ANIAK – John Parka chips away with a barbell at his frozen-over fishing hole near where the Aniak and Kuskokwim rivers meet. He is checking his subsistence fishing net. He hopes those thieving otters don't return.
Earlier in winter, he stretched out the gillnet under the ice, nudging it along to full length with a long branch that he maneuvered through a series of holes cut into the ice.
No one else has a setnet in this stretch of river. Parka, 38, is from the downriver village of Napakiak, where there's more of a winter setnet tradition. He learned subsistence fishing from his father and first set a net when he was maybe 11 or 12.
In that lower stretch of the Kuskokwim River, lots of people fish and pull in whitefish, lush and pike.
Parka moved to Aniak about a year and a half ago with his girlfriend, Maria White, who had inherited a house and land from her grandmother. He is raising his two girls there. His son is in boarding school in Galena.
Every two to four days, he snowmachines onto the ice to check his net. He has pulled in whitefish, grayling and one errant silver salmon. But lately, he has been getting pike, which are tasty but bony.
He earlier set a smaller whitefish net under the ice. Otters found it. During freezeup, there was open water in spots and cracks in the ice that they could slip into.
"Otters were eating my fish and tore a big hole in my net," Parka says while chopping ice at his new fishing hole. "This one is bigger mesh but I can still catch fish with it."
He must have caught the otter too. He finds the net half torn up.
"He escaped," Parka says. He brought a neighbor over to trap any otters left but they seemed to have moved on.
Faint footprints of fox, lynx and moose can be seen in the snow atop the ice.
On this January day it's about minus 10. It soon will get much, much colder in Aniak.
A few days earlier, Parka had to chop through 2 feet of ice to get to his remaining net. He uses a barbell because a friend dropped his ice pick into the river a couple of years earlier.
Once the net is set, he ties each end to wooden branches stuck into the ice. That keeps it in place.
He prevented the fishing holes from freezing up all the way by shoveling snow on top for insulation.
He hacks away for a few minutes, then gets to slush that he shovels out.
Soon he starts pulling the net out of one hole.
"Here we go!" Parka says, pulling up a pike. "Oh man, he's really tangled."
Parka works a few minutes bare-handed to get the fish out, then pulls out another, then one more. Three fresh pike and no whitefish nor otters. Two fish are still alive.
"Got to watch for the teeth," he says.
He reaches the end of his net. He washes his hands off in the icy water, then pulls the net back through. He takes off on his Ski-Doo with fish that he will fry up for dinner and share with his dogs.
He leaves his net reset for another day.