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Listen: Manaqing at the mouth of the Johnson River

It’s a sunny, breezy day out on the Kuskokwim River, and the top layer of ice is getting a little slushy.

When the wind dies down, the main sound is of ice augers drilling new holes. Occasionally, there’s a shout of excitement when a kid catches a pike. Others are more stoic about snagging a fish, the catch heralded by a faint ‘thwack’ as they club its head before removing the hook.

Around two-dozen vehicles have ventured out to the manaq spot near the mouth of the Johnson River, where it flows into the Kuskokwim. It’s a good crowd for the end of the season.

As the weather has warmed, conditions on the ice highway have deteriorated.

Actually, at the end of March, road crews closed the ice highway because of safety concerns, but since then, temperatures dropped again and crews appear to have plowed an additional end-of-season road down the Kuskokwim. A large yellow grader is parked at the manaq spot, with a load of logs secured behind.

We manaq for pike. Sometimes, people catch whitefish or eels, but those are rare.

Without an auger, we take turns chipping a cone-shaped hole into the river ice with a pick, attached to a 5-foot wooden pole. As we work, a hovercraft zooms by, likely delivering mail and supplies to downriver villages.

We break through the ice, a few feet deep, only to find we’ve made a rookie mistake – our hole is too close to shore, and we hit mud just a couple of inches below.

A neighbor, Alvin, offers to help us drill a replacement hole with his auger.

We drop hooks into the new holes and wait for a while, with no luck. Evan Erickson thinks it’s because of our choice of bait.

“We just have a piece of corned moose on the end of the hook,” Erickson said. “And the word is that you need to have the actual eye of a pike to attract more pike. They love to eat each other's eyes.”

It feels a bit ‘chicken-and-egg’ – that we need a pike to get a pike eye to attract a pike. But then, with an innovative bait combo of moose tendon and pike eyeball, our fishing companion Dan catches two small pike.

The sun moves slowly across the horizon. A group of kids ride around on a miniature snowmachine, chased by a very happy dog.

After a few hours out on the ice, the two fish and a few other nibbles, we decide to call it a day. The other manaqers seem to have it down a bit better than we do, anyway. We watch pike after pike fly out of the manaqing holes of a group just south of us.

Pike secured in a backpack in the truck bed, we make our way north, back up the ice highway, past Napakiak, Napaskiak and Oscarville to Bethel, where on land, the roads are getting muddy.

There may be another couple of weekends left in the ice highway for folks to make their ways down to this manaqing spot, but breakup is around the corner.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.