A small fish is drawing big crowds down to 20 Mile River south of Girdwood — hooligan. And fishermen say they’re running stronger this year than in years past.

“Last year we didn’t have much hooligans that came in,” said fisherman Victor Avalos. “It looks like we have abundance this year.”

The hooligan appear to have arrived a bit early thanks to the warm spring, says Beckie Etukeok, who’s been harvesting the small fish for years.

“When the sun is warm or the air temperature is warm, it warms up the river and then the fish say OK, this is where we’re going to go,” she said.

Hooligan show up in Southeast Alaska first and the early run caught some by surprise.

“My family wasn’t prepared for the run to end fast so they didn’t get hooligan down there. So that’s why we’re trying to get all the hooligan we can to send it down to our family,” said Etukeok.

Because of it’s easy access, 20 Mile River is one of the most popular spots to fish in the spring and summer. It’s common to see people parked along the Seward Highway, crossing back and forth in traffic. It’s no different on the edge of the river, where Efenito Vargas says dipnetters often compete for space.

“Along the road it gets pretty crowded and then right here by the bridge it gets crowded,” he said.

Watching people fish, it’s obvious why. One scoop of the net yields dozens of hooligan.

“You can feel the fish get into your net and when you start to pull it up and it gets so heavy and you know there’s a lot of fish in there and it brings a lot of, a feeling of satisfaction,” said Avalos. “We dry them and we smoke them and also we give it to friends who needs some supply for the winter.”

The small hooligan have important meaning for subsistence harvesters.

“You know you’re going to make it through the next winter,” said Etukeok. “It’s like you provided for your family and all of your friends and you know you’re going to make it.”

The hooligan can usually be found in 20 Mile River through the end of May. Fishermen say they expect the run to peak in the next week. That means traffic along the Seward Highway is expected to be heavy this weekend and next.

Bonney Bowman can be reached at bbowman@ktva.com and