BOWDOINHAM, Maine — Smelt fishing is a winter tradition in northern New England, where people pan fry them and eat them whole. The fish are the subject of a popular Down East Maine festival every year, and are featured prominently in supermarkets and fish markets.
They are also the subject of tighter fishing regulations now than a few years ago — and fishermen say those seem to be helping the little fish rebound in some areas. Maine no longer allows fishing for them from March 15 to June 30 along the coast from the New Hampshire border to Owls Head, for example.
The physical size of the fish is up this year, which means they are surviving from last year, said Michael Brown, a scientist with the state.
“There are smelts out there to catch, it is just finding a place to fish and giving it a try,” he said, adding, “Folks fishing with jigs and lighter lines are doing better than those using heavy gear.”
Ice fisherman Richie Akizaki of Portland was hopeful for a good haul recently at a freezing fish camp on the Cathance River in Bowdoinham.
“Only caught a few last time. Hoping for revenge today,” he said.
At Jim’s Camps in Bowdoinham, customers have been coming to fish consistently, but the fish haven’t been as reliable, said owner Jim McPherson. They appeared more abundant last year, McPherson said, adding that their availability appears to change with the tides.
“The smelt fishing itself has been kind of up and down. Nothing consistent. Sometimes they’ll bite evening, sometimes morning,” he said. “Last year was pretty consistent.”
Similarly, in New Hampshire, smelts did have “a fairly good year in 2017” in some state surveys, but they are still “at very low levels compared to historical populations,” said Kevin Sullivan, a marine biologist at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
The federal government listed the rainbow smelt in 2004 as a federal “species of concern.”
The ice fishing season tends to wind down in late February in the northern New England states. The season is dependent on thickness of ice, and conditions have varied from spot to spot, said Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Some areas have more than 1-1/2 feet of ice, while others have less than a foot, Latti said.
“Some of the bigger lakes may have ice in most areas, but around large inlets and tributaries there can be open water,” he said.