Sea Smelt Fishing in Maine

smelt in maine

The Fishin’ Hole Guide.

 

Our Journey to Smelt Fishing– Finding the perfect rig

My personal journey to smelt fishing started some years ago when my father and I had a winter fishing itch. We knew what sea smelts were, knew how delicious they were, and finally pulled together a desire and a plan to catch some.
We had spent many days standing on the ice shivering and cursing the cold, watching the regular ice fishing taps, and hoping for a flag. The idea of paying someone for a night in a shack with a warm wood stove, and no hassles seemed like a dream. I had called around to all the usual places, and found one out of the way shack rental, which I will not mention here, that had an opening  on Saturday. We grabbed what they had and made the quest to Bowdoinham for a night of fishing. We got there, and found a small group of teenagers running an operation of about 4 or 5 shacks. Much to our disappointment we found our shack to be in 2-4 feet of water, chainsaws blaring through the ice next to us, and no surprise, not a single smelt to be had. We headed home determined to not return, and quite disappointed. 

The next day a friend told us of a great place where he and his father had been fishing for many years in Randolph. We all headed up a couple of weekends later and started actually catching our delicious smelts. This was the beginning of the ritual of bringing a cast iron skillet, oil and breadcrumbs for dinner.

The standard 4 man Smelt shanty has trough in the ice on each side of the shack, a small woodstove in the back, and 6 to 8 lines wound around a wooden pole with weights and a hook on each. We had only a few cheap jig poles between all of us, and soon realized that the heavy string and weight system was not an effective one for catching the delicate small fish that range from 6 to 14 inches. With a ¾ oz weight, and super heavy string instead of mono, there is virtually no way to tell if we had a bite or not. The fish would literally have to hook themselves, and no sign could be seen that there was a fish on until the line started swirling around as the smelt tried to free itself.  The jig poles out fished the heavy lines at least 2 to 1. I have always been a fisherman who is interested in a “better way to fish” and went home with a determination to have a better smelting night on our next trip.

We immediately ordered in a bunch of light weight, short jig rods with spinning reels and set out experimenting with baits, hooks and jigs. Over the next few months we experimented with a number of set-ups, reading up on our smelt friends, and applied a little fly fishing knowledge to ice fishing fun. We initially started out with super light weight jigs of various shapes and colors, with varying degrees of success. We found that neon colored jigs worked the best, and the smelts seem to prefer the ones with a little contrasting colored dot on the middle, usually red. We also tried glow jigs, and these seemed to even further improve our catch and bites.Smelt fly

One night as I sat at my tying desk filling an order of our custom made flies, the perfect solution occurred to me. We needed a small glow-in-the-dark bead head fly that could still hold bait, but loosely represented small krill, and glowed under the dark ice. What followed was the perfect smelt jig tied on a size 10 dry hook.

 

Our first night fishing with these jigs was met with great success. Half way through the tide, we couldn’t move fast enough for more than two poles. On of the guys provided the last bit of enlightenment when he mused, “How many are really down there if we are catching this many?”

It occurred to me we were just scratching the surface of the possibilities and fish. Many times just reeling in one smelt would have a couple more chasing it up to the hole. There really was a feeding frenzy going on under our feet and it was time we applied Mackerel fishing techniques. We pulled up all our rods and dug into the flies we had tied the night before. We started drop looping flies onto our lines, first two, then four, and sometimes more. We were rolling in smelts with just one rod each. Having more than three flies per rig ended in many frustrating tangles, and three was the number we ended up using with minimal hassle, but maximum catch.

 That night as we came out of the smelt shack with about a thousand smelts, we realized that the other guys who were fishing the heavy lines were coming up with about 50 to 75 at the most. The other guys with jig poles fared a bit better, about 200 - 250 or so per shack. I thought, “Maybe just a fluke, we must have had a lucky shack.”

Our next trip up the following month was even hotter, and the difference in our catch to the other shacks was almost unbelievable.  We would hear neighboring shacks as they cheered when they caught one, sometimes two. We had no time for cheering. One foot had to be on the pole with three smelts hooked to keep them from dragging  the rod in, while our hands were busy unhooking the two or three we just pulled up. It was impossible to keep our flies baited.  After having more smelts than we could possibly use, eat, or feed to our friends we finally gave up smelting for the season and the shacks started coming off the ice. The following winter we started in again using our new technique. The Bakers people started calling us the “Smelt pros”. Before that next season was over our record catch for a single tide was 3800 smelts. We could have stayed longer, and caught many more, but we just couldn’t imagine what we would do with them all.

