If their gills are stuck in the net, the silver fish go into the 5-gallon bucket a little bit lighter, and the black dog enjoys the heads that plop into the mud along the bank of the Kenai River.
Doreen Knodel bent over the long gillnet on a recent afternoon, plucking hooligan from the mesh.
“They’re very oily,” North Slope resident Knodel said.
“Very mild,” said her friend, Lorita Linder, of Ninilchik, clutching a handful of the fish.
“You think they’re mild?” Knodel said, throwing a fish into the bucket.
The women were fishing for hooligan, or eulachon, May 30 with four other friends upriver of Bridge Access in Kenai. As of noon, with only several hours on the river, the six-person team had caught about 200 of the little, silver fish.
Pat Shields, Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishery area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the hooligan run this time of year in massive numbers.
“You’ll see a surface disturbance. You’ll see a rippling of the water, and if you wade out in the water, you’ll feel them hitting your legs,” he said. “You can put you hands in the water and lift them out.”
Most fishing for hooligan use gillnets — which snag the fish at their gills — in the early season but, as of Friday, anglers must use dipnets, said Dawn Nushart, fishing counter supervisor for Trustworthy Hardware & Fishing. Nushart said small-mesh nets work best.
Non-residents who cannot dipnet but still want to fish hooligan should use small hooks, she said. And no bait is allowed on the Kenai River, she said.
While studies of these fish have been limited, and Fish and Game does not know the exact numbers of the fish flooding the Kenai Peninsula’s waters, Shields’ term for their seasonal run population estimate is “lots.”
The Cook Inlet fishery for hooligan sets its total catch limit at 100 tons, he said. And because the fish run in such abundance through the fishery, commercial fishermen reach the cap in just two to three days, he said.
Fishermen have even had to shrink their dipnets, he said. The larger size nets filled will so many hooligan, they could not lift them from the water.
The hooligan run is larger this year than the last few years also, said Robert Begich, Fish and Game research biologist for the Central and Northern Peninsula.
Some anglers say the fish have a distinctive sardine taste; others disagree. Sheri Zearing, who was picking the fish from the net with her friends last week, is one of them.
They do have a unique taste, the Nikiski resident said, but generally they are like any other white, soft-fleshed fish.
“The old timers like them because they’re the first fish of the season,” Zearing said.
The fish are also known as candlefish because they are so oily that when they are dried, a wick can be stuck in them and will burn when lit, she said.
“’Course now we don’t really do that anymore,” she said. “Oh, I’m getting slapped in the face.” She was standing on the other side of the net, pulling out fish.
Ninilchik resident Tiffany Stonecipher said she likes to flour, season and bake the fish whole. That’s the way she learned, she said.
But Knodel said hooligan are best served breaded and cooked in the oven at 400 degrees.
“They’re good fresh,” she said, otherwise they become mushy.
And of course, for some, they are better raw.
A fish head popped from the net, and the black dog trotted over.
“She likes her heads,” Stonecipher said.
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