187 Main Street, Columbia Falls
At the Downeast Salmon Federation’s Columbia Falls location on the banks of the Pleasant River, a reconstructed fish camp displays exhibits about traditional ways of harvesting and processing fish. At two nearby camps, fishermen seasonally harvest rainbow smelt and tomcod, among other fish. Between January and June, staff and volunteers operate the Pleasant River Fish Hatchery located in the basement of the building, where they raise young Atlantic salmon as part of restoration efforts in the Pleasant River. The organization conducts educational programs for students and adults, and also sponsors a community Smelt Fry and Fisheries Celebration each April.
207.483.4336 | www.mainesalmonrivers.org
Year-round (M-F 9-4 by appointment). Limited parking. Restrooms. Water Access.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, most people who lived along the 44 miles of the Pleasant River worked cutting trees and building ships. These industries gave way to the fishing industry, with businesses establishing to buy and sell lobsters, clams, cod, pollock and hake. Fish were salted and shipped south on schooners, or canned in one of several packing companies along the bay, such as the Bayshore Packing Company at Addison Point. Wild blueberries and balsam firs, native to the region’s sandy acidic soils, also emerged as economic forces.
The Wild Salmon Resource Center, formerly a hydroelectric plant that drew power from a dam, now functions as a conservation hatchery and hub for watershed education and advocacy beside the free-flowing Pleasant River. In addition to its role as habitat for the endangered Atlantic salmon, the Pleasant River is known for its rainbow smelt fishery.
Rainbow smelt are small, silvery fish that are native to Maine’s coastal bays and estuaries. Rainbow smelt are “sea-run” or anadromous, meaning they spend most of their life in salt water but spawn (mate and lay eggs) in fresh water. Adult smelt begin migrating into small tidal tributaries in April and May. Smelt tend to run at night, and so are hard to see during the day, but the eggs can be seen as small specks on rocks and underwater plants along the shore.
Rainbow smelt have declined throughout their historic range along the Atlantic coast. Smelt can’t leap over six inches, so their range is naturally limited by small falls and rapids. Human-made barriers such as culverts and dams further limit their distribution. If smelt can’t get far enough upstream, they may not reproduce successfully because salt water can kill their eggs.
People have been fishing for smelt in the Pleasant River basin for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The transaction ledger from Buckman Store dating from 1776-1792 provides the earliest records of smelt catches, and indicates that the same families are fishing the Pleasant River today, some from the cedar-shingled fishing camps along the shoreline adjacent to the Wild Salmon Resource Center. In early spring, smelt are harvested on the incoming tides using gill nets or bag nets. The Pleasant River estuary is one of the last places where a sustainable commercial smelt fishery is still possible, and the Downeast Salmon Federation is working encourage stewardship that meets human needs without depriving the estuary of its health.
Downeast Fisheries Trail Interpretive Panel
Activities & Events
Downeast Smelt Fry is held each April.
In winter, fish for smelt through the ice. Or wait until spring to dip them out by hand with a net; up to two quarts of rainbow smelt may be harvested by anglers who have signed up with the Maine Saltwater Recreational Fishing Registry.
Sources & Links
Greene, Nancy H., and Clarence H. Drisko. 1976. A History of Columbia and Columbia Falls. Cherryfield, ME: Narraguagus Printing Co.
Launer, Mark. 2009. Smelt Fishing on the Pleasant River. Addison, ME: Bon Terra Films. This 30-minute film features a brief history of the centuries-old Pleasant River smelt fishery. Copies may be purchased from the Downeast Salmon Federation.