The first time I saw a grizzly bear chasing a man was the last time I saw a grizzly bear chasing a man. It happened about 30 years ago, which should dispel the notion that bears are hiding in every willow patch, itching to rip off one of your limbs.
That said, seeing a grizzly closing the distance on a man running bat-shit crazy down a mountain does provide an aha moment when you might think, That could be me. There were three men, actually, me and two guys I’d fished with commercially, who had shot a Sitka black-tailed deer on southeast Alaska’s Baranof Island. They were waiting a few minutes before walking up on the animal. As they watched, another animal charged off the mountain and through the fog. One guy said, “Get ready, here comes another deer.” The other replied, “Yes, I see it. It is a big one, really brown, and it’s a bear!”
Three men. Three high-powered rifles. A grizzly bearing down on us — and we ran. As you likely know, that is the worst thing to do when a grizzly mistakes you for the lame deer it’s been chasing for two hours and isn’t happy that you claimed its next meal. A grizzly’s top speed is about 40 mph. Olypmic gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt topped out at about 27. Three fishermen wearing backpacks and Xtratuf boots? You do the math.
When the bear reached a patch of matted grass where the men had been, it caught their scent, realized its mistake and ran back into the fog. Later that day, one of the guys shot a black-tail with his 30-06. When he tried to eject the shell, the bolt jammed. He looked at me with a slightly shocked expression, as if life were passing before his eyes, and quietly said, “Dave is faster than me. I would have had one shot.”
I spend a lot of time in grizzly country, but even in my stomping grounds along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, where 17 grizzlies live within a mile or so of a brook trout stream I fish, I’ve never seen one. Tracks, yes, but not often. Let’s just say bears rarely are the greatest threat to an angler’s existence. However, they are part of the outdoors. Fishing in bear country, especially where grizzlies and coastal browns live, is a calculated risk. If you fish in bear country often enough, you’ll end up with your own stories to tell.
Like this one: A few years ago, I drove to eastern Idaho for a media event, and to test a new line of tenkara rods, which were being touted as the newest, oldest advancement in fly-fishing history. I’m not a fan of tenkara, not because the rods aren’t a simple solution to the casting problem but because I’m a headhunter. I like big fish, and I like big flies. I threw zero casts with a tenkara rod that weekend.
One evening, I slipped a few free beers into my pack, uncased a Sage rod and a disk-drag reel — loaded with 150 yards of gel-spun backing, a new fly line and a tapered leader — and headed far downstream of the fray to fish with an editor friend. We landed a couple of big rainbows and a 20-some-inch brown that night — fish I doubt we’d have seen in the net if casting tenkara.
The following day, we stole away to a midsize tributary flowing out of Yellowstone Park to fish fall-run browns moving up from Henry’s Fork. As we hiked upstream, the vegetation became extremely dense. We pushed through hip-high ferns and head-high bushes. At times, we couldn’t see more than a dozen feet in front of us. A tenkara rod marketing director was with us, and he was all but happy when we spotted some matted vegetation. He pointed at the first of several of these areas and said, hopefully, “Looks like a moose slept here.” I didn’t point to the pile of bear crap about two feet from his left heel. Ten yards up the trail, he saw more scat, then two big piles a few feet farther. He looked at us, pointed down and said, “That’s grizzlies. I’m out of here.”
We bid adieu and continued upstream. I’d never seen so much bear scat outside of Alaska. “You know, they’re right around us,” I said.
My editor friend said, “I think I smell death.” We waded in.
A solid drake hatch came off, and the fish rose for cripples and emergers. We caught browns, cutthroats and rainbows to 18 inches, and we drank in the solitude — nobody would wade past us and poach the water. Noting our solitude, my friend said, “You’d have to be crazy to fish here.”
The browns were beautiful, colored up in a buttery yellowish-brown with hundreds of black spots circled in beige and dozens of reddish spots on their lower sides and adipose fins. They were perfect trout, wild if not native, and after feeding on an abundance of insect hatches all summer, they weighed as much as they would all year. And they weren’t on spawning beds, so we didn’t have to question whether we were simply harassing fish.
The river flowed through a canyon, and moving around on slippery rocks and crawling over logjams and debris was no cakewalk. But we decided to stay in the water, rather than walk through the bush. If a grizzly appeared, we might have a chance to grab the bear spray from our packs and offer it a face full of pepper.
It was easy to predict where the trout would be; we fished swift runs followed by long slicks, and there were enough boulders and chest-deep plunge pools to imagine those migratory 5-pounders sulking near the bottom. We never hooked into a tanker, but we found enough fish to keep us happy, switching off after each catch.
