Taku 2015 - 1: Saak (Hooligan)
l 17-19

Gulls circle for hooligan on the river

Saak. Hooligan. They've tantalized me for years, returning up the river to welcome in the spring when boating is unreliable, the weather cold, the ice impassible. All those fish, and so hard to reach! I finally made it onto the river during the run last spring, only to turn around and return home unable to reach the cabin for the ice. I'd made the effort, I thought, best put this crazy idea of harvesting hooligan to bed.

Then this 'winter' happened, with hardly any snow and lots of thawing temperatures. I heard in March that the ice in the river had already gone out and there was bare ground at the lodge. By the time mid-April came around I thought I may as well put the call out for hooligan....a month after breakup, maybe I could reach the cabin this time and give it a real try. The next day, Mike Ward at the lodge told me that the run was on, and was probably mid-way through. It was that weekend or bust, and it was already Thursday. The weather looked reasonable for a Friday boat ride, but not so good for the rest of the weekend, and April is not a month when it's likely to better than the forecast. I agonized about it until I remembered that my dad had mentioned wanting to fly up there to look around. What if I was dropped off'.?

Long story short, 24 hours later Chris and I were on a Ward Air 206 bound for the river. The pilot was new to the spot, so I showed him where to land along the shore in deep water. From the air it looked like at least as much, if not more, water was running on our side of the river as was running through the other main channel in the middle. There were patches of snow in the meadows and the woods, but it was essentially a brown landscape. Several years ago we were there in mid-May with three feet of snow everywhere!

The tide wasn't yet high, so there was a nice shelf of sand and silt in front of the landing stairs to bring the plane to and unload. We hauled our gear up to the cabin in one load and opened up. I was grateful that my mother had left a note on the stove indicating the propane was out, and was happy to find a full tank on the porch. By the time I'd changed that out, lit the pilots, and unpacked a bit, it was already high tide, so we returned to the river to try our hand at fishing. I had the idea that the saak would use the flood tide to come up the river, but that was mostly a guess. Still, it seemed a good idea to start with. Thousands of gulls occupied the valley, circling in large groups here or there, presumably where the fish were. When Chris and I arrived at the landing, the channel there was alive with seals and gulls, which seemed a good sign. We carried and drug the canoe down the stairs to the water and hopped on with the dog and a backpack, leaving behind my mother's little canoe engine which she'd graciously dropped off at Ward Air that morning. I'd brought along a gallon of gas for it in my little jerry jug, but the pilot had put it in the float compartment and we'd both forgotten about it in our hasty offloading on the river. We'd just have to make due with our arms. It would be limiting, I thought, as I'd pictured us fishing down along the bank below the slough or even in the channel in the middle of the river, which would involve a lot of manpower.

But we'd just have to play it by ear! Neither of us had high expectations for fish, and as we drifted along, that caution seemed well founded. The tide had entered the river by that time with such strength that a strong current carried us upriver. By the time we got aboard, the circling and diving gulls had dispersed. We dipped and dipped as we floated along, encountering absolutely nothing. We drifted past the cabin and by the increasingly permanent sandbars below the mouth of the slough that runs through the grassy marsh (pushing off a few times with the paddles), then drifted up alongside the outer bank of the marsh. Half a dozen Canada geese were scattered around the grass, mostly in pairs, and we got out for a few minutes to look at them and retrieve a large block of Styrofoam that had floated up. Behind us the gulls were circling again right at the cabin. I was interested to see that that was clearly a hot spot (we'd seen quite a few seals there as well) and we decided we should head back in that direction and try dipping at the same time the gulls were active.

On the way back we saw merganser ducks at the edge of the sandbars (I later saw that there were both common and red-breasted males among them) and watched gull successfully catch hooligan a time or two. We tried dipping a few times on the way back but decided it was too awkward and unlikely to be successful while we had to paddle, fighting the flood tide downriver. By the time we got back to the cabin the gulls had dispersed again. Dipping from the edge of the river was impractical due to the steep drop off into deep water, so we decided to try the dinky little herring gillnet that I'd bought off Amazon last year. The floats are tiny plastic beads and the weights almost nonexistent, but it was worth a try! With the current in the river (going either direction) there was no chance that the light net would stay upright, so we fastened on three lead weights that I'd used for halibut fishing at intervals along the bottom. We tied one end to a log and attached an anchor and float to the other end.

By the time we'd set up the net, found the anchor and float (in the shed), and put everything together, the tide had turned. We hadn't seen any circling gulls for a while, but tried it anyway, not very hopeful, and probably after we drank the PBR I'd brought down with some of the gear. With the net and anchor in the canoe and the other end tied to shore, we pulled away, surprised by the swiftness of the current now heading downriver again. Chris paddled while I paid out the net and gave him incoherent directions; the results were not good. The net tangled and snagged, the current was hard to fight, and the anchor, once dropped, slid downstream in the deep channel. We paddled away and saw that the net was only, at its most distant, 15-20 feet from shore and well downstream of where it was tied off. We pondered for a moment and then decided to pull it and reset. Chris paddled us over there and I hauled in the anchor. As soon as the net broke the surface, hooligan appeared. Shiny silver bright fish, one after another, populated our appallingly poor set! It was the moment I'd been dreaming about for years, pulling this iconic fish from the river, a river so dark and muddy you couldn't imagine anything living down there at all. The contrast between the brown world around us (brown river, brown sandbars, brown beach, brown grass) and these shiny purple-silver fish was profound. We were catching hooligan!

Chris fetched snow from a nearby patch and we sat in the canoe pulling our first 18 hooligan from the net and dropping then into a bucket of slushy water. We secured it from Cailey by covering it with a tub with rocks in it, and then set about making another set. This time we decided to lay the net out along the riverbank first rather than trying to pay it out from the canoe where it was so prone to tangling and snagging. I also removed the line that attached the float to the anchor (which was itself causing a lot of snags with the net) and used a single line to attach both the anchor and the float. Since the current was going downriver and was difficult to fight, we laid out the net going upriver, which turned out to be awkward trying not to slip off the silty banks as we avoided the alder branches leaning out toward the river. They were also a tangle hazard for the net.

This time we made a more successful set, a lot more graceful and a lot more parallel to the bank. While it soaked, we cleaned the hooligan on shore, moving the cleaned ones to the cooler with more slush ice. By this time, Chris had put Cailey in the cabin as she was complicating the process! By the time we were done, we both had a pile of guts at our feet, largely comprised of sperm sacks. Milt leaked out of the mature males as soon as we picked them up, and tiny eggs leaked from the females. I tried some of the eggs and found them extremely mild and pleasant, so I sampled the eggs of most of the females I cleaned (definitely the minority of our catch).

Our second set yielded another 17 fish, and our third set a dozen, using the same technique but moving the shore end of the net downriver for the last set so we could use the section of beach without alders to lay out the net. (The first attempt at that location was aborted because the net came loose from the dock it was tied to, my mistake). We cleaned those in the same way, scooping up the guts and returning them to the river with thanks. I don't know how many times I gunalcheeched those beautiful, bountiful, gracious saak. We carried the cooler of fish up the cabin and rejoiced. By that time we'd been out canoeing or fishing for about four hours, so we rested and warmed up a little inside before Chris started an alder fire in the barbecue pit for dinner. I prepped simple side dishes (stuffing and green beans), then filled a basin with fresh water and headed out on the porch. The fish were cleaned, but sitting in silty, bloody water, so I wanted to give them a final rinse before bagging them for freezing. I rinsed each one in the basin before laying them on a paper towel on the porch. The weather took that moment to go from partly cloudy to driving sideways rain, so I had to weigh down the paper towels with my slippers and most of the porch and myself got wet. In the meantime, Chris was grilling steaks and hooligan for dinner. When all 48 fish were rinsed (we would up with one more than we'd counted while fishing), I bagged them in the ziplocks I'd brought along in the unlikely event that we were successful and put the majority in the little freezer. Minutes later, dinner was served. The fresh hooligan were mild in flavor and soft in texture, and we shared the heads with Cailey.

Once the rain started, it didn't stop all weekend, which made it very cozy in the cabin at night. We watched part of a movie on Chris's laptop in bed while Cailey managed to curl up between us.

Flying up the river

Mouse nest?

We take a break on the marsh upriver

There are Canada geese in this photo!

Looking downriver from the marsh

The river at high tide

A pile of fish!

A grip of hooligan!

Gunalcheesh, saak!

Disentangling the net

The net laid along the bank

Cleaning a male hooligan

The final rinse

Hooligan on the deck


Chris grills our dinner

The next morning came in a leisurely way. The tide wasn't until 2:00 or so, and the bird activity and our own diminishing fishing success the day before had supported my theory about the fish coming in on the tides. I wanted to be fishing by noon, which made for an unusually unhurried morning. The only thing we needed to do beforehand was untangle the nets, which had become catastrophically snarled by the time we'd finished the day before (which may also have contributed to our diminished fishing success). But that could wait. First we had oatmeal and a cup of tea, and then another cup of tea (loose leaf jasmine brewed in a pot through the side of a ladle) before we started tackling the net at 10:00.

At first it seemed pretty hopeless. Every twig, alder cone, spruce needle, and clump of mud had caused a hopeless tangle, and all the snagging and fish extraction had ripped the net in many places. We worked for at least an hour and a half, slowly working our way down the net removing snags (which usually involved ripping the net away from it), pulling it back down into position, cutting off sections that had been destroyed, and tying intact pieces back to the top of the net if it had simply ripped loose. We would up with two short sections salvaged from the section of net used the day before. The rest of the net had been bundled together by the anchor, as the net was far too long to be used in its entirety. That section was our biggest hope, but it was also badly snarled and full of snags. In the end, though, we made it fully operational again, perhaps 50' of usable net, a perfect length for the river.

We made it to the river shortly after noon, just about perfectly on time for my proposed fishing scheduled. Chris and I carefully carried the long, unused section of net to the river, trying to avoid coming in contact with any anything, least of all the tangle of spruce limbs directly below the edge of the bank that are helping to keep the beach from washing away. The tide was around two, so this would give us two hours to fish the rising tide. I replaced the unnecessarily large line that had attached the anchor and the buoy to the end of the net with the small line I had in my backpack as emergency stringer. I even tied a knot three feet above the anchor so I could tie the top end of the net to that in the hopes that it would help keep the top of the net upright, at least for a few seconds as I lowered it down. Since it seemed as though we were picking up fish as soon as the net hit the water, that could make a difference.  

In fact, our whole operation the second day was much improved. Chris had some excellent ideas, including staying on shore to help guide the net away from the bank without tangling. The day before, we were sometimes unable to use the full net because a section of it had snagged on a clump or grass, stick, or other obstruction. So we tied the net to the dock again on the downriver end of the beach and laid it out at the edge of the water. The tide was much lower than it had been the day before, so we started out below the level of any grass, which helped things right away. In our first attempt, we didn't use the cannonball weights, as they were also a tangle hazard. Setting the net worked pretty well and it would up fairly well perpendicular to the current. I drifted around for a while, then went to pull it. There were four fish right next to the anchor, and nothing in the rest of the net! This was final confirmation that the fish were at the bottom of the river, and that the weights were necessary to keep the net down.

All these improvements made for a much smoother operation and the net survived the day with much less damage than we'd seen the day before. We were also in much better moods. We dropped the four happy hooligan in the bucket with snow water and reset the net along the beach. I headed out from shore as I had on the previous set, pointing upriver with the intent to angle toward the middle of the river and let the current carry me down until I was perpendicular to the bank. But the tide had turned! Although it wasn't at its peak strength yet, I was unable to canoe against it while the canoe was broadside to the current. I wound up ten feet from shore and immobile. I had to abort. Back on shore, we reset the net and discovered that in that frantic paddling, without even setting the net, we'd caught another eight hooligan, one of which escaped and the rest of which went in the bucket.

After we finished resetting the net, I headed back out from the same place, but this time facing the current. I was able to position the net exactly where I wanted it in the channel, slowly letting the line out after the anchor hit to keep the net up an extra few seconds before throwing out the float. I drifted around again for about ten minutes, enjoying the serene, rainy river, then picked up Chris to help with hauling the net since the current was so strong. And'it was just like in my wildest dreams. The net was plugged with happy hooligan, and they just kept coming. We'd hit the pulse, and wound up with 117 fish in one set. Half way through I awkwardly took a video while I pulled it in to capture the moment while Chris fought the current. We wound up with a pile of net and fish in the boat to separate, a process that probably took longer than the entire set had taken. One fish lost its head in the net, to Cailey's benefit (though we're not really sure if she ate it).

And then there was no stopping. It was already high tide, so we decided to make another set as soon as the net was free. Thankfully it untangled easily and we repeated the process at about slack tide, making the setting process much easier. Although we'd liked our strategy the day before of cleaning our catch between sets, there was no question of doing so this day, so we left our fish swimming or chilling in the cooler of river water and snow while we made two more sets, following the same pattern as before only that Chris pulled the net in and we reversed the direction of the net along the shore (tying it to the log upriver again) so we weren't fighting the current. The first one was a good set at slack tide which yielded 58 fish. During the second set, a huge root wad floated upriver, only to turn around and pass over the top of the net when the current changed. While we let it soak, seals in the river (we counted at least a dozen up at once in one small area) were taking an increasing interest in our activities. We don't know if they were merely curious or perhaps may have begun considering net theft if we'd kept it up. This third set brought in 18 hooligan, good symmetry from our first set the day before, which seemed to support our theory that they come in on the flood tide, although the net got tangled in a stick on the bottom of the river which reduced the effective length of it by about a third, so it probably would have been better. At the very end of the net, a huge fish (relative to the slender hooligan), was caught in the larger layer of mesh, a beautiful cutthroat or rainbow trout. Thankfully, he was very much alive, unharmed, and swam vigorously away when disentangled. He must have been swimming right along shore, and I bet he had a belly full of hooligan. We also caught a salmon smolt in the net who did not survive'I'm guessing a Chinook.

