Nickel Lobsters - Laughing Smelts

By Joseph Talbot | Apr 12, 2018

Two pounds lobsters, freshly steamed……..5 cents

Ten pounds of freshly caught smelts…….”Laughter”

The Talbot Stevenson Insurance Agency used to be on the second floor of 514 Main Street. My dad used to have a job there, sweeping the front entrance, the stairs to the second floor, and the office on Saturday mornings. He was only a boy at the time, but he said he remembered seeing something that puzzled him when he swept the floor of a storage room, and saw a table, with a few plates and napkins, some forks, and a small pot sitting next to a kerosene room heater and a few chairs. He asked about it, and was told that during the week, a little before noon, they’d go down to the sidewalk and wait for a fellow coming their way with a wheelbarrow. There was a fabric cover over it, but you could see steam oozing out around it, and for a nickel, he’d give you a piping hot steamed lobster for lunch. I said, “what about the small pot?” He said, “A chunk of butter, when left in the pot for a half hour on top of the heater, would be just right by the time the lobbies came.”

My dad loved to reminisce, and I loved to hear him.

The True Story I’m about to reveal is not in the least embellished, or manufactured. It was related to me and my wife Sharon, by my Dad, while on a driving trip from Baltimore to Boston one Christmas day to surprise some of our family members. However, the tale may not necessarily be accurate, per se — try as I might, I can’t be 100 percent sure about the name of one of the four participants, however I could be right, but I can’t guarantee it. (Funny how that reads, but I know what I want to say.)

As many Camden residents are aware, Damariscotta Lake is a great place to go fishing for smelts. Time of day or night did not matter, but it was all about the tide, you know. For those of you who might not know anything about it, here’s the scoop. The objective is called a “smelt”, a small silvery fish, usually 7 to 9 inches long, weighing about 6 ounces. They are high in healthy nutrients, and very low in mercury. Nothing better on Saturday night, rolled in a pinch of flower and corn meal, fried in a pan, then paired with baked beans, corn bread, and a beer. Do I sound a little like a daytime TV cooking show host?

Anyway, the favorite way to get a load of smelts, was to build a small lightweight “smelt house” out of one-inch wooden studs, nailed to a frame, like a small house, about 8 feet wide by 5 feet deep, and covered with light canvas, painted over with whatever color, or colors, of paint you could find in the garage or cellar. A 1-inch by 1-inch stringer was strung from side to side above a hole chiseled in the ice that would reach from one side of the house to the other, upon which there were small nails about 10 inches apart, from which a length of heavy fishing line was tied firmly. A few inches from the top, a small piece of ribbon was tied on the line, which would spin when a smelt came along and decided the small piece of red worm attached to the small hook on the bottom of the line was appealing. (I surmise you’ve probably noticed I’ve mentioned the word “small” several times. That’s because the smelt houses, the hook, the worm, and the target — smelt — are actually small.

On with the episode. Sitting beside each other, using their hands to spin each of the 10 or so hanging lines, Dad, & his good friend John McCloud, were quietly passing the time with conversation related to what they were doing. Meanwhile, Howard “Deadbones” Dearborn was a few yards away in his

smelt house, waiting for Walt Bissett to arrive. Around 9 p.m. or so, Walt was making his way across a field and out on the frozen lake. He had a portable radio in one hand, listening to a basketball game, and he could see the glow of the candles from inside the two houses a short way from him. He didn’t know that one of the smelt houses had been moved a few hours before he arrived, out further on the lake, and of course, Walt had no trouble walking right onto the wafer-thin ice left behind, and down he went, into the tidal current. He couldn’t make it back up-current from where he went in, so thankfully swam with the current to the first faint light he saw, and burst up through Howard’s smelt house like a whale, gasping for breath. Howard, true to custom when smelting at night, had refreshed himself on a few occasions, with libation, and was starting to fade into a dream. He was so shocked, he stood up, breaking a cross-member, and propelled himself backward right out though the side of the house, and landed with a crash on his back on the ice, hooting and hollering “Oh My God,” Oh My God” several times. Dad and John had no trouble hearing Howard and went over to him. When he saw them coming at him pointed at the destroyed house and blabbered something that neither Dad or John could understand.

After realizing no one was dead, they quickly opened up another friend’s smelt house, started a fire in the little stove, stripped Walt from his clothes, wrapped him with a couple of heavy coats, and got him warm. A pint of libation helped immensely.

A few hours later, dressed again, and in the morning sun, they were all walking back to shore, each carrying a bucket load of smelts, and one of them said, “Quiet! Listen!” And just below them, they were able to hear Walt’s radio still broadcasting music, caught to a protruding stick under the ice.

Thinking back now, it’s amazing how a few inches of direction between two objects coupled with the direction of the current was all that was the difference between Walt’s life or death.

Joe Talbot is a former columnist for Peterson Publications’ “Off Road Magazine” and “Four Wheeler Magazine.” He lives in Belfast.


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