We continued to refine our jigs, tying them with a 1/8 oz weight at the end and a barrel swivel at the top for ease of use, and changing them out when the toothy smelts eventually had chewed them to bits. They are now now online here for even more of our customers.

 Even as I write these words a churning in my gut is beginning.  A fisherman hates to give away his best secrets, but in an effort to improve the fun, I hope everyone takes this information, and introduces their kids to smelting, and all types of fishing.

  Buying the gear – What works for us

 

We start out our smelting gear with a soft tipped jig rod about 24” long (shorter is better) with the biggest eyes possible at the tip. The big eye keeps ice from forming up, and binding up your line. If your jig rods are stiffer, a small spring bobber can be attached to the end of the pole to help you see those little nibbles. The small bites are often why fish are missed on the heavy lines. With the heavy lines rigged up in the ice shacks, you will never get to set the hook when your smelt is chewing on the bait. 2 rods per person is usually enough, but 3 is better when the fishing is slow.

On the rods, any small open faced spinning reel will do that will hold 6lb. test. We usually end these off with a small black snap swivel, and our smelting rigs.

If you aren’t using the Fishin’ Hole jigs, you will need some size 10 or 12 snelled hooks with a good sized split shot to get it down.

Cheaper, “Jiggy sticks” can do for only a few bucks each, but they come with no reel, and can cause huge tangles in the cramped quarters of a smelt shack.

A 5 gallon bucket or a cooler is always handy to put your catch in.

We have also come to think of the cast iron skillet to put on the wood stove as a necessity as well. A cheap tin pie plate will work just as well, and can be thrown away at the end of the night. Nothing is better than a smelt straight from the ice, and into the oil!

 

What to expect – Notes for the first timers

When you decide it is finally time for your buddies and yourself to go smelting for the first time, you will all need to plan ahead. The best smelting camps are booked in advance, sometimes for up to 2 weeks in the midst of the season. Week days are usually less crowded or wide open, and can be a quieter group. The usual weekday price is around $10 - $12 per person plus $2.00 per half dozen of sandworms for bait. On weekends, if you get a 4 man shack, and only 2 show up, expect to still pay for 4.

Usually the attendant will tell you what shack number you have, and they should have a fire going. Tides run for 6 hours, and night time is usually the best fishing. A debate always lingers between incoming and outgoing for which is best. The usual winner is the incoming tide (start fishing at low tide). This depends completely on the fish though, the season and the year.... even the weather.

The shacks have electricity and lighting. There is usually an overhead light and one over each hole or trough. This light at the trough is a great help, but you may need to bring some aluminum foil to create a makeshift lampshade to direct the light down the hole, and out of your eyes.

You will need to dress warm, but in layers. As the stove heats up and cools off, it’s always nice to have a layer to put on or remove.

A good supply of snacks and Moxie is always recommended as well for when the fishing gets slow.

 

The Technique –  The secret is out!

Bait-
The usual, and one of the best baits, for sea smelts in Maine is the good old sand worm.  When you get settled into your shack, make sure you have a seat for each person, and a place to cut up bait. We start right out by cutting a couple sand worms into ¼” chunks. If they are biting slow and you cut up all your bait at once, it will dry out before you get to use it. Each one of the flies on our rigs gets a tid bit of fresh worm chunk.

A number of other baits can be brought, like shrimp, clam, or other naturally occurring foods for sea smelts. Sand worms are just there, available, and effective when you show up for your shack.

With glow jigs, it also helps to have an LED flashlight on hand to “charge” them up for a good glow.

Water -

The old timers generally consider prime smelting depth, the height of the shacks peak, which is about 7 to eight feet. We have found smelts at all depths, but generally 7 to 15 feet seems to be the usual cruising range.

After watching smelts around the piers in the fall, experimenting with different shacks, and keeping sea smelts alive under different conditions, we have come to the conclusion, that sea smelts are generally happiest in some sort of current. They are hardy, and fast swimmers, so a stiff current really poses no obstacle for them. Fishing in the currents will find you getting harder hits, and more “chasing” behavior from smelts who don’t have that tid bit to eat. This could be due to the fact that the smelts have less time to ponder exactly what the bait is.

Your trough should be kept free of all oils and foreign materials, as smelts can smell quite well, and the slightest odd scent can keep them off the hook.

Time and Temps -

Why I think Smelt Fishing is better during a cold snap:
The Temperature out there in the ol’ Atlantic off the coast of Maine in the winter is somewhere around 38-42 degrees Fahrenheit near the coastline. A good cold snap cools the shallower brackish waters up in the rivers inland to temps lower than that out there in the bay by quite a bit. River temps raise or lower more quickly than that whole big ocean.

