The Gentle Art of Catching Smelts

ELIZABETH R. CHOATE has taken the Uluntic salmon on a dry fly, golden trout in the High Sierras, and bull stripers off Cuttyhunk, but,as she is about to relate, she met her match when she went after smelts in Manchester Harbor. This is the third in a series of her articles.

I HAVE always known that the harbor at Manchester-by-the-Sea was a haven for hundreds of craft, but it was not until we moored our own boat there that I discovered it was full of smelts in the autumn.

One evening in late August I went up on deck to enjoy the reflection of pines and rocks mirrored in the calm water, but for me there was no peace at all; for right under my nose there were a number of small fish rising. At first I suspected that these were tinker mackerel, but soon discovered them to be smelts. They were coming in from the sea with the flooding tide and congregating in a small basin where a brook splashed down across the rocks into a cove.

I have done a lot of fishing all my life but never thought very much about smelts other than to eat them with pleasure. Immediately I threw a line over the side and was much disappointed when I caught nothing. This aggravated me, and I vowed to solve the problem at once.

The following day brought two boatloads of crusty old fishermen who had obviously been smelting there for the past sixty years. These boys were not the chatty type; in fact, they barely spoke to each other at all. For hours at a time they sat silently, raising and lowering their rods in constant rhythm, swinging the little silver fish into their boats. Once in a while one would noisily spit out his quid and take a long swig from a fat brown jug.

I armed myself with a rod and rowed to what seemed to be the magic spot. Again I drew a blank. This really infuriated me, so I asked one of the mossbacks what was the right kind of bait to use, and got the laconic answer, “Worms.”I tried the usual sea worms but caught only an eel. Then I thought that perhaps he had meant garden worms, so I dug some of those and caught a tommycod.

Finally a nice young man came along who took pity on me. I asked him, “What in the world sort of worms should I use?” He replied, “Only the tail of a very small sea worm.” He saved me from a nervous breakdown, I am sure, for what is more frustrating than to sit empty-handed while those about you are catching fish?

It seems to take a few good cold nights to start the smelts running in the late summer, and from then on through the autumn is the real season for smelting. There are no set rules for any kind of fishing, but it is well to start off with an accepted procedure, and after considerable trial and error, I learned the traditional way to fish for smelts in a tidal basin.

First, the rods are important; they should be made of rigid light bamboo, at least eight feet long so they will lie evenly athwart a skiff. If you like things lively, you will need five of these, four across the boat and one in hand. The rods should be fitted with tips and guides; the twenty-five feet of fine line is wound not on a reel but on a small cleat seated eight inches above the butt of the rod. Second, each line is equipped with a leader and a small spreader, plus a little sinker if the tide is strong. The spreaders are rigged with a pair of number six snelled hooks, which have a slight bend in the shank. Of course, if you are a duffer, you may use a horrid fifty-cent bendy bamboo pole and wind the line around the tip.

Third, the bait, as before mentioned, is only the tail of a small sea worm. The business of the bait is fussy because smelts are capricious fish; one day they regard tiny shrimp as ice cream, and the following day they will scorn shrimp and relish seaworm tails as though they were beluga caviar. I tried fishing with shrimp, but soon abandoned them as being too chancy and stuck to worms.

On reaching the magic spot, one should drop a bow anchor, leaving plenty of slack rope. The boat is then sculled a short distance, and a second anchor is lowered from the stern. The ropes are tightened; in this fashion the boat is held taut, thus preventing it from swinging with the tide and mussing up the ten dainty hooks that are so temptingly lowered to within approximately eighteen inches of the bottom.

When one starts collecting the equipment to go smelting, there are several musts to take along: a good sharp knife, a piece of burlap with which to deal with an eel, a bucket for the fish, and a flat bait box to keep between one’s knees. The sea worms being what they are, I like a towel for wiping my hands, and since I may be out five hours, some sandwiches, for I am always hungry.

After getting the boat set, the rods in place, and the hooks baited, there is the important question of the depth at which one must fish on that particular day, and then of changing the length of the lines proportionately as the tide rises.

It is no good to fish for smelts until the tide is at quarter flood; from then until two hours after it has begun to ebb, the fishing can be very fast indeed. If the smelts are biting, there is never a dull moment. It is rather like playing the xylophone; just steady attention to the sticks, here, there, and everywhere.

I became addicted to this pleasant pastime and spent many lively hours in that pretty cove. The curmudgeons obviously resented my intrusion and continued to snub me. One day when they had taken hundreds of smelts, I admiringly asked one of them, “How many have you caught?” The answer was “Couple dozen.” He could just as easily have said “Couple bushel,” which would have been nearer the truth, for I am sure that not one of them would have bothered to take his feet out of the oven for just one bushel.

The old stagers continued to sit silently, catching smelts day after day. The only time I noticed a flurry in their vicinity was when one of them hooked an eel. Then there was a big confusion and slambanging around, punctuated by a lot of rugged New England cussing as the eel wound itself backward up his arm. I watched this struggle with spiteful pleasure and was delighted when he ended up by having to cut his line to get rid of it.

By the end of the smelting season our freezer was full to overflowing with these delicate fish, and that winter we feasted on them in many forms. Some we split and broiled, garnishing them with lemon butter and freshly chopped parsley. The tiny ones we dipped in beaten egg and bread crumbs, then fried them in deep fat for one minute; these we ate with tartar sauce. Others we poached in Chablis and herbs and then gratinéed. Few people have tried smelts à la meunière, but they are delicious.

One stormy afternoon there was a big run of king-size smelts; eight to the pound, in the vernacular. They were so handsome that I took some as a present to a friend who is neither a fisherwoman nor a cook. I arranged them on a flat basket, cushioned in green moss and garlanded with ferns. The previous day I had gathered cranberries, so I put a big red one in each smelt’s mouth. They looked temptingly fresh and colorful, and my bosom swelled with pride as I offered my gift. All I got for my pains was an unenthusiastic “Thank you,” as my friend rang for her maid and banished the whole business as fast as possible to the kitchen. I venture to say that my gourmet offering was, as likely as not, served up four days later, tasteless, and dry as a baby’s unused diaper.

Another day I mistakenly invited two guests, who professed envy at my pastime, to go with me. Practically no smelts were caught, and I became deafened by their “Did you hears” and “Oh, my dears.” Since then I have had no guests on my fishing trips, nor have I given away any more smelts.

There are other ways of catching smelts: dipping them with nets as they come up the brooks to spawn, and the outlawed jacking with flares. Of these I know nothing.

The business of fishing through the ice in the dead of winter has never appealed to me, although there are many followers of this sport. When the Great Bay near Exeter, New Hampshire, freezes over, dozens of huts are hauled out over the ice on sledges, and suddenly a whole village mushrooms overnight. I imagine that these cabins can be made pretty cosy and the community camaraderie runs high. The only time I tried it I nearly froze to death. I just sat on a hard plank and stared at the motionless little trigger which holds the line over a hole in the ice, wishing that I were back at home in front of my warm hearth.

Fishing is balm to my soul, and I enjoy every minute of it when I am alone. Someday, if I keep at it another twenty years, I will start chewing tobacco and take a brown jug with me. I may even be snippy to greenhorns.