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Smelt: ketchup and grease, not catch and release

March 8, 2010

March 8, 2010

I really do like to get my own food. Hunt, trap, hook, net, grow, gather, and pick – I dig it. It’s nothing new for many Cape Codders, myself included. We grew up stealing fresh carrots out of the dirt while my mom was looking the other way, not that she would have minded, but somehow the thievery made the healthy snack more enjoyable – a belly crawl through rows of green beans makes anything more fun. And Dad, of course, brought home an incredible variety of fish that varied with the season and the year. We had extended periods of scallops on the table, or flounder, or blues. My mom pan-fried cod cheeks in butter and olive oil. I would have traded a hamburger for a chicken nugget, but I rarely dissed the fish – I don’t remember any of the kids doing so.

While there was plenty of do-it-yourself food procurement going on in our home, we also benefitted from living amongst others who enjoyed similar pursuits. Surplus vegetables, usually green beans, rhubarb, or zucchini, were dispensed up and down the road. We had venison in the freezer from a hunter friend who’d come back from Maine with a glut of red meat. Smoked bluefish and mackerel found their way into the fridge from one of those sweet, smokey, old Chatham guys. After talking in the driveway about serious fisheries issues and telling a couple of funny stories punctuated by strong, manly laughter, someone in a dusty old Fix Or Repair Daily type of truck would pull a loosely wrapped butcher paper package from the cab and hand my father shad roe.

Being on the giving end of locally produced food is proud and priceless, but taking a turn at the receiving end is a beautiful thing, even if we’re always thinking, “I’ll get you back, just wait.” Recently, I’ve been basking in the glory of being a part of a wider web of food gathering. A friend returned to the Cape from his lodge in Maine with a gift of very fresh smelt and we enjoyed it immensely.

Smelt is an anadromous fish, which means it migrates from saltwater environs to spawn in fresh water. (Catadromous fish, like eels, move from fresh water to spawn in the salty sea.) The New England hotspot for smelt sport fishing is Maine, although I have heard reports of moderate takes from northeastern Massachusetts. American, or rainbow, smelt occur from New Jersey all the way to Labrador, but I’ve never heard of a smelt run on Cape Cod. There are landlocked smelt populations, and I have caught smelt in minnow traps while trying to snare pond shiners, but that pond will remain nameless.

The smelt sport fishery in Maine is popular, and smelting shacks are erected over frozen tributaries. Smelt run at night, so the smelt shack party usually gets going when the sun goes down. There are some pelagic stragglers, so those with little kids or an aversion to late-night action can get a respectable catch during the daylight hours. Regulations prohibit ‘dipping’ or netting smelts in many of these tributaries, so hook and line is used, as well as spears in some cases. Dipping remains fairly popular along the Atlantic shores outside these tributaries, where the practice is permitted. Wading around in frigid water, at night, to gather 7-inch long fish is not for the faint of heart, but there seem to be plenty of Mainers who delight in the experience.

The smelt we ate this year were some of the fattest smelt I’ve ever seen. They weren’t overly long, but they were round in the middle. We fried up a mess of smelts after soaking them in milk and dredging them in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Some folks add cornmeal to the flour, but we didn’t have any, so we kept it simple. People who want to keep it really simple skip the milk, but I tend to think it makes the flour adhere better to the fish.

The closest we get to smelt in my town is silversides, which I wrote about a long time ago here, and I have to say – I prefer the silversides, or whitebait. If I’m being honest, which is tough with a gift fish, the smelt were too fat for frying.  I have a nice batch frozen and I’m looking forward to brining and smoking them, now that we have some nice weather for a day-long outdoor smoke.



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