PITTSTON — On Sunday, the telephone line at Baker’s Smelt Camps was burning up.

For days, people across Maine and elsewhere had been waiting for weather cold enough for ice to form on the Kennebec River and its tributaries to launch the annual winter tradition of smelt fishing.

Perhaps none had been waiting more impatiently than Dale Pierce, who has spent decades fishing Maine’s waters — fresh and salt.

Richie Potter III stopped for a moment Sunday in the midst of the opening rush to give an update on the status of the camps. Anyone traveling down the west side of the Kennebec River could see the line of camps being set up Saturday at Baker’s.

“There’s probably 10 to 12 inches of good black ice,” Potter said. “You can call and make a reservation. They’re booking up fast on the weekends.”

For Pierce and his son, Glenn, who have been waiting to get together this winter for some smelt fishing, that was welcome news. Pierce is going to Pittston, as he has for about two decades.

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“Smelting was always fun,” Pierce said from his house in Sebago. “You know, in wintertime, if you don’t care for snow machines and you don’t ski or whatever, it’s a great recreational thing to do with your family.”

Dale Pierce, an enthusiastic year-round fisherman, has been waiting for the smelt camps in central Maine to open for the year. Glenn Pierce

Glenn Pierce, 52, said he and his brother, Danny, spent their childhood weekends not with baseball and football games or at the movies, like their friends, but with their father. They went fishing.

“As much as we complained about it as kids, we loved it, too,” Glenn Pierce said. “Just that thrill and excitement of waiting just to catch something. That, to this day — as an adult — I still haven’t lost.”

After about 30 years away serving in the U.S. Navy, Glenn Pierce returned several years ago, settling with his family in Dedham. Now, he is looking for more opportunities to go fishing with his father, 76, whatever the season.

“My father, for whatever reason, is crazy about smelts,” Glenn Pierce said. “He talks about smelts like Bubba talks about shrimp in ‘Forest Gump.'”

When he was a kid, Glenn Pierce said, they fished for smelts in Casco Bay in spring, summer and fall. He said he did not fish for them in the winter until his father took him to Baker’s when he was home on leave.

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“I used to fly off carriers, so I am not intimidated by much,” Glenn Pierce said. “But when he took me the first time, you had to walk across a wide hemlock plank to get from the bank over open water to get on the ice. And then the ice was open in the middle and the tide rises up and down. All you hear is groaning, like whales are singing. It was crazy.”

The last time they went, they were joined by some of Glenn’s friends, who, like Glenn and his father, served in the military. They had a chance to talk about many things.

“When you get together with people and do things, you can talk about common interests and common experiences,” Glenn Pierce said. “It provides a sense of connectedness you don’t ordinarily get.”

Richie Potter of Baker’s Smelt Camps carries a plank across the water Sunday as a bridge to the shacks erected on the Kennebec River in Pittston. Potter worked all day Saturday and all night Sunday installing the shacks at his family’s business. The subzero temperatures created one foot of ice, Potter said. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

The elder Pierce, who was a machinist, worked at one point on ships, and happened to get his hands on a steam engine log, a piece of paper about 3 feet long marked with all kinds of lines. That is where he has kept his fishing records — everywhere he has fished, the conditions, with whom, what they caught and what they saw while they were out.

“I was just looking at it,” Dale Pierce said. “I didn’t strike Baker’s until about 2001.”

He said he can recall times when many commercial smelt camps operated in and around the Kennebec River more than a decade ago, and when he has seen more smelts.

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Mike Brown, a fisheries scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, who among other things works with rainbow smelt, confirms Dale Pierce’s observations, noting the rainbow smelt population is smaller than it was in the 1960s.

“Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen an increase in numbers,” Brown said. “Certainly enough to fish and enough for the commercial camp operators to be able to safely and effectively fish on.”

Now, the bulk of smelt fishing is recreational, through the four or so existing camps in central Maine.

The winter smelt fishing season comes as the fish begin moving from the ocean into the estuaries of Maine’s tidal rivers, where they will wait and feed until their spawning season begins at the end of March or beginning of April, according to Brown.

Last year, the Pierces trekked the coastline from Blue Hill north, searching for commercial smelt camps. They stopped at every town, followed rivers upstream and asked around. They did not find any until they reached Columbia Falls in Washington County.

Dale Pierce has tips for smelting, some based on experience and some from talking to “the old boys” over the years:

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• Be sure to wear insulated boots and dress for the conditions. Even though the camps are heated, your feet can get cold, particularly if you have trek through slush to get to your camp.

A shack is towed Sunday onto the Kennebec River in Pittston as workers prepare Baker’s Smelt Camps for guests. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

• Use small hunks of bait. Any hunk larger than about three-eights of an inch means the smelt gets to nibble away with little chance of getting caught on a hook.

• While many of the old boys — he acknowledges he could also be considered one of the old boys now — favor fishing on the outgoing tide, he has found success fishing the incoming tide.

• Bring a radio. He favors Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. A radio can come in handy if fishing with children. The language at neighboring camps can get a little salty.

• The smaller fish are tastier, in Pierce’s opinion. He has been known to trade larger fish for smaller when given the opportunity.

• The best way to cook smelts at camp is breading them with a mix of equal parts flour and cornmeal and then frying them in butter.

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• If you plan to freeze them, clean them and store them in plastic bags with some water to keep them from drying out in the freezer. When they thaw, he said, they’ll taste like they are fresh caught; it also works for brook trout.

Glenn Pierce said he wants to learn as much as he can from his father, who still enjoys teaching him.

“I can’t get it off my mind,” Glenn Pierce said. “I can’t wait to go again.”

And in Pittston, Potter said he is excited for this year’s prospects.

“I hope Mother Nature lets us be out here for eight weeks this winter,” he said.

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