An icy portal into the small world of smelt


If you throw a batch of smelt into a cast-iron skillet within a half-hour or so of jigging them through the ice, they will curl like an arthritic hand, then, somehow, stand up on their bellies as if they’re preparing to school and swim off the stovetop. I’ve not seen any other species of headless fish perform this trick, and the first time I witnessed it, our 2-year-old, Lily, shrieked in surprise. A spatula and a squirt of lemon juice put them to rest.

Rainbow smelt — Osmerus mordax — are a tough and noble little fish, guided by instinct as they run a gantlet of predators from saltwater to fresh on a migration that for millennia has taken them up rivers of ice to feed and procreate.

This winter, we intersected their migration on a frozen tidal river in Maine where, for the first time in several years, we hauled an ice shack onto a little cove not far from our house on Merrymeeting Bay.

The procedure for positioning one’s shack on the ice is straightforward. Ours is really just a small shed, roughly 4 feet by 8 feet, with a clear roof for gazing at the stars overhead and a long rectangular trough, or raceway, at your feet. Once the river is sufficiently frozen, the shack is wrestled atop a makeshift sled, then dragged by rope harness through the snow-covered woods and down to the chosen location.

With a chain saw, we cut a hole in the ice, long and narrow to match the one on the floor of the shack. The shack is again wrestled, this time off the sled, and the two holes are aligned. The fish bite best at night. We light the shack with a propane lantern, then drop our lines into the dark depths. Bits of marine worms, harvested from local clam flats, are preferred as bait.

If your location is a good one — as ours was this winter — then catching smelt should be easy. Shack maintenance, I discovered, is the hard part.

The massive sheet of tidal ice atop which our shack sits is fickle and unpredictable. The bottom of the bay is filled with sandbars and rocks and fallen logs over which the ice heaves and falls every six hours with all the grace of a dinner plate tossed down a flight of stairs. The net effect is millions of cracks, large and small. These fissures lead to puddles, melting, slush, depressions and other headaches that threaten the shack and require immediate attention, most often at 1 a.m. during a rainstorm on a work night.

Despite all this, in the middle of the oppressive Maine winter, an ice shack offers a portal into a secret world. Many nights, we wander out onto the ice after work, spent, exhausted, tired of staring at one screen or another. A lone shack sitting atop a sprawling sheet of ice is the perfect antidote. The fish are trapped beneath the ice. We are trapped above it. The slender raceway — 1 foot wide by 8 feet long — is our connection, a fleeting glimpse into the smelt’s mysterious migration.

In many ways, the travels of smelt, a fish of just 6 or 8 inches in length, are no less impressive than those of the wildebeests that traverse the Serengeti or monarch butterflies that flutter north from Mexico. But because they travel through less glamorous country, and always under cover of ice and darkness, they are a species little known to most. Like many migrants, their populations have begun to ebb and flow for reasons we don’t fully understand. This year, they were abundant. Last, they were not. Likely culprits include the warming Gulf of Maine, where they spend their summers; fishing pressure at sea; and the loss of spawning habitat.

Our daughter Lily doesn’t yet appreciate the nuances of smelt migration. She is too young to help much with chores. But she is beginning to understand that catching and cleaning your own food is plenty of work and serious business. On the weekends, she walks alongside me on the ice, in the dark, under the stars. I see her wincing as snow fills her boots and wind and cold chafe at her face. Then, in the shack, she sits beside me and watches, eyes like headlights, as I use a long-handled chisel to clear newly formed ice in the raceway. We cut up the worms into small pieces, bait the hooks, and wait.

We don’t always catch fish, but when we do, each is a celebration. Lily handles the smelt after I dispatch them, running her fingers along their holographic scales, touching their eyes, marveling at their many fine teeth. In truth, they are a work of art; translucent, silver-bright fish that reflect the colors of the rainbow in succession down their flanks, infused with glitter that seems to sparkle from within. None of these details are lost on Lily.

Back home, she watches me from her seat on the kitchen counter, curious but not alarmed, as I slice behind their gill plates with a sharp knife, removing their heads and entrails in one motion and clearing the bloodline against their spine with the tip of my finger. I roll them in flour, fry them in olive oil, squirt them with lemon juice. Then we feast. Eating these fish so soon after catching them keeps alive an instinct that has faded from modern and urban life.

On trips to the grocery store, we often stop at the seafood counter, a source of endless curiosity for Lily. One day near the end of the season, we approached the glass case, adorned with clams and shrimp and the fillets of mahi-mahi and salmon on cascades of crushed ice.

“Papa, papa,” Lily cried, pressing her finger to the glass. “Smelt!”

She was right. But I could see from the expression on her face that she was puzzled, too. How had these fish, which before now she had only ever seen emerge from a dark hole in the ice, found their way to this brightly lit showcase, across from the cereal boxes and chocolate bars? She looked again at the smelt, and then back at me. “Why?” she said.

It’s her favorite question and one for which I rarely have a satisfying answer.


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