The smelt fishing season from the New Hampshire border to Owl’s Head ended on Saturday. But on Monday, Worthing’s Smelt Camps on the Kennebec River in Randolph was open.

Owner Jim Worthing said customers had nighttime reservations, and he hasn’t heard from state regulators, who enacted rules closing the smelt fishery in the region from March 15 through June as they look to maintain a population that has struggled with long-term losses around New England, but rebounded here in 2015.

“Nobody’s told me nothing,” Worthing said. “It seems as though if they thought I was doing something wrong, they’d be down here telling me something.”

Col. Jon Cornish, chief of marine law enforcement for the Maine Marine Patrol, said Worthing will likely get a visit from officers within a couple of days.

But they should have a friendly conversation, since Cornish said education about the new rules — and not citations — will be his agency’s priority for late smelters. Baker’s Smelt Camps in Pittston was closed by Sunday. James Eddy Smelt Camps in Dresden finished on Friday and pulled shacks off the Eastern River ice over the weekend.

“It has been publicized, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s heard about it,” Cornish said.

Smelt catches rebounded somewhat in 2015 after a dismal haul in 2014. Regulators also closed the fishery that March in the worst year ever recorded in Maine. Last year, the department said it took 32 hours for a smelt to bite on an average line cast in the Kennebec River, while preliminary state data from January showed it took just 79 minutes early in the 2015 season.

Smelts rush inland from primary saltwater habitats in the winter to breed in freshwater tributaries in the early spring, so they’re traditionally caught through ice here in the winter and with nets in the spring. The new rules make it unlawful to fish for smelt at all from the New Hampshire border to Owl’s Head through June 30. Beginning in December, catches will be limited to four quarts per day in that region.

Regulators enacted the rules amid concern over the population of the small fish, which are a delicacy in Maine. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration named smelts a species of concern in 2004, citing decades of losses across the Northeast. A concerning pattern has emerged in recent year-to-year catch totals with larger hauls in odd-numbered years and smaller hauls in even years. Biologists expect that to continue.

Still, Worthing was enthusiastic about 2015, calling it the “best year we’ve had” in years, while Sharon James, who helps run the James Eddy camps, said a customer recently reported hauling in a total of 2,000 this season.

“We’ve done really good,” James said. “We had people that kept coming back, and they were doing good enough to keep coming back a couple times a week.”

Often at this time of year, ice is thin on the Kennebec. Four of Worthing’s ice shacks broke away from the camp on March 13, 2013. But a cold winter left between 10 and 20 inches of ice on the Kennebec, a state weather commission heard earlier this month.

Cornish said his officers will “make sure people are paying attention” to shacks as the ice thins. To reduce flooding risk, the U.S. Coast Guard is expected to break ice in the river from Bath to Gardiner next week.

As for Worthing, if the state doesn’t tell him differently, he said shacks will be out for “a week, at least.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme


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