Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of ice fishing, not even in my young and foolish years. I hard-water fish for the same reason I chase snowshoe hare and attempt long-range sniping at coyote and fox — to stave off cabin fever. Maine winters are long, cold and tedious; there are only so many flies to tie, books to read, rods to mend and shells to load before a sportsman just has to get outside or go stir crazy. For me, that’s where smelt fishing comes in.
At age 17 I built my first smelt shanty. Rough but functional, it lasted several seasons. There have been at least half a dozen new and improved versions since, bigger, better, more comfortable and simple to transport and set up each winter. My dad, who held a dim view of working to drill a hole in thick ice, then standing in the middle of a lake on a frigid day staring at a tip-up for hours, even got into handlining for smelt eventually. He and our neighbor Ken Kingsbury even helped in the innovation and construction of my last two fish huts.
Over the years the three of us set our shanty on Portage, Squa Pan, Square and Big Machias lakes, but Pleasant Pond in Island Falls with its strong population of silver darters kept drawing us back. Along with fast and furious smelt action there were brook trout, landlocked salmon and a steady supply of hefty, unappreciated but cooperative cusk. Birch Point Cove, right over a distinctive gravel bar, is where we settled in each December throughout the 1980s and early 1990s and seldom a week passed without a couple of smelt-jigging expeditions.
Tricks of the trade
Pleasant Lake was and is one of only a half-dozen Aroostook waterways open day and night to smelting as soon as a safe layer of ice forms, and boy was that early-season fishing sensational. As soon as Joe Edwards set out his half-dozen rental huts behind Birch Point Lodge each winter, I knew the ice was safe, and by the weekend we had our smelt shack in place and were fishing. Action stayed steady throughout December and January but could be spotty the last two months of each season. There were still lots of smelt finning about, the trick was to be at hand during their random feeding frenzies or at least come up with a trick or two to entice some strikes. Thankfully, smelt still retain the same habits and tactics that proved effective over the years are still mostly dependable. Dawn and dusk are the best times to jig smelt each day. Personally, I prefer an hour before sundown until about 8 o’clock. I’m not sure if smelt could be considered midnight snackers, but time and again on several lakes there seems to be an hour or so of increased feeding either side of midnight. For working stiffs, night fishing is a great reprieve after a long day on the job, and of course this is where a cozy smelt hut comes into the picture again.
Smelt travel in schools and seek food at different depths. Setting a fish hut near the edge of a dropoff, along a gravel bar or above rising bottom structures ensures better results. Smelt seem to seek out such lake-bottom abnormalities as they regularly travel paths when cruising for food. I never set a hut over water deeper than 50 feet and much prefer 25- to 30-foot depths, especially in coves and bays. Smelt seem to favor shallower areas as well, so setting baits at various levels from 8 to 20 feet will help narrow down their feeding depth on a particular night.
I certainly didn’t invent the concept of multi-hook lines, but I’ve made use of these rigs for years and seldom see other anglers utilizing the great concept. Up to three hooks per line are legal for jigging smelt, so I set my dropper lines about 2 feet apart. One hook is on the end of the line with a pencil eraser-size split shot 8 inches above, then 24 inches above the sinker a short tag line and hook is tied in. Using heavier monofilament keeps the short dropper line from easily tangling with the main jig line. A second tag line and hook is tied in another 2 feet or so above the first, thus allowing three baits to be presented over a much wider depth range.
If smelt are feeding at a particular depth, one specific bait will keep getting hit and other lines may be adjusted to take advantage. On the other hand, if silver darters are working multiple depths, the triple-hook rig still keeps you in the action. Some anglers fret about possible tangles from triple-hook setups, but it has never been an issue for me. But then I never use more than two multi-hook rigs at a time.
Since smelt can be such delicate feeders and thin monofilament lines are difficult to visualize day or night in a fish shanty, some sort of strike indicator is a huge advantage. The old standby is a wooden kitchen match clove-hitched to the mono about 6 or 8 inches above the water. With its white shaft and red head the match offers easy-to-visualize contrast with the dark water surface, and even the slightest nibble will set the match twitching and twirling, alerting the angler. A stiff, sturdy wooden match also makes a perfect handle to grab when setting the hook, or even when just jostling the line to move the bait about to attract strikes.
