Cold temperatures brought an early freeze to local rivers and allowed smelt fishing camps to get a jump on the season.

Commercial smelt camps that most years don’t typically open until mid-January had enough ice to open around Christmas thanks to this season’s frigid temperatures.

“We’ve probably got 16 inches of ice, if not more,” said Sonny Newton, owner of Sonny’s Smelt Fishing on the Kennebec River in Dresden. “We started cutting (through the ice) with a 14-inch bar, and we couldn’t get through it. It was 17 below yesterday. It’s making ice.”

Newton put shacks out the day after Christmas and has 10 shacks out so far, but said business has been slow, in part because people aren’t used to being able to fish this early in the season. He said last year Sonny’s didn’t have fishing until a couple weeks into January. He said he doesn’t let anybody fish at his camps if he knows the ice isn’t safe.

“It has been slow, but it’s early,” Newton said of business so far this season. “People just had Christmas and New Year’s, when they spend a lot of money. And the economy is hard.”

James Eddy Smelt Camps, on the Eastern River in Dresden, has been fishing since Dec. 27, according to Sharon James, whose sons own the business.

“We probably could have been on earlier if not for all the snow and ice,” James said, the start to the season being delayed because the business had to deal with the same snow and ice that has made doing anything outside in central Maine a challenge recently. “It’s earlier than we’ve been for quite a few years. I think, last year, it was the second week in January. And the same the year before that.”

She said they had between 8 and 10 inches of ice on the river and were fishing from 20 camps with more on shore they’ll put out soon.

Last year’s smelt season ended early, camp owners said, when they had to pull their shacks off the ice as it softened up prematurely.

Rows of shacks have been out on the Kennebec River at Worthing’s Smelt Camp in Randolph for about two weeks.

At Baker’s Smelt Camps, on the Kennebec in Pittston, they’ve been fishing since Dec. 31.

Matt Sinclair, an officer with the state Marine Patrol, made the rounds of commercial smelt shacks in the region Thursday. He agreed that cold weather has allowed for an early start to smelt fishing this year.

“It has been an exceptional winter so far. A lot of ice formed relatively early in the season,” Sinclair said. “I’m hearing reports of from 10 to 20 inches of good ice. This extended cold has been an excellent condition for forming ice. It’s not good for much else, but it’s good ice-making weather.”

Sinclair said all the commercial camps he visited appeared to be on safe ice.

He urged anyone putting out their own fishing shack to cut a hole in the ice to see how thick it is, both at the location of the shack, but also around it, including the area leading to the shack from shore.

“Ice is one of those things. I never trust ice. You’ve got spring holes, inlets and outlets, pressure ridges … it’s real unpredictable and sometimes dangerous,” Sinclair said. “It’s a very imperfect medium. It’s not the same everywhere. Any moving water is not going to form ice nearly as well. There are all these different factors. People need to remember we’re still early in the season. Err on the side of caution.”

Temperatures appear to be ice-friendly for the immediate future.

The National Weather Service’s forecast for central Maine includes lows of minus 6 Thursday night, minus 9 Friday night, and 9 Saturday night before warming to a low of 19 overnight Sunday.

Rainbow smelt are anadromous fish, meaning they spawn in fresh water but live most of their lives in salt water. The average adult measures between seven and nine inches, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647[email protected]