Hooligan Run Lowest in Years on the Chilkoot

Hooligan fishing is a tradition for many people in the Upper Lynn Canal. But this spring, those who fish in the Chilkoot had disappointing results. Researchers say the mysterious fish seem to have turned right instead of left into the Taiya, near Skagway, instead of the Chilkoot. And there’s no way to know exactly why.

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Dead hooligan on the shores of the Taiya. (Emily Files)
Dead hooligan on the shores of the Taiya. (Emily Files)

“I didn’t catch any on the Chilkoot side, but I caught some at Jones Point,” said lifelong Haines resident Sonny Williams. “I caught ten gallons and that was it.”

Williams says he usually catches 20 to 30 gallons of hooligan each spring. The small herring-like fish is traditionally used for oil and smoking. He says the only other times he’s seen the run this low in the Chilkoot is when the lake has been frozen.

“It was a lot lower than the previous four years that we have data on,” said Meredith Pochardt, executive director of Takshanuk Watershed Council.

Takshanuk is the only group that monitors hooligan in the Upper Lynn Canal. They’ve monitored the runs in the Chilkoot from 2010-2012 and in 2014. This year, they estimate the run was about 300,000. Last year, it was between three and four million. In 2011, it was about 12 million.

“There was a lot of excitement in Lutak Inlet, predators, whales, eagles, the like. But they never really materialized up in the [Chilkoot] River, the predators didn’t even,” said Brad Ryan, director for Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition. He and Pochardt say it seems like the Chilkat ran hard, but Chilkoot was quiet.

Despite the low run, they aren’t worried hooligan are declining.

“The hypothesis of hooligan in Northern Lynn Canal is they’re one population, and they just pick a river to run to based on some environmental cue that we don’t understand at this point,” Ryan said. “So they may run to Berner’s Bay, they may run to the Chilkat, they may run to the Chilkoot. Or on occasion, they run to the Taiya.”

That’s what Ryan and Pochardt think happened this year.

Rachel Ford is program manager of the Taiya Watershed Council in Skagway. On May 5th, she drives out to Dyea to check on the hooligan run.

“We’re just looking out at the flats for the Taiya River here,” she says. “The tide’s pretty low. And we can see a ton of seagulls out on the flats. Last week they were all over the place, just because the hooligan run was so big.”

Now it looks like it’s mostly dead ones washed up on the shore. But then, as we head back to the car, the gulls that were sitting on the shore dive into the water in a great big flock, snapping up hooligan.

Skagway residents say this is the biggest run they’ve seen in the Taiya in at least ten years. Some say it’s the largest run in 40 years.

So why did the hooligan cross to the other side? Why a big run in the Taiya, and not the Chilkoot? Williams, the hooligan fisherman, thinks he knows. He says he was watching the hooligan as they swam north.

“I watched them come around Battery Point and get right in the river there. And we’re like ok, they’re gonna show up,” Williams said. “They started trickling off and all of a sudden, the pounding at the ferry terminal had a definite effect on them moving out of here.”

Williams says he watched the hooligan turn around near the ferry terminal. A new ferry dock has been under construction since April. The State Department of Transportation says they have not heard any complaints.

Gulls feeding on hooligan in the Taiya River. (Emily Files)
Gulls feeding on hooligan in the Taiya River. (Emily Files)

Ryan, one of the watershed hooligan monitors, isn’t sure about that theory.

“I understand that there was some talk about the ferry dock, I kind of doubt that,” Ryan said. “I mean they came into Lutak, they came into the Ferebee, the Taiyasanka pretty heavy as well this year.”

But nobody knows for sure. Hooligan are not well-researched like salmon and halibut. Ryan says Alaska Fish and Game doesn’t monitor hooligan because they’re not as economically important as other fish. But they are traditionally important to subsistence fishermen in the Upper Lynn Canal.

Since there’s so little research on hooligan, it’s hard to predict what the little fish will do next spring. Haines locals hope the Chilkoot will see a stronger run. And Skagway locals hope their hooligan luck continues.