“Hey Bear!" - “Hey Bear!" Derek was out of
site around a small bend in the channel when we heard him say it.
The three of us were on foot in the Togiak Wildlife Refuge on a beautiful
salmon river. Dan, the guide, was with me. “Hey Bear”
is what Clint had taught us to say if we were in the willow and alder
thickets and wanted the bears, or the guide, to know where we were.
The theory is that these Grizzlies will do anything to avoid people
if they know where they are. I always feel a little silly walking
through beautiful, pristine, arctic wilderness hollering, “hey
bear” at the top of my lungs but I’ve never felt silly
enough to not do it. These bears are big and I want them to have options
that don’t involve a close-up confrontation with me.
thing Dan and I both knew immediately though, just from the sound
of Derek’s voice, was that he was actually saying “hey”
to an actual bear. It wasn’t that he sounded panicked or even
scared but he definitely sounded a lot more interested in the conversation
than the average guy saying “hey bear” just to make noise.
Dan and I had been pretty distracted for the last few minutes. We
were fishing a wide shallow pool in a back channel that was full of
spawning Sockeye and Chum salmon. There were big Dolly Varden everywhere
and although I’m as big a fan of Dollys as anybody, but there
was a nice Leopard Rainbow skulking around the far side of the pool.
We had spent half a dozen casts trying to get the Rainbow with an
egg pattern but the Dollys were way too fast and aggressive. It was
nearly impossible to not catch a big thrashing, slashing, silver Dolly
Varden on every cast with the egg fly and the Rainbow was being a
we tried a surface mouse fly but that seemed to make him even more
nervous, possibly because of the way I drilled it into the water right
over his head. Whatever the cause, he seemed to have vanished.
“He’s up in under the overhanging grass bank on the far
side of the pool,” said Dan.
“How do you know? I can’t see a thing.”
“He’s in there. Trust me.”
Today was the first time I had ever fished with Dan but I had learned
fairly early in the day not to argue with him about fish. He was right
on the money a ridiculous percentage of