THERE ARE 15 four-person ice shacks at Jim’s Camps on the Cathance River in Bowdoinham, each one equipped ice holes for catching smelts and a wood stove to keep warm.

THERE ARE 15 four-person ice shacks at Jim’s Camps on the Cathance River in Bowdoinham, each one equipped ice holes for catching smelts and a wood stove to keep warm.

BOWDOINHAM

Steve Pierpont of Lebanon has been smelting for more than 50 years. He doesn’t always return home with a big catch, but he always returns with a story.

“My dad used to tie me to the chair so if I happened to get too excited and fall into the hole, he would pull me out,” said Pierpont, fishing at Jim’s Camps on the Cathance River in Bowdoinham recently.

BRADEN CHAPMAN of Bowdoinham holds up his smelt catch earlier this month.

BRADEN CHAPMAN of Bowdoinham holds up his smelt catch earlier this month.

Most folks are catching their share of smelt this year. That’s good news for fishermen like Pierpoint, who was well on his way to his 1-gallon smelt limit last week.

Smelt is the usual catch of the day on rivers such as the Cathance and Kennebec. The fish typically grow about eight inches long and spawn in rivers. Ice fishermen will sometimes use a light to attract the smelt’s prey — zooplankton — toward the surface.

JIM MCPHERSON of Jim’s Camps in Bowdoinham prepares the ice for his smelt shacks earlier this month.

JIM MCPHERSON of Jim’s Camps in Bowdoinham prepares the ice for his smelt shacks earlier this month.

Pierpont and his cousin, Dave, each caught plenty of smelt while manning fishing lines on opposite sides of the shack.

“When the ribbon on the line moves, you know a fish is on,” said Dave Pierpont. “Unless it’s an ice chunk.”

Ice fishing conditions in the Midcoast have gotten a little bit worse since the beginning of the month, according to John MacDonald of the Maine Warden Service in Gray.

“There’s 8-10 inches of ice on most waterways right now, but I always put in a disclaimer to check before you go,” MacDonald said on Thursday. “We’ve just had so much rain. It hasn’t been a normal winter.

“People need to be really careful at the inlets, outlets and shorelines,” he continued. “People who are unfamiliar with the conditions need to check with their local warden service before they go on the ice.”

Last year, Jim McPherson, owner and operator of Jim’s Camps, had to take his 15 ice shacks off the river in early February. The season almost always lasts until March. McPherson said he checks the ice around his shacks daily, and believes ice conditions will hold well into February this year.

“As long as there is ice and the fishing is good, we’ll be out here,” McPherson said.

Line of shacks

McPherson typically sets up his shacks in a line on the ice, just offshore. The ice rises and falls with the tides, but the shacks stay secure. Holes are cut in the ice below the shacks, and folks bait their lines with sand worms and shine lights into the gloom to attract the fish. When a fish bites, a ribbon on the line shakes and — if luck is on their side — the angler pulls up the fish.

Though the temperature outside the shacks dips below zero at times, the fishermen inside stay warm.

“You put a fire on and get nice and warm, and people cook steaks or whatever they want to eat on the flattop stoves,” said McPherson. “Some people don’t even care if they catch fish. They just want to have a good time.”

Boston visitors

“We had a good haul today,” said John Donnelly of Boston, who was fishing with his son, Sam, last week. “We just love these things. We take them home and fry them up, give some to the neighbors, freeze some. They taste a lot like sardines. The bones are small, and you can either eat the fish whole or pull out the bones.”

Some anglers even fry their catch up right in the shack.

“We used to come fish after Christmas dinner,” said Steve Pierpont, recalling tales from his youth. “We’d fish all night, go home for a turkey sandwich and then come back until morning.”

He said smelting can be comical at times when one angler is doing well and the others are coming up empty.

“My dad would be sitting there with his two brothers, and he’d be pulling up smelts, pulling up smelts, and they’d complain, so he’d say ‘fine, switch with me,’” said Pierpont. “So they’d switch and he would catch smelts on the other side, too. My father could out-fish everybody.”

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