The frost-heaved road lined
with cord on cord of wood
weaved down to River Bend Smelt-
Camps. The office had a roaring fire;
sixty dollars to fish the tide
in a little tin smelt shack.
An old man held out two packets
of bait; sea-worms sprinkled with sea-
weed rolled loosely in wet mud-
stained dixie paper towels.
“The key,” says a toothless woman
hunched in a corner, taking deep
drags off a Doral Gold,
“is to cut the bait into tiny pieces;
change the bait when the bait turns white;
change the bait, that’s the key!”
Ignoring her the old man said,
“Start with two turns up from
the bottom and stagger the lines.
Try one six feet below the ice.
Did you bring a knife to cut the bait?”
“The key is to change the bait,”
the old fish hag cackled.
“Change the bait, change the bait!”
echoed from her cave as we made
our way out to the ice.
A row of twelve smelt shacks,
with steep peaked tin roofs
and walls of torn black tar-
paper, follow the natural
bend of the river. At the
base of each shack, hay bales,
cut in the golden red salt
marshes of late summer, rot
into relentless mood
shifts of the ice. Pulsing
inside each shack, rusted iron
wood stoves crackle hot with
dry white pine and beech.
Each side of the floor has
a trough of open water, emerald-
green water, like the brackish
waters off Porters Landing
in summer; diving deep into
cold black, arching spines
to a sun-shafted surface . . .
Hung above each trough, a row
of six strings and sharp hooks
wrapped neatly around wooden pegs.
I cut the bait.
Not your dignified earthworms
used for catching brook trout
in the excited waters of early spring,
but filthy mud-worms
from the flats,
with hundreds of squirming legs.
The rusty knife the old man
lent me tore them into small
chunks, squirting blood
everywhere. I bait the tiny hooks,
staggering each one
with different turns
on the pegs.
Drunk men down the way yell,
“Smelts! Smelts on! Smelts on!
they’re runnin’ boys! they’re runnin’!”
followed by hoots and yelps . . .
but there are no smelts running,
there is no action, there is nothing
but deep booms and moans
from under an aching ice,
bruised ice heaving
from a rising tide,
anxious ice from a nervous-
breakup, of a tilting earth.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 4, on page 43
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
newcriterion.com/issues/2013/12/smelt-shacks