“Tell ’em they’re smoked golden brown and incredibly delicious,” said Dodge. “Even if they’re not.”
Dodge, who first helped scoop alewives out of the Kennebec River tributary at age 11, said he prefers his cooked fresh, not smoked. But judging by the steady stream of people who made their way down to the little-known smoke shack near the Woolwich Town Office Sunday, there are plenty who enjoy the gray-and-silver fish, which are known to be bony and oily if not prepared correctly. On the spectrum between the lovers and haters, Brad and Donna Allen, who have a summer home in Phippsburg, are way on the “love” side.
“They’re absolutely delicious,” said Brad Allen, who says a minute in the microwave on a paper plate is all it takes to prepare one perfectly. “They’re ridiculously good. You’ve just got to go easy with the bones. Biting off a big hunk just isn’t going to cut it.”
For hundreds of years dating back before white settlers arrived, alewives have been harvested and smoked on the shores of Nequasset Creek, a tradition that runs so strong that the town seal shows an Abenaki Indian sitting above a primitive Native American-run smokehouse. In 1719, the state of Massachusetts — which in those days included what is now Maine — enacted a law that required a route of passage to be maintained between the ocean and Nequasset Lake, where alewives come every spring to spawn before most of them return to sea. At the first Woolwich town meeting in 1760, locals did the same.
Today there are about 20 municipalities in Maine where alewives are harvested, and the unassuming shack in Woolwich is rated in the top five, according to the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust. For more than 50 years, Herb Lilly Jr. has overseen the harvest, which he and Dodge, his stepbrother, took over from Lilly’s father in 1954.
“It’s fun,” said Lilly, 76. “I wait all winter for spring and the alewives to come. It’s a tradition.”
The key to capturing alewives is their natural instinct to swim upstream. In Woolwich, that journey takes them either through a fish ladder and over a dam to Nequasset Lake or into a small holding pool where a strong run fills the water with wiggling and sparkling silver and black. That’s where Lilly and his helpers use nets to hoist the fish out of the water by the hundreds. Most of the alewives become lobster bait, but the larger ones are salted and smoked on site for four to six days before being sold a few at a time.
“The difference between a big one and a small one is only an inch or so,” said Lilly. “There are a lot of people who come back every year.”
For reasons that aren’t fully understood, alewives are exceptional lobster bait. Mark Jones, a lobsterman who fishes out of Boothbay, said alewives attract more lobsters that are of higher quality, compared to herring or shipped-in frozen bait. He attributes that partially to the fact that the alewives are fresh, but beyond that it’s a mystery. He said some lobstermen are so sold on alewives that it’s not uncommon for them to sleep at Nequasset Creek in their trucks so they can be first in line in the morning.
“The lobsters just tend to go for that fresh bait better,” said Jones, who waited around for more than an hour Sunday until enough fish had collected in the pen for him to purchase. “You seem to catch bigger lobsters with them.”
Lilly, who these days keeps the books on his alewife sales but leaves most of the heavy lifting to others, said with an average of about 800 bushels a year, he catches about half the amount his father did. He doesn’t know the reasons for that decline but hopes for some answers from the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, which is involved in an alewife-counting study run mostly by volunteers. The land trust also plans to rebuild the fish ladder next year.
David King Sr., who chairs the Woolwich Board of Selectmen and as a hobbyist lobsterman purchased a few bushels on Sunday, said there always has been strong support in town for the alewife harvest. Last year, voters appropriated more than $10,000 to repair the roof and support structure of one of the two buildings.
“It’s a very important part of the culture of our town,” said King.
And at times, it’s been a lifeline. Gerry Edgerly, who bought a few smoked alewives Sunday for her dinner, said she has been buying the fish at this location for more than a half century. In the days after World War II, when times were tight, she canned them to keep her family fed for months.
“We only have them about once a year these days,” said Edgerly. “It’s sort of a tradition for us, but it’s not something you want to eat every year.”
Lilly said the yearly harvest and the people it brings to the water’s edge at times is more like a social reunion, and one that consistently revives memories of the past. One of those memories is from his father’s later years, when Lilly Jr. and Dodge had to carry the wheelchair-dependent man down a steep staircase, where they seated him in the fish shack’s doorway while they worked.
“He was giving us directions all the time, whether we really needed them or not,” said Lilly. “We had a big day, a couple thousand dollars. At the end of the day Steve and I looked at [each other] and said, ‘Did you get the money?’ I said no, but we knew where the money went. Dad never said a word about it.”