My dad and I work beside the smokehouse, our breath pluming in the morning air. The sun isn’t quite up over the mountains and light spring frost coats the prep table. My dad chops alder rounds into smaller pieces and sets a stack of wood aside. Then he kneels down in front of the smokehouse and tosses a few handfuls of alder shavings into the bottom. I consider that when humans first decided to make a fire it wasn’t to keep warm but to smoke fish.
As he makes a smoky fire in the base, he says, “Sleeping spiders must go.”
I don’t want to watch spiders drop from the smokehouse so I busy myself cleaning off the table, setting up our chairs and spraying the fish racks with oil so the fish won’t stick. This morning we’re smoking hooligan and I can hardly wait to taste one.
Hooligan spawn either in the lower elevations of a river or stream, or miles upstream in rivers with long flat deltas.
We’ve been gifted a five-gallon bucket of Stikine River hooligan. This hooligan gift economy thrives in Wrangell — boats go up river, river rats set nets and bring home buckets of hooligan. The call goes out on phones and Facebook, at the grocery store checkout stand, down at the harbors, over coffee and cream-shrimp on toast: Do you want some hooligan?
With a hose my dad fills the tote half full of water. He opens a box of canning salt and pours it into the tote and stirs it around, explaining to me how we don’t need as much salt as we do for salmon. He stirs the brine until the salt dissolves, then pours the bucket of hooligan into the brine and stirs the fish.
Hooligan eggs are “broadcast” (spread) over sandy river bottoms, then fertilized.
If someone called a Wrangellite a “hooligan” we wouldn’t see it as a bad thing at all. Wyatt Erp, during his short stint as Wrangell’s sheriff, is alleged to have said Wrangell was wilder than Tombstone. Maybe we are a bit wilder since we live and thrive in the Stikine wilderness area. Actually, hooligan are what we call eulachon — Thaleichthys pacificus — candlefish, saak (Lingít), ooligan or oolichan. Hooligan are a smelt about 10 inches or less in length. They’re silver-blue in color while in the ocean and turn grayish, brownish green in the fresh water.
Hooligan eggs are coated with a sticky substance in order to attach to sand particles or pebbles.
Wrangell’s hooligan run occurs about mid-April. When the migratory birds return and the sea lions gather, the hooligan arrive. Hooligan are different from salmon in that they don’t always return to their home stream but to streams in the area with the most favorable conditions. Sea lions, humans, whales, salmon, ravens, crows and bears get excited and fishermen in their scows head up the river with their nets.
Now, with my help, we pour the tote onto a filter system my dad invented for this process and the fish quickly drain. I stand next to the table as he scoops hooligan onto each rack. I arrange them, close but not touching. Next, my dad builds a small tented fire. He knows how hot to make it and how much smoke is needed to smoke hooligan.
Female hooligan can lay up to 30,000 eggs. Depending on the water temperature in the rivers and streams, hooligan eggs hatch in 21 to 40 days.
Smoke curls from the vents in the top front of the smokehouse and drifts across the small road behind the trees. Crows alight in the nearby trees above us and squawk, reminding us they’re ready for a morsel to drop on the ground, trying to convince us they’re a part of the gifting culture, which they are.
Hooligan connects us to place, fills us with river silt and brushes us with cottonwood scent. Wrangell hooligan are an essential part of our island’s gift economy. We are part smoked fish, part grease, part milt, eggs and river sand. Smoked hooligan is part of me, our town and our community; there’s a Hooligan Reading Fair at Evergreen Elementary School. If you check a Wrangellite’s DNA you’d probably find we are a percentage of hooligan.
The Stikine River current carries newly hatched hooligan from freshwater to the ocean where they feed on copepod larvae and plankton and krill. After three to six years at sea, hooligan return to spawn and then die.
When the fish are finished smoking, we remove the racks from the smokehouse and carefully take the hooligan off the racks. We take the smoked fish into the house and the house fills with a wonderful scent.
Grandson Jonah has come to the fishcamp to visit. We try to get him to eat a fish, but he doesn’t want to.
“You can light them like a candle,” my dad says. “Really. It’s pretty neat. I did this for you when you were a kid,” he says to me.
My dad takes the small fish and skewers it with a wood shish-kabob stick and balances the fish across a glass jar. He lights it and the hooligan catches fire burning like a candle. Grandson Jonah leans down to examine it.
I say, “Pretty cool, huh?”
Jonah smiles. It is cool.
As the flame rises, I say to Grandson Jonah, “See, it’s a candle fish. Saak, in Lingit, like a sock you put on your foot.”
“Saak. Saak,” Jonah repeats.
Grandson Jonah doesn’t want to try to bite the head off the fish. I don’t pressure him. Someday he might try it.
River and stream temperatures affect the timing of spawning migration and the water conditions and ocean survival contribute to the varied hooligan returns.
I bite into a piece and I am 5 years old and eating smoked hooligan for the first time.
I watch my older sister put the fish’s head in her mouth. She isn’t making a face or spitting it out. She says, “Mmmm. Good.” With encouragement from my Grandpa Al, she eats the whole thing. My grandfather hands me a smoked hooligan. I take the fish in my small hands. I put the fish head end in my mouth and bite. It’s crunchy and salty like a potato chip. It’s good. I eat the whole crispy fish, savoring the dry crunchy tail.
Fast forward and it’s been 20 years since I’ve eaten a hooligan. I pick up a smoked hooligan and bite the off the salty head and eat it, bones and guts and all, even the tail.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.