Attention, Southcentral Alaska: Hooligan are slowly trickling into local rivers.
Don't worry: The Last Frontier is not being overrun by crazed soccer fans from England. In Alaska, hooligan -- also called cigar fish, candlefish and eulachon -- are small smelt that cause a big ruckus. They rarely grow to a foot in length and are usually about the size of a small herring. But the fish come in big numbers, and they show up early in the summer.
Hooligan are among the first fish to make their way back to Alaska's streams and rivers to spawn. And they provide a bounty for both the marine animals and people who catch them.
So far, the fish haven't flooded the Twentymile River, which dumps into Turnagain Arm 40 miles southeast of Anchorage beside the Seward Highway. The Twentymile is perhaps Alaska's most popular fishery for hooligan, but it isn't the only stream that can see its waters clogged with the fish. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the Susitna River, Kenai River and Resurrection Bay also see huge annual returns.
Hooligan usually begin showing up in late May -- and their numbers can be staggering.
"On the Kenai River, when the tide turns come June, in one tide, the water could be black with hooligan," said Dan Bosch, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game area manager for sport fish. "They are just filling the river, bank to bank, coming in on the tide."
So far this year, fishing has been slow, to say the least, almost everywhere for the fish that range from Northern California to Alaska. Fish and Game said it expects the hooligan run to peak during the next few weeks.
Along the Twentymile River, the hooligan fishery is among the most diverse of any in the state. On any given spring day, you may encounter Alaskans who moved from the Pacific Islands, Asia or northern Europe crowding the banks of the river to fill 5-gallon buckets with the wriggly little fish. They are joined by others from Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and across rural Alaska. But the diverse ethnic makeup of the people who fish for hooligan in Southcentral Alaska isn't just due to the popularity of small oily fish in Europe and across the Pacific.
"It's because -- look at Anchorage," said Bosch. "Look how diverse the culture is in Anchorage."
Hooligan are prized for their oily content and delicate flavor. Their name is derived from a Chinook word for the fish -- "oolichan." Native Americans used them as candles -- hence the nickname "candlefish" -- because the fish are so full of fat during spawning that, when dried, a fish with a wick run through its length can be burned for light. Among the first fish to arrive in Pacific coastal waters in the spring, hooligan were also known as "savior fish" because they were among the first fresh-food-hungry Native residents could find after a long winter. Today, most people use the fish for a quick snack or as bait. Many are smoked, canned or fried.
Using small, round dipnets attached to the end of a pole up to 12 feet long, anglers at the mouth of the Twentymile River tried to fill their buckets with hooligan last week. But they weren't having much luck.
"It's been slow. It was better this morning, and we have been at it since 6 a.m., and we only got about 17," said Robert Bacod, who moved to Alaska from San Diego in 1994.
Bacod rolls his hooligan in corn meal and fries them, but there are many ways to prepare the fish. Most people smoke them. Others fry them whole without any coating. Others can or pickle the fish.
The Twentymile fishery sometimes results in more than 100 cars and trucks parked alongside the busy Seward Highway. A new temporary traffic safety corridor, with signs warning motorists of pedestrians, has been put in place by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. The speed limit in the area was reduced to 45 mph in an effort to give motorists a chance to stop when a fisherman darts across the highway.
Even as people eagerly awaited the hooligan's return, they didn't expect much action last week. Most anglers had children with them. The kids played in the mud or helped sweep the dipnet through the water, enjoying the sunshine and the chance to get dirty.
"Today is just good weather, and I am here to just play with the kids," said Aaron Yoon as he helped one of his two sons with a net.
And while the fish haven't shown up in huge numbers yet, that could change with any tide.
"Usually when we get the hooligan it takes a couple of trips because the first time you are just scoping everything out and you get one or two," said Ron Wilson, who drove down from Anchorage. "Then you get a call a few days later from a friend who said they got 18 buckets of hooligan. ... You just leave right then and there and you get your buckets full."
Alexander Hohlov moved to Alaska a few years ago from Russia. He watched as his six kids splashed in the mud and water. The Hohlov family had little success filling their buckets with hooligan, but they didn't leave empty-handed.
"We are just enjoying the day," Hohlov said. "We got one, so the cat will be happy."
Reach Sean Doogan at email@example.com.
By SEAN DOOGAN