Someone once said, “Give a man a fish, and you will teach a man where to get free fish.” If you try to give a fish to a local – in places where salmon are plentiful – many will ask what kind, before accepting.
Apparently to some, sockeye is the only fish worth having.
Another fish, small in size, only eight to 10 inches long, but mighty in number, has made a name for itself in our corner of the known universe. Well, many names. This little fish, known locally as hooligan is not a salmon at all, but a smelt.
There are seven species of smelt which visit the rivers of Alaska. Hooligan are also known as oolichan, ooligan, eulachan and candlefish. In addition, there are many variations of the spellings of these names.
They are called candlefish, because they will burn like a candle when dried and inserted with a wick due to the high oil content. Hooligan, following their own timetable, and perhaps water temperature, are due to arrive in local rivers with ocean access in late April or early May. They have come from the ocean – where they have spent most of their adult lives – to spawn and after which, most will die.
Historically hooligan were caught by indigenous peoples using dip nets, baskets or traps.
A process to extract the oil from the fish was developed. This process involved allowing the fish to age for several days, then boiling the hooligan to capture the rich oil.
This oil is known as hooligan grease or oolichan grease. It is solid at room temperature and was a highly prized trade good item. The grease was traded for all manner of goods especially with those communities who had no access to this bounty from the ocean.
Trade routes that stretched from the coast into the Interior of British Columbia and the Yukon became known as “grease trails” because they were used to transport the grease for trade. These trails include the Dalton Trail, part of which has become the Haines Highway.
Today, hooligan are still caught and the oil is extracted and stored as the precious grease. Hooligan grease is used both as a medicine and as a condiment, much as one would use butter.
Richard Chapell, the Alaska Sport Fish biologist, says non-residents (for example Yukoners) can catch as many as you like as long as you have an Alaska fishing license.
There is no limit. However, you must catch them by the mouth, not by snagging them in the belly, the tail, or anywhere else.
The bad news is that you are not likely to catch any by angling with with a rod and reel, and you are prohibited from using a net of any kind. Subsistence fishing, which allows the use of nets, is only open to Alaska residents.
Whether you try to catch any hooligan or not, you will know when they are in the river by the excitement they create. Tight Lines.