COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — Just feet from the basin of the Pleasant River, where thousands of smelts were netted earlier this year, a favorite custom was under way Friday night: the 10th annual Down East Salmon Federation Smelt Fry.
The event has a loyal following, and more than 600 people paid just $5 each for a plate of smelts, side dishes and salads, all topped with cakes, pies and brownies.
“When you have a smelt fry, they come like sea gulls,” chief cook Muriel Gay of Jonesboro said.
The annual April smelt fry is one of the last of its kind, said Dwayne Shaw, director of the Down East Salmon Federation, who contends that the Pleasant River smelt fishery is the last remaining and longest-running commercial smelt fishery in the country.
Rainbow smelts — Osmerus mordax — are related to salmon and trout and emit a cucumber smell when caught. They lay their eggs in mid-April in gravelly areas of streams and then mature in estuaries and saltwater bays.
“Historically, smelts ranged from Delaware to Canada,” Shaw said. “But they have been in decline due to dams, pollution and possibly overfishing.”
The smelt shacks that line the Pleasant River basin have been there for decades. The journal of a local Columbia Falls sea captain who bought smelts in 1776 reveals he bought them from the same families that continue to net them today — Tibbettses, Looks and Emersons.
“What the smelt fry does is celebrate sustainable fisheries,” Shaw said.
What it also does is bring the community together.
“We started this 10 years ago with about 50 people,” Shaw said, looking at a long line of smelt lovers that wound outside the dining tent and through the parking lot.
Frank Cassidy of Machias, who has been coming to the fry for years, observed that “the secret is to get here early for both the parking and the food.”
“I like the fish and the company,” 90-year-old Chet Hawkins of East Machias said. “I grew up on pickerel and perch, but tonight I’d have to say my favorite is smelt.”
At one end of the tent, in the makeshift kitchen, hands covered with cornmeal from the smelt breading, Jane Copp of Jonesboro said she looks forward to the smelt fry all winter.
“It’s nice to see everyone out,” she said. “Some of us don’t get to visit much in the winter.”
Also elbow-deep in breaded smelt, Marlene Farnsworth of Jonesboro said, “There is no taste like fried smelts. They are sweet and unique and delicious.”
The women roll the previously frozen smelts in the breading, laughing and talking while they work.
Is there a secret to the breading recipe? The women are asked.
“Of course,” answered Gay, with a hearty laugh. “We bought it at the store.”
Gay said the breading is cornmeal, flour and a bit of salt. The smelts then are dropped into a deep fryer at 350 F, “just until they are golden.”
Evan Emerson of Columbia Falls, nearly invisible in a swirl of steam from the three open fryers, said, “I’ve been cooking at the smelt fry since I was 15. But I’ve been fishing for smelt for as long as I can remember.”
Emerson pointed to the riverside smelt shacks, where he and his grandfather Lewis Emerson stretch 150 feet of gill nets across the Pleasant River in March and harvest the fish.
Gay took a cooked smelt, broke it open and deftly peeled the bones out in one motion.
“There,” she said. Some people eat the smelts just as they are, while others add salt, vinegar or ketchup. “But that just kills the taste,” she said.
As the smelts cooked, volunteers filled the side tables with salads, coleslaw, rolls, white cakes, chocolate cakes, tapioca pudding and — of course — blueberry cake.
At the opposite end of the tent, the University of Maine at Machias Ukulele Band played a funky rendition of “Let It Be.”
Outside, children ran around, taking tours of the Wild Salmon Resource Center nearby and bouncing in an inflatable house, while people continued to pour into the tent for the smelt fry.
Joan Stephens of Addison grabbed two portions of fish — one for herself and another for her husband.
“I was first in line,” she said. “I love smelt, and this is the only time we get them.”