Cold temperatures brought an early freeze to local rivers, which has allowed smelt-fishing camps to get a jump on the season.

Commercial smelt camps that most years don’t typically open until mid-January had enough ice to open around Christmas.

“We’ve probably got 16 inches of ice, if not more,” said Sonny Newton, owner of Sonny’s Smelt Fishing on the Kennebec River in Dresden. “We started cutting (through the ice) with a 14-inch bar, and we couldn’t get through it. It was 17 below yesterday. It’s making ice.”

Newton put shacks out the day after Christmas and has 10 shacks out so far, but said business has been slow, in part because people aren’t used to being able to fish this early in the season. Last year, Sonny’s didn’t have fishing until a couple weeks into January, he said.

“It has been slow, but it’s early,” Newton said. “People just had Christmas and New Year’s, when they spend a lot of money. And the economy is hard.”

Fishing at James Eddy Smelt Camps on the Eastern River in Dresden started Dec. 27, according to Sharon James, whose sons own the business.

“We probably could have been on earlier if not for all the snow and ice,” James said. “It’s earlier than we’ve been for quite a few years. I think last year it was the second week in January. And the same the year before that.”

She said they had 8 to 10 inches of ice on the river, were fishing from 20 camps and planned to put out more soon.

Last year’s smelt season ended early, camp owners said, because the ice softened early.

Worthing’s Smelt Camp in Randolph put its shacks out on the Kennebec River about two weeks ago.

At Baker’s Smelt Camps, on the Kennebec in Pittston, they’ve been fishing since Tuesday.

Matt Sinclair, an officer with the state Marine Patrol, made the rounds of commercial smelt shacks in the region Thursday.

“It has been an exceptional winter so far. A lot of ice formed relatively early in the season,” Sinclair said. “I’m hearing reports of from 10 to 20 inches of good ice. This extended cold has been an excellent condition for forming ice. It’s not good for much else, but it’s good ice-making weather.”

Sinclair said all the commercial camps he visited appeared to be on safe ice, but he urged anyone putting out their own fishing shack to cut holes in the ice to test its thickness, both at the location of the shack and around it, including the area leading to the shack from shore.

“Ice is one of those things. I never trust ice. You’ve got spring holes, inlets and outlets, pressure ridges … it’s real unpredictable and sometimes dangerous,” Sinclair said. “It’s a very imperfect medium. It’s not the same everywhere. Any moving water is not going to form ice nearly as well. There are all these different factors. People need to remember we’re still early in the season. Err on the side of caution.”

Temperatures are expected to be ice-friendly for the immediate future.

The National Weather Service’s forecast for central Maine includes lows of minus 9 Friday night and 9 Saturday night before warming to a low of 19 overnight Sunday.

Rainbow smelt are anadromous fish, meaning they spawn in fresh water but live most of their lives in salt water.

The average adult measures between seven and nine inches, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at:

kedwards@centralmaine.com