There was a time when there were as many lights on the River Philip in January than in homes along the road. But that was the good ol’ days when men fished smelt from the river on the coldest of days and the darkest of nights.
Stevely Mitchell’s earliest memory of smelt fishing comes from his childhood in the 1950’s.
“I used to go down to Pauley’s store, which is where Sunrise is now in Port Howe, and see the sets on the ice. I remember seeing lanterns going everywhere. There were five or six nets right there and coming up the river there were more sets.”
A neighbour and his son, who was Stevely’s age, invited him to go fishing with them.
“I remember going to Ray Dixon’s and going down on the river to watch them pull up the net and put the smelts on the ice.”
Smelt season opens in mid-October, when the smelts come up the river, and runs through to the end of February. (They don’t spawn until spring.)
“You fish smelts through the ice with bag nets,” Stevely explains. “They used to fish open water but then started fishing under the ice. That was the most popular. The fish in January and February, those are the fish people want.”
On a page in my notebook, Stevely draws a picture of the bag net and explains how it works.
“The depth of the bag was ten or twelve feet. These are the headlines on the front. That’s the opening to the bag. Back here, there was an opening and we kept that tied off. This was a trap,” he points to a spot just behind the main opening of the net bag, “so the smelts, once they swam in, couldn’t get back out. When you pulled the net up, you forced all the smelts down there and untied that and dumped them on the ice. Sometimes we’d have so much fish in the net, we couldn’t even get it pulled up through the ice.”
He begins drawing a second diagram .
“We cut a long slit in the ice, about 16 inches wide and 36 feet long. We drove long poles right into the river bottom, put another pole across them, so when the net was open in the water, this is what the net would look like.”
His picture shows a fish’s eye view of the opening of the net, gaping wide beneath the ice. The net had to be pulled up and turned around every six hours, every time the tide changed.
“If you happened to miss the tide, you’d come down and your net would be inside out and all your fish would be gone.”
He started fishing smelts in the seventies and eighties; it provided extra money during the winter.
“It was worthwhile,” he says of the cold, hard work. “You couldn’t make a living at it but you could make money at it. There was one winter, Charlie Weeks, Sonny Pollard, Ray Dixon and I fished two nets and it was nothing to see four, five thousand pounds in a net. The last few times I fished, if you saw four or five pounds...But I think the smelts have come back.”
Stevely bought his first licence back in the 1970s.
“That was when you could still walk in and buy one. For anything. Lobster, smelt. I think at that time, you could still get a lobster licence for 25 cents. But in the eighties, they froze all the licences so anything after that had to be bought from another fisherman. I fished with Ray for a few years, I fished with Earl Chase and then I fished for myself. Later on, after Ray passed away, I got Ray’s licence.”
According to Stevely, there are still a lot of licences for the river but nobody uses them.
“The way it works, there are certain sets on the river; you couldn’t just go and set anywhere. If someone had licensed a set, you couldn’t set there, it was theirs. They’re generally spaced 200 yards apart. At one time, from the bridge up, someone had a set licence. Now a lot of those are gone. They haven’t been fished in years.”
I ask Stevely what a ‘set’ is.
“What we refer to as a set is just a location on the river. A certain point, like say off this point here,” Stevely gestures towards the river down below his home, “there’d be a set there. There were different names for sets. The Johnson set, which Ray Dixon owned at one time, I own it now. The Church set because it was out off the church. There was Green Point set, Gray Rock set. There was what they called The Cove. I own that one now. They are all different sets. If you asked someone where they were fishing, they told you a set and you knew it.”
There is a record of the sets on the River Philip. The Department of Fisheries has them marked on a grid.
Stevely hasn’t fished for smelts in years because of poor ice conditions.
“For years, the weather seemed to be fairly steady. I’ve seen us cut the ice out in early December and be cutting over a foot of ice. That would stay in the river until the season closed at the end of February. The last few years, we haven’t had ice conditions like that. That’s the reason I haven’t fished in the last four or five years. It would freeze, we’d get a couple of inches of ice then we would get snow on top of it. The snow would sink the ice. Then it would rain. That doesn’t make strong ice.”
Stevely says a decline in the number of smelts in the river in the nineties meant it wasn’t worth putting a net in but he says this winter, there is more ice on the river than there has been for years.
“I plan to put a set in. If it wasn’t so cold, I’d be down there right now. We used to fish in weather like this but now, I don’t really have to do it.”