April 19, 2017 — If he peeked around the corner from where his fish-frying station was set up, Evan Emerson could see the place where he and others caught the fish in the first place.
The smelts — small, silvery fish that can be caught in great abundance each winter and early spring in the Pleasant River in Washington County — are the star of the show at the yearly Columbia Falls Smelt Fry, held by the Downeast Salmon Federation for the past 17 years.
Emerson, 28, has been frying up smelts at the event since he was 15 years old. He has always at the end of an assembly line of volunteer cooks who line up outside the Columbia Falls Community Center to shake the pre-cleaned, whole fish in a light cornmeal breading, drop them with a satisfying crackle of hot fat into their specially made fryer and, after six to seven minutes, pull them out, hot and ready to eat.
Emerson makes the call as to when the smelts are done. It’s his watchful eye that judges when they’ve gone from merely cooked to a perfectly crispy golden brown. By the end of the day, more than 300 pounds of smelt caught and quickly frozen in the weeks leading up to the event are cooked.
“We add just a little bit of olive oil. That’s what gives it the golden brown color,” said Emerson, whose smelt camp lies just a few hundred feet from the town center. “Some people remove the bones, some people don’t. Everybody’s got their way of eating it. … I’ve been cooking them for years, but I’ve been fishing for them for as long as I can remember.”