It was a jolly scene on a frosty morning. The sun was sparkling on the snow and a couple of guys were hauling a sledge across the ice. Many of the huts were closed up, hand-painted signs boarded across their fronts with each owner’s name, phone number, and home town.

“The ice is a foot and a half thick. You’re alright to walk out,” said one of the guys spotting my girls and me tentatively snooping around. We made our way out to the little village on the ice, checking out anchors holding down each shack.

They were all a bit different from each other – some built from scratch, others fashioned from small camping trailers, and some from storage sheds. The towns painted on them included Richmond, Harpswell, Topsham and Brunswick.

You’ve likely seen this little village from the green bridge between Brunswick and Topsham, or another like it on another coastal river. So, what were these guys doing?
They’re smelting. OK, so what are smelt?

Smelts are little schooling fish that are silvery with a translucent greenish back. They look a lot like a wriggly fishing lure, their narrow bodies measuring only 4 to 6 inches or so. They wiggle their way in large schools between fresh and saltwater on their annual spawning runs.

Fish like smelt that spawn in rivers and then migrate out to live most of their lives in the sea are called anadromous. Other familiar anadromous fish are salmon, striped bass and shad. Because they rely on both our rivers and the ocean, they remind us of how interconnected the watery world is along our coast.

Even when much of that water is frozen, there is still a lot of movement under the ice. The smelt come in and out with the tide, which is why you find smelt shacks on tidal rivers like the Androscoggin and the Cathance.

I love to get outside in the winter and be out in the snow and ice, exploring. But, sitting still in the cold is a tougher sell. Some of the shacks are equipped with portable heaters or grills to keep them warm, but many are not. Most shacks are simply bare wooden structures set over a hole in the ice. An ice auger can be used to cut a small hole, or bigger holes can be cut with a chainsaw.

Then, to catch the fish … some people prefer to use minnow traps, waiting patiently for the signal flag to show they’ve caught something. Others use hand lines with jigs baited with marine worms. Either way, it is a game of patience – or an excuse for camaraderie, in some cases. Often, people gather together with music, a grill to cook over and stories to share.

So, what’s the pay off? I mentioned that smelt look like bait – and they do make good bait, but you can also eat them. Right now you can find them at a few local seafood vendors, including Hannaford, and you’ll see them offered on a few menus around town.

They aren’t a super popular fish to eat because they’re pretty oily. But, that does mean that they are super packed with omega-3 fatty acids and are very good for you. You need to cook them when they are fresh or they spoil quickly. They’re also small and bony. But, because their bones are tiny, you can just eat them whole if you aren’t stymied by a little crunch – from head to tail, literally. Just dust them with a bit of flour and cornmeal and pan-fry them.

If you don’t like to eat them, perhaps you can appreciate smelt for the success story that they tell. It wasn’t long ago that it was unsafe to eat much of anything coming out of many of Maine’s rivers given the pollutants from textile and paper mills.

In addition to water that was contaminated by heavy metals and other chemicals unsafe for human consumption, dams blocked the passage of anadromous fish that need to travel back and forth between rivers and the sea for reproduction. The fact that smelt shacks can now be seen along several local tidal rivers is a visible sign of the restoration of some of these fish passages, as well as the improvement in water quality.

And, it’s also another way to get out and enjoy winter in Maine on the water.