Anglers clear a hole they drilled through the ice on the Kennebec River in Pittston on Feb. 2, 2022, as smelt ran up the tidal river beneath almost 2 feet of ice and snow. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

I’d barely dropped my line through the hole in the ice when Franz, my University of New Hampshire classmate from Germany, stepped into our fishing shack with a platter of crispy, golden-fried smelts, slathered in tartar sauce, courtesy of one of our neighbors on the frozen Cathance River in Bowdoinham.

“Wow,” Franz declared. “These smelts are delicious!”

Sitting on a folding wooden chair by the wood stove, he devoured four fish to my one. Then, bored by either the slow fishing or me, he headed back outside. Soon, I heard his booming laughter coming from two shacks away.

This was February 1973. Franz and I had driven a decrepit 1966 VW Beetle 100 miles north from our campus in Durham, a three-hour trip in temperatures ranging from minus-9 to minus-13. Aided by a hair dryer jury-rigged as a windshield defroster, we’d arrived in the late afternoon at Riverbend Smelt Camps, where I’d reserved a fishing shack for six hours.

Fishing for tiny smelts on a frozen tidal river is a time-honored Maine tradition. I’d been smelt fishing since age 6, when my parents first taught my brother and me how to bait small hooks with pieces of bloodworm and feel the tug of the 7-inch fish on a lightweight children’s rod (which is what I still use). But this was Franz’s first time, and he was immediately captivated by the dozen illuminated shacks, drawing their power from the camp office on shore via swooping electrical wires.

When Franz returned to our shack, he was carrying two bowls of venison chili.


“This is the life, pal,” he said, tartar sauce flecking his beard.

Anglers haul carts to shacks at Baker’s Smelt Camps in Pittston on Feb. 20, 2019. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

After another foray, he came back with a rough-pine board as a serving tray full of sliced, pickled moose tongue on homemade crackers, and three cans of Budweiser, which drew his scorn.

“It’s insulting to smelts and moose to wash down two great delicacies with this repulsive beer!” he said, his German accent thick.

“Budweiser may be king-of-beers in your country,” he added, “but nowhere else in the world.”

I defended America’s largest beer company and countered by pointing out a major flaw in his country’s biggest automaker. “If German engineers are the best in the world, as you claim,” I said, “then why can’t they at least build a half-decent VW heater and defroster?” He swallowed his words along with more smelts.

More plates of fried smelts followed, along with two sandwich bags filled with caribou jerky, which he stuffed into his coat for the long ride back to campus. He insisted I walk with him to our immediate neighbors’ fishing shack.


“Pal,” he said, “you gotta hear an elderly couple’s story. It’s classic.”

Inside their warm shack, sheep farmers Hiram and Isabelle – who first met while smelt fishing in Bowdoinham in the 1930s – told us that they’d never missed a winter of smelt fishing. “Oh, my gracious,” Isabelle said, “we’ve met a lot of people over the years on the ice. Most are very pleasant, but some are rowdy troublemakers.”

Hiram interjected: “A few years ago, several fellas were fishing in a shack a short way upriver of us. They were drunk and raising Cain. One fella tipped forward in his chair and fell through the rectangular hole in the ice. The river’s current carried him under the ice toward our shack, where he popped up gasping for air in our fishing hole. Isabelle screamed and jumped back, while I grabbed the fella by his shirt collar and pulled him up into our shack. He was some lucky, now I wanna tell ya. Could’ve been swept downriver with the outgoing tide and drowned.”

Once back in our shack, with his stomach swollen with smelts, moose meat and Budweiser, Franz made an insightful comment. “Catching the little silvery fish swimming upstream to spawn,” he commented, “is secondary to enjoying the smelt-fishing culture. I’ve grown very fond of Maine people.”

Minutes before our rental period ended that night, our new smelt fishing friends gathered outside our shack to say goodbye, primarily to Franz, whom they had nicknamed “Mayor of Smeltville.” Isabelle and Hiram hugged us and offered a heartfelt invitation to visit their farm during spring lambing season.

Throughout the winter semester, Franz pleaded with me to take him smelt fishing again. Our opportunity came in May. A week before final exams, we hitchhiked from campus to my parents’ home in Oakland, Maine.


Josh Lanteigne sets the flag on an ice fishing trap on Dec. 30, 2022, on Little Togus Pond in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

After arriving late on a Friday afternoon, I drove my parents’ 1967 Jeepster to Dr. Joseph Marshall’s three cabins on remote Spencer Lake, near Jackman, where in mid-May spawning smelts ascend streams at night. With flashlights, we twice checked a nearby stream hours after sunset but saw no smelts. The following night, completely focused on studying for finals, we forgot to look for smelts. Around midnight, just as we were preparing to retire to the bunkhouse, a loud knock on the kitchen cabin door startled us. “I saw a light on,” said Bob Wagg, “and thought I’d drop by to say hello.”

Franz was captivated by the unshaven, disheveled fisherman with missing teeth. I had met Wagg a year or two earlier when he squatted in a former German POW cabin about a mile from Marshall’s cabins. “Me and the boys are waiting for the smelts to show themselves,” he continued. “But they ain’t runnin’ yet, so I went for a walk to kill time.”

At Wagg’s urging, we followed him several hundred yards to a smelt stream. There, as in Bowdoinham, Franz again experienced the camaraderie of smelt fishermen. A half-dozen men, seated on a log near a bonfire, were drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and telling stories. Wagg’s beaver-trapping partner handed Budweisers to Franz and me. I whispered to him, “Don’t complain about the beer or they’ll twist you into a German pretzel. Understood?” He gave me a discreet thumbs up.

At 1 a.m., Franz ingratiated himself with the tipsy fishermen by spotting the first wave of smelts moving upstream. The men demonstrated their appreciation by handing Franz another Budweiser. About 15 minutes later, the stream was black with smelts. The school of fish was so large, the outer smelts were being pushed partway out of the water and onto the low banks. By 1:30, we returned to the cabin with a gallon of smelts.

“Just pluck their heads off back at camp and don’t bother guttin’ ’em,” Wagg advised. “Dip the little buggers in egg batter, roll ’em in cornmeal and flour, and fry ’em in sizzling bacon fat. Best damn eatin’ fish in the whole … state o’ Maine.”

Franz nodded in agreement, though he had never tasted another Maine fish. The colorful woodsman and his friends sent us packing with a pint jar of lemony tartar sauce and two more Buds.

Franz was ecstatic, gleefully rubbing his hands, as I handed him a plate of crispy fried smelts. Thirty minutes later, stuffed to the gills with smelts and beer, we finally retired to the bunkhouse. Moments before falling asleep, Franz’s last words were, “This is the life, pal.”

Ron Joseph, of Sidney, is author of “Bald Eagles, Bear Cubs, and Hermit Bill: Memories of a Maine Wildlife Biologist.” His column appears monthly. 

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