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Smelt worth a little effort.

Byline: Mark Blazis

COLUMN: Outdoors

It's rainbow smelt time. The tasty little fish, 6 to 10 inches long at most, is luring hundreds of anglers to venture out at night on the ice of Maine's coastal rivers and lakes.

The phenomenon most notably takes place on the Kennebec River, though pollution and development have conspired to end this winter celebration on much of the smelt's former coastal range. Smelt won't spawn where erosion silts water, and the weak swimmers are unable to ascend fish ladders to get over hundreds of dams that block their passage. The majority of previously important headwaters for their spawning are consequently no longer reachable. The Charles River, which annually produced about 9 million smelt before 1850, is devoid of them today.

Roughly from about Jan. 15 to the end of February, smelt begin running, fattening up prior to their early-spring spawning in streams, just like salmon. It's now time to jig small, silvery lures with Sabiki rigs to fill buckets of them. Few winter dinners surpass a smelt fry for fun. Although smelt are about the size of most saltwater anglers' bait, they're undeniably delicious.

Smelt fishing is different. Intrepid fishermen build or rent little shacks on the ice. Being vulnerable to predators, the little fish have become nocturnal, so catching them necessitates fishing at night when the tide is coming in.

If you can't get to the coast or don't want to lose sleep to catch your own smelt dinner, you still can enjoy them by picking up your limit at AP Fish on Grafton Street.

My favorite recipe is elegantly simple. I put them through a dusting of flour, then an egg wash, and finally a coating of Japanese panko, sauteing them lightly in olive oil. Salt, a touch of cayenne pepper, garlic and lemon are all that's needed for the finish. A hearty eater can easily consume a dozen smelt, so be certain to fry enough.

Nashua helps out

With the demise of our state's Atlantic salmon restoration program for the Connecticut River, ice fishermen and bait shops were lamenting the diminished availability of retired hatchery brood stock salmon for stocking. The good news is that MassWildlife received 350 from the Nashua National Fish Hatchery in New Hampshire, stocking them in selected waters at the end of January.

Each of the five state districts equally shared in the bounty, receiving 75 salmon, weighing from 3-11 pounds. Central District stocked waters included Comet Pond, Lake Quinsigamond and Webster Lake, each receiving 25 fish. Toward the Cape, Little and Long ponds in Plymouth and Peters Pond in Sandwich also were stocked with 25 apiece.

Massive schools of herring are concentrating cod and pollock south of Block Island. The Frances Fleet, despite an alleged crash in our region's overall cod populations, is reporting extraordinary recreational catches there when they can get out. Cod have been averaging in the low to mid-teens in weight, with many fish over 20 pounds and a handful over 30. Pollock also have been taken in the low 20-pound range, along with a large number of ling, a sleek and delicious member of the cod family. Indistinguishable from cod in flavor, the ling have averaged about a baseball bat in length.

Limits will help gamefish

There's reason to be positive about our ocean gamefish stocks. Menhaden, the most important baitfish in the Atlantic, are finally getting some help. For decades, they have been exploited. Catch limits finally have been imposed to create an abundance target four times the current population. To achieve that goal, the catch limit will be reduced by 20 percent from recent levels. Striped bass and humpback whales will be immediate beneficiaries. The only drawback is that we can expect prices for chicken feed, highly dependent on the fish oils from menhaden, to go up.

One fine harvest

No one should complain about deer numbers in Massachusetts. The 2012 harvest of 10,920 was excellent by all standards, including quantity and size. The well-managed Massachusetts herd is healthy. MassWildlife's official breakdown and analysis of specific seasons will be forthcoming.

There should be several hundred additional moose permits available for Maine pretty soon. Using helicopters to get a more accurate population total for their moose herd, Maine's new, more accurate census is revealing higher numbers than previously thought.

There are at least 76,000 moose providing great viewing, photographing and hunting opportunities. Hunters, of course, would like more permits. Some complain of perennially applying for a lottery permit without luck. Guiding services that show moose to tourists and photographers feel that large segment of the public should be considered, too, in determining harvest numbers.

How much Maine Fish & Wildlife changes its current policies will be very interesting to watch. One thing is sure: There are going to be several hundred more full freezers next winter.

Contact Mark Blazis at
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U1ME
Date:Feb 12, 2013
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