If you’re looking for a winter activity that gets you outdoors, indoors, and fishing at the same time, we recommend going smelting. Imagine this: a hut warmed through with the fragrant heat of a log-fed stove. Friends around, sharing beer and stories. All the while, out of the corner of your eye, you’re watching a line that dives into flowing water beneath a foot of ice—waiting for a telltale tug.
When we say smelting, we’re not talking about metal. Smelt are a type of fish that’s about half a foot long, and a shimmery sort of silver. Patience might be the most necessary resource when catching smelt, but we found that the experience was less about how many you catch, than the friends, food, and drink that go with the experience. Though we can’t say that we’re experts, we learned quite a lot on this past trip. Here are our brief guidelines to a memorable smelting experience.
Lines in the water.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS: You’ll be spending the bulk of your day on a frozen river—so warmth is key. But make sure to layer. Inside a smelting cabin you’ll find a wood floor and a stove, which brings the temp up into somewhere near the fifties or sixties, depending on how many logs you’ve thrown on. Thermal underwear under some jeans, thick socks, good boots, a warm hat, and a couple layers of jacket should set you just right.
Waiting patiently for the first catch.
BYO FOOD: In our experience, it’s best to bring all the food you want to eat, and think of the smelt you might catch as an added bonus treat. A traditional smelting trip is never without a skillet for the cooking of smelt, and some cornmeal to dip them in before pan-frying (they’re small enough to eat whole). On our last trip up to Worthing’s Smelt Camp in Randolph, ME, we were lucky enough to go along with the folks from Eventide Oyster Co. Needless to say, the fare was stellar.
NECESSARY TOOLS: You’ll need the aforementioned frying pan for cooking fish. Wood and bait can be provided by the smelting camp, but it’s always good to check. You should absolutely bring a knife and cutting board of your own, since that may not be available. And most essential is a beer or two to enjoy. We brought along some fresh cans of Allagash White and River Trip. Something with a lower ABV is preferable, so you can sip on it during the day without getting too sidetracked from the fishing.
Doesn’t hurt when your friends are James Beard Award-winning chefs.
AND SOME ADVICE: “Fish don’t look down, only forward and up.” Our resident smelting expert, Kevin, laid down the general guidelines: above four trenches dug through the ice hung lines and tackle. After baiting with a centimeter-long piece of worm, drop the line between six and eight feet down—which can be counted out with how many times the line was unwrapped from its pegs. The best advice on the correct depth is to listen for the whoop of some other cabin catching a fish, and politely ask them how deep they set their lines.
Long story short, if you bring good food, good beer, and good friends, you’re gonna have a great time.
See you next year, smelting shacks!