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Smelt on a full Hunger Moon

February 7, 2012


The full moon rose out of the ocean fat and bright. Its light touched the top of a low cloud, transforming it into a bed of sparkling fresh snow in the the silent sky. February’s full moon is traditionally known as the Hunger Moon, when winter stashes have withered, but we were feeling quite flush.

Our stores of shiitake mushrooms, squash, garlic, herbs and hops are holding strong, though the onions went for an early sprout last month. Our frozen veggies, fruits, chickens, ducks, venison, fish and cheese are still plentiful, the garden continues to produce carrots and the chickens lay some eggs when they’re in the  mood. We’re pretty lucky to center our diet around homegrown food. Last night we enjoyed the next best thing to do-it-yourself sustenance.

A friend returned from his Maine camp with smelt “caught yesterday.” A sampling confirmed their freshness. As most old Cape Codders know, there is a huge difference between “caught this week” and “caught today.” Fishermen get to eat the best fish, as nothing compares to fish eaten shortly after being caught, and they always taste better when you catch them yourself. Smelt, however, are hardly available for sportfishing on the Cape. So a friend or good fish market is your next-best-bet.

I wrote about smelt back here, but I had to bring them up again, because they were just so fresh and delicious. Tony tossed them in flour, dipped them in egg, dusted them with flour again and then deep fried them. Served with some homemade cocktail and tartar sauces, they flew off the plates. They’re also tasty pan-seared in olive oil with capers, parsley and lemon, the way we cook snapper blues.

While there were once good numbers of smelt in local estuaries, the winter past-time of hanging lanterns off a skiff and dip-netting smelt is but a faded memory. There are a small number of ponds that were stocked with these silvery fish years ago, and I’ve potted slender smelt in minnow traps in one of those ponds. (No, I’m not naming names.)

A late-winter run of fish is fun, but smelt in Massachusetts have seen better days. Storm-water inputs, creeks dammed up and cut off, and declining water quality in spawning grounds have all-but-eradicated smelt runs on the Cape. Once-strong runs in places like Quincy and Hingham Bays have dwindled.

I’m tempted to entice my sporty sister in Maine to secure a smelt shack for one wintry weekend, as fisheries management seems to think the runs up north can handle us dipping a meal or two out of the stream. As if we can leave the menagerie. In the meanwhile, we’ll be looking forward to our own runs of tinker mackerel and silversides; tailor blues and spawning squid; and, of course, spring stripers. Which reminds me, did you hear about all the over-wintered keepers around this year? There is that fisherman’s adage, “Early to bed, early to rise, fish like hell and make up lies.” Then again, you never know…

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