Although frequently overlooked as a traditional Alaska food by the state’s wider population, hooligan mark the beginning of spring and renewed food supplies to those who rely on subsistence and harbor strong cultural ties to the land.
Emil Dolchok, for example, a Kenaitze man who died five years ago while fishing on the banks of the Kenai River, was an avid fisherman and relied on hooligan rather than dates to indicate when spring had begun.
“It was just as important to him as a calender is to white people,” said Larry Marsh, an area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Sport Fish Division.
The hooligan run is the first major fish run to migrate up the Kenai River each year and provides a valuable food source for subsistence gatherers after the long winter months have depleted food stores.
Hooligan usually begin migrating up the Kenai River to spawn at the end of April or beginning of May and continue until approximately mid-June.
And despite their small size, only 6-8 ounces each, hooligan tend to fill the Kenai River with a greater biomass of fish flesh than other more popular fisheries, such as the king salmon fishery, Marsh said.
“There’ll be millions upon millions of hooligan in the river compared to thousands of king,” he said.
In strong years hooligan can be easily found from the mouth of the Kenai all the way up to Skilak Lake.
No one tracks the number of hooligan that swim up the Kenai River each year, but the fish don’t go completely unnoticed at the Fish and Game chinook sonar station at Mile 8.5 of the river.
“They range from hooli-clouds to hooli-storms,” said Mark Jensen, chinook sonar crew leader for the Fish and Game station.
During the hooligan run, schools of hooligan limit the sonar station’s ability to count salmon, moving across the sonar screen like clouds and obscuring or even entirely obliterating its ability to detect anything else.
So far this year the station’s crew have observed hooli-clouds, but have not yet seen any hooli-storms, said Jim Miller, a Fish and Game biologist in charge of the chinook sonar project.
“There have been clouds, but they haven’t been really big or dense,” Jensen said.
However, Jensen said the hooligan runs will probably thicken within the next week when he expects the hooligan run to peak.
Other signs marking the hooligan’s arrival include frequent visits to the river by seals and gulls hungry for hooligan.
Although not a quantitative assessment of hooligan numbers, hooli-cloud and gull and seal observations so far appear to be consistent with normal hooligan densities for this time of year, Miller said.
Fishermen fishing for hooligan are allowed to use both dipnets and gillnets to capture hooligan. Fishermen using gillnets, however, are restricted to a section of river stretching from the rivers to Cunningham Park.
Marsh said he likes his hooligan canned, smoked or rolled in flour and fried with salt and pepper.
And he said they are particularly good for smoking since their oily flesh readily absorbs smoky flavors.
The hooligan is so oily it also has been called the candle fish, after its traditional use when dried and fitted with a wick.
For the three to four years that the fish lives in the ocean it sports blue-gray scales, but by the time it is ready to spawn turns gray-brown.
“They’re not a mainstream culinary food,” he said. “(But) the idea of participating in a traditional food source was interesting to me. .. So I’ve gone (hooligan fishing) to try them and experience traditional Alaska foods.”
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