There are schools of Smelts out there in the Atlantic full of eggs and sperm looking for a river to spawn in, it’s why they come up the river. A cruising school out in the bay would easily notice a temperature drop of even just 1 degree. I think the fish are out there cruising around, feel a cold water flow and tend to follow it up to find the river spawning eddies.

I personally think this MAY be why some of our best catches have been on some of the coldest fishing nights of the season. The night I talk about the most where we brought in as many as 3,000 smelt was in a snap that was about -20 degrees. I personally think that cold water flowing into the ocean is like a glaring red flag to the smelts to turn inland toward the river. (I may be wrong…this is just my own contemplations)

Fish on –

When you see the tip of the rod or your spring bobber starts to bounce slightly a good, but not strong, hook set will get them on. Care needs to be taken when reeling them in, as they tend to swim in rapid circles and they can quickly tangle up a number of lines if you have 4, 5, or 6 lines in one trough.

Fishing The Fishin’ Hole Rigs – smelt fly

rigBelow is the detailed result of our hard work, testing, and combined experience. Here you will find the meat and bones of our success in the smelt shack. These rigs are always found pre-tied and ready to fish in our shop, and we hope you will support us by visiting our shop, or ordering on-line. However, these rigs can be easily tied by most fly tiers.

Start with 3 of our bead head smelt flies tied with glow in the dark krystal flash or flashabou, red 8/0 or 6/0 thread and a gold bead head on a 10 or 12 nymph hook – to your preference.

The rig is tied on 6lb test. At the end tie on a ¼ or 1/8 oz round or bank sinker (we now prefer a snap swivel to easily add or remove weights). Every 8” or so, tie a fly on with a dropper loop with 5 or 6 twists. At the top of the rig a small barrel swivel tops it all off and keeps the tangles at a minimum. The entire rig is about 16 -20 inches long.

It’s really that simple. Drop your baited rig down, give it a jig every now and then, and wait for the run. Have fun with your friends, and catch some fish!

 

What follows is some additional information for the smelt fisherman/woman, smelt shack lists, our favorite shack recipes and more.

 

 

 

Cast Iron Smelts –

Fry panBefore you go smelting, pack a small jug of vegetable oil and a Tupperware tub with about 1 ½ cups of seasoned bread crumbs, a heavy pinch of salt, and a big table spoon of Old Bay Seasoning…. And of course, the old cast iron fry pan.

Put your pan on the wood stove, and just cover the bottom with oil, to get it nice and hot.

Clean 6 to 10 smelts, or as many as you can eat, by slicing from the vent, poop shoot, up to the neck. Remove the head and scrape the body cavity clean. Usually a thumbnail scraped up the inside will remove all the guts, give ‘em a rinse.

Two or three at a time, pop them into the Tupperware and shake them up good. Fry in the hot oil until slightly crispy. Get ready to enjoy one of the BEST Maine treats you will ever have!

·         These smelts are even better if you slice, and fry up a little Kielbasa to go with them. For “hardcore fishermen” the Kielbasa might count as a vegetable.
 

Where to buy your Smelt Rigs                          

You can pick your smelt rigs up right on the shopping page online for only $5.00

 

Where to get a Shack (Tell 'em The Fishin' Hole sent you)

Camp Name

Telephone (area code 207)

Location

No. of
Camps

Baker's
(tell them the Fishin' Hole guys referred you)

 

582-4257
1-800-698-4257 (in-state)

Rte #27
(168 Smith Town Rd)
Pittston

38 +

Hunter Farm

729-1544

358 Foreside Rd
Topsham

4

James Eddy

737-2596

Rte #127
(426 Middle Rd)
Dresden

30

Jim's

666-3049

Rt.24
Bowdoinham

24

Leighton’s

666-5551

Brown’s Pt. Rd
Bowdoinham

10

River Bend

666-5945

Rte #24
(24 Wallentine Rd)
Bowdoinham

30

Sonny's

737-8115,
737-8500

Rte #128
(Everson Rd)
Dresden

20

Worthing's

582-3199

 

145 Water Street
Randolph

50

 

We have found the best fishing to be with the folks that maintain the higher numbers of shacks. However, more family oriented fishing can be found on the daytime tides, or with people who maintain fewer shacks.

Sometimes the night time fishing crowd can get a little rowdy, and the language can be more R rated. Even on the rowdiest nights though, we have never had anyone give us a hard time. Just guys fishin’.

 

By Lloyd Metcalf
MaineTackle.com