An early freeze brought smelt fishing shacks out along the Kennebec River and other tributaries of Merrymeeting Bay before January, but some operators might cut their seasons short for a reason unrelated to the thickness of the ice: a lack of fish.

The lead smelt biologist for the state and smelt camp operators say this has been the worst season for smelt they’ve ever seen.

The biologist, Claire Enterline, a marine scientist for the state Department of Marine Resources, said surveys of the recreational fishing camps show the lowest total of fish caught per line per hour since the department has been collecting the data.

The state conducted the surveys in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and restarted them in 2009. The majority of smelt camp operators made similar observations.

“This is the worst year in the 38 years I’ve been renting smelt camps,” said Mike Baker, an owner of Baker’s Smelt Camps on the Kennebec River in Pittston. Baker said people used to catch 100 or 200 smelt a night. This year, people maybe caught around 50 on a good night, he said. He’s planning to close the camps for the season on Sunday.

Sharon James, who said she’s been working in the smelt camp rental business for more than 50 years, also said it’s the worst year she’s ever seen. “It’s been really spotty this year. Some days they’ll catch two or three dozen. Other days they don’t catch maybe but a dozen,” she said.

James works at James Eddy Smelt Camp Rental in Dresden, which is owned by her sons, George and Peter James, and she said they’ve hauled in 20 of about 35 camps on the Kennebec River because of the shortage of fish. “We can’t leave them out there if they aren’t bringing in any money,” she said.

Sonny Newton, owner of Sonny’s Smelt Camps on the Kennebec River in Dresden, also said the season has been one of the worst he’s ever experienced.

Enterline said it’s not clear what’s causing the poor smelt season along the Kennebec River area.

Some of the operators have theories: dredging in the Bath area disturbing the fish swimming up the river, high tides making navigation difficult, or colder-than-usual temperatures affecting the fish.

In the early 19th century, rainbow smelt were plentiful as far south as New Jersey, but the populations have contracted sharply in the last century, Enterline said. Within the past 20 years, the species has disappeared completely from Connecticut and possibly Rhode Island, she said. Populations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine continue to decline. The population farther north along the Maine coast, in the Down East region, appears to be more stable, but there aren’t enough data to show that area isn’t also facing a decline, Enterline said.

Annual landings in Maine for rainbow smelt exceeded 1 million pounds in the late 19th century, but commercial catches dropped off abruptly after the 1940s, according to a joint report from marine resource departments in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Currently, commercial smelt fishing is allowed only in several rivers in Washington County in Maine, and the landings between 2006 and 2009 totaled 3,803 pounds, according to the Maine department.

Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts completed a joint regional conservation plan in 2012 documenting historical fisheries and the current status of rainbow smelt, listed by the federal government as a species of concern in 2004, along with possible threats to the species. Enterline said threats include problems moving to spawning grounds because of structural impediments such as dams and culverts, and the degradation of the water quality at spawning grounds.

RECREATIONAL FISHING TAKES A HIT

Recreational fishing for smelt is still common, primarily in Maine, but anglers have seen declining catches, especially since the 1980s, the report noted. Most of the recreational smelt fishing occurs along the Kennebec River and other tributaries of Merrymeeting Bay, where the state lists eight smelt camp operators.

Those operators say the poor smelting season hurt their bottom lines this winter, with some seeing drops of around 50 percent in total business. The operators usually rent camps out to people by the tide, which lasts around six or seven hours.

Jim McPherson, who rents out about 20 camps on the Cathance River in Bowdoinham, said a lot of his regulars who would come during the week haven’t bothered fishing this year. He said he’s lost more than half of his weekday business and a little less than half of his weekend business, which is usually when the more casual anglers come.

The more serious fishermen usually call to see whether the fish are biting and won’t bother coming when McPherson tells them the truth. He said it will take only so many poor fishing reports before they don’t even call anymore. “If the poor runs keep up, eventually I’m afraid that the smelt-fishing industry is just going to go by the wayside,” McPherson said.

DREDGING AMONG SUSPECTS

He said the fishing seems to have become worse during dredging in Merrymeeting Bay, but he doesn’t know if that’s the cause for the poor season.

Jim Worthing, who according to the state is the operator with the most smelt camps, feels more strongly that dredging, as well as the removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta, has hurt the recreational smelt fishery.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did dredging in Merrymeeting Bay in the summer of 2011, according to Maine Department of Environmental spokeswoman Jessamine Logan. Bath Iron Works also did dredging last year, Logan said.

Both Worthing and Baker said a significant portion of their business comes from visitors from other states, and the poor fishing has kept more of those customers from coming and renting camps all weekend. Baker said a large group with people from all over the East Coast had rented 20 camps to use over a weekend this winter, but they canceled because of the lack of fish.

Still, for some people, smelt fishing isn’t just about catching fish. It can be an excuse to get together with friends, cook food on the wood stove and, for some, throw back a few cold beers.

Jim Low, of Conway, N.H., said he and a group of eight to 20 friends from the Rhode Island area have been making the trip up to Maine to fish for smelt every winter for nearly a decade.

Low, 71, said the men in the group all know one another from saltwater fishing in Rhode Island, so the trip gives them a chance to spend time together doing a different kind of fishing. They also rent rooms in an Augusta hotel and visit outdoor gear stores such as Cabela’s in Scarborough and Renys in Gardiner, Low said. “It’s just a good time amongst of bunch of guys,” he said.

In the last few years, however, they’ve noticed their smelt catches declining, Low said. They didn’t catch anything during this year’s trip in February. He said they still had fun and plan to visit the state. Some of the group recently took a trip to Costa Rica to fish, and they’re considering a visit to Panama to see how the fishing is there.

Low said it would be helpful if the state published some type of smelt report, as ski resorts do with snow, to let people know whether the fish are biting.

“It certainly would be a little more fun if you got 10 or 12 smelt,” he said, “instead of coming up for the weekend and catching zero.”

Paul Koenig can be contacted at 621-5663 or at:

pkoenig@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @paul_koenig