It’s smelt season already, to my surprise—I usually think of these delicious little fish as coming along in March but last week I got a half pound of local smelts at Jess’s, my Rockland fish dealer where they always seem to have the best of everything and much of it local.
The smelts had been caught by an ice fisherman in Dresden on the Kennebec river just above Merrymeeting Bay. Merrymeeting and the tributaries that feed into it (the Cathance, for instance) are famous for ice fishing and it’s a great winter sport in Maine—almost as popular as high school basketball though possibly not as healthy. It’s true you’re out in the open air and enjoying wintah, but if you’re an honest-to-god proper ice fisherman you’re probably sweating over a red hot pot-bellied stove while you’ve got chilblains in your feet and fingers, you’re inhaling a lot of secondhand smoke (if not actually firsthand), and you’re consuming a powerful amount of Allen’s Coffee Brandy, sometimes diluted with a healthy dose of rich Oakhurst milk. This is what my friend Sam Hayward calls “Allens’n’Oakhurst (also known as the A-OK, the official beverage of rural Maine).” And don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
Still, it’s worth it for a mess of smelts–Osmerus mordax, according to my copy of Bigelow and Schroeder, Fishes of the Gulf of Maine. Originally published in the 1920s (my edition is the 1953 revision), it’s the go-to authority for just about any fish from North Atlantic waters and it will tell you more about smelts that you thought you needed to know.
What I can tell you is that these slender, silvery little fish are very beautiful (a delicate olive to blue-green above, silver below) and very tasty. Lots of folks say the flavor reminds them of cucumbers but to me they have a very light aroma of spring violets. In any case, the flesh is delicate, sweet, and delicious.
My grandfather Thorndike went ice fishing for smelts, probably on the Oyster River in Thomaston. I know that because we used to have the old battered Windsor chair that belonged in his fishing shack. I don’t know what ever happened to the chair but the recipe the Thorndikes used is still part of family lore and it is dead simple and probably no different from dozens of other Maine family recipes. You just gut the smelts (leaving the yellow roe inside), roll them in heavily seasoned (salt, black pepper, maybe a pinch of red chili pepper) flour, and fry them till they’re crisp and brown in the old black iron skillet. I fry them in extra-virgin olive oil but Grammy Thorndike tried out pieces of salt pork, fried the smelts in the pork fat, and served the scrunchions as a garnish on top of the fish.