Smelt Season

It seems like living on a homestead has changed my perspective on seasons. Of course there are still spring, summer, fall, and winter…but there’s so much more!

There’s mud season. And actually, I find there are usually two mud seasons. As the late fall grows wet, but before it freezes, there’s mud season. And as the winter gently melts into spring, there’s mud season again. Mud season is characterized by trying to slip your boots off before you step into the door, and still tracking a muddy mess across the entry way. There’s a lot of mopping up in mud season. Of course, as the spring warms into summer but before the days dry out, there’s black fly season. That one’s a little rough. There’s apple blossom season, a period of about two weeks when all the air is sweet with the fragrance of roses, when the treetops are full of the hum of busy bees, and when gentle breezes shake rose petals down around you like snow. There’s beach season, with bright sun and warm sand, piles of beach roses in bloom, and a steady stream of excited chatter about swimming and tide pooling. The kids gently brown during this season.

On the homestead, our seasons are more-and-more defined by events that return every year, always familiar, often eagerly anticipated, and each one slightly unique…So sometime in February, I suddenly realized it was smelt season!

I kind of forget about smelt season, nestled as it is right in the midst of winter when I’ve been long tucked-up beside a woodstove. But then I hear a knock at the door. The knock is from a friend who is an outdoorsman and loves smelt-fishing. Though our family is entirely forgetful of the annual smelt run, his knock at the door with a bagful of fresh fish reminds us that things are underway!

Rainbow Smelt are beautiful little migratory fish. Like salmon, they are anadromous, which means that their lifecycle spans both freshwater and saltwater. They spend their adult lives at sea, but when it’s time to spawn they migrate up to the freshwater streams where new generations are born.

Rainbow smelt, a favorite seasonal food here at Riven Joiner & the Homestead Store.
You can read more about smelt from the University of Maine.

During the run they are thick below the ice, and here in Maine ice fishing shacks begin to dot the frozen surfaces of the rivers.

Our friend catches more than he can eat, and enjoys sharing them with others who like to eat them but don’t have the resources to catch them, like us!

We’d like to smelt-fish ourselves one day, of course, and this year we ventured out to an ice-fishing day hosted by the Downeast Salmon Federation to learn a little more about this interesting and potentially-delicious sport.

The basic equipment isn’t too complicated. A drill to make a hole in the ice. Bait or lures. A fishing pole. Then, there’s an upgrade to a little spring-loaded line. That way, you can drill multiple holes, drop lines in each, and then just tend them as they are sprung by hungry fish.

Learning about ice-fishing at the Downeast Salmon Federation Ice Fishing Day.
Vivi pulls the sled
Learning about ice-fishing at the Downeast Salmon Federation Ice Fishing Day.
Spencer fishes with a rod
Learning about ice-fishing at the Downeast Salmon Federation Ice Fishing Day.
spring-loaded traps let you set multiple holes, and check back later

It was a fun day, and we got to set some lines and bring a few fish in for a look, and then gather around a warm fire to enjoy some smoked herring and grilled hot dogs.

A sun perch - learning about ice-fishing at the Downeast Salmon Federation Ice Fishing Day.
sun perch
A pickerel - learning about ice-fishing at the Downeast Salmon Federation Ice Fishing Day.
pickerel
A pickerel - learning about ice-fishing at the Downeast Salmon Federation Ice Fishing Day.
pickerel, close-up

Of course, there’s also a fair amount of know-how and local knowledge that would come in handy! Where to go, when to go, what to use for bait, what depth to set your lines to. Lots of familiarity that we still don’t have, but that just takes time.

And then there is that most iconic of ice-fishing resources: the shack! Because it’s cold out there, and you’re planning to tend your lines for a long time!

Downeast Salmon Federation headquarters in Columbia Falls, ME - ice shacks in background.
These shacks are on the Pleasant River, below the falls. This section of the river empties out into the bay, and so it rises and falls with the tide. It is accessible by a public Town Landing.

Ice-fishing shacks are usually like little cabins that are pushed out onto the ice, and then hauled back in when you’re done, and stored for the off-season. (Of course, some people use tents.) If you’re fortunate enough to have waterfront property, the shack is stored there. Otherwise, it’s trailered back home for storage. Sometimes they’re pushed out and hauled in multiple times, because changes in the weather or the tides might melt and refreeze the ice several times during the course of a run. Sometimes, in fact, shacks are lost into the river during a melt. The ice-fishing shack is definitely one thing that our family’s not really prepared for, but I still hope that we might start getting our feet wet with a little more fishing soon!

In the meantime, our friend delivers several bags of fresh smelt, and we clean them up and fry them up and freeze some for later, and enjoy all the wonderful beauty and deliciousness of this seasonal bounty.

Rainbow smelt, a favorite seasonal food here at Riven Joiner & the Homestead Store.
Rainbow smelt, a favorite seasonal food here at Riven Joiner & the Homestead Store.

They really are exceptionally beautiful fish, which makes the messy chore of cleaning more enjoyable.

Rainbow smelt, a favorite seasonal food here at Riven Joiner & the Homestead Store.

I am constantly amazed at the sparkling iridescence of their scales. Their green stripe is full of sunny glitter and fades into a shimmery line of lavender-and-rose. Their white underbellies gleam like pearl.

And would you believe, they actually have a silver lining on the inside as well? Every time I scoop out the guts and scrub the fish clean, I look at that shining silver layer, as thin as foil, and chuckle to myself that God even decorated the innards.

And as an extra bonus, this little local-caught fish has a way of making me reminisce about the days of the disciples, when they gathered fish into their boats, and met Jesus on the shore for breakfast…

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.

(John 21:9, KJV)
Fried smelt - on of our favorites at Riven Joiner & the Homestead Store!
Though they take a little time to clean, they are ridiculously easy to cook.
Fried smelt - on of our favorites at Riven Joiner & the Homestead Store!
Just coat with a little seasoned flour and pan-fry in hot oil until golden, about 2-3 minutes.

A family meal of bread and fish is a beautifully simple and humble way to mark the precious memory of the days when our Lord walked among us.

And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.

(Matthew 4:16, KJV)

And not long after smelt season, comes maple syrup season! Another fun season – but that’s for another post!

by Sydney Michalski

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