Auld Lang Syne. Whatever.

What New Year’s Eve is really for is not so much to celebrate the arrival of a new year as to blow off the steam accumulated in your boiler under the terrible pressure of Christmas. Yeah, sure, Auld Lange Syne and all that, but the auld acquaintance we’re trying to put in the rear view mirror is St. Nick (no relation), who usually seizes us by the, ah, throat right after Labor Day and won’t ease his grip until the stores reopen on December 26 and we queue up in the Returns line at L.L. Bean. Come the evening of the 31st, called Hogmanay by the descendants of Robbie Burns, and we want to wallow in our newfound freedoms — freedom from gift shopping, gift wrapping, decorating, cookie baking, ham disposal, in-laws and eggnog. We want to raise a glass or three of the good stuff, dance like pagans, howl at the moon (it’ll be nearly full) and tumble into a deep and forgiving sleep. January One is the day to begin breaking our New Year’s Resolutions one by silly one, and get back to the usual hum and drum and mechanics and hydraulics of life, by which I mean preparing for the upcoming fishing season.

Only 90 days from New Year’s Day until Maine’s 2018 Open Water Fishing Season commences, though in the parts of Maine I favor for angling there will be precious little open water on April 1, and only the April Fools will be out there flogging the water or trying to cast a Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear nymph into a hole they’ve chopped in the ice. So the 90 days is more of a theoretical marker, and April 1 is more of a spiritual observance than an actual angling date.

Meanwhile we consider the smelt. Since the North Pole seems to have moved south this winter and is centered somewhere near Lewiston, we are expecting the annual blossoming of the smelt shacks on the tidal estuaries any day now, or perhaps any minute.

Blossoming Smelt Shacks, Cathance River

When the shacks appear we will make a reservation at Jim’s or Riverbend, pack a not entirely liquid lunch and head for the Cathance to hunker down in a wood-heated shack for a few hours and wait for the baited lines to wiggle. Somewhere down below the shack in the murk and moil of the tidewater schools of small silvery fish pass by on their annual errand of producing the sons and daughters who will grow up to be next year’s schools of small silvery fish.

A mess o’ smelts,fresh.
Photo by Andrea Pokrzywinski, via Wikimedia Commons



Mess o’ Smelts, Fried. Image by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons.

Small, silvery and, unfortunately for the smelt, savory. Dipped in batter or rolled in crumbs and fried in oil, drained on a paper towel and sea-salted they are a much needed communion with the wild, giving us proof that life goes on under the brutal blanket of winter. Roll on, ye schools of smelt! toward the Vernal Equinox, and then the arrival of the egg-laying rabbit and the opening of trout season — which in 2018 coincide exactly. Don’t look for me in church.

Nick Mills

About Nick Mills

Full disclosure: I was not born in Maine, alas! I was born in Massachusetts, but the family moved to Maine when I was eleven, and I grew up in Thomaston. My dad was skipper of one of the draggers that sailed out of Rockland, in the days when it was a rough-tough working fishing port. When he came in from the sea his favorite activity was freshwater fishing with me and my brother, Peter. We learned together to flyfish for trout in the Alder Stream in Eustis. Once hooked on the sport, pun intended, I fished at every opportunity in every place I could -- in the rivers, streams and ponds of Maine; in the mountain ponds of Utah, where I was stationed for a year in the Army; in high Andean lakes in Colombia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; even in a lagoon that surrounded one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. I tried once to go trout fishing in northern Afghanistan, when the U.S.S.R. occupied that country; a landslide blocked my path, but that led to a more interesting adventure, which I will tell you about in a future post.