In the spring of ’58, on Twenty-Mile Creek along Turnagain Arm, our family first found hooligan. Hooligan fishing was also my first Alaska outing with a resident fishing license in my pocket. I wish I’d kept it. It was the only one I received from the Territory of Alaska since the following year, Alaska was admitted as a state in the United States.
Hooligan, called candlefish by some, are smelt which run with regularity up Turnagain Arm in the spring. Catching hooligan is accomplished by wading into the stream until your hip boots or waders are one-quarter of an inch taller than the water depth. Using a long-handled dip net, hooligan anglers scoop up the little fish as they school up the river. Bag limits for hooligan are generous, and catching them on the incoming tide quickly fills the angler’s bucket, cooler, or other container.
Our first hooligan trip proved to be more than an angling outing; it became a picnic and social gathering where we met new friends doing the same thing we were—using these little fish as an excuse to break our cabin fever and head to the wilderness—even if the wilderness was along the highway and almost in the town of Portage.
We dipped until four things happened all at once: we filled our tag, went semi-hypothermic when we got careless and waded too deep for our boots, we ran out of sandwiches and hot chocolate, and the tide turned.
We took our catch home and tried every recipe given us by hooligan lovers. We tried them all with the same results—tasteless dinners.
The last time I was on Turnagain Arm in the spring, I witnessed hoards of Alaska newcomers standing in ice-cold incoming tide water catching a hooligan or two and filling their waders as the tide came up and the angler dipped low. Kids ran around on the mud flats and consumed sandwiches and hot chocolate, and cried because they got cold and wet. Soon the tide changed, and most people left to clean their catch and try newly discovered recipes. Yep, some things never change.
Another thing that never changes about hooligan fishing—I’ll wager a box of light bulbs against a bucket of candlefish that the new-to-Alaska anglers I saw along Turnagain did the same thing I did six decades ago—tried all the recipes, didn’t like any of them, and after weighing the cost to benefits came up with the same conclusion I did on my first hooligan outing—I’d enjoy hooligan fishing henceforth as a watcher, and that first hooligan fishing trips are also last hooligan fishing trips.