It's that time of year again, spring is here and fish are already beginning to enter the rivers, and among them, the tricky little eulachon are starting to arrive.
"There's fish in the river now," said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Mark Gamblin.
Singly at first, they're slowly trickling in, but it won't be long until the schools of eulachon really start to fill the rivers.
"No one knows for sure when the schooling of fish will be," said Gamblin. "But you can usually expect a big return around mid-May."
If this year is anything like years past, the sudden spike in activity from shrieking and diving gulls will surely announce their presence.
For anyone not familiar with the term eulachon, it's not surprising. This fish goes by many aliases.
Photo by Joseph robertia
Taro Sasakura can't complain about his catch of eulachon that were netted on Sunday ner the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge
Photo by Joseph Robertia
One of five species of smelt found in Alaska, it is taxonomically referred to as Thaleichtys pacificus. The official common name of the small silvery fish is eulachon.
Eulachon is believed to have been derived from the Chinook language of the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest.
Closer to home, the traditional Dena'ina of the Kenai Peninsula referred to the fish as dilihi.
The fish are also generically called "oil fish" or "candle fish". This is believed to have stemmed from earlier times. The fish are said to be so naturally oily, that when dried they could be fitted with a wick and used as a candle.
However, since it is pronounced "oo-li-kan," many refer to the fish simply as hooligan.
By whatever name, eulachon are prized for their tasty cooking right out of the water, though according to Gamblin, it's only a limited number of people that really appreciate them.
Sometimes catching the fish is the easy part compared to getting them out of the net.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
"It's kind of an acquired taste," said Gamblin. "They're unusual table fare in that they're very rich and oily. So it's not a large part of the angling community that go for these fish."
Assistant area biologist Larry Marsh is a coworker of Gamblin's who said although he doesn't go for eulachon every year, when he does go, he really enjoys it.
"It's almost like a rite of spring," said Marsh. "I look at it as a great way to embrace the upcoming fish season."
Marsh said last year's eulachon run was exceptionally large, with fish making it up the Kenai River as far Bing's Landing in Sterling -- almost 50 river miles.
It is unusual for the fish to move so far up river, since they typically prefer to spawn in the lower reaches, where eggs can be broadcast over sandy gravel bottoms.
"It was an impressive sight," said Marsh. "You could see seal, sea lion even beluga, moving up the river after them. Eulachon are an important forage fish to these and many other species."
Eulachon has long been an important food staple for Alaskan Native peoples. The fish also played into their economy and was used as a barter item with inland tribes.
Although much has changed over the years, the eulachon is still an important fish to many members of the Native community.
Jim Segura, is not only the President of the Salamatof Native Association, but is also an avid eulachon enthusiast. He said all the Natives he knows fish for eulachon and always have.
"I go every year," said Segura. "I've been going since I was a kid and I'm 63 now."
Although Segura said eulachon are, "really, really rich," he thought they were a good source of food. He said he typically harvests 100-150 a year.
Rose Tepp is a Tribal Chair for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe IRA and also enjoys eulachon. She's already been going out with cousins and friends attempting to harvest fish.
"I love eulachon," said Tepp. But she discussed how fishing for eulachon is about much more than just a delicious meal to the Kenaitze.
"They're part of the Kenaitze traditions of celebrating spring," she said "They represent a time of sharing, family and community."
Traditionally, eulachon are the first fresh fish of the season. The fish begin running at a time when food supplies would have been depleted after a long winter. As such, the whole community would gather together to harvest and share the fish.
"We still reminisce on our forefather and grandfather," said Tepp. "We also share and deliver the fish to the elders who want them but can no longer fish for them themselves."
Once caught, eulachon can be prepared in a myriad of ways. Most people agreed they prefer to eat them fresh, the same day they catch them.
Some just roll them in egg and corn meal and fry them whole. Others said they like to smoke their catch. A few said they kipper and can them. The fish can also be vacu-sealed and frozen for later use.
As to where and how to fish for eulachon, Gamblin had some advice.
"We allow small mesh dipnets, and a restricted panel gillnet suspended from pvc pipe or wood," he said.
The gillnets are put in close to shore and allowed to drift with the current.
"Cunningham Park near Beaver Creek down to Warren Ames Bridge is where most of the eulachon fishery occurs," said Gamblin.
"Drifting gillnets can be used in this area, but not elsewhere. Dipnets can be used on the whole river."
Gamblin also advised that, "On the Kenai, no net may exceed 20-feet in length, 4-feet in depth or have a mesh greater than an inch-and-a-half."
For more information about the rules and regulation for fishing eulachon, consult the 2003 Fishing Regulations Summary.
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