Fish farm in the midst of Maine's woods is really smoking

THE long steaming trout pools, edged with snow, looked as inviting as a hot tub in southern California that bitter-cold afternoon I puttered up the long dirt drive toward Ducktrap River Fish Farm. Even more inviting was the heady apple and cherry-wood smoke that grabbed my nostrils and pulled me toward the low rustic smokehouse tucked under a giant white pine.

``What's a young Harvard grad from Washington, D.C., doing stuck up here in the Maine woods?'' I asked young Des FitzGerald, owner of the business.

``My family had a piece of land on Mount Desert Island when I was a kid,'' he explained. ``I fell in love with Maine and knew I'd end up here.''

He wasn't sure what he'd end up doing in Maine, however, until he went to Alaska.

``I was fishing with this buddy of mine in Alaska just when the salmon were running in July. We caught these three Alaskan king salmon that weighed over 100 pounds total. We found this old refrigerator, threw in some alder wood, and smoked one of them for a whole day to preserve it. It comes out real smoky and hard, but delicious. Sort of like beef jerky.''

One bite, and he was bitten.

That prompted a year of aquaculture study in Seattle, then back to Maine to find a piece of land on which to start a trout farm.

``Finding the right piece of land was the hardest part,'' says FitzGerald. ``It had to be the right size; have a water source above the land to gravity feed the trout ponds; have an underground water source to cool the ponds in summer and heat them in winter -- and, it had to be for sale.

``I found this land that had everything, except there was no well, so we weren't sure about the underground water supply. Several people from the United States Geological Survey came over. They were unanimous. No water here, they agreed.''

Then someone put FitzGerald on to a local old-timer, who came by the place and, with the use of a dowsing stick, told him where to dig for water.

``I hired a drilling company and when they got to 140 feet I got scared. It had already cost me $900 to drill that far. Edgar came back in his truck and said `Still have 10 more feet to go, don't you?' Well, another 10 feet and the drill plunged into the ground and water spurted up like an oil gusher in the movies.

``The rest was easy. I paid Edgar the $25 for his services, dug some trout ponds, got a bunch of fish, built a house, and took out a huge insurance policy.''

The first couple of years went all right. FitzGerald sold most of his trout to nearby restaurants.

``Then I started smoking trout, mainly to preserve them so I could ship them farther,'' he explained. That's when the smoking business really caught fire. So much so that he had to start ordering rainbow trout from Idaho to supplement the orders for the brook trout he was growing in his front yard.

From there, he started smoking salmon flown in from the West Coast and some from the North Atlantic, then Maine mussels, bluefish, native Maine shrimp, and scallops. He also began making various smoked p^at'es, which, he says, ``people love.''

With my mouth stuffed with bluefish p^at'e, I could only nod in agreement as FitzGerald kept feeding me more and more samples from his larder. The smoked flavor was definite, but much more subtle than fish I had sampled elsewhere.

``The secret is not to oversmoke,'' says FitzGerald. ``I'm constantly smoking and testing until I find just the right blend of fruit and hardwoods. The exact process and smoking times are somewhat of a trade secret,'' he whispered as he opened the door to his large, stainless-steel, British-made smoker. There, trout were spinning around on trays in Ferris-wheel fashion.

One thing he does admit openly.

``We don't use any chemicals for smoking, only natural native wild fruit and hardwoods. Mostly apple, cherry, and oak. Nothing from commercial orchards because of the insecticides.

``No hickory?'' I asked.

``None. It's too strong for the subtle flavor of fish, and it makes everything taste like a slab of bacon. You don't want to pay for salmon and end up with bacon,'' he said.

FitzGerald is satisfied with all his smoked fish except, perhaps, the Maine shrimp.

``I'm not quite there yet,'' he said as he opened two plastic containers filled with natural and shelled shrimp. ``The shelled shrimp don't look that appetizing, and the ones with shells are kind of a nuisance to peel.''

His personal favorite is Eastern smoked salmon ``Scotch Style.''

``Come in here and see this,'' he said excitedly as we headed into an adjacent room. There, trays of orange Eastern salmon, marinated in salt, brown sugar, garlic, and herbs, were being washed and prepared for the long cold smoking process. Western salmon, he explained, are soaked in a wet brine of basically the same ingredients, and smoked slightly longer.

Even more than smoked Eastern salmon, FitzGerald loves this spot in the woods.

``This place is so quiet you can hear a pine needle drop,'' he said as we walked out on the bright squeaky snow. ``There's so much wildlife around here.''

He cast a handful of food pellets on top of a trout pond, bringing the smooth dark surface of the water to life.

``Look over there, that's where the otters slide into the pond.'' A serious nuisance, he was quick to add.

``And look at this,'' he said, fingering some marks in the snow. ``A great horned owl comes every evening at dusk to steal a fish or two. There are so many birds after these trout in summer the place looks almost like O'Hare Airport.''

Heavy bird traffic and fish thievery may sometimes present problems, but for FitzGerald, they're a small price to pay for his Thoreau-like haven in the woods.

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