YEARS AGO it was a foregone conclusion that we'd be able to get out on the ice on Great Bay and catch some smelt. But now with the slowly rising water levels and the warming of the climate, most years recently have had very few days that were safe out here on the ice. So some time ago we gave up our practice of placing our smelt shanty out on the ice.
On a nice day we've been known to get out there and just cut a hole, sit on my special ice fishing sled that features a nice seat and a wind breaker and try to catch some fish. But those days are getting less and less frequent as my ability to stand the cold and wind is getting tested and we have a hard time spending the required time to catch a meal of those tasty fish.
For many years, even when we had good conditions here on Great Bay, we'd still round up a party of a half dozen friends and family and head to mid-coast Maine to fish for smelt in some of the many smelt camp rental places available there. It's about a two-hour drive to our favorite, James Eddy Smelt Camps, but usually just for the camaraderie and fun of being with others of our own ilk, catching the smelt was often secondary. But when we did come home with a nice feed of them, the group that went would most always get together and share a great meal, which almost always featured my brother-in-law Roy Syphers' great rice recipe and my wife's summer harvest of wild dandelion greens.
For the last few years, with the normal lack of ice on Great Bay, it seems like that one big meal of smelts that doesn't even come from our own hometown has to be caught a hundred miles away from here. We're not crazy about the long drive, even though it has been a tradition even when we did have fishable ice.
The James Eddy Smelt Camps are not named for a guy with the last name of "Eddy". The Eddy is descriptive of the backwater that pools into a tidal eddy that seems to hold smelts for much of a tide cycle. "James" is the name of the family that has operated the rental camps there for as long as we've been around.
Mom Sharon James and her kids have run the business for years now and have a website up and running. So you can get the proper info about the tides and hours of fishing on the site (Google James Eddy Smelt Camps). If you decide to go, give yourself an extra hour or so for traveling time as we're always losing our way when we get to the area and end up missing some of the bite!
The fishing gear in the several different smelt camp businesses that we've fished at are universally simple and not that effective, but don't get me wrong, they will catch fish if there's a good bite on. We've always been able to catch far more fish, especially when the bite is slow, on our own light jig sticks with small-test mono lines and small gold hooks with tiny pieces of bait.
The common Sabiki mackerel rigs work well when baited with the seaworms provided, but most of them have too many hooks, which can result in big tangles. We usually cut these rigs in half, dividing the five or six fly-hooks with enough line to tie onto the lines on our jig sticks. You need to adjust the amount of sinker-weight by the amount of current, which changes throughout the tide cycles.
And we also usually bring some heavy-duty aluminum foil to use as a lamp shade as these camps provide electric lighting but the light bulbs need a lamp shade and will bother your eyesight. The foil works magic for taking care of this problem. Also, occasionally we'll heat up some food over the kerosene stoves, using the foil for wrapping the food and heating it with.
Make sure you're open-minded and looking for some laughs while you're there. Those down-home Mainers are too much fun to listen to, especially when strong drink starts to get their tongues really wagging. Just be careful that you keep your vehicle driver away from that stuff. It's a long ride home, usually in the dark.
When we wrote this we were in the midst of a big thaw, watching the once great ice cover on Great Bay that is now so rare, start to disappear. We're hoping that what is left will support some fishing, when the cold weather comes back.
Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDuckInn@aol.com.