Edie Heilman admitted she was a little embarrassed when she asked, “What’s a smelt?”
“Well, why don’t we go down and find out?” her husband replied, even though he later admitted that he already knew.
The retired couple were among a few hundred people who attended the smelt fry on Friday, which was held under a large tent overlooking the Pleasant River.
The event is partly a fundraiser for the federation and partly a way to educate people about salmon restoration Down East.
Mostly, though, the smelt fry is an excuse for the community to come together.
Though they aren’t true Down Easters, the Heilmans said, they were having a great time late Friday afternoon.
As it turned out, however, they weren’t wild about the smelts.
Smelts, a species of fish that normally is a food source for salmon, are something of a Maine delicacy when fried and eaten whole.
“You eat them with the tails on?” Edie Heilman asked a man sitting at a table next to her.
“Of course. The tail’s the best part,” the man replied before picking up a cornmeal-coated fish and sending it down the hatch in one swift motion.
Edie Heilman figured Friday might be her only chance to try a fried smelt, but as she warily eyed the fish in front of her, it was clear one would be enough.
“It’s kind of like a sardine, I guess,” she said. “But I never really liked those, either.”
It didn’t matter, though, because the smelt fry also was a community potluck dinner, and there were plenty of other things for the Heilmans to eat.
Jacob van de Sande, outreach educator for the Downeast Salmon Federation and the manager of the Pleasant River Fish Hatchery, said the smelt fry has grown considerably since it started in 2001.
The snowstorm last Thursday combined with a cold wind off the water Friday made conditions less than ideal. Still, cars lined Main Street in Columbia Falls and crowded around the nearby fire station.
As part of the event, van de Sande opened up the hatchery to the public and led several groups on a tour of the facility.
The Pleasant River Fish Hatchery is one of four programs run by the Downeast Salmon Federation and spawns about 50,000 landlocked salmon each year.
The federation also manages the East Machias Aquatic Research Center, the Wild Salmon Resource Center and the Downeast Rivers Land Trust.