My wife was born and raised in the Seldovia/Tutka Bay area of Kachemak Bay. Her parents commercially set-netted on the west side of Cook Inlet near Harriet Creek. She grew up with access to fresh salmon and other species as opportunity occurred (salmon, trout, and sole). She and her dad rod-and-reel fished for greenling (aka sea perch) and silver salmon.
She never had the opportunity to dipnet for hooligan in Harriet Creek, but she remembers her parents talking about catching the fish before she was born. Her parents talked about how good the hooligan tasted after being floured up and fried in a cast iron skillet.
I didn’t know anything about hooligan when I began working for ADF&G. In the early 1990’s, I happened to be at Susitna Landing working with Marilyn, the concession operator. I was the access site manager for Fish and Game. As we were wrapping up the day’s work, Marilyn mentioned that she was seeing hooligan swimming upriver, right in front of the boat launch.
She grabbed a small trout landing net and a couple of buckets. We went down to the boat launch and she started dipping hooligan. The mesh of the net was large enough that she lost about half of each scoop falling through the mesh before she could empty the net into her bucket. After filling her bucket about a third full, she asked if I wanted to try. Of course, I had to give it a shot!
I spent about five minutes dipping and losing fish before my bucket was about a quarter full. I brought the hooligan home and asked my wife if she knew anything about how to cook them. She lit up and started telling me stories she had heard from her parents about how “tasty” the fish were.
I got the kitchen scissors and started cleaning fish. I snipped off the head and ran the scissors from the anus to the end of the body cavity. My next step was to run my thumb down the backbone to “scoop” the guts out. A quick rinse and on to the next fish. Once I got into a routine, I could clean a fish every 15 to 20 seconds. I had that quarter-bucket of hooligan cleaned and ready to cook in about 10 to 15 minutes.
My wife took a dozen or so cleaned fish, shook them in a small plastic bag with flour and a little salt, and fried them to a crispy finish in a quarter inch of cooking oil. Dinner was served!
We ate the fish; fins, tail, bones, and all. The flesh had a very mild and delicate white fish flavor with a rich texture because of the high oil content of the hooligan. My wife proclaimed that her parents hadn’t exaggerated the taste in their stories at all. She loved them! I liked the hooligan too, but a little went a long way for me at first. I’d still rather eat halibut, but the hooligan, once a week or so, made a good dinner as well.
I made a point of buying a fine mesh, long-handled dip net for the next season’s hooligan run. We started paying attention to Fish and Game advisories on where the hooligan were running and when. We even tried dipping in saltwater at the mouth of Twentymile River a couple of years, but that’s a long way to drive from Big Lake. The first year I went, I caught a total of 11 fish. The next and last time we visited Twentymile, my wife dipped for a couple of hours and caught a couple-hundred hooligan.
We have concentrated our hooligan dipping efforts over the years mostly around the Willow and Kashwitna/Susitna Rivers. Some years, we have dipped all the fish we could use, numbering in the hundreds. Other years, we couldn’t dip a hooligan if our lives depended on it. Our usual dipping efforts were concentrated around the Memorial Day weekend.
My wife eventually bought her own hooligan dip net and I bought us each a good pair of chest waders. Our efforts the past few years have been non-existent because of health issues for both of us. This year, we both were doing well, health-wise, and decided to give the personal use fishery another try.
Since the Memorial Day weekend has been our traditional dipping time, we were out this past Saturday looking for fish. There were no reports of hooligan at either Willow or the Kashwitna. We went home empty-handed.