It's smelt season and enthusiasts are enjoying the bounty while it lasts

·5 min read

It's prime smelt season in the province and lovers of the small fish are rejoicing as they chow down on their annual feeds.

But it's not the greatest year for the fishery thanks to the weather and COVID-19 restrictions.

Smelts are caught all along the New Brunswick coastline, but there is a substantial commercial fishery in the north and northeast of the province. In the Miramichi region in particular, they are a celebrated part of the local winter culture.

"First and foremost they are quite delicious," said devotee Paddy Quinn.

"And secondly, I think it's just such a part of the Miramichi. Most of us grew up eating them. As a matter of fact, I know some people that won't eat them because they had so gosh darn many of them growing up."

Quinn delights in the annual tradition of scoffing down at some of the numerous smelt fries that are put on by local groups as fundraisers.

Gail Harding/Facebook
Gail Harding/Facebook

"One of the gentlemen down there said it would be easier to weigh me before and after and charge by the pound instead of paying a flat fee at the door."

This year indoor gatherings are prohibited, of course, but some groups and restaurants are still doing take-out deep fried smelt dinners.

Local shops sell the fish cleaned and deboned for those who prefer to cook their own.

They can be pan fried or baked with a coating of flour, cornmeal or watered down pancake batter.

"I don't have the most discerning palate," said Quinn. "I just like them cooked and plentiful."

Commercial smelt fisherman Ernest Robichaud of Tabusintac likes his smelts pan fried with a bit of flour.

Gail Harding/Facebook
Gail Harding/Facebook

"I keep rolling them til they're nice and crispy or the way I want them and away they go."

He's the smelt cook in the family. His wife doesn't eat them after a bad experience choking on a bone.

Some people stay away from smelts for that reason, but it's no trouble for others.

"I just break them down the back and then I can pull the backbone right out," said Robichaud. "That's pretty much all the bones. After you do a couple you know exactly what you're doing."

Some people don't even worry about removing the bones, he said. They just eat them.

"I take the bone out and put a little bit of chow on them and 'Look out stomach here they come.'"

Hardwicke fisherman Lynn Gregan agreed homemade chow-chow, a pickled tomato relish, is excellent with smelts. He also likes them with homemade bread or fresh boiled potatoes.

Gail Harding/Facebook
Gail Harding/Facebook

Like Robichaud and Quinn, he finds the fish delicious.

"Mmm...come on, train."

"They're unique," he said. "In my book, they're up there with lobster and scallops."

As much as Miramichiers agree that smelts are delicious, they also disagree on where the best place is to fish them.

"There's places that the people won't eat the smelts from," said Robichaud.

He said he has faithful customers come from all over the Acadian Peninsula, despite the fact that smelts are available in their own communities.

"For whatever reason I don't know," said Robichaud.

Paddy Quinn/Twitter
Paddy Quinn/Twitter

"There's no pollution or anything. I've eaten Neguac smelts and I've eaten our smelts and I don't see very much difference."

Some regular customers even stocked up, he said, before travel restrictions were implemented between health zones.

"It's a psychological thing," said Gregan. "We all like fish from our own little neck of the woods and each community has a good product."

The pandemic is also preventing the Gregans from selling at the Moncton Market as they usually do.

But Gregan said there's enough of a market locally for the amount he's catching.

The ice conditions have also played havoc with the season. The Gregans only have about half of their 38 nets in the water, with possibly another six weeks left in the season.

Robichaud has five of his 15 nets in. And it was late December instead of early December when he was first able to set them.

Gail Harding/Facebook
Gail Harding/Facebook

"We go back and forth to them with snowmobiles once the ice is thick enough," said Robichaud.

Last year he lost three nets shortly after setting them. Strong wind broke up the ice and carried the nets out with the tide.

Based on the long-range forecast, he's not expecting the ice conditions to improve anytime soon.

Both Robichaud and Gregan have been fishing smelts in the area for upwards of 40 years.

Robichaud said when he bought his lobster licence in 1983, it was part of the package.

"I like doing it. I like seeing the people every year and chatting with them and all that. I guess it's just something I love. Not everybody's going to go out in the cold and freeze their butt. But it doesn't bother me any. I love the four seasons."

He recalled a time when there were a lot more people fishing smelts.

"There were enough pickets on the ice between here and Neguac to heat a house for the wintertime. Now you'd freeze to death in the second week."

Gail Harding/Facebook
Gail Harding/Facebook

The 66-year-old started fishing smelts as a boy with his father.

"We'd freeze the smelts outside at night time and gather them up in the morning and pack them in boxes. That's the only way they could be shipped then."

They'd be shipped out of town by train.

He worked at a little fish factory in Neguac between the ages of 10 and 15.

"We packed them in cardboard boxes, 20 pound to a box. And they were shipped pretty well all over the world."

He knows of one fisherman in Cocagne who still sells smelts for export.

There are only four commercial smelt fishermen in the Tabusintac area today, said Robichaud.

But fishing on Miramichi Bay will continue on some level for the foreseeable future.

Gregan said his two sons are now taking over the business.