Driving to work this past winter, I noticed
that there were four ice-fishing huts on the
Ipswich River. Calling these 'huts' is a
kind misnomer; transpose them to a field near
an old farm and they could easily be mistaken
for dilapidated outhouses. They are tiny one-room
affairs with barely enough space for a person to
sit down. Being a fly fisher, ice fishing has never
appealed to me. One of the pleasures of fly-fishing
is the rhythm of casting, similar to the practice
of tai chai. And I can't imagine ever being
comfortable standing on two solid feet of ice.
I wasn't sure what the owners of these fishing
shacks were stalking. A self-absorbed striper
snob, I assumed the ocean in northern Massachusetts
was devoid of fish once the stripers begin their
fall migration to the Chesapeake. A friend told
me they were fishing for smelt.
My very first fishing trip was a smelting excursion.
I lived in Chicago at the time, and I'm not even
sure how old I was—maybe six or seven. My father
and his friend Carl were going to net smelt on Lake
Michigan, and I badgered them until they realized
it was just easier to bring me along than listen
to my incessant whining.
Carl was typical of the eclectic group of friends
my parents cultivated at the time. He was an
ex-con who had served time for armed robbery,
and my brothers and I were intrigued by his
appalling jailhouse tattoos (one of which was
a topless hula dancer that looked disturbingly
like a man with breasts and probably says more
about prison life than a whole season of OZ).
Other friends were Chicago police detectives,
fringe mobsters, longshoremen and physicians.
Homeless people were fed and allowed to sleep
in our cars, and the pot-bellied stove was
always burning in the garage so the garbage
men and other city workers could take off the
chill of the cold Chicago winters. The neighborhood,
Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, was
becoming gentrified at the time, and the menagerie
of miscreants in and out of our house drove the
Smelting season was late February and early March,
not the best of times to be on the lake front in
Chicago. The process was simple—you threw a
weighted line out into the water, attached it
to a pole on shore, and lowered a gill-net on
a trolley. You waited for a bit, usually
measured in beers, and drew the net up, hoping
it was loaded with smelt. We fished at night
because it was felt that's when the smelt run
What I remember most was how cold it was. I
also remember looking down the breakwater and
seeing dozens of Coleman lanterns illuminating
the frames and nets of the other smelt fishermen.
Carl and my dad were staying warm by drinking
brandy; I had no such comfort (though I suspect
Carl would have shared if my dad wasn't there.
On another fishing trip I saved him from drowning
and, in a show of gratitude, he bought me a case
of gin even though I was only sixteen). It didn't
take long for me to regret going along, especially
when it became apparent that Carl and my dad had
no intention of leaving, ignoring that I was on
the verge of hypothermia.
Catching fish took the chill off, at least initially.
The smelt weren't very large, and I was amazed to see
Carl clean them by holding them in his fist and
popping their heads off with his thumb. He then
stuck his index finger in the hole where the head
had been and split the belly and gut the fish all
in one motion with just his fingers. Such a sight
kept a six-year-old boy amused for a short time,
but even this didn't circumvent the cold for long.
I ended up sitting in the station wagon, hoping
the night would end and I could go home to my
warm bed. I must have fallen asleep, because I
awoke the next day in my room with no recollection
of how I got there.
We ended up with a bucket full of smelt. My mom
cooked them up, we all took a heaping plateful,
and I sat down to the meal feeling for the first
time that glow that comes from being a provider.
My pride was short-lived; they tasted like fuel oil,
(we were fishing within sight of the steel mills,
after all), and we threw them all away.
That was over 40 years ago. My dad quit fishing
when 60 years of smoking unfiltered Camels finally
caught up with him. Carl is dead, succumbing to
a drug problem that was always just below the
surface but became full-blown when my parents,
his only steadying influence, moved from Chicago.
I still fish, but not in the cold weather.
And I've never eaten another smelt. ~ Dave
Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an
avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor.
He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet
newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats)
and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.