It was bliss until we found a sandal stuck in a logjam, then a pair of torn shorts on the bank. Where’d they come from? It’s difficult to quit fishing when the fishing is good, but we both agreed, without saying a word, that we’d caught enough. It wasn’t dark-thirty, but the clouds were lit up in burnt-orange, and we knew what was next. We powered on our headlamps, checked the bear spray and raced out, shouting every 15 seconds or so, “Hey bear, hey bear, we’re right here bear, just passing through.”
When we reached the truck, we felt alive and lucid. We hadn’t cheated death and won, but we’d come out on the strong side of whatever risk we’d taken, which is all you can ask for when fishing in bear country.
If I had to choose a single river to fish for the rest of my life, it wouldn’t be one with an abundance of grizzlies. I like seeing bears at a distance — they are the symbol of American wildness — but just knowing they’re ghosting around and could come out of the brush on either bank takes my mind away from the task at hand. I suppose I’d become a legend to die in the jaws of a grizzly, but getting there would not be fun, and any time I consider that demise, I think, Whoa boy, there are a lot of good places to fish.
Alaska is an epicenter for bear/angler confrontations. There are a lot of bears in the Great Land, and you have to know they’ll likely play a role in your fishing experience. I’ve fished Alaskan rivers where guides post up near anglers, Winchester Defender shotguns draped over a shoulder or strung commando-style across their chests. This is somewhat comforting, but I’ve had guides who burned the candle at fish camp, then fell asleep at their posts. That’s exactly what you don’t want when a sow with cubs pushes its snout out of the bank-side brush five yards from your wading boots.
Some guides take the griz factor seriously. Others say bears are no threat at all. I’m somewhere in between and not afraid to err on the side of caution. I don’t mind if a guide or anyone else thinks I’m a wimp; consider how they might feel if there were an 800-pound German shepherd on the sidewalk, and I said, “Why don’t you head out there and check my mail.”
The closest I’ve come to a bear scare was on the Brooks River in Katmai National Park. A juvenile brown spotted me in the stream and decided he would make up for all the butt-kickings he’d received from more dominant bears by beating the tar out of me. He had a look in his eyes and took a direct route toward me. I reeled in and started wading downstream, quickening my pace. The bear followed suit. By the time I was within 20 yards of a gated bridge (my safe place) I wanted to run. A park ranger shouted, “You’re OK,” which wasn’t true, nor what I believed, with a brown bear closing in. Relief came when the ranger shut the gate behind me. A few hours later, I was again scared senseless, standing alone on a beach with a couple of big grizzlies nearby, having a deep discussion with myself, realizing the floatplane left without me, and that I might spend the night in a tree.
Even lifelong Alaskans don’t get complacent around coastal grizzlies. I fished out of Nelson Lagoon one year — 40 miles down a desolate beach on a remote king salmon stream at the edge of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge — and counted more than 30 bears in a few days. The camp cook was a native woman who had recently lost a family member. I didn’t know how the person had died and didn’t ask.
She was hurt, nervous and didn’t believe that a single strand of electric fencing would hold bears at bay. I was also considering that scenario. We left her alone in the cook tent one morning, drove farther down the beach and swung up some kings. When we returned, one of the Jeeps was missing — as was our chef. Without discussion, she’d quit and headed back to the lagoon. I think we ate bacon and eggs at every meal — for three days.
British Columbians take their bears seriously, too, and no matter where you fish in that province, rest assured there is a griz nearby. One fall, I flew to the northern tip of Vancouver Island, climbed into a helicopter and cut across a salt channel to the mainland and a remote fish camp called Nimmo Bay. Each morning, we’d chopper over remote rivers, peering down to locate schools of silver salmon. The pilot landed that bird in seemingly impossible places, allowing us access to mega-schools of fresh-run silvers. He was equally adept at hovering around jagged peaks and landing on putting-green-size ledges on the tops of mountains — where we would set up chairs and a folding table an devour an array of fine foods and wine.
One morning, I asked the pilot if he believed helicopters to be as safe or safer than planes, “Yes,” he said unequivocally. I shouldn’t have asked.
We’d just crested a high mountain ridge and were crossing a wide valley when he threw the helicopter into neutral. The engine dimmed, and all I heard was chopper blades carving air. That and my heartbeat as we free-fell, headed, in my opinion, toward untimely deaths. “Do this in a plane,” the pilot said, “and you crash. But I could maneuver this toward the ground and at least have a chance of landing it.”
Later, the pilot walked over to me as I was landing another 8-pound silver salmon and said, “The only problem with helicopters is the Jesus nut. Lose that, and the whole thing comes unglued.”
