WALDOBORO, Maine – Awesus Mitchell stood at the Waldoboro Town Landing at noon Friday and eyed the icy Medomak River beneath him, preparing to claim his lottery prize.
The proud winner of an elver fishing license, he had been at the landing since 8 a.m. Friday, and “stakin’ this spot out for a couple of weeks.”
“It’s a good, anxious feeling,” he said. “It’s like I’ve won the lottery … I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
On the first day of the 10-week elver fishing season, about a-half dozen of the state’s 407 license-holders lined the banks of the river off Mill Street, waiting until Maine Marine Patrol Sgt. Rene Cloutier sounded the signal at noon and fishermen could set their fyke nets.
Mitchell, 39, is a first-time elver fisherman from from Indian Island. The man, whose first name means “Black Bear,” he said proudly, thought he’d hit the jackpot when in a lottery drawing he won one of eight licenses awarded by the Penobscot Nation — one of four Maine tribes that issues its own licenses.
He may well have, after the price of elvers skyrocketed last year after a shortage in Japan from the 2011 tsunami in Asia plus restrictions on exports from Europe causing the going price to increase to nearly $2,000 per pound in 2012. Last year, elver fishermen in Maine earned nearly $38 million from 19,000 pounds of harvested elvers.
Since learning he landed a rare license, Mitchell said, he’s had many a sleepless night.
“It’s an exciting time, a kind of anxious time … it’s a potentially life-changing time because of the money involved,” he said. “If the market stays strong, in a 10-week season, there’s the potential to earn tens of thousands of dollars.”
In fact, figured Cloutier, with a $38 million industry and 407 license-holders, the potential is to earn $100,000.
On Indian Island, Mitchell paints houses for a living, and that kind of elver money could help him start his own house-painting company.
After claiming his spot and preparing his nets early Friday afternoon, Mitchell waded into the river, around the pilings, and set the long, conical, meshlike fyke nets, which are floated by Styrofoam pieces and taper to a point – the “caught” end – allowing the small eels to swim in on an incoming tide but preventing their escape.
At about 3 a.m. — when the tide crests — Mitchell will harvest any elvers that have found their way into the nets, lest they freeze in the frigid air.
This year, the water temperature in the river is only about 38 degrees, said Cloutier — far lower than last year’s approximately 54 degrees.
“That’s going to slow the eels down a little,” Cloutier said. “And there’s a lot more water in the river this year” from the recent snowfall.
But while Mitchell said he’s heard rumors that, “This year is not going to be as powerful a season,” Cloutier — who has closely watched the elver fishing season for 19 years — said there have been years where “they could hardly get rid of (the eels). This won’t be one of those years.”
Emerging from the river, Mitchell’s boots have filled with water — “But I’m fine. I’m warm!” he said, smiling with beads of sweat on his forehead. It’s hard work, laying the net and lifting and setting the weights. But he’s excited — and anxious — to see what his first year’s catch will bring.
“It’s the gold rush,” he said. “Now we just let her fish and see what she does.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated the elver fishermen were in Nobleboro.