If he peeked around the corner from where his fish-frying station was set up, Evan Emerson could see the place where he and others caught the fish in the first place.
The smelts — small, silvery fish that can be caught in great abundance each winter and early spring in the Pleasant River in Washington County — are the star of the show at the yearly Columbia Falls Smelt Fry, held by the Downeast Salmon Federation for the past 17 years.
Emerson, 28, has been frying up smelts at the event since he was 15 years old. He has always at the end of an assembly line of volunteer cooks who line up outside the Columbia Falls Community Center to shake the pre-cleaned, whole fish in a light cornmeal breading, drop them with a satisfying crackle of hot fat into their specially made fryer and, after six to seven minutes, pull them out, hot and ready to eat.
Emerson makes the call as to when the smelts are done. It’s his watchful eye that judges when they’ve gone from merely cooked to a perfectly crispy golden brown. By the end of the day, more than 300 pounds of smelt caught and quickly frozen in the weeks leading up to the event are cooked.
“We add just a little bit of olive oil. That’s what gives it the golden brown color,” said Emerson, whose smelt camp lies just a few hundred feet from the town center. “Some people remove the bones, some people don’t. Everybody’s got their way of eating it. … I’ve been cooking them for years, but I’ve been fishing for them for as long as I can remember.”
From there, more volunteers stack plates high with whole fried smelt, alongside baked beans, cole slaw and a roll. Starting around 11 a.m., diners begin lining up to give their $7.50 to collect one of those plates and sit down to eat, with blueberry cobbler following for dessert.
Smelt are unique fish. They have the texture of firm, freshwater white fish such as trout but are oily and have a fishy flavor similar to mackerel. They’re a small fish, rarely longer than 7 inches, and are eaten whole, like sardines or herring, though some prefer to remove the backbone before digging in. Although deep frying in a light batter is the most traditional way of eating them, some like to pan fry them in butter, garlic and lemon — and the folks at the Downeast Salmon Federation also smoke them, alongside mackerel and alewives.
“It’s a little sweet. It’s a unique flavor,” said Marlene Farnsworth, of Jonesboro, who is the designated dropper of the fish into the fryer. “There’s nothing like it. It’s a delicacy.”
For many in Columbia Falls and surrounding communities such as Jonesport and Addison, the Smelt Fry is the first real indication that it’s spring. There’s not always spring-like weather for the event — though this year, skies were crystal clear and temperatures nearly hit 70 degrees — but folks take it as an opportunity to shake the winter dust off, arriving in droves to get their fried smelt fix. Most years, around 500 people attend.
“Everybody comes out of the woodwork,” Terry Shaw, one of the main organizers of the event for Downeast Salmon Federation, said. “You’ve spent the whole winter all holed up, and you haven’t seen anybody. It’s a community welcome to spring. Everybody eats them their own way. It’s like fiddleheads. It’s a real Maine thing.”
Although these fish are a part of the cultural landscape of Washington County, smelts are also cooked all around the world. They’re a common fish in northern oceans, and there’s also a huge, invasive populations of smelts in the Great Lakes region, supposedly introduced into those waters by some rogue Maine smelts in the early part of the 20th century. Smelt fries are also common in states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, though they’re a more recent addition to the culture there than in Maine.
“I had a 94-year-old Maine native, who had traveled all over the world, tell me that in lodges in the Swiss Alps every place served smelts, similar to these old Maine recipes,” Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, said. “A couple months ago I was at Yoshi, the Japanese restaurant in Brewer, and they had smelts on the menu. … I think that with the foodie world we’re now in, people are willing to experiment with things like that a lot more. I think we’re ripe for trying new things.”
Smelt fishing is a tradition in Washington County that goes back thousands of years. Well before European colonization of eastern Maine, the Penobscot fished rivers and streams for smelt. Early British settlers in the 18th century hung nets in the Pleasant River, which winds its way inland from Pleasant Bay toward Columbia Falls, in essentially the same manner that fishermen do today.
Some of the folks fishing today come from those families that were smelting in the 1700s. Evan Emerson himself is from one of those families, alongside last names like Look, Robbins and Tibbetts, either using gill nets when the water is open or ice fishing in the winter.
The Downeast Salmon Federation tries to bridge the gap between understanding smelting as an important cultural tradition and as a major part of the diet of folks in the region, and the reams of scientific data they’ve collected over years of careful study of the waterways of the region.
“Our role is to bring science and tradition together,” Shaw said. “We have years of data and observations of the health of the smelt population here and the water quality, and we also have all these decades of history and local information from the people who live here. Between all of that, we can really track where we think things will go in the future.”
Smelt fishing has been significantly restricted in southern parts of the state because of overfishing, but the Pleasant River has among the healthiest smelt populations in the state and can support personal and commercial fishing each year, according to Shaw.
The Smelt Fry is a celebration of the role those fisheries play in the lives of Washington County residents, not just as a fun winter and spring pastime but also as an important part of the cultural and culinary identity of the region. In more recent years, the DSF has also offered up smoked smelts, alewives and mackerel for sample alongside the smelt fry, as well as samples of moose and venison stew — not to mention the local blueberries in the cobbler.
“It’s a celebration of the fact that smelts, alongside things like alewives and mackerel and trout, are all foods that, with proper management, can sustain us locally and for export,” Shaw said. “And that it’s just this wonderful local tradition. It’s a part of life here.”