Spring in Maine is mud. We don’t call it spring, but mud season. It is mud and road surface load limits written in bright orange; it is frost heaves and more mud. There is mud, congealed or stiff, in ridges and ruts at the local airport. The light planes, clearly things of the air, can hardly negotiate the rugged unpaved ramp.
I pulled out in the Subaru, driving slowly past the yard next-door where the otherwise unemployed fishermen—laid off from the ski resort—were planting shrubs for their landlord in partial exchange for rent. There was a bit of yardwork and clean-up to be done after winter and, as I passed, the tall one displayed a large fish head. Grinning at me, he dropped it into the hole he had just dug for a flowering shrub.
Spring is the mystery of smelts running.
At night I went smelting with the two young neighbors. I offered to drive because I wanted to witness the mystery and activity of catching smelts. They directed me toward the best pond for the purpose. Talk in the car was all of various fish, hornpout and eels among them. Lake trout, salmon and bass were praised. Suckers and bluegill merely acknowledged. As we came down the road I saw sparkling golden lights reflecting upon the water, ringing the pond.
The mention of hornpout reminded me of an earlier experience of catfish, as they were known to me in the Midwest. My son had brought one home in a bucket of water. Somehow it got out into the grass, and lay there open-mouthed, its gills gasping. Tenderness stirred in me as I watched. Heaving, its life slipping, the fish sought aid, mutely. Someone reached down and picked it up, set it once again into the bucket.
The lane was lined with pickups and cars; Broncos and Blazers crowded the parking lot at the conservation camp. I parked the car. The two young men got out their gear—a propane lantern, waders, the great smelting net. This net was 3 ft. in diameter, a circle of iron with white mesh on the end of a pole six or 8 ft. long. Hefting, I found the homemade net heavy, tried to imagine bringing it up from the water full of fish. They had a cooking pot for holding smelts.
Young men. The short wiry fisherman wore white sneakers, had light eyes. Of the two he was a talker. Among other observations he noted the presence of “Uncle Baldy’s” truck in the parking lot. The taller fisherman was quiet, dark-eyed, more languorous. He wore waders held up with suspenders making him look even longer. Between the quickness of the shorter one and the long-leggedness of the taller, I had to hurry keeping up with them. We followed a path where roots protruded, last year’s leaves making it slick. The light of the double-mantled lantern moved through the woods, shining like a small double sun between them. It seethed constantly, inhaling propane, reminding me of the mutely gasping catfish.
The light-eyed talker said he wanted to see the brook black with smelts.
Black? I thought smelts were silvery. That’s how they looked in the fish case at the market, all headless and gutted.
But he explained: “Black means packed shore to shore with them.” The shallow sandy bottom would be thick with smelts laying eggs. We came to the brook and he shone the lantern down into it. Below…. I saw a marvelous sight of life, writhing and rushing in water over the sand. Myriad, milling strands of black life, pointed and adrift like water weed in a swift current. But, for all this abundance, the light-eyed fishermen said the brook was not yet black with them.
I thought the young men would start scooping this brook with the great net, but we crossed the bridge and went on. Light-eyes explained that it was an illegal practice. The law allows for these creatures to deposit and fertilize their eggs in designated tributaries without interference. He then tells me about the mystery of swarming smelts, circling the pond shore in their incessant search for these hatchery brooks. The pond was rimmed with gold lights because, much like drawing moths, fishermen waited with lures of light for smelts to school passed on their way to conceive.
They led me to a deserted stretch where trees leaned over the dark pond water. The tall quiet one waded out, submerging the net, while the talker hung the lantern from a broken branch. He turned it down a bit, saying it shouldn’t be too bright. We stood staring into the water.
I saw nothing but blackness. Then, breaths bated, the fishermen spoke with quiet excitement—“There they are!” I saw nothing, for my eyes were unaccustomed to the movement of smelts in the pond. After clambering down the rooty embankment, I leaned out on a tree, holding a corner of my coat up to block the glare of the lantern. Slowly my eyes grew accustomed to the deep dark of the water and I began to see.
Faint flocks of light flickered through waters, edging the shallows. The net settled, the tall fishermen waiting for the talker to signal an approach.
Then he dipped, lifted. He strained to lift against the drag, against the weight of the iron ring and smelts and net, against the surface tension. Up came the great net with fish wriggling in the bottom. Popping like corn. He thrust in his hand, took a fistful of smelts and tossed them into the pot.
Intent, Light-eyes stood calf deep in the rocky pond bottom. Ice had gone out last week and the feeder streams were in snow melt. The water was extremely cold. He stayed in for an hour while the tall quiet one caught smelts. As they fished, they chewed Kodiak and spat strings of tobacco juice into the dark water. They were intent meeting these fish, concentrated. Wholly alive and purposeful. The whole of this dark pond, gold-beaded, was life: fish, men and women, coming out after long winter and cold brown spring—making one with this life.
A good haul came up alive and popping. Dipped and scooped. He waited between each scoop for his net to settle in the depths, for the school to hove into view above it. I stuck my hand into their haul as he brought it up, just to feel this life. At that moment, even as it ebbed from flashing bodies, life was liveliest, working in frantic effort to make the last of it count before life got away. (Or, could it be that this life in silver, now that it was out of its friendly environment, was anxious to leave its casing behind?)
Excited, I grabbed a cold squirming fistful and another, tossing them into the pot as though I were a fisher, intent and concentrated, and could get this life for myself. Two quarts was the limit.
Later. In the half-lit kitchen, we finger the smelts. The pot is piled with silver and black, full of dark eyes perfectly circled in silver. Their little faces are iridescent, purplish, pink. The talker fisherman holds one up to the light and we see backbone through its shimmering length. Their backs are dark, bellies translucent white. I touch the translucent gills, which are purple because this is the color of the lungs. The quiet dark-eyed fisherman points out creases in the sides of the females where eggs have gone out. Full sides indicate fish whose eggs are still encased, and there are many of these, as well. There is the white foam of semen still clinging to the male’s tiny slits. All are taken in the time of running. In the time of fervor, of fierce giving and making of life.
Still later. I see Light-eyes the talker, before the pot. The pot contains a bloody pile of fish-heads. He stands with scissors, snipping them from stiff little bodies. Their eggs, among guts upon the cutting board, are tiny and white. Massed yellow gelatinous goo.
I sit writing notes. Someone brings me a plateful of hot-batter-piping smelts. I can see black and silver through batter. They are steaming, crispy, textured. Crunchy in my mouth.
Standing in the kitchen two days later, I ask Light-eyes what he did with all those smelt heads. He shows me a plate of red-ribbed catfish, freshly cleaned. “Used them to catch hornpout.”
entry from MAINE METAPHOR, used with permission of Wipf and Stock publishers.