Humble Fish, Even More Humble Angler, or, Snubbed by a Smelt

Fishing has a way of teaching humility. At least, fishing has taught me humility. And just when I feel I know all I really need to know about humility, I am delivered yet another lesson. The teacher on this occasion was the humble smelt, who took me to the woodshed and made me sit there for six hours while he silently lectured me from below.


The Bro and I rented a smelt shack at Riverbend Camps in Bowdoinham, on the Cathance River, which joins the Androscoggin and the Kennebec at Merrymeeting Bay and does its bit to help float the boats built at Bath Iron Works a ways downriver. The rental fee — a reasonable $16 per angler — includes a few sea worms wrapped in a paper towel. A few is plenty, because it takes only a tiny chunk to bait a hook.

We arrived at the river at noon to fish the outgoing tide. I know many smelt fishermen prefer the incoming tide. I did not want to get up that early or stay up that late, thank you very much. Another day when the tide and the clock have a happier conjunction we’ll go again to fish the low-to-high cycle. It had rained rather heavily the night before and in the morning as we drove to Bowdoinham, and the river ice was ankle-deep in slush. Would our shack break loose and go sailing down to Bath? We carefully stepped in the tracks of anglers who had crossed the ice before us.

Slush on the river.

Slush on the river.

We came prepared. We had stopped at the Bowdoinham Country Store for a couple of their generous sandwiches and a beverage or two. We also brought a bucket to hold our catch. We could have lightened our load by bringing a small Tupperware container in lieu of the bucket.

When we stepped into Shack 19 we wondered for a moment if we had entered the sauna by mistake. The little iron woodstove was practically glowing. Off came the winter coats, off came the extra layers. We cut up the worms, baited our hooks, lowered them into the murky waters and waited. And waited.

Shack 19

Shack 19

Lunch amused us for a while. Likewise watching the lines swing back and forth in the shifting currents. Feeding the woodstove offered the occasional diversion. Once or twice a line twitched and we hauled it in to find the bait gone.

Then, around 2 p.m., “Fish on!” My brother hauled in a fluttering rainbow smelt. Now we’re getting somewhere. The smelts are here at last and the lonely bachelor smelt in the bucket would soon have company. Or not.

The Bro watches his lines.

The Bro watches his lines.

Sunset. One of my lines twitched. A second fish! Into the bucket.

Around 5 p.m., we were begining to wind in the lines, and then: a third smelt! I unhooked it and tossed it towards the bucket. Missed the bucket. The smelt slithered across the wood floor, dove back into the Cathance and vanished.

When we left Shack 19 the slush had iced over. We lugged our bucket with its brace of wild rainbow smelts, kept our heads down and hoped no one asked us how we did. Fishing can make you humble.

(Apologies and thanks to my friend the Humble Farmer for the title of this piece.)

Nick Mills

About Nick Mills

Full disclosure: I was not born in Maine, alas! I was born in Massachusetts, but the family moved to Maine when I was eleven, and I grew up in Thomaston. My dad was skipper of one of the draggers that sailed out of Rockland, in the days when it was a rough-tough working fishing port. When he came in from the sea his favorite activity was freshwater fishing with me and my brother, Peter. We learned together to flyfish for trout in the Alder Stream in Eustis. Once hooked on the sport, pun intended, I fished at every opportunity in every place I could -- in the rivers, streams and ponds of Maine; in the mountain ponds of Utah, where I was stationed for a year in the Army; in high Andean lakes in Colombia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; even in a lagoon that surrounded one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. I tried once to go trout fishing in northern Afghanistan, when the U.S.S.R. occupied that country; a landslide blocked my path, but that led to a more interesting adventure, which I will tell you about in a future post.