If you stand long enough on the banks of the Kenai River this time of year, you’ll likely notice a ripple in the surface of the water. The curious may choose to stand in the water and feel the tickle of hundreds of tiny hooligan rushing by their legs. At times, they’re in so thick you snatch them out of the water with your bare hands.
They’re eulachon (yoo-luk-kon), or hooligan, and they’re the first major run of fish on the Kenai River each year.
Drive over to Bridge Access Road in Kenai, or Cunningham Park on Beaver Loop and fishers in waders can be seen out in the water — scooping the oily fish up and filling five-gallon buckets with their haul.
The small, white-fleshed fish has a unique taste and they’ve been nicknamed “candlefish” because they’re so oily that after they’ve been dried a wick can be stuck in them and they will burn.
Rick Gedney, said he likes to fry the fish in oil and then smoke it.
“I’m not a big oily fish fan, for instance, I don’t like king salmon that much because they’re an oily fish,” Gedney said. “But I like these. You fry them up and they come out crispy and delicious.”
No permit is required to fish for hooligan, just an Alaska resident sport fishing license.
In salt water, anglers can fish for hooligan from April 1-May 31 and in fresh water they can be taken through June 15.
There are no bag or possession limits for the fish.
Gedney said when they’re in thick, it’s hard to catch just a few in a hooligan-sized dipet.
“Usually it’s about three scoops to a buck, a five gallon pail,” he said.
Anglers can use a drift gillnet on the Kenai River through May 31 and only downstream of a fish and Game regulatory marker at Cunningham Park. The gillnet cannot be any longer than 20 feet and must be attended at all times according to Fish and Game regulations.
While the fish tend to be small, about 6-8 ounces each, in strong years the biomass of hooligan is far larger than other popular fisheries on the Kenai River as millions can swim up the river.
Gedney said he has yet to see any hooligan in the water, though there have been people fishing for them.
“It has been real quiet, he said. They should be here by now. I’ve been watching every day and I’ve not seen a single one.”
Area management biologist in the sportfish division of Fish and Game Robert Begich said hooligan have been seen swimming past the Kenai River king salmon sonar.
“Hooligan passage is heavy at times. They’re down there,” he said.