The smelt camps are open and the fishing has been fairly good. Like always, it can be a bit unpredictable due to the influence of tides, weather and moon phase. However, this fishing can be a lot of fun, especially for families.
The camps are hauled out onto the ice and can be very comfortable even in the toughest weather. They provide heat, light and fishing equipment. The gear and bait are available from the owners. Pack a lunch and take the kids on an inexpensive outdoor adventure. You don't have to be an expert as the owners of the camps will tell you what to do. Most importantly, smelt are great to eat!
Where to go for smelt
The Kennebec River in Maine that flows into Merrymeeting Bay is a popular spot for smelt fishing. There are eight different commercial camp operations on this river alone. The good news is that you can have fun at every one of them.
The biggest operation is Worthings (207-582-3199) with a total of 83 camps! Located at 145 Walter Street in Randolph, its costs vary on the size of the camp rented from $25 for a two-person shack to $65 for a 6-person one. All bait is included in the price.
Baker's (207-582-4257) is second with 38 camps in operation at 89 Smith Town Road in Pittston. The James's Eddy camps (207-737-2596) at 426 Middle Road off route 127 in Dresden features 30 camps. It costs $14 a person plus $3 for bait. River Bend (207-666-5945) located off route 24 at 24 Wallentine Road in Bowdoinham has 30 camps as well. The cost here is $15 including bait.
Fishing for smelt is not complicated. As they run up the river they have to go by these camps on the ice. However, the bite can depend on a number of environmental factors mentioned above. Some days you fill the bucket other days it can be slow.
Some tips as you gear up
The gear that the camps give you have to be tough to stand the rental season. Because of that they tend to be heavier than what is really desirable. If you bring your own light gear you will increase your odds. If you stop by the Kittery Trading Post in Kittery, Maine on your way north, you can pick up a lightweight jigging rod with no more than 4-lb. test line. I like to use #10 hooks, but some will use #6 or #8's. A few small split shot sinkers will help keep the bait down in the current. As the bait is provided at these camps, there is no need to bring your own.
Another rig that is very effective is the Sabiki Rig. It consists of six tiny hooks with feathers that will attract the fish. I find they work best if you tip them with a bit of bait. Some folks find several hooks on one line a bit much so they cut them in half. Remember to bring a cooler to bring home the catch!
Seth Legere, a veteran ice fisherman says that New Hampshire has a good smelt ice fishery at Great Bay and some of the Bay's tributaries but also have a problem of no smelt rental camps. This is for a couple of reasons. The ice conditions on Great Bay are not as stable as those in the mid-coast Maine areas and the winter smelt runs seem to be unpredictable as to when and where. Some years the fishing has been confined mostly to the tributaries while other years the smelt have only been available on Great Bay itself, mostly in the area called Greenland Bay.
But this shouldn't stop traveling smelt fishermen from not taking part in this area's smelt fishing. Fishing in what the Great Bay people call the `outside', or from portable shanties, is traditional there. When the wind is up some of the transient anglers will fish in the shelter of an unoccupied fishing shack, picking the sunny side when possible and pretty happy.
Where to go for access points
Access points to Greenland Bay are now being made available over state owned land on Newington Road (town of Greenland and Newington) as well as voluntary parking fees at Great Bay Retreat on the same road. To fish the Squamscot River, access and the good fishing grounds are at the end of both River Road and Butterfield Lane, both in the Town of Stratham. The town of Exeter's boat landing has excellent access and parking to a very productive smelt area on the Squamscot as well. In Newmarket, NH Fish and Game has a parking and access area off New Road (at Great Cove). On the Oyster River in Durham there is excellent access and parking at both Old Landing Road and Jackson's Landing.
"People fishing on these New Hampshire waters should be especially aware of the unstable ice conditions that these places often have and that access and egress on and off the ice can become impossible at some high tides. Extreme care is needed when traveling on the ice in these locations, especially as the season winds down," Seth warns.
So, if you want the warmth of a shanty head to the Kennebec river in Maine. However, if you want to really experience ice fishing outdoors, the Great Bay may be the spot for you. In any case, get outdoors and enjoy the winter.