I was dreaming about cornbread when Jay woke me up. It was 15 minutes shy of 10pm in Harrington, Maine. The back-to-back double shifts of Memorial Day weekend had wound to an end. I’d passed out face down on our mattress after one glass of fourth-day vinegar wine.
“They’re runnin’. I just walked down,” he said. “You still wanna go?”
I rolled over on my back, pinched my eyelids shut, and bolted into a situp. As I pulled rain boots over my blistered heels, Jay offered me the last hit off his ashing joint. Bundled up in a sweatshirt, oversized raincoat, and winter hat, we trudged up the path through the woods. Off in the distance we could hear our eight-year-old border collie, Hank, dislodging himself from the mudflats and galloping up the bank after our bobbing headlamp beacons.
The stream was bubbling from a surge of high-tide saltwater. Jay climbed down from a shallow bridge and perched on a rock, shining a little flashlight into the depths.
“I don’t see any,” I announced.
“Just reach your hand in; they’re here.”
The water was numbing. We’d gotten caught up in a hailstorm earlier that day before the sky opened up into an icy sunshine over the Harrington River. As I blindly wiggled my fingers around in the gravely sediment, something slimy darted underneath my palm. I plunged my hand in again. This time wriggling slime was all I felt. I came up with four little fish heads blinking back at me, thrashing for freedom in my clenched fist.
I threw them in a five-gallon bucket and waded in under the bridge. At my feet, hundreds of smelts became visible, each one swimming in a relentless pursuit of survival.
For the residents of Washington County, smelting is the first real hint of summer. In late May, groups of locals will gather at dark with their buckets and nets, straddling the streams and reaching in for handfuls of slippery silver. Sometimes filling an entire five-gallon bucket and filling their pockets after that.
The jumpy little fish can only be found running upstream where saltwater meets fresh, surging under the high tide of a full moon. Eaten whole, they don’t taste like much more than the cornmeal and butter you fried them in.
Jay, a Washington County native, has been smelt dipping since “before he can remember.” As a kid, his father would take him in the dead of winter. Together they’d drive an old S10 onto the ice and run a net over the entire width of the river. Jay says at least 80 pounds of tiny fish would get caught on those days. They’d take them into town and sell them as bait. Making a little less than $40 for the entire day’s catch.
Now Jay was dipping a child’s butterfly net downstream and coming up with maybe two or three. I was crouched under the bridge, feeling God-like as I plucked each shimmering tail out of the water. When a third of our bucket was filled with flapping, suffocating bodies, I wondered if maybe we should have a little mercy.
An hour of deciding life or death had passed in no time. We climbed up the bank and allowed the remaining smelt shoals another day in their quest for procreation.
As we walked back through the woods with our jittering bucket in hand, I turned back to look at the Harrington River, now dancing with dozens of skipping lights.