Dick Pinney's Guide Lines: Eyeing open water smelt fishing
With safe ice, many ice anglers targeting smelt will swarm over the ice. But in years when good ice just doesn't happen, there are many disappointed smelt fishermen.
Although catches of smelt in the open-water fisheries in the lower Piscataqua River and harbor won't compare to when there's ice, these fisheries are a lot of fun and you are not held hostage to the whims of Mother Nature.
Open water smelt fishing is simplicity. All you need is a rod, reel and line and some fish with a bamboo pole with a fixed line and no reel. If you fish at night, which seems to be by far the best time, a Coleman-type lantern will provide all the light you need and also serve as a warming-up center that will take care of three of four anglers.
Rigging is very simple. A lead weight of an ounce or more is needed as you'll be fishing in currents. You can adjust the amount of weight as currents change. Most smelt rigs will feature a spreader made with wire which enable two snelled hooks (we like size 8 or 6) to be attached to each end. These rigs are readily available at your local tackle dealer and even on the racks at some of the department stores. Locally stores such as the Kittery Trading Post, Suds-n-Soda Sports in Greenland, Taylor's Trading Post in Madbury, Defiance Lobster in Hampton and even Walmart have these rigs.
Bait is not a big deal as smelt will eat a lot of different things but live saltwater mumichugs (we call them as tommycod) will work fine. If you can't purchase them it is not that hard to trap them. Just put a minnow trap in a natural hourglass closure in one of those tiny tidal marsh creeks and you should be able to get enough live bait. You don't even have to bait the trap. If this fails, small slices of mackerel or clam also work well. Even regular garden-type worm chunks will catch saltwater smelts.
For the last few years, one of the hot spots for catching fall and winter open water smelt has been off the commercial fishing docks at Rye Harbor. When the smelt are there a keen eye will see them swimming around under the lights. The bridge at Odiorne State Park near the boat launching ramp (Seavey's Creek—Little Harbor) and parking area can also be a productive spot as well as off the docks at both Hampton and Seabrook harbors. Another little-known place when the lack of ice allows fishing is at Cromett Creek on Bay Road in Durham.
Comfort and warmth is a limiting factor in this fishing but with today's wonderful cold weather clothing and boots, your fishing time should be extended and it's no sin to quit for a while and warm yourself in front of your car's heater. But don't do this with your vehicle windows all closed as carbon monoxide poisoning is always a threat.
We've never had much luck at low tide but that doesn't mean it can't happen. The last half of the incoming tide and most of the outgoing tide always seemed to produce our best catches. And like we said, count them by the piece and not the pound. We don't remember ever having a catch that was over four or five dozen fish but that amount of the large saltwater smelt will provide a great feed and a feeling of accomplishment as well as a rosy complexion.
Can't say we'll see you out there unless it turns out to be a spring-like evening. My veins run icy in the summer so open water smelt fishing opportunities for me are limited. We'll also take a trip to some of the mid-coast Maine areas where lack of ice is starting to cause problems but it seems we can always get in a decent trip or two.
Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDropInn@aol.com.