Enfield — On a drizzly April evening just after dusk, Main Street was socked in and silent. But not far from the road, across the bike path and down a steep embankment, the Mascoma River pulsed with an ancient rite.
Each spring, when the water is warm enough, the ratio of daylight to darkness just right, thousands of small, silvery fish make an urgent, if temporary, exodus from Mascoma Lake to the river, struggling upstream to spawn. When they move, so do the fishermen.
The river is among just 10 bodies of water in the state where dip netting for freshwater rainbow smelt is legal. The season runs from March 15 to April 30, from sunset to midnight. But most of the action takes place within the space of several days.
A weekend night when the smelt are really moving might attract 100 fishermen (and the occasional fisherwoman). But as darkness fell that Wednesday, just a few had made their way down the brushy bank, long-handled nets in hand.
Now and then, someone shone a flashlight to spot the fish, shimmering as they swam. Otherwise, only the red glow of cigarettes and the faraway headlights of cars crawling along Route 4A broke the mist. Talk was infrequent and terse, the words swallowed by the river, swollen with snowmelt.
“Did you limit out yet?” one man asked another.
“You getting anything there?” a guy called upstream.
Periodically a small splash rose as a net pierced the surface, scraped the rocky river bottom and emerged, dripping, after a long, smooth sweep of a fisherman’s arm.
“To me, this is heaven, the smelt running, no one’s here, it’s raining,” said J.B. Brown, a Canaan resident who’s been taking part in the annual ritual since 1968.
“We like to come early in the season, before everyone catches on,” said Brown, who was fishing with his adult son, Nick. They’d use the smelt as bait to catch bigger fish, usually salmon or trout, which they’d then release, as they always do.
Smelt are anadromous, meaning they’re born in freshwater but live year-round in the ocean, returning to freshwater only to lay their eggs. In the 1800s, they were introduced to lakes and ponds and New Hampshire, where both the saltwater and the landlocked, freshwater rainbow smelt are now considered a “species of greatest conservation need.”
Smelt fishing regulations are stronger on larger lakes, where, as a cold water forage species, they provide an important food source for sport fish, said Ben Nugent, a biologist with the state’s Fish and Game Department.
The Mascoma population isn’t as much of a concern, Nugent said. Fish in Mascoma Lake “have a lot of other species to consume.”
While many net smelt for bait, others use it to stock their freezers.
Upriver from the Browns, Mike Scelza stood knee deep in the water. He wore hip boots and a clear plastic bottle attached to his waist. The container was marked at the two-quart line, the daily limit. An avid deep-sea angler, Scelza had been introduced to the joys of smelt by a friend last year.
“I’m still a rookie,” the Wilder resident said, and laughed. But not when it comes to preparing the fish, prized for their sweetness.
At Christmastime he’d visited his cousin’s house bringing along two packages of the smelt he’d caught last spring. He served them breaded and deep-fried, reinstating an old family tradition. Years ago, his uncles had supplied the smelt, which they caught through the ice on Lake Memphremagog.
Smelt also run in Lee Woodward Jr.’s family history.
He has “great memories” of netting and eating the fish with his family, said the Lebanon resident, who started catching smelt in the river alongside his father when he was 5 or 6 years old.
From hunting and fishing to hiking and ice skating, “he brought us up to enjoy the outdoors,” said Woodward, now 51, who raised his own son the same way. Back then, “the smelt would run so heavy you could also scoop them up with your hands.”
Lately he’s been doing pretty well catching rainbow and brown trout, he said. But rather than keeping everything, he practices a lot of catch and release.
“I do honestly believe that you’ve got to give back,” said Woodward, who stresses the importance of respecting the waters.
“I believe in karma,” he said. If you release some, “you might just get the big one of the day.”
Woodward has been known to freeze smelt, unlike other species that are available all year. Over the years he has tried different cooking methods, such as deep frying or grilling. But he usually finds himself returning to his old standby: dredging the fish in egg and seasoned flour, and pan frying them in butter “until they’re golden brown,” he said.
“Very simple and very delicious.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.