Catching Christmas Smelt
By Stu Bristol

The last month of the year down here in southern Maine is never boring. We have a couple weeks of muzzleloader season for deer, the grouse season is open through the end of the month even if most of the dog activity is lost due to snowfall. Still hunters can find plenty of action by sneaking through the softwood covers. The birds will flush with a bit of coaxing if you were trained on bird dogs and refuse to shoot roosted food.

Most of the ponds that have not yet frozen over are still open to fishing with limited creel limits or catch and release but, for many of us, the first buckets of coastal smelt in time for Christmas dinner is the prize weíve been waiting for. Collecting these delicacies, mind you, may not be for the faint of heart as the ice bends and cracks even though you are in a shanty less than 20 feet from shore. Last year my friend Pete Santini, owner of Fishing Finatics Tackle Shop in Everett, Massachusetts were all alone and probably the first anglers to venture into the camps at Bowdoinham.

Pete closes up shop and heads for the Galapogos Islands to guide marlin anglers and will return in March or April. His mom, like most old country Italian cooks really yearns for a meal of fresh smelt next to the main dish on the Christmas day feast. For the past several years it was my job to be sure Pete didnít let his mom down.

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Unless youíve been living in a cave all your life, you probably know all about coastal smelt fishing and the commercial camps in Bowdoinham, Dresden and Richmond, each on brackish coastal rivers. My favorite has always been River Bend camps in Bowdoinham, not only because they are some of the first camps to pen for the year but they have larger camps to accommodate four husky anglers and more important, they use flat-top wood stoves instead of skimpy little burners or kerosene heaters that give me a headache.

Everyone, and I mean everyone has their own special methods for catching saltwater smelt. Some are content to use the heavy tarred lines furnished with the camps but I think itís safe to claim that those who bring their own lines will go home with more fish. The variety and description of those homemade lines is diverse as the anglers themselves. Most common are the anglers who simply bring 8-10 hand rods, either home made or store-bought. These rods are very limber and the line used is in the 4-6 pound test range. The rods are either propped up with a chunk of firewood or sitting in a store-bought rod holder either on the bucket or a standing frame.

I created lines using the large size ice fishing reels. I welded a C-clamp to a stove bolt and load the reel with about 50 yards of braided Dacron with another 20 feet of Maxima 4-pound quality leader material. I prefer a number 6 trout hook and have a back-up size of number 8. I snell the hooks myself with about six inches of leader and make a loop at the end for easy attachment to the Dacron via a snap swivel. At the terminal end of the Dacron line I use a 1-ounce barrel sinker or pyramid sinker. The hook or hooks are attached along the line with loop connections.

As with any type of fishing, I feel itís important to change bait often. Some of the camps provide a dozen seaworms with the price of camp rental but I bring along or buy at least four or five dozen worms and I use them all before the six-hour tide is done. It doesnít always work out to my liking but I try to rent the camp on an incoming tide that reaches high around or just after dark. Daytime tides are usually less productive although after the holidays that may be the only time you can find a camp free. Throughout January and February, weekends are the busy times and you may need to book at least a week or two in advance.

In December I usually get to be the first on because I keep calling the camps when I think the ice is beginning to catch. As I mentioned, you may get your feet wet due to thin ice but Iíve never actually gone through before. Came close a couple of times but those days were at the tail end of the season, in late February or March when I had to walk a plank to get to the camp and the shanty was being held on the ice by two or more corners.

There is always something to do outside, especially in December, after the bustle of deer season winds down. If I havenít taken a deer I will head out with the muzzleloader and this year I drew an any-deer permit so I will fill the freezer with doe meat if it comes to that. There is rabbit hunting but the cottontails are now off limits and the hareís are getting thinned out by the coyotes and foxes, but a good beagle can usually find you some.

I eagerly await the opening of ice fishing season January 1 but headed up the coast for a taste of rainbow smelt in time for Christmas dinner is a great diversion until the ice gets think enough for me to use.

Stu Bristol is a Master Maine Hunting, Fishing and Tidewater Guide and outdoor writer. His features have been published nationwide for nearly 40 years. He can be reached at www.stubristol.com.


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