Monday, March 20, 2017


The early signs of spring keep springing here in the hidden gem.  Yesterday was the first day that really had that feel of spring, when the sun was out it was very warm, when it went behind a cloud it immediately got chilly, and we had some nice rain/snow/hail squalls occasionally in the afternoon.
People were outdoors walking, running, biking, fishing and just generally enjoying being able to be comfortably outside again.  My thoughts, as well as the thoughts of many of my fellow Wrangellites, went to the long list of spring preparations and maintenance that need to be done to have boats and gear ready for the beginning of the hectic outdoor season.  Need more firewood for next winter, change the oil in the boat motors, check expiration dates on flares, mend nets, repair broken gear and tackle, etc., etc.  It seemed like a lot of us decided that those things could wait until another day, yesterday was just a day to enjoy and anticipate the summer to come.

I walked into town this morning before the sunrise and kicked up the first Wilson's snipe I have seen this year and I heard a Norhtern Pygmy owl hooting from a giant spruce tree on the beach.  There is also a rumor that most of the Bald Eagles have left town for the Stikine which means there might be some hooligan showing up.

Those are hooligan or, eulachon, a very oily type of smelt.  They get up to maybe 10 inches long and spawn on the Stikine river delta. I don't know, and am not sure if anyone does, just how far they travel up the river but I have seen sea lions catching them at least 20 miles up the river.  The coming of these fish marks the early arrival of spring here in Southeast and provides an incredible food source for marine mammals, birds, and humans.  Sea lions, seals, gulls, sea ducks, and eagles all gather in the area for the feast.  So many Bald Eagles show up on the Stikine River delta for the hooligan migration that it marks the second largest congregation of eagles in the world (the first being the annual gathering of eagles in Haines for the late salmon run in November).  Thousands of eagles come to feast on these little fish, it is an amazing sight to fly over the delta in a small plane and see the conspicuous white heads of eagles dotting the landscape.
The shear volume of living things present on the delta during this time is something magical, awe-inspiring and also slightly intimidating.   A swirling vortex of thousands of gulls wheeling and diving after the countless fish marks where the schools are in the water of the shallow channels.  Boating through these squalls of gulls provides a few moments of chaos and noise while hoping to exit out the other side unscathed.  Hundreds of Bald Eagles are visible at any one time perched on driftwood logs stranded on the delta or in trees overlooking the buffet or just on the sandbars exposed at low tide.  Seals and sea lions splash all around gulping down these high calorie little packets of energy.
We humans also gather on the delta, though in much smaller numbers, to take part in this annual gathering of wild food.  Beach seine netting is the most common method of harvest but cast netting has also become an increasingly popular way of harvesting as well and is my personal favorite.  Dip nets are also occasionally used.  Several hundred pounds can be gathered in a short time which are then happily distributed throughout town to eagerly awaiting, and very appreciative, hooligan enthusiasts.  The entire process is a fascinating, fun, and highly rewarding activity.  Throwing a cast net from the skiff while a giant male sea lion fishes a dozen feet away makes me feel some sort of connection to all these other fishers and the cycle of things.  I would go so far as to say that for me, there is something near spiritual in this harvest.
Most years, the river is still frozen enough that the bulk of the hooligan are able to run under the ice safe from the majority of the predators which seems like will be the case this year.  Last year was a very unusual year in that the Stikine was completely unfrozen most of the winter and we were fishing  on March 13th.  Not this year!

Maybe this nearly adult bald eagle is working its way to the river with the rest of the hooligan fishers.  It looks like this one may grow into its completely white head this year making this bird about 5 years old, they typically get their white heads and tails around the ages of 4-5.  These birds are very, very common here, common but still a very impressive and magnificent creature.  They are unashamed scavengers and their calls aren't very appealing to a non-Bald Eagle, but they can always draw my attention.  (A trivia side note:  in movies and TV, when a Bald Eagle is shown and makes its vocalization, the call of the Red Tailed Hawk is often dubbed in as it sounds much more "eagle like" than the Bald Eagle's real call!)

For such a large animal, they are very light.  Standing at about 3- 3.5' tall and with a wingspan that can be up to 8 feet, they typically weigh 8-16 pounds.  I have heard incredible stories from fishermen who have watched Bald Eagles being dragged under the water when they tried to prey on a King Salmon that was a little too big!  I have also heard of King Salmon landed with the feet and talons of one of these unfortunate eagles still grasping the salmon's back!  Are these just fisherman tall tales?  I don't know but I do know that people who spend a lot of time out in nature see some pretty incredible and even unexplainable things that people who didn't see them tend to discredit (I've experienced that many times!).  I have seen eagles swoop down and grab a fish that they were not able to then lift from the water.  At that point, you get to witness one of the most comical and undignified things you can see an eagle do, swim!  These birds are not ducks!

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