Not everyone likes eulachon, a fish so oily it burns like a candle when dried, hence the name candlefish. But my family loves them. Fried, smoked, or baked, these seven-inch smelt appear on our dinner table throughout the year. And netting them is a May tradition that sends us bounding down the Seward Highway toward the Twentymile River, which empties into Turnagain Arm southeast of Anchorage.
Subtle signs from the natural world tell us when it’s time to hit the road—the first warblers singing, signaling that green-up is upon us and the ice is out of the Twentymile; and reports of beluga whales and bald eagles along Turnagain Arm. The eulachon (often pronounced “hooligan”) have arrived.
My wife and young daughter help me pack the car with lunches, dipnets, extra layers, and the five-gallon bucket we hope to fill with the first fresh fish of the year. Then it’s onto the Seward Highway, which is also waking up from winter. After months of mostly commuter traffic between the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage, the byway now bustles with construction equipment, RVs, and trucks towing boats to busy Prince William Sound.
The Seward Highway is a no-joke kind of drive. Today’s traffic volume has outgrown the narrow roadway, which squeezes between the mountains of Chugach State Park and the winding shores of Turnagain Arm. Drivers must navigate blind curves, rockfalls, impatience behind the wheel, and people stopping to photograph Dall sheep. Construction delays add bother but also promise improvements. Projects straighten curves; blast away loose cliffs; and bring new passing lanes, pull-outs, and a bike path, all for a safer journey.
As drivers watch the road, passengers enjoy scenery of snowy mountains, glaciers, and the rushing waters of Turnagain, which receives some of the biggest tides on Earth. By May, with winter’s sea ice just a memory, bald eagles and gulls are also cruising the arm. They know that in the murky waters below, schools of eulachon ride the currents north up Cook Inlet. Near Anchorage, some bank left for the Susitna River, while others hang a right to follow Turnagain Arm to the Twentymile.
The eulachon is a bullet-shaped fish loaded with nutrition, including oleic acids, iron, vitamin A, and calcium. Between northern California and the southern Bering Sea, it spawns in only about 100 rivers, mostly big, glacially fed waterways clouded with silt, including the Copper, Taku, Stikine, and Unuk.
While the fish are small, they spawn in the millions in large rivers, bringing a flush of nutrients to both people and wildlife during a lean time of year, before fiddleheads, berries, and most salmon have arrived. This timely appearance once earned them another nickname: the salvation fish.
Alaska Native people have long rendered eulachon into a rich oil. Historically, they were processed in large cedar or spruce boxes at seasonal camps. The oil was traded via the famous “grease trails” that connected coastal and interior people. The routes also guided explorers such as Alexander MacKenzie and Lewis and Clark toward the Pacific Coast and later lured Klondike miners up to Chilkoot Pass beyond Skagway.
We know we’re close to the Twentymile when we see orange flags whipping in the wind, indicating a seasonally reduced speed limit. Cars line the road’s shoulder, and families climb over the guardrails to fish the currents that skim past the highway’s riprap. At the river’s mouth, we squeeze between trucks and campers and join a bustling scene on the silty beach.
People tote dipnets and coolers and lead along toddlers in oversized rubber boots. We come bearing different languages and skin tones and are dressed in everything from worn jeans to pricey waders. We build beach fires and blindly probe our nets into opaque waters. When the fishing is slow, kids swim in the chilly river. Overhead, the highway bridge bounces under the weight of trucks, and an Alaska Railroad train full of cruise ship passengers blows its horn into the wind.
But when the eulachon decide it’s time, they surge into the river mouth. Excitement charges through the people and we jostle like gulls for the best waterside perches. We shout at the kids to get out of the water and laugh across language barriers as wriggling iridescent fish spill from our nets and fill our buckets.
Sometimes our small family catches a year’s worth of fish in minutes, and we reluctantly back away from the water. We know that upstream, where the eulachon spawn along solitary riverbends, wolves, bears, otters, and more birds are also gathering, eager for spring edibles as they carry eggs or raise newborns.
The scene has an urban flavor but ancient rhythms. And it happens all down Alaska’s southern coast, in Seward, Yakutat, and beyond. At Berners Bay north of Juneau, boaters and kayakers come to see the whales and sea lions that follow the eulachon in, while at the Stikine, hundreds of bald eagles surround the river’s mudflats. At British Columbia’s Bella Coola, among other villages, First Nations people gather to maintain ancient ways of rendering oil. In Alaska, most eulachon populations remain healthy, although declines have occurred in the Unuk and farther south.
Eventually, we buckle up for the ride home, with our bucket of eulachon in the back. We used to smoke them each year, but now we prefer cleaning and freezing them for breaded fish sticks. That’s likely what we’ll enjoy tonight after heading home along the Seward Highway.