Jun 4th 2020KENAI, ALASKAEACH SPRING Alaskans gather on riverbanks wearing chest waders and carrying long-handled nets in search of one of the earli
EACH SPRING Alaskans gather on riverbanks wearing chest waders and carrying long-handled nets in search of one of the earliest sources of wild foods in the year: silver, pencil-length smelts called hooligans that are the workhorse of marine food webs and an obsession of many state residents who, coming out of winter, are looking for fresh, local food.
Also called candlefish because they are so oily, you can dry them, insert a wick, and light them like a candle, hooligan school in coastal waters of the North Pacific as soon as the ice breaks up, before running up glacial rivers each spring to spawn. Alaska Natives have long depended on these high-fat fish for oil and food, and traded them with inland tribes across the “grease trails” of southeast Alaska and British Columbia.
Alaskans of all stripes enjoy them baked, pan-fried, smoked, dried, pickled, and canned. No need to remove the head or bones, or the teaspoon of innards they hold inside. Bill Hague has been catching them for more than 20 years. Along the muddy banks of the Kenai River, one of the state’s famous salmon streams, Mr Hague and a dozen others fish beneath a highway bridge hoping to fill their buckets weeks before the salmon arrive.
Extending his net perpendicular to the river’s current, Mr Hague wades waist-deep and slowly walks downstream. Lightweight gill netting hangs like a sheet…