This year’s smelt fishing season already has been more productive for Baker’s Smelt Camps on the Kennebec River than last year.

Last year, the Pittston-based business didn’t put out any shacks for the first time in nearly 40 years, but the camp already has put out 15 shacks on the Kennebec and may add more by the weekend.

“I’d say we’re off to a much better start than last year,” said Baker’s operator Richard Potter. The business opened Monday, the earliest it has gotten shacks out in at least the last five years. “You’re depending on Mother Nature, who’s always going to do what she wants.”

The warmer weather across the region last year caused smelt camps to either close much earlier than normal or not open at all.

Jim’s Smelt Camps in Bowdoinham had only 21 fishing days last year and closed Feb. 21. Owner Jim McPherson said he didn’t even open last year until the second week of January.

“Every year is different, of course, but we’ve got some good ice and some fish are biting,” he said. “I’ve got about 8 inches of ice, which is about the most I had all of last year.”

Despite the promising start, McPherson said he’s done this long enough to know you can’t predict what the season will look like.

“If I could do that, I’d be rich,” he joked. “Hopefully the weather holds and stays cold and we avoid those long warm snaps with lots of rain that would wipe us out.”

So far, this year has given McPherson and Potter plenty of excitement about their camps’ openings, and phones have been ringing off the hook.

“People are really looking forward to getting out because so many weren’t able to last year,” Potter said. “I think we’ll have plenty of people looking to fish in the new year.”

Baker’s and Jim’s both opened Monday. Baker’s has 15 shacks and Jim’s has 16, and both reported being booked solid since opening.

Josh Mayo, of Albion, said he was at Baker’s on Monday for more than four hours and caught 137 fish. He even had to throw some back.

“It’s only my third year of smelting — well, really two years, because of the poor conditions last year, when I only got out once,” Mayo said. He has been smelting 10 times and thinks it’s a great way to spend an evening.

“As with all fishing, you get your good days and your slow days, but right now they seem to be running pretty well,” he said.

At Jim’s, Ellen Pallotta, of Scarborough, went Monday with three others and caught 96 smelts in more than three hours. She was one of the few who fished at Jim’s during last year’s shortened season.

She said her son-in-law introduced her to smelting about five years ago. Pallotta uses jig poles because she’s able to feel the fish hit the pole before reeling it in.

People in the smelt business understand that it’s an unpredictable industry.

“You never know how long you’re going to be on the ice, and you never know how long until you’re not going to be out there,” Potter said. “It’s always like that, and we know that going in.”

Potter said it isn’t worth worrying about last year and the lost business. It’s more important to focus on the current season and making it as successful as possible.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said.

McPherson agreed that dwelling on the poor season last year wouldn’t do anybody any good, and it’s better to be excited about the increased business and the prospects for a good season this year.

“I’m happy that the shacks are on, things are looking up and I might make some decent money,” McPherson said. “It’s a good sign for our industry, because the last few years I didn’t know what the industry was going to do.”

But he still shouldn’t go splurging on that new yacht or other extravagant purchase just yet.

“I take each year for what it gives me and have learned not to get too excited about it,” McPherson said. “But I’m definitely having positive thoughts.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

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Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