As fishermen in Stratham use chainsaws to remove their smelt fishing shacks from the frozen Squamscott River, Chris Babineau, of Raymond, takes a break to reflect on the season. “We’ve had the ice, but we haven’t caught any smelts, I can tell you that,” he says, “In the last three years you’d be lucky to get one smelt.”
Every winter on New Hampshire's Seacoast, villages of smelt ice fishing shanties appear on the rivers, but in recent years the smelt populations in the Great Bay estuary have been on the decline. As recently as 2011 fishermen could jig up more than a 100 smelt a night; you’d measured them in buckets rather than numbers.
The fish have been a traditional seasonal treat for seacoast anglers. “You can cut the heads, not even gut them out. Sometimes keep the heads on, depending on how small they are. Batter ‘em, Put ‘em in deep fry and eat ‘em like a fish stick,” says Babineau.
Around the shanties you will hear plenty of guesses as to what happened to the smelt. “My theory on it is there’s a family of seals that live in these rivers that are eating the smelts up,” he says.
But according to Fish and Game biologist Becky Heuss, that’s unlikely. “Oh goodness, people are always talking about seals,” she says, laughing, “I haven’t found any work that says seals eat smelt.”
Schools of these eight inch long, silvery fish use to be common. They’re anadromous, which means they spend their life at sea and then they come back up into the freshwater to spawn. Department researchers monitor smelt populations in several ways, including netting surveys, egg-counting studies and – for nearly 40 years – an “angler creel survey.”
“Once we see people fishing, we’ll go out every single day at a random time and find out what they’re catching,” explains Heuss.
Lately they have not been seeing much. The possible explanations include habitat change and nitrogen pollution. But Huess thinks there’s something else going on.
“The information that we are getting from Maine last year was not promising either, but there seem to be more smelt up there this year than there are in either in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, and that may have a lot to do with the warming waters,” she says, “The population seems to be moving northward.”
Water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have been at record highs and scientists say it is warming faster than almost any ocean waters on Earth.
Back at the river local fisherman Shawn Casey remains stoic.
“I mean it’s definitely bummed me out in the past few years, past, I don’t know, four years, you know, It’s been pretty bad. You’ve had to go up to Maine to catch any fish if you wanted to smelt fish at all,” he says, “But I mean, there’s nothing like coming to the Exeter River, even if you’re catching no fish.”
Our contributors, Dave Kellam and Clay Groves, are also known as the Fish Nerds, and produce a weekly podcast about fishing.