peter Frank still talks about the simple, delicious plates of fried smelts that he ate two days in a row at a Parisian-style bistro in Seattle a few years ago. So when we drive back to Pittston and the Kennebec River the next weekend with our friends, we bring along an iron skillet and some flour and oil for frying. The idea is that we’ll catch some fish that we can eat right there inside our toasty little shack on the icejust like Mr. Feeney did. To guard against hunger, boredom, and cold, I also pack a thermos of coffee, a bag of doughnuts, and a cooler filled with beer, pickles, mustard, cheese, crackers, cattle beans, and sausages. That should fortify us.
We arrive and unload everything into the shackcarefully, since we have two men, two women, two benches, and all the food and drink filling the planks between the ice-water troughs. The river is flowing past underneath us. Pools of water have gathered in more places on the ice since our last visit, and the edges look slushier. We’re not alarmed about the 40-degree day, as everyone else on the ice seems to be cool with it. We stoke the fire in the woodstove, even though that means we’ll soon have to take off our coats. We’re figuring out how to set the lines when a man from Lebanon (Maine) stops at the door and says he’s been fishing in the next shack over since 10 a.m. and has only caught four smelt. But he’s optimistic that the catch will improve now that nightfall is not far off. I notice that on the beams of unpainted wood inside the shack, people have recorded former catches in pen and marker. 2009 must have been a good year; someone named Eric represented his catch with 34 hash marks. Another person wrote,
“I smelt.” Among the four of us, we bait about ten lines with bits of bloodworm, drop them in the water, and wait.
By the time an hour is up, we’ve caught no fish, but have started eating. I get my fill and then walk around to see what’s up at the other shacks. It’s like a community picnic out there. During my lap of the 40 or so shacks, I see evidence of hot dogs, sodas, beer, and pizza; evidently, a Gardiner pizza shop makes deliveries to the ice. One family from Lincolnville tells me they polished off several moose steaks at lunchtime. But I don’t see many smelt in the buckets. I stop by the office to see if Lougee has heard of anyone who’s been lucky catching smelt. She suggests I check in with George and Ida Shaw, who have their own, private shanty and fish the tides all season long.
“Come on in,” the couple calls out cheerfully when I knock. Inside, I see a comfortable setup. The room has shelves, good lighting, music (KC and the Sunshine Band), and the steady warmth of a propane heater instead of a woodstove. Except for the water flowing past our boots (in the troughs), the interior space feels almost like a modern camper. This couple is serious about fishing. Originally from Maine, they lived and worked in Connecticutwhere recreational smelt fishing has disappearedfor almost four decades before retiring and moving back to their home state. The Shaws chose Pittson in part because it’s where George’s grandparents used to pick fiddleheads. Now they live within 15 minutes of the shanty they built and keep at Baker’s. “Smelt fishing is something we can do together,” Ida says. They sit back-to-back, each eyeing six or seven lines and tugging the strings in a rhythm like they are each playing a harp. “The key is to keep things moving,” Ida says. “Usually, we catch all that we want.” The pair has been fishing here for six years. In other winter seasons, George says, they’ve caught thousands of smelt, but only about 800 in 2012not enough to send extras to their son-in-law in Connecticut who has a pizza shop and likes to make a smelt pizza as a seasonal specialty. “It’s been so warm,” says George, whose career was with a company that built submarines. “I’m no biologist, but apparently that’s the problem.”
Outside on the frozen river, the sun has set and the sky is the deep blue of clear winter nights when snow is on the ground. Bare-bulb lights are glowing inside most of the shacks, and when I walk past, I can see the shadows of the people eating, talking, and fishing inside. The outlines of the figures bending and checking the fishing lines remind me of shadow puppetry. Back inside number 35, our food finally runs out, and we’ve still caught no smelt, so we decide to pack up and go. Everyone’s still in good spirits. We all concede that fishing is simply a bust sometimes. The next day, our friends return to South Carolina with good stories to tell.
A few weeks later, I call to see what’s happening at Baker’s Smelt Camps. A recording announces that within a week of our February outing, the camp shacks were pulled from the fast-melting ice on the Kennebec River. I ring up Ida Shaw, who tells me that they ended up with enough smelt to coat some of their catch in cornmeal, salt, and pepper, and serve them deep-fried and crispy to family and friends. She and George plan to be back in their shanty just as soon as Maine’s hard freezes of winterand the smeltreturn.