STEVE LEIGHTON poses outside one of his smelt shacks in Bowdoinham on Tuesday.

STEVE LEIGHTON poses outside one of his smelt shacks in Bowdoinham on Tuesday.

BOWDOINHAM

Leighton’s Smelt Camps opened Sunday along Brown’s Point Road on the Abagadasset River.

Owner Steve Leighton’s father, Oscar “ Chubby” Leighton, started the operation 59 years ago in Dresden, then moved the business to its current location in Bowdoinham, where it has remained for the last 55 years.

“My father used to be the first one on (the ice) out of anybody, because it was so small a river,” Leighton said Tuesday.

CAMILLE BOUCHER of Waltham, Mass., holds up the smelt he just caught, the first of the day. Boucher and Roger Richard, left, drove to Maine from Waltham, Mass., earlier Tuesday and planned to fish until as late as 8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., then drive their fish home to fry them and eat them.

CAMILLE BOUCHER of Waltham, Mass., holds up the smelt he just caught, the first of the day. Boucher and Roger Richard, left, drove to Maine from Waltham, Mass., earlier Tuesday and planned to fish until as late as 8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., then drive their fish home to fry them and eat them.

Now he’s usually the last, because while some smelt fishing businesses move camps onto the ice when it’s five inches thick, “I want a minimum of eight or nine (inches), with a cold front in front of me for a week,” Steve Leighton said.

“It’s a hard way to make a living when you depend on weather,” Leighton said. “When you live like that your whole life, it’s tough.”

Leighton charges $17 per person per tide. He believes that might be more than some other local smelt camp owners charge, but “I go the extra mile” for customers,” Leighton said.

Ten of the camps are heated by wood stoves, and two by propane. He offers sand worms for bait.

“You wouldn’t believe the people who drive down here once or twice a week from Massachusetts,” Leighton said. “Seventy-five percent of my business is from out of state.”

One of those anglers from away is Camille Boucher of Waltham, Mass. After catching his first smelt of the day on Tuesday, Boucher explained that he typically makes two trips per year to Maine to fish for smelt. Fishing with him was Roger Richard, also of Waltham. The tide was high and on its way out. The two expected to fish as late as 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. to get their smelt, which are biting better at night, and then drive them back home, where Boucher fries his up in a little flour to make them crispy.

“Everybody up here loves smelts,” Leighton said. “I’ve never heard anybody say ‘ Geesh, I don’t eat them.’ They’re all here to get them to eat.”

Whether they catch fish or not, Boucher and Richard always come back.

Leighton said that the seasonal business allows him to make friends and then keep in touch with people who keep coming back to fish. During the last 10 years, many of his regulars have died.

“It’s a lot of work though,” Leighton said. “If it wasn’t a lot of work, nobody would pay to come. They’d all put their own camp on. I mean, if you only go a couple times a year — $ 17 to walk into a heated camp — you don’t have to do nothing to, it’s pretty cheap.”

Leighton provides lines in the camps for anglers, but Boucher brings his four smelt poles and fishes with all of them at once. At times, all the lines are busy. The bounty can range from a couple fish to several pounds.

“ We did good last year when it was dark,” around 11 p.m., Boucher said.

Smelt fishing takes patience, he said, but, “ it’s peaceful too. Nice and country.”

Because his business depends on the changing tides, Leighton is basically open 24 hours a day. This year’s season came very late, Leighton said, but it’s in full swing now.


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