Winter Smelt Fishing in New Hampshire

Get Outdoors Knowledge Outfitting Staff

When the saltwater bays freeze over during the coldest months of the year in New Hampshire there begins a phenomenon that has become to be a sign of the season, the appearance of brightly colored smelt shanties on the ice. The sea smelt is a tasty reminder of what the ocean has to offer in the winter for the fisherman who isn’t willing to let a few feet of ice interrupt his fishing. The saltwater smelt is an important fishery that focuses on a fish that finds its way onto local seafood restaurants for a good reason, they are delicious.

The sea smelt is a school fish that frequents the rivers and bays that lead to the sea in New England, especially the Piscataqua River and its estuaries between the Maine and New Hampshire border. During the winter, the saltwater ice becomes dotted with clusters of smelt shacks that are situated on the channels coursing through the bays hopefully to catch a 10 quart limit of these fish per incoming or outgoing tide.

Smelt shacks are as individual as the fishermen that own them and are customized to suit their needs and styles to provide shelter and comfort from the cold and often harsh winters of the north. Heated with propane heaters and lanterns, these shacks form communities on the ice where the fishermen gather to harvest the tidal waters’ bounty of silvery sleek smelt as the ceremonial ushering in of the year’s first fishing opportunity on saltwater. These shacks can accommodate up to 3 people at once although two would find them far more comfortable considering “elbow room” when the fish begin to bite.

Typically smelt fishing equipment is simple in design with 3 or 4 hand lines equipped with hook spreaders offering two baits each set up on a movable bar inside the shack to allow for the tide’s movement and be able to center the lines in the hole cut through the ice. The hole itself is usually 4 to 6’ long and 12” wide and cut with a chainsaw or “ice saw”. The ice over a tidal saltwater bay at low tide usually sits directly on the bottom. When the tide begins to come in, the ice will rise up off the bottom and may have at high tide 7’ or more of saltwater beneath it. In the tidal zones the travel routes of the smelt are along the network of channels that branch out across the bays. Finding the location of one of these channels and situating the smelt shack perpendicular to the flow of the water guarantees success when it comes to smelt fishing. The sheer numbers of smelt in a school will blacken the water beneath the shack and provide ample opportunity to catch fish until the immense school has passed.

Smelt fishing is a highly specialized form of fishing that can be enjoyed as long as there is ice sufficient to support the weight of the shacks and fishermen. Saltwater freezes at 27 degrees which means that only the coldest winters will be the most productive for catching smelt in NH. All things considered, it’s not a bad way to spend your time and effort in the bleakest of seasons on the water.

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