Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Alaska Bears

A pair of Alaskan Brown Bears.

A few years ago I was up in Alaska, fly rod in hand, trying to land a salmon that would qualify for a world record. A friend of mine had told me about a little known salmon run that was often of really large fish. There were some "Howevers" to be considered.

First, it was nearly a 24 hour drive to get there. Second, there was nothing there once you arrived. Third, the fishable part of the river was only a mile or so long, and finally, the upper end of the fishable section was where the bear viewing platform was.

Yup, sort of a porch like affair built out over the river on pilings, and high enough up that you were safe from the bears, bears who were fishing in the same part of the river where I wanted to fish. These weren't cute little black bears, either! These were the BIG ones, otherwise known as brown bears, also known as grizzlies. The Kodiak, brown, and the grizzly are all the same species, Ursus Horribilis. The Kodiaks are the largest though, since it stays so warm on Kodiak Island in the Winter, the bears don't hibernate, and so they continue to eat all Winter.

To make it even more difficult, I only had a three day weekend for the trip! So, after 23 hours and 30 minutes of driving, stopping only for gas, food, coffee, and one short nap, I rolled into town, such as it was, arriving late in the evening. I parked my poor old Ford van at a friend's place, and got a few hours sleep.

The next morning I drove up the river about a mile to a spot my buddy had mentioned as having a goodly amount of fish, and reasonably easy to get to on foot.

The river itself was fairly good sized, running fast, and the color of a dirty vanilla milkshake due to the glacial deposits in the water. There was a small creek, however, that paralled the river for about a quarter of a mile. The creek was perhaps 3 feet deep and maybe 30 or 40 feet across. Where the river and the creek joined, there was a long sand bar, built up maybe 3 feet above the river level from previous higher water levels. The creek had a gravel beach on the far side, and behind the gravel was a stand of small alders. The river, with its higher speed, had formed a backwater whirlpool and dug a deep hole at the mouth of the creek, right next to the sandbar on the creek side.

Standing on the sandbar and looking down into the clear creek water you could see LARGE salmon moving into the hole to rest, before moving on upstream. The sides of the creek and the river were spotted with salmon carcasses from salmon who had already spawned, died, and floated back down the river. There's just nothing quite like the smell of a salmon river in the Fall!

I tied on one of my favorite Alaskan salmon flies, the LGT, and cast it across the creek, letting the current move it down stream and down into the hole. once the line had straightened out and the fly was on the bottom at the down stream end of the hole, I started a slow retrieve through the hole. I didn't have to retrieve it very far before it felt like I'd hooked the back bumper of a Greyhound bus! Line practically melted off the reel as the salmon did his best to pull me off of the sand bar. Since I was record fishing, I was using what normally would be used for trout fishing, not a fifteen or twenty pound salmon.

After twenty minutes or so, I finally slid the salmon up on the beach and did a quick weigh-in on my certified scale. It was about a pound light. Close, but not close enough. A couple of more casts, and I had another fish on. Again, not quite big enough.

After several more fish had been caught and released, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye on the other side of the creek. A black bear popped his head out of the alders, looked nervously up and down the creek, and then disappeared back into the alders.

Did I mention that brown bears kill and eat black bears in Alaska? Especially if the black bear wanders into the brownie's fishing spot!

Of course, the sand bar I was fishing from was covered with bear tracks. Fresh bear tracks! Really BIG bear tracks! Some of the tracks were larger than a large dinner plate. That's a pretty good sized bear!

I continued to fish, landing a couple more fish, and I had just hooked another when right across the creek from me out pops not one, but two brown bears. UH-HUH!

Bears don't see too well, but they see a lot better than a lot of folks think. They may not see you in sharp focus, but they will pick up motion easily. I was dressed as to blend in as much as possible, so that may have helped a bit.

When you run into a bear, there are a lot of things NOT to do. Whatever you do, don't run! They will run you down. A brown bear can cover 40 yards from a dead stop in roughly two seconds. A really quick running back in his prime might do it in the mid 4 second range. The best thing to do is to try to not be noticed, and slowly and quietly move diagonally out of the area. I slowly picked up my short barreled Mossberg 500 12 gauge, and slowly started to move out of the area.

Unfortunately one of the bears saw me, and was instantly not very happy. The bear wheeled around and took off at full speed directly at me. OH CRAP!

I had practiced for this situation, so I chambered a round and swung the shotgun to my shoulder in one motion. Since I was a bit above the bear I had to lower the barrel another six inches before firing.

Then the greatest thing happened! THE BEAR FROZE! The sound of the round being chambered had brought him to a complete stop, half way across the creek! We both stood motionless for what seemed like ten minutes, but I'm sure was only a matter of seconds, then the bear slowly turned around and ambled his way back to the other side of the creek. He picked up a dead salmon, rejoined his buddy, and started to wander on up the creek.

I wonder if when that bear was a little cub if he got into someone's strawberry patch, heard the sound of a shotgun round being chambered, and got some birdshot in the butt? He sure did seem to know the sound and associated it with something he didn't want to be involved with!

Although it was only about 10:30 in the morning, it seemed to me to be a good time to break for lunch!

I walked briskly up the main river, and then crossed the creek to get to my parked van, as the bears were just coming into sight. I was standing up on a cut bank about ten feet above the river, and I took the picture above. The one carrying the fish is the one who charged me.

I did come back out and fish some more that afternoon, and yes, I did get my record fish, by 4 ounces. It was approved, however, and for a short while I held the record. It's long since been bettered, but I had it for a little while!

It's amazing how hard it was to concentrate on my casting, though, expecting the bears to re-appear at any moment.

Back to town later that afternoon for a burger and a cup of coffee, then 23 hours and 30 minutes back home.

Quite a weekend!

UPDATE: Almost one year to the day after my run in with that particular bear, it killed a man and ate him, just down the river a ways from where I had been fishing. The bear was tracked down and shot........


At Tuesday, January 31, 2006 8:19:00 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Great story! Thanks for sharing.

At Wednesday, February 01, 2006 10:08:00 AM, Blogger Grampapinhead said...

Keep at it, you will haved some great tales for your grandkids. This one sure is a keeper, I enjoyed it very much.

At Wednesday, February 01, 2006 11:21:00 PM, Blogger Countertop said...


Great story. How do you know it was the same bear that attacked you that attacked the guy a week later??

At Thursday, February 02, 2006 11:49:00 AM, Blogger Mr. Completely said...

It was in a very small town in a steep sided valley, and all of the locals pretty much know all of the bears by sight, and know which ones are not a problem, and which ones should be given a wide berth.

At Thursday, February 02, 2006 4:28:00 PM, Blogger greentogroove said...

Sounds like a great trip... makes me jealous. Just moved up to Alaska, though - so there's a great many trips in my future. Thanks for the inspiration.

At Friday, February 03, 2006 6:38:00 AM, Blogger ChargeOfQuarters said...

What kind of ammo did you have in that Mossberg?

Inquiring minds want to know (or maybe just me...)


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