By Matt Tunseth
For the Redoubt Reporter
It’s official: The fish are finally in.
Andy Lombard caught 30 on Sunday evening near the mouth of the Kenai River, and would have done even better if it weren’t for temperatures in the low 40s and a stiff breeze off Cook Inlet.
“I would fill my bucket, but the wind’s too cold,” Lombard said, showing off his modest haul of hooligan near the Warren Ames Bridge in Kenai.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s wildlife notebook series, hooligan (properly known as eulachon, a type of smelt) are small, silvery blue fish that typically begin entering Southcentral streams in May when the water begins to warm. Lombard said Sunday’s short-lived fishing trip was his first of the season.
“When all the ice is gone, then they come,” Lombard said.
Lombard’s no fool when it comes to hauling in hooligan. He’s gone after the anadromous fish in each of the 27 years he’s lived in Alaska, once even winning a local hooligan derby with a 0.3-pound whopper.
The fish can be legally harvested by Alaska residents in either dip nets or drift nets as part of the state’s personal-use fishery. A permit is not required, and fishermen are allowed to harvest as many of the thin, oily fish as they plan to use.
For Lombard, that usually means about five trips to the mouth of the river each summer.
“I’ll fill my bucket,” he said.
Lombard said he uses a fine-mesh commercial net (1.5-inch diameter holes) attached to a 15-foot cane pole, making short passes along the shore. He said fishing is typically better when the weather is calm.
The fish are entering the Kenai this time of year to spawn. After spawning, most will die. According to Fish and Game, the eggs hatch when they’ve spent between 21 and 40 days in the river, after which the young are swept out to sea. There, they live for six years before returning to fresh water to continue the cycle.
On the Kenai, the fish can be harvested in dip nets through June 15 and in drift gillnets through the end of May. In salt water, both methods of fishing close June 1.
The fish are also considered a harbinger of spring, and hooligan fishing can be a good indication of when the more popular salmon are on their way. When reds and kings start ripping through his net, Lombard said he knows it’s time to find a different way to go fishing.
“That’s my clue to put the net up,” he said.
There are a number of ways to prepare the fish, but Lombard said he prefers a simple pan fry.
“I knock their heads off, take their guts out and fry ’em,” he said.
He said the obvious benefit of catching the fish this time of year is they represent the first fresh meat of what is typically a bountiful and tasty summer.
“I get a big old plate of ’em. I love it, all this wild Alaska stuff, I just eat ’til I puke and then I eat some more,” he said.