Freeport's annual Smelt Day frenzy
There are certain special occasions, such as the birthday of Bobby Burns, that the world accepts as momentous and worthy of celebration, and another was the day the smelts returned in the spring to ascend Minniebrook stream to spawn. This was at Freeport, on the coast of Maine, where I joined the Smelt Sodality AD 1919 as a newcomer kid from the city who had not yet been exposed to the finer things of a genteel life. Soon after the Christmas vacation, my school buddies began talking smelts, and I was invited to go along when the time came.
As a new kid "from away," I'd been looking Freeport things over, and I'd noticed about every stable, barn, and shed I'd been in had a contrivance stuck over a beam that, I learned, was the smelt net. A ring, or hoop, made by a blacksmith was mounted on a smooth spruce pole of six feet or more (usually more), and the ring had some snoodin' of close-knit mashin'. That is, a small-mesh net, because smelts are not over-large and they run about 15 to the dozen.
As I was to learn, every family in town had a smelt net over the beam, waiting for that big day when smelts, once again, would come by the zillions into Minniebrook and the other Atlantic tributaries in town. Dismissed as a "small food fish," this is the American smelt, Osmerus mordax, which can be wholly freshwater as well as sea-run, but still makes the same kind of spawning run. They have them in the Great Lakes, and here in Maine they grow to be a larger food fish in Sebago Lake, Rangeley Lake, etc. If you care to see humanity gone nuts, try Smelt Day at Rangeley. At Freeport, the evening the smelt run started, just about everyone in town was at Minniebrook.
Smelts will run on daylight tides, but in greater numbers in the dark. Ideal is an early-evening tide, after dark. Minniebrook had been arranged for smelting by stone "sets" (sort of half-finished dams) at intervals, making a series of pools. Each set had an aperture the right size for a long-handled net. There was a bonfire, and it wasn't wholly for sociability and comfort on a late-spring evening, but also a welcome warmth if anybody chanced to fall in the brook, as anybody was forever doing, wholly by mischance.
Snow was still melting upland, and downcoming water was ice cold and did little to warm the saline frigidity of the coming tide. Smelts were netted in the brackish in-between, and it was by no means uncommon to do the netting while some unfortunate gorm was wrapped in a blanket by the fire while his clothes dried.
There was never a vote by show of hands, but someone would be net-master by sufferance, and when he thought Minniebrook was full of smelts he'd signal, and a net would be placed at each set. Now the brook was "driven."
With small saplings and switches, starting upstream, the entire attendance slapped the water in a tumult of assault, which was meant to drive the smelts downstream, through the apertures, and into the nets. A net would thus fill and would be withdrawn so somebody else could set his net. After that, there was a wait while Minniebrook filled again, and the driving was repeated. When the tide was full, each went home with his catch, because smelts run only on the incoming tide.
It was a sad moment when, in the midst of this activity, somebody's net would "give way" and his smelts would splash back in the brook. A net full of smelts is heavy, and twine will deteriorate over a barn beam. And just as a man lifted his rap-full net you'd hear a gigantic kerplunk and then a few well-chosen words from the gentleman concerned. It was, indeed, a moment of community grief.
Little boys did not get to set a net. The menfolks did that. But we could walk along and take odd smelts by running one hand into the water and closing it when we felt a smelt. A spawn-run smelt isn't slippery, as you might suppose. His hide is more like sandpaper, and he can be held securely in closed fingers. So a lad could grasp a breakfast of smelts thus. I tremble going-on a century later at the recollection of how cold Minniebrook was.
One spring, Shorty Towle had a good half-bushel of smelts in his net, and he started to walk home. When the tired netting "parted its fasts," Shorty didn't make loud outcry in a rude, uncouth manner, as was the community wont; he merely sat on a rock and sobbed like a baby.
To show you the deep feeling about the first run of smelts in Old Freeport, Dave Longway, Lee Soule, and Artie Kilby came along, saw the smelts all over the ground, and said, "Move over, Shorty, we'll sit and help you cry!"
The next morning, after the first run of smelts, you should have smelled the town of Freeport. There was scarce a family but had the big-size spider down and a fire in the range for the annual ceremonial breakfast of fried smelts.
A generous chunk of salt pork had been retrieved from the "barl down sull-eh" and diced into submission. This was "tried out" with respectful care, and the crispy nuggets of pork lifted to a sheet of brown paper to drain and wait. And the smelts got fried, and by this time the fried-smelt flavor of Freeport was clearly discernible at a great distance.
It was my dear Aunt Nell who fried a mess of smelts one spring and after everybody was brim-belay full she held up the frypan and said, "Now, do I wash this or just throw it away?"
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