My cronies and I got even more creative when rigging our smelt lines to indicate strikes. Most lines end up tied off to a crossbeam or banister 3 feet above the long ice hole in a shanty, or sometimes tied off to nails or hooks set along a ceiling beam over the hole. Such solid attachments allow for every little motion when tenuous strikes occur, even with a match on the line. A short length of coat hanger or stiff bailing wire attached to a roof nail at one end with the monofilament half-hitched to the loose end allows a line to bounce and bob at the slightest touch.
While I can’t claim credit for the wire strike indicator — the first version I ever spotted was 30-odd years ago in the hut of an aged veteran smelter — I’ve made some improvements over the years. For example, instead of wire, I take springs from ballpoint pens, attach them to the roof with push pins and then just slip my line between the coils on the lower end. The vertical spring is very pliable and motion in any direction or just a slight downward pull really sets a match, or piece of white tissue paper attached to the line near water level, in motion.
When a large game fish grabs a bait instead of a smelt, my strike indicator spring is tight enough to set the hook but then allows the line to pull free. A line that is tied off to a solid point will snub up, often pulling the hook out of the big fish’s mouth before the barb can be set. When a smelt feels resistance while taking a bait, chances are it will refuse to bite. A spring or wire strike indicator eliminates this problem and yields more fish.
The night light
I’ve been in a lot of smelt shanties over the years and seen anglers try a lot of tricks to draw passing schools of smelt under their huts and to their handlines. During day trips it’s possible to cover any windows in the fish shack and on clear lakes in 20 to 25 feet of water anglers can see bottom and of course any fish that fin past their hole in the ice. Our location over the Birch Point Cove gravel bar on Pleasant Pond allowed us to view fish regularly, and it adds excitement to the outing.
In decades past, some anglers used to throw a handful of crushed egg shells or uncooked rice into the water every 30 minutes or so. The particles would flash and shimmer as they slowly sank and supposedly drew passing fish to investigate. I never tried chumming because I felt it was polluting the lakes to some extent, and I wasn’t sure it was even legal, but some old-timers swear it worked well and the chum was biodegradable. It matters little because I’ve not seen or heard of these tactics for many years.
A few fishermen would clean their smelts as they caught them and throw the viscera down the hole, perhaps thinking the smell and food source might attract more smelt. It certainly worked to attract cusk, especially at night. I did borrow a page from one veteran smelter and hung a silver and red Dave Davis deep trolling rig on a string in my ice hole. Every five minutes I’d haul it up and then let it tumble and spin back to the end of its tether. I’m not sure it attracted any more fish to my baits, but it gave me something to occupy my time.
As dusk fell everything reversed. Anglers could no longer see the fish, but the fish could see light from the shanty shining down the hole and often came past to investigate. Big game fish cruised by as well; it’s why I always preferred smelting at night. Crafty anglers would hang a Coleman lantern right over their hole to shine more light into the water. During a lull one evening, Ken Kingsbury lamented aloud to Dad and I that he wished there was a way to submerge a bright beacon for distant passing fish.
Rather than admit an underwater light was a pipe dream, we kept discussing the notion, bouncing ideas around even as we drove home later that night. Our “what if” gained momentum and between the three of us a unique invention was born. We jokingly called it our fish night light. With the basic design decided on, Ken, a retired farmer who could mend or build most anything, headed to the local hardware store the next morning. That night we gathered in his heated garage and got to work. Less than 90 minutes later we had our prototype night light for smelt fishing.
The housing was a 6-foot length of aluminum stovepipe 8 inches in diameter. Six or eight inches from the top, Ken attached a light fixture with a 150-watt floodlight bulb into place, then attached wiring to supply power. The top end was then sealed with a metal cover and a stout nylon cord attached by which the long metal light tube could be submerged to just below the light fixture, then tied off and suspended. Our night light got its trial run two evenings later and boy did it ever illuminate the lake bottom under our smelt hut.
Did our night light improve our smelt fishing? I think it did marginally. I knew we caught salmon more frequently and its entertainment value alone by providing such a great underwater view at night was worth it. Although I haven’t used it in years, I still have our original smelt night light stored away for posterity. It just might be time to introduce our strange fish finder to a new generation.
Whatever your tricks and tactics, it’s hard to beat smelt for fun and great table fare, and a warm smelt shanty is the only way to go while hard-water angling in sub-zero temperatures.