Winter Smelt Fishing in Northern Maine
Guest Blogger: JJ Roy
Once again this year Mother Nature has been kind to Aroostook County. The County has had early snowfall and the cold weather has allowed our lakes to freeze early. This winter wonderland provides outstanding conditions for our snowmobile enthusiasts and skiers alike, but also means the ice fishing season in northern Maine is off to a strong start. I am fortunate because once again, I am able to take part in the great winter pastime of smelt fishing, which has now become an annual tradition in the month of January for me. I am very thankful for this .
My smelt ice fishing adventure involves meeting up with an old friend and spending an evening (into the morning) out on Long Lake in St. Agatha in a traditional ice fishing shack/cabin. It is always a certainty that we will have a great time with fantastic fishing, great conversation, some reminiscing, and many laughs. Cabins are scattered all over Long Lake between January and March, each one unique in its style and amenities, creating a community of ice fishing enthusiasts out on the frozen lake throughout the winter season. It really is a sight to see.
Many locals are diehards and others participate when their work and home schedules allow. Everybody has an opinion as to where the best spots are on the lake and what time of day or night is best for smelt fishing. The cabin I fish in has been placed in the same spot every year for over 30 years. Some folks fish throughout the night to truly take advantage of some of the best fishing in the state of Maine. What I have seen over the course of the last few years is that a new wave of individuals are being introduced to the sport which is great and will surely keep this winter tradition alive for many years to come.
The cabin we will spend the evening in is aged but still practical and effective. It has a propane tank outside supplying gas to the lanterns and heaters. It is nice and warm on the inside but yes, still very cold outside so very important to dress appropriately. Snowmobiles are typically the best way to get to the cabins out on the lake however many locals will use 4 wheel drive trucks and keep access paths plowed throughout the winter months. We have ten lines attached to the ceiling of the cabin that we will drop down into the hole, each line dropped at various depths. A match stick is tied to the line about half way between the floor and the ceiling and our eyes are on the stick; any movement will result in the line being pulled up and the catch unhooked and placed in a nearby 5-gallon pail. Throughout the night we will bait our hooks and check our lines. The baiting of each hook is critical for success. Our choice of bait is small cut up dorsal pieces of smelt on most hooks and the occasional stomach, also from a smelt, on select hooks.
The tradition of smelt fishing in January dates back to my high school days in the early 1990s. Back then, we would kick off the New Year by dropping lines in the lake at midnight in the hopes of catching some of the first smelts of the year. The ice fishing season in Maine runs from January 1 through March 31. Earlier in the season has always been best for us as the biting slows down later in the season when the smelt are heading to streams and brooks for the spring spawning season
Ice smelt fishing is truly an authentic Aroostook winter experience and a great tradition. The actual act of fishing is the best part for me but it is also a treat to bring home a few dozen smelts and pan fry them up for a great meal. My method of cooking is to clean each smelt and then roll in flour or ploye mix and fry in butter for a few minutes. They cook quick and can be eaten whole.
Want to learn more about smelt fishing in Maine? Check out this video: