Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

BANKS OF THE TWENTYMILE RIVER, Alaska — The Last Frontier state is known for its fishing and hunting opportunities. At the peak of salmon fishing season, highways get crowded with RVs and trucks towing boats. People fly in from around the world for the chance to catch the prized King salmon.

Fishing is more humble when the catch is eulachon, also known as hooligan, or candlefish (the oily fish when dried can be used as a candle). Gear costs, at most, in the low hundreds, not tens of thousands of dollars. Success lies in catching lots of the silver 10-to-12 inch fish.

Numbers are important to the eulachon species too. A lot are caught by predators but a single female that survives to spawn can lay as many as 25,000 eggs.

Eulachon show up in Alaskan rivers in April or May, just the time of year when many Alaskans are getting to the bottom of their freezer and the end of the meat, fish, greens and berries they spent the summer and fall prior hunting, fishing, and gathering.

As the fish leave the ocean and enter freshwater to spawn, people in years past have pulled from 8,100 to 33,000 pounds of eulachon out of the Twentymile River, which is 37 miles outside of Anchorage.

Google Earth image showing location of Anchorage and Twentymile River, Alaska. (Screengrab of Google Earth)
Image showing location of the Twentymile River, 37 miles outside Anchorage in Southcentral Alaska. The river supports a run of eulachon, a silver fish 10-to-12 inches in length, that leaves Cook Inlet and enters freshwater to spawn. (Screengrab from Google Earth)

At the mouth of the river, eulachon have already run a gauntlet of the larger fish, sea lions, seals, whales, and dolphins that feed on them. Swarms of seagulls and a handful of eagles circle overhead, swoop down to snatch a fish, then rest on sandbars after they’ve eaten their fill. Farther upriver wolves and bears will be after the fish.

Near the Seward highway where it crosses the Twentymile River, it’s humans who are harvesting eulachon. They wear waders and stand in shallow water scooping up the fish in dip nets.

Pulling the net through the water would bring in four or five of the herring-size fish. Any one sweep of the net is easy. But sometimes the best spots are in deeper water where you have to stand your ground against the current while watching so you don’t sink into the soft, muddy bottom. Standing in the chilling glacial river and dipping, carrying and loading the fish hour after hour is hard work. People tend to do it in groups or teams.

Usually it’s a man who stands in the river dipping. After each dip, he turns around for a person standing closer to shore to empty the net into a 5-gallon bucket, which then gets emptied into a cooler. Or he loads fish from the net into a plastic garbage bag then periodically carries it back to shore to empty.

Two men dipnetting in the Twentymile River on May 18, 2021. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today)
Lisa Lincoln and 2-year-old daughter Janet on banks of Twentymile River take a break from watching their husband and father dip-netting on May 18, 2021 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today)

Lisa Lincoln, Yup’ik, was on the riverbank on Tuesday with her 2-year-old daughter Janet while her husband was dip netting. Lincoln’s originally from Toksook Bay, a predominantly Yup’ik village of about 670 people, where she grew up gathering food.

“Yeah, this is what we do. This is how we subsist every, every season. Every chance we get. Every summer is the busiest day for us, as we get from different sources of fish,” Lincoln said. “Cause in the village ... we're out on the west coast on the ocean, out in the Bering Sea — we practically have (every kind of fish), from flounders to salmons, to Tom cods and all the other fish.”

Some people roll fresh eulachon in corn meal, salt and pepper and fry them. Lincoln planned to boil some while they’re fresh. Others she’ll string on a branch, keeping them two inches apart, then “I rinse them, and hang them and then we smoke them. And then we eat them dipped in seal oil.”

For Becky Etukeuk Johnson, dipnetting eulachon is a connection to her Tlingit, Filipino, and Inupiaq parents and grandparents, and part of a lifelong practice.

Becky Etukeok Johnson, who is Tlingit, Filipino, and Inupiaq, laughed after saying, "I like to fish with my cousins. They're my kind of crazy," while standing on the banks of the Twentymile River outside of Anchorage, Alaska, where dipnetting for eulachon fish was underway on May 18, 2021. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today)

Like Lincoln, she learned to gather and put up food as a child and teenager, from her parents, grandparents and other relatives. Then as an adult, “when I was fishing in Bristol Bay, I would come down to … the water, catch my fish and then go and take it to where my parents worked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They were working so they couldn't go out and fish (very often) … they were always grateful to get the food,” Etukeok Johnson said.

She said her children grew up on fish and still love the smoked and plain salmon she jars every year.

“My kids are in their mid thirties. And if I give them a half case of fresh pack and a half case of smoked, they're in heaven,” Etukeok Johnson said.

Now, she says she feels “grumpy” when she can’t take on the familiar role of provider. It’s like an itch she has to scratch.

A cooler of eulachon on the Twentymile River in Alaska on May 18, 2021. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today)

“Even though I don't have a mom and dad anymore, people to provide for, like I did, you know, 20 years ago, I still have to come out here and get fish. There's a lot of people who can't make it out here, who are in their 70s or 80s, you know? And so they need to have somebody bring it to them,” Etukeok Johnson said. She takes fish to elders in senior housing and to senior centers that serve lunch. “They’re just thrilled to get it.”

Eulachon were once plentiful from California north to the sub-Arctic. Major rivers such as the Fraser and Columbia supported runs of more than a million eulachon.

Now effects of climate change in the Pacific Ocean, loss of habitat and over harvesting have reduced the population of some southern runs of eulachon, which have been placed on the threatened or endangered list.

Still, Becky Etukeok Johnson and Lisa Lincoln hope their children will live in a world in which nature is still bountiful, and ancient values of building kinship ties and a sense of community through the sharing of food are still important.

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