Ice fishing for smelt in Maine is one of my favorite winter get-a-ways. You rent a shanty, fire up the wood stove, catch a few smelt, cook them in a cast iron frying pan, and relax with your favorite libation. What’s more, the camps provide everything you need including advice if you are a novice.
On Monday I spoke with Verna at Bakers Smelt Camps (207-582-4257) on the Kennebec River located at 89 Smith Town Road in Pittston, Me. She has 45 camps lining the river on very solid ice. In fact, the coming cold weather will thicken what is already there.
“The fishing has been a little slow lately,” she said. “Some of the camps have been doing okay, but it should pick up with this change in temperature.”
Her camps rent out for $11 a person, half off for children 12 and under. It is $44 for a four-man camp. If you have four kids and two adults it is cheaper to just rent a camp. The fees include all the wood for the stove, but bait is $3 a bucket for sandworms.
The Worthing Camps (207-582-3199) located at 145 Winter Street in Randolph, Me is also on the Kennebec River. They have 65 shanties along the river They charge $25 dollars for two to a camp, $35 for three, and $45 for four. This fee includes bait and wood for the stove. The fishing has been slow here as well, but the word from them is that they expect this cold snap to heat up the fishing. They had a few black backs (fresh smelt to the river) show up on Sunday night, so they think there is a run starting.
The word I got from the fellow on the phone from Jim’s Camps (207-666-3049) at 4 Bay Road in Bowdinham, Me. is that although the fishing has not been hot, they expect it to pick up shortly.
“The full moon is on the wane so the tides will not be as severe,” I was told. “This slowing down of the strength of the tide along with this coming cold spell should move fish in the river.”
Jim has 20 camps on the Chathamn River. They charge $15 per person and $5 for bait for the whole camp. Their wood stoves have flat tops for cooking and free wood.
Gear for shanty fishing
Although the all the camps will provide you gear, the most successful fishermen bring their own. It is easy to set up a rig or to buy a ready made one. Kittery Trading Post has a nice selection of rods. You can use any really light spinning reel. The pole should be a very light-weight tip of about 24 inches in length, The wider the eyes the better as they will not ice up as easily. To that you attach a small reel with no more than 6 lb. test line.
The line needs to be light and the pole needs to be whippy so you can feel these tiny fish when they bite.
Most people fish with size 10 or 12 snelled hooks. I think the smaller you can go the better. I like to put a little jig on that looks like what you have on a Sabiki rig. I then tip that with a small worm segment. Seems to work pretty well. Use a pretty good sized split shot to get it don into the water column.
What to bring
This can be a great family outing, but it can also be a fun time for you and your buddies. You do need to plan ahead a little bit. Almost all camps will have the fire in the stove going when you get there. You usually fish for one tide. Most feel the incoming tide is best, but if the fishing is good, you can be successful in both.
There are usually electric lights over the holes through which you will be fishing. You might want to bring some aluminum foil to redirect the light to the hole instead of having it glare in your face.
Be sure to ask for a flat top stove so you can cook. I bring a cast iron skillet, but some just bring a aluminum pie plate they can toss after. Depending on your tastes this can be a full-blown dinner, or just treats and fish. However, there is nothing better than fresh smelt fried up over wood.
Take a plastic container with a lid and fill it half full with either flour or corn meal a little salt and pepper to taste and any other seasoning you like before you leave home. Once at the shanty, put the frying pan on the stove and add a little oil and butter. Once that is bubbling, clean the smelts by opening up from vent to neck and washing out the innards. Cut off the heads, roll them in you container of mixture and pop them in the oil.
You will want to bring a bucket for your fish, a cooler with your libations, and a crate of snacks and side dishes. A few forks, plates, and cups might be useful.
Dress in layers. It can be very cold outside and smokin’ hot inside. You will want to be able to shuck down as the temperature demands.
This can be a great outing for kids. Bring sleds or plastic sleighs. Bucket ball is fun. To do that have two big plastic buckets and four softballs. Set the buckets apart maybe twenty feet and throw to the buckets. In is three points, hit the bucket is one. It is easy in the snow. The fishing is not complicated so even the little ones can do it with the rigs supplied by the camps. if they get bored there are usually other kids around on a Sunday.
So, call ahead for a reservation, pack up the kids, poles and vittles and head north for a winter adventure your kids will remember forever.