All photos/art by Heath Robbins
More fish dishes: Seafood Recipes
Starting off with a big word I rarely use, rainbow smelts are anadromous, which means that like salmon, darling of the seafood world, they spend much of their adult lives in salt water but must return to fresh water to spawn. Come December, smelts, never very far offshore, begin moving into the mouths of the many rivers and inlets along the Maine coast, most heavily in the Bath and Brunswick area.
Although they won’t begin their amorous activities until spring, January and February are peak smelt-catching months, as millions of them are concentrated in coastal eddies.
Right around the December holidays, as soon as the ice is thick enough, smelt shacks begin popping up on top of Maine’s frozen tidal rivers, and the annual ritual begins. If you want to try it yourself, you can rent a camp (details at maine.gov/dmr/recreational/smeltcamps). If you go, be sure to bundle up.
Now, some folks turn their noses up at these small fish. (Perhaps a not-so-fresh sardine or anchovy once landed on their plates.) But fresh smelts (2 to 5 inches long) are an oceany treat that New Englanders are quick to praise. Their delicate white meat is vaguely sweet and cucumbery. We think they’re best pan-fried and eaten right away, but add a light cucumber salad and you’ve got a great combination, too.