Baker’s Smelt Camps on the Kennebec River has put out shacks every year they’ve been in business. Except this one.

David Robbins, a spokesperson for the Pittston-based business, said this is the first time in 39 years of operation they were unable to get any camps out on the ice.

“Mother Nature is a beast, and there’s almost nothing you can do,” Robbins said.

The warmer temperatures across the region caused Baker’s to officially announce on Facebook Feb. 17 that they would close for the season, and other camps across the region have done the same, including Bowdoinham-based Jim’s Smelt Camps, which closed Sunday, and Riverbend Smelt Camps, which shut down Feb. 4.

“It seems like people have been pretty understanding,” Robbins said. “I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people asking about when we were going to put the camps out, but this late in the year, it just wasn’t worth it to us.”

Robbins said last year they had 34 camps starting the second week of January before closing the second week of March.


“Last year was a good, busy season with lots of reservations,” he said. “You’ve got to take the good with the bad.”

The warm weather has also caused the U.S. Coast Guard to move up the annual “Kennebec River Spring Breakout,” which is typically conducted in late March or early April.

Lt. David Bourbeau and Chief Warrant Officer Nick Nichols, of the Coast Guard Waterways department, said they are about four weeks ahead of schedule, which is consistent with the milder winter. The National Weather Service in Gray said Augusta temperatures have been 12 percent warmer than through this time last year.

Nichols said as of Friday, there were 32 camps on the ice in Randolph and 16 in Dresden. The Coast Guard is asking that all shacks be removed from the ice no later than Feb. 29.

“We are making plans to do the breakout March 1,” Nichols said. “But because of the (upcoming rain this week), we might not have to do a breakout this year at all.”

After a messy day on Wednesday — the National Weather Service is calling for snow followed by rain with temperatures in the 30s — temperatures are forecast to climb into the 50s on Thursday. Then later in the week, temperatures are predicted to fall again with highs in the 30s and overnight lows in the teens.


Jason Bartlett, a specialist for the Department of Marine Resources, said a couple of people in his office went to Worthing’s Smelt Camps in Randolph last Thursday. He said his group caught 22 smelt over two hours and spoke to others on the ice who weren’t as fortunate.

“We interviewed some of the other fishers out there,” Bartlett said. “Some of them were doing OK, but others were not catching anything at all.”

Bartlett said data about this year’s smelt season will be difficult to gather because of the lack of fishing opportunities in the region. He said they’ve only done two sampling trips this year.

“We didn’t hear much because places weren’t open or people had to pull their shacks off the ice,” he said.

Jim McPherson was able to get 17 shacks out this season at his camp in Bowdoinham on the Cathance River before shutting down Sunday. He opened Jan. 15 for 12 days, closed for a week and then was able to get shacks out for 10 more days.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and this has been a challenging season,” McPherson said. “But I’ve had worse.”


Two years ago was the worst smelt season ever recorded, and Bartlett said the quality of the season seems to be a two-year cycle, so he expected this year wouldn’t be that great.

“A lot of the fish returning to spawn were 2-year-old fish, and last year, the fishing was better,” Bartlett said. “We could hope that in 2017 it would be a better year as well.”

In 2014, the Department of Marine Resources reported that surveys of the recreational fishing camps showed the lowest total of fish caught per line, per hour since the department began collecting data. The state previously conducted the surveys in the late 1970s and early 1980s and restarted them in 2009.

To put it in perspective, one local smelt camp owner said on a good year, people would catch 100 to 200 smelt a night, but in 2014, that dropped to about 50 a night.

A better season would be welcome for Benjamin Martin, a 30-year-old Lewiston resident who has been smelt fishing his entire life. This year, however, he was only able to go once.

“I think it’s awful the camps have had such a bad year,” Martin said via email. “Unfortunately, the risks are too great, and I applaud the owners for making decisions based on safety and not pushing the envelope.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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