By that time we had a plentiful catch, the run seemed to be diminishing, and we were thoroughly cold and exhausted. This may seem like easy business, but scrambling up and down the slick, silty bank, paddling around, pulling nets, disentangling nets, and plucking fish from them was tiring. Thankfully, the valley was still (no wind like the day before), though the rain was a steady companion. We gathered all our gear on top of the bank, then carried the cooler full of fish, the bucket, my damp backpack and a few other items up to the lodge. Too cold and exhausted for any more immediate work, we shed our wet and silty gear and shuffled inside to light a fire, have a drink, and rest for a bit. When we were ready, we put our waders back on and sat on the edge of the front porch cleaning one tiny fish after another. The air temp was probably 40 degrees, the ice water not much above freezing, and each plunge into the cooler for another hooligan chilled me further. Other than that, it was good work. We were surprised to find that most of the catch were either males (or possibly females whose eggs were not yet noticeable, though that seems unlikely). Of the 100 or so fish I cleaned, only perhaps 20% were girls. At first I tried to show respect (and perhaps glean some well-needed energy) by sampling the roe of every female, but I stopped after about ten. I know that most people wouldn't bother to clean such numerous small fish, but I didn't relish the idea of eating the guts, let alone the large milt sacks filling most of the body cavities, and so we cleaned fish for over an hour, dropping the guts back in the cooler and the cleaned fish into the bucket. About two thirds of the way through my hands were so cold that I could not continue. I heated up some water and brought a pan of it onto the porch, dipping my hands in it every five or so fish to warm up. By the time we were done, the five gallon bucket was packed with fish (the previous day's catch would have topped it off) and the cooler was a murky sludge of river water, guts, eggs, and milt. We shiveringly carried it down to the shore and returned the contents to the river. A big dinner of pasta and salad rejuvenated us somewhat. Afterwards, I brought the bucket of fish in and rinsed each in a basin of fresh water (using most of our reserves) before laying them on paper towels to dry. I bagged them 24 at a time in the ziplocks I'd brought along for that purpose and plugged the freezer, spilling over into the fridge. 

That evening we gloried in the success of the day. I could not remember a more satisfying harvesting experience!

The next morning I wanted to lie in bed for hours listening to the rain on the roof, but eventually pulled myself up and walked up the river in the rain. There was up to a couple of feet of snow in sections of the trail, but essentially no snow in the more open areas. I heard varied thrushes, ruby-crowned kinglets, pine siskins, common redpolls, possibly a Lincoln's sparrow, and flushed several Wilson's snipe from wetter areas. Somewhat upriver from the property line, I wandered toward the mountain and stood on a small boulder just as Cailey started acting strangely. Facing in my direction, she began woofing and dancing around, acting very nervously. At first I thought it might be the oddity of me standing on a rock, but it didn't make any sense, since she was so close to me. Whatever it was she was smelling or seeing must have been exactly in my direction. I scanned the horizon but saw no movement. Whatever it was made Cailey very excited for about ten minutes. We wandered around the area after that while she sniffed a few spots very carefully, but I found no sign of anything.

The rain continued unabated, but I was wearing my new raingear and thus nice and dry when I got back to the cabin. We had tea and macaroni and cheese for lunch, then cleaned up and packed up for our 1:00 pickup. I was a little nervous when a plane flew upriver at 12:30 but it never turned around. We stacked our gear in the woods at the landing at 12:45 and waited almost half an hour in the rain for the plane (our pilot had stopped at the lodge for coffee). I did try to find the 'shed' my dad had described from Ben Bullard's days at the waterfront in front of the cabin, but found nothing. When the plan arrive, the pilot pulled up to the nice beach at the landing and we loaded as efficiently as possible, me hopping aboard at the last minute as the current took the plane from the beach. On the way back from the airport, we stopped by my parent's house to show them our bags and bags of beautiful saak!

Net repair

Laying the net out before high tide

Letting the net soak

That's the float on the end of the net

Chris pulls a set full of hooligan

Ready for a high tide set

One batch of hooligan waiting for the freezer

It's been a long day!

Trail to the meadow

Snowless meadow

Hooligan remains

Low river