Dick Pinney's Guidelines: Beware of thin ice when smelting
Unlike being out on the windswept big portions of the bay, fishing in the more sheltered areas of the Oyster, the Lamprey or the Squamscott rivers, and fishing without a shelter, is not only fairly comfortable, it is becoming the preferred way to do it. It gives you the chance to become much more mobile and to move around to where the fish seem to be hitting the best.
Don't mistake this as being a carte blanch approval of fishing on any frozen Great Bay tributary, as there is an inherent danger in fishing anywhere on the ice, even on these places mentioned. Places where a faster current can cause thin ice should be avoided like the plague! One such very dangerous place is just off Fish and Game's parking area on the Lamprey River in Newmarket. There is a big pool there that is also deep and very apt to hold a lot of smelt as well as sometimes schools of really nice white perch fish that can go up to two pounds or more. But unless there are others fishing this place who will verify that it's safe enough to fish on, like we said, do not go out on it.
Given safe ice conditions, a good place to try your luck is right off the Newmarket Town Landing. But go easy there as river currents can create areas of thin ice. Best bet is to follow someone's tracks who has been on the ice, but that doesn't always ensure your safety. When we've fished there when nobody else has been on the ice, we've cut several holes to check ice thickness and safety before we decide if and where we will set up our fishing gear.
It's not my intention to put any one particular spot as a target for fishing, so we'll just mention the most popular places with a few remarks about each.
The Oyster River right off Landing Road in Durham features the easiest access and the most parking but it also will often draw a big crowd with the noise of all the activity making the smelt very nervous. But catches of 100 or more fish a tide there are not unusual with the night tides usually producing the best action, probably because there's less activity.
The Squamscott River in Exeter and Stratham has by far produced the most poundage of fish per angler caught but there are also a few drawbacks to each place. In Exeter, off the town's boat launch and river access, there's plenty of parking, unless we're talking about parking your fishing shanty. These smelt fishermen who have been fishing there for generations will plug up the channel with smelt fishing shelters that are literally back to back and side to side. So you might get a line in the water but chances are that you won't catch as many fish as the people crowded over the river channel.
The Stratham access to the Squamscott River has a big parking problem and getting on and off the ice is done over a plank bridge and sometimes on a big tide you could get stranded on the ice for a few hours as there is always a rim of open water between the ice and the shoreline. This place is one hot spot if you are there when the smelt are. Access is from River Road off Route 33. Most fishermen here use a shanty as this place can be windswept and pretty cruel to smelt fishermen in the open.
In the distant past, there had been some wonderful smelt fishing on the ice at the tidal portion of the Winnicut River in Greenland. Access is off an abandoned town road called Tide Mill Road. Although pretty well rutted, it is drivable even without a four-wheel vehicle but smelt there have been very scarce to none. Recently a dam removal at the head of tide may have improved the smelt runs that once were incredible. So if you are adventurous and want to try a new place, don't say we didn't tell you that the fish probably are going to be scarce to none and the same safety guidelines should also be adhered to in this locale.
This column has targeted only the Great Bay tributaries and not the broad expanse of the Bay on the northern end in Greenland called "Greenland Bay" because just about everyone knows that this place is the most valued smelt area when ice is safe (which seems to be about every other year.)
Good sources of info and bait and tackle are Taylor's Trading Post in Barrington (for the Lamprey and Oyster rivers), Suds-n-Soda Sports in Greenland (for the Squamscott and Winnicut Rivers as well as the Greenland Bay area) and Defiant Lobster Company at Landing Road in Hampton (for general info on both the bay and tributaries).
One last request from me. Unless there are other anglers visible out on the ice, do not go alone. We've been dunked in frigid water and we were so shocked that we were actually speechless. There's no bucket of smelt in the world worth the chances you'd be taking.
Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDuckInn@aol.com.