Fried Smelt and other Rights of Spring

by Catherine Schmitt

On Friday, I visited the Downeast Salmon Federation for their annual Smelt Fry celebration. Director Dwayne Shaw gave a tour of the salmon hatchery, where staff and volunteers raise salmon fry for stocking in the Pleasant River. Next to the hatchery is a new fish shack being built to replace an historic fish shack that has succumbed to the elements. Maine Sea Grant supported the project with program development funds, and it was great to see the progress being made. The fish shack will serve as an ideal stop on the Downeast Fisheries Trail, and represents a smart investment in the fisheries heritage of Downeast Maine—past and present.

After the tour, it was on to the Fry! The popular annual event draws hundreds of locals and visitors. It seemed a true cross section of Washington County. The Machias Ukulele Band created a relaxed and celebratory atmosphere in which to wait in line for a basket of smelts.

photo of fried smeltsRainbow smelt are small, silvery fish. Native to Maine’s coastal bays and estuaries, rainbow smelt are “sea-run” or anadromous, meaning they spend most of their life in salt water but spawn (mate and lay eggs) in fresh water. The smelt spawning run is just getting started in eastern Maine.

The smelt for the Fry were harvested from the Pleasant River weeks earlier and frozen, so they did not taste quite as good as fresh smelt pulled from beneath the ice in winter, or dipnetted from coastal streams in May. A little squirt of lemon would have helped to brighten up the flavor. But I’m not complaining.