A few days later in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, I asked a Delta pilot if he knew about Jesus nuts. He smiled and said, “Yeah, it keeps the rotor secured to a helicopter. If it unthreads and comes off you say, ‘Jesus, I’m dead.’ ”
I don’t know how many streams we fished on that stretch of the British Columbia coast. Enough that by the end of the week my hands were cut and scraped from releasing so many silvers. We’d seen a few grizzlies, and we saw grizzly tracks nearly everywhere we landed.
Flying through a narrow canyon on our last afternoon, the pilot hovered just above a stream. I looked out the window to spot silvers and saw a large grizzly standing on its hind legs, staring back at me, slapping the air with a massive paw. I said into the headset, “What do you think he’s saying?”
“Eat you next time,” my friend Dan said.
The pilot laughed. “He’s saying, ‘I hope the Jesus nut flies off.’"
Story and photos by Pat Ford
I love fishing in Alaska, especially in September, when huge rainbow trout move out of lakes and into streams to fatten up on sockeye eggs. I enjoy the silver salmon run, too, but what I like most is sharing rivers with bears and my camera. In September, Alaskan brown bears fatten up for winter, and sockeye salmon are their main source of nourishment. That means rivers with the most sockeyes also have the most rainbows — and the most bears. The perfect combination.
My favorite bear destination is the Kulik River in Katmai National Park. It’s a 1½-mile stretch of wadable water between two lakes, and it’s loaded with bears, some of which come close to 1,000 pounds. It can be a bit intimidating to watch a huge bear chase salmon directly across the river from you, but after a while it’s fascinating — and a photographer’s dream.
Tony Simmons, head guide at Rainbow King Lodge in Iliamna, Alaska, explains bear encounters as such. These bears were likely born in the park. For their first two years, their mothers taught them how to forage for berries, which vegetation was best to eat and how to catch salmon. These young bears often share the river with strange creatures in waders, who also catch fish. Not once did the mama bear catch and eat one of these creatures, nor did the creatures attack the bears. The youngsters were taught that a big male bear might try to kill them but that the anglers were to be tolerated and, to a lesser extent, avoided. There is no reason a salmon-hunting bear would bother an angler unless the angler does something really stupid. Give bears plenty of room, and if they come too close, yell at them like you would a misbehaving dog. Make sure the bear knows you’re there, and enjoy the show.
If there are bears around, I spend more time with my camera in my hand than my fly rod. I carry a Canon EOS R mirrorless camera because it’s lighter, and a 100-400mm telephoto lens allows me to get close-ups without getting too close. I stow my photography gear in a waterproof backpack.
I’ve had a bear charge straight toward me while chasing a salmon through shallow water. It’s a great photo-op, but the bear, looking down, doesn’t know I’m there until I start yelling. It’s amazing how they respond to the human voice. Their eyesight and hearing are comparable to human’s, according to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Their sense of smell is acute, exceeding that of dogs. They are excellent swimmers, and authorities consider them highly intelligent, with most having individual personalities. They will give you plenty of room once they know where you are.
I’m told there is a big difference in attitude between bears that live on salmon rivers (Katmai’s and others) and those that are inland, simply because their food supply is so different. What you don’t want to do is surprise a bear, especially a sow with cubs.
River fishing provides lots of open area for social distancing, and hiking through the woods sometimes requires loud conversation and noise. If a bear hears you coming, it will get out of your way very quickly. You probably won’t know it was there. All Rainbow King Lodge guides are experienced with bear encounters and will take charge in any situation that might become problematic. Sometimes all it takes is an accurately thrown rock to deter a bear that’s wandered too close. A bear occasionally will put on a display to show how tough it is. I’ve even been approached by curious 2-year-olds (which can weigh more than 100 pounds). The proper response is to yell and slowly back away. Don’t make eye contact. It always helps if you’re in a group; cubs usually pull this trick on me when I’m alone. Although I’ve never been really concerned, this behavior does get my attention.
The one thing you never do during a bear encounter is run away. In Africa, the rule is “food runs away.” In Alaska, a human running means, “I bet I can catch that.” Running triggers a cat-and-mouse response in the bear, and believe me it can catch you. I’ve seen false charges where a bear wanted to prove a point, but standing your ground and yelling has always been effective. And understand that, in general, none of this happens if you are aware of your surroundings and maintain a safe distance from bears.
An encounter with an Alaskan bear may well be the most exciting experience of your lifetime. Rainbow King Lodge has operated for more than 50 years without a guest being injured by a bear. If you’re going to fish in Alaska, set up a trip where you will share the river with bears. There’s nothing like it.