The sun isn’t up as Billy Allen and Jesse Stevens stack fish crates packed with nets onto a makeshift sled. They back the ATV into place, tuck a chainsaw into the front guard, hook up the sled and move onto the frozen Wallace Bay. It’s low tide and the depth underfoot will range from six foot to 12 foot as they make their way a mile out from the Aboiteau Road.
A brief thaw the day before followed by freezing temperatures has made the ice underfoot slick in places, and cracks underfoot at others.
“I’ve broke through before,” Billy says as he gets closer to his goal. “You got to roll away from it when you do, but you want to roll in the right direction.”
Jesse has only been at this for a month so the cryptic wisdom is a lesson still to be learned, but Billy has been at it all his life. At 45, he started making this winter trek with his father, who made the same trek with his father before him. At 19 Billy turned smelt fishing into a career and has been his own boss ever since.
“It’s in my blood,” Billy says as he gets to what looks like a makeshift grave frozen in the ice. Beside it is a tree branch Billy uses to find this spot and about 20 more on the bay when snow covers the two wooden poles shaped into a cross.
Taking an axe from one of the fish crates, he chops into to the ice underfoot until he has carved out a hole the size of a loaf of bread. Taking the cross in hand he draws it up to reveal a rope. At the end of that is a net heavy with smelts.
Smelts are just part of Billy’s living. He fishes lobster and scallops, too. It makes for tough times when hurricane season kicks in, but it’s the only life he’s known and earns a living he uses to provide for his wife and three daughters.
“There used to be a lot more out here. Some even had smelt shacks lined up along the shore Now there’s only one other person besides myself.”
This early in the morning it’s just Billy and his new helper Jesse, who has gone ahead to the end of Billy’s line and working his way back. Once they have the day’s catch they will take it to Billy’s place and hand-pick the smelts from the net. Any unwanted catch goes to a wildlife rehabilitation centre.
Wildlife are big fans of Billy’s work. Two bald eagles nest along the bay here and take flight as he moves to his next net. Cats and foxes have left tracks in the snow and ice from the night before.
It’s cold but there’s no wind and frozen condensation in the air creates a halo around the sun.
It certainly is a beautiful day.