September 24, 2023

Just Smeltin’ Away

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eleazerbanner - CopyJournal—March 21–Tuesday

The days are quite nice with just a little chill at night. The lakes down country are opening up, and the brooks are roaring with snow melt. Fishing seasons is just around the corner. Smelt runs will be beginning here very soon!

Oh, what a night last night. I spent the late, late evening following my friend Jack
Stevens around to all the local smeltin’ hot spots. And I must report that some were actually very hot! I left my truck at Leo Cole’s farm in Greenwood City and rode with Jack down to Herm Fuller’s Store. Well Herm’s Store was certainly a store in the general sense, in that there certainly were things to buy. Most of the merchandise came in bottle form by the “six pack”. The location of the store was near the Paris Town Line—Paris is a “dry” town, so the customer base here at this small out of the way location is immense on weekends or special nights like this.

Jack was fond of the Black Label, which was lucky, as the choices tonight were slim to none. I would settle for a cold Moxie, for I need to keep my eye on Jack tonight. When we left, I would be doing the driving in Jack’s Studebaker pickup. We got to Herm’s store just in time to stand in line by the one of the slide top coolers. Herm picked out a half dozen cold ones from the cold water and ice inside the rusty sided cooler. I had to search for some time through the cold water in another cooler for just two twelve ounce Moxies. Jack also got a pack of Raleigh Chew so as to draw up a spit—as if a fella’ needed to chew a cud! The old National cash register had a bell that almost chimed out a song, because it was opening so much during our time in the store. There were some other homemade snacks and some candy for sale, but they were not to popular this dark night.

There were a couple of guys from South Paris in front of us, and they were headed to Bryant’s Pond smeltin’. They stocked up as if they were to be there a week. Cecil Farnum happened by as we were getting loaded into the truck and checking over our nets. He told us that most of the smelters were at the north end of Bryant Pond, South Pond both sides, and into Indian Pond. He said “Red” Martin wasn’t to happy with the fellas last night getting stuck in his field in near Indian. He made them wait until this morning to haul the truck out with his Allis-Chalmers Model B tractor. This probably wouldn’t be a bad place to go; as the walk was too long in the back way for most of the smelting crowd—especially with Martin on the warpath. We figured that this might be the best bet for later on, after checking out the action around the other places.

We finally headed out up Old County Road toward Bryant Pond, Maine. The road was rutted from the freezing and thaw we have had over the last week. The Studebaker bounced along and slipped from side to side the whole way to the Howe crossing at the foot of Bryant’s Pond. I had to stop and clean the headlights, as the mud had splattered them over. Jack was working on his second brew by now.

I suggested we stop at Stowell’s Mill and look up Mose or Oliver Swan. They worked the night shift as watchmen and boiler operators. Mose usually would take a side trip down to the mill brook pool from his regular rounds. He surely would know if the smelts were heading up under the railroad through the twin stone culverts. We bumped into the mill yard and stopped at the foot of the hill near the tall water tank and parked by a pile of sawdust and shavings. This mill produced turnings from hardwood, like pail handles, brush handles, and so on—similar to those of Mann’s Mill. I pushed open the door to the boiler room and met a blast of hot air pushing out through. Oliver was shoveling scrap wood into an open fire door with a broad blade shovel. He noticed the chill on his back, and turned to greet us. Jack offered him a swig on the Black Label, as we sat on the long “bummer’s” bench just inside the doorway. I had a few sips of my Moxie, as Jack and Oliver caught up on the weather and things. Mose was off tonight, but Oliver told us that they had seen a few smelts early this morning before daylight in the mill pool. Ah, another place to check later when all but the diehards, and those under the heavy weather, were home snug in bed. We relished the last bit of heat, before heading around the lake.

The old Studebaker sputtered by the ball field and over the railroad crossing. I could see yellow circles of light from kerosene lanterns on the water just ahead. We parked behind a half dozen vehicles, dirty from the “mud season” roadways. Jack was ready for some action, but headed off without his net. I trailed along behind just taking in the surroundings. At first the only sounds that could be heard were the quiet stirrings of the water in the lake from the light wind, and the gurgling of the water over stones in the brook. Jack had squished his way through a wet patch of alders and stood on the low bank of the lake. I arrived soon after and stood quietly beside him, as we watched two men with broad hooped nets. They gently moved the heavy nets across the area just off the mouth of the brook, and then lifted them into the light to check for silver fish. Both men had a quart or two of smelts, and poured them into a pail on the nearby shore.

I could see now through Jack’s flashlight that the school had moved out into deeper water ahead of a billowing plume of dark silt. There was now sputtering from other fishermen in the alder area along the brook. They had been waiting in the dark for the run to start; smoking, talking quietly, and apparently imbibing in the brew. The next thing I knew a beer bottle passed through the lantern light and splashed into the pond. One fella’ in the woods yelled for the guys in the pond to let the smelts run up the brook, so they all could get a chance. A rebuffing salvo, that included plenty of expletives, followed from one of the lucky pair. The ensuing skirmish was like a pair of bulls separated by a fence, in this case a net, bluffing and jousting about trying to force the other to leave. It worked for us, because I grabbed Jack’s coat collar and half dragged him into the woods. He wanted to protest, but thought better of it as I was somewhat larger than he. We could hear the occasional yell and shout as we were getting into the Studebaker.

We drove through Locke Mills, Maine to round South Pond. It was as quiet this Monday night, as a funeral home between funerals. There were a couple of street lights as we passed the corner store and garage, but quite dark otherwise. We had met only a couple of cars this late coming up the main road from Bryant Pond Village. Jack was now more than willing to let me be leader for the rest of the night, for he was rapidly losing his common sense—he couldn’t even get the last Black Label opened. Jack was a quiet fellow, and even more so when he was under this weather. He had told me he had his best rest and sleep after a good drinking night, right up until just before he opened his eyes the next morning! I headed down the west side of South Pond with Jack just a snoring along. I didn’t see anybody near the brook passing under the road, so I just stopped over the culvert and shined my light into the moving waters. Not a thing showing itself here.

I drove south toward Twitchell Pond. Sometimes there were smelts running in the brook on the west side of the pond just south of the Daniel Cole place. I would check this out before heading home with Jack. Sure enough, there was some goings on here! There were nearly a dozen cars and trucks parked along the road and in the edge of the field. Muddy footprints along the camp road attested to this night’s activity. I tucked in Jack, and trod along the beaten way through the alders. I walked back away from the brook, so as not to interfere with the smelters quietly dipping their nets in the running water of the pools. Everyone here seemed to be quite polite. No jeering or complaints, only cajoling and teasing—down right fun. Everyone was busy netting smelts, and no bottles being passed about. Well it didn’t take me long to see what could be the cause of this civility—the “Warden” was visiting.

Elmer Russell is the new local Game Warden, and he had stopped by the farm a number of times last deer season, so I had gotten to know him quite well. I walked up to Elmer to get the take on things tonight. He told me things here were much the same now as when he had arrived a short time ago. I told him about the fracas at Bryant Pond, with the verbal head butting and skirmishing. He chuckled, for he had been by there earlier and talked to the fellows, from down country, at the mouth of the brook. They assured him that they would let the run start before they started dipping. Well, apparently they couldn’t wait and run afoul with the locals.

Elmer told me about a crew of smelters from Portland that had arrived up here late one night after driving up from Sebago Lake. They swarmed into one of the brooks someplace in Waterford, and commenced to have a good old time of it. Apparently the smelts weren’t running very well, but the brown trout were up the brook checking things out. These yahoos started chasing the trout up and down the brook, until a couple nice two to three pound beauties were landed in smelt nets. Elmer and his partner just happened by when they saw the string of moving flashlights along the brook. They waited and listened to see what would happen, and ended their night writing up a half dozen summonses and hauling two belligerent guys to the county jail in Paris, Maine.

Elmer had followed the smelters north with the season, and he told me another story about this pair of smelters down country that were smelting quite far from the road on this quiet out of the way place. They had taken overnight provisions and plenty of beer. During the night one of the fellows passed out right in the peak of a hellish run. His partner dragged him up onto the bank out of the way and laid him down on a bedding canvas they had brought with them. He didn’t check him over very well to see if he was all right, but rather continued on smelting and filled their pails with the limit. The next morning the first fellow woke up from his reverie and climbed up from the canvas. He found the two pails filled with glistening smelts, but no sign of his friend. He searched nearby, but to no avail. He walked to their car and still no sign. A frantic call went out to Elmer to help find the missing smelter. Elmer found the missing friend later that morning near where they had been smelting. The friend had passed out and died from an apparent heart attack during the night. This smelting can be a tough business!

I said my goodbyes to Elmer on the way out to the truck. We checked on Jack, who couldn’t be any happier at this moment. Elmer headed back to Bryant’s Pond, and I bumped down past Shadagee Rock and the Hick’s Cemetery toward Greenwood City. This stretch of dirt road was rather lonely on a dark spring night with only a snoring buddy and the last few sips of my Moxie to keep me company. I would miss out on the happenings on at Indian Pond and elsewhere tonight, but I’d had enough for the season. I took Jack home with me and carried him in onto the couch. This yearly ritual would end in the morning after a full breakfast of Margie’s fixin’s, a trip to deliver a refreshed Jack home and pick up Molly at Leo’s.

I get my fill of smelting in one short night. If I really get hard up for smelts to eat, I can go down to Hutchinson Pond. The two little books on the back side of the pond have small, thriving populations of smelts that not many know. Other fella’s need to go out every night carousing, carrying on, and “Just Smelting Away”…………….

Temperately Yours;
Eleazer Peabody

Read all of Eleazer Peabody’s Tales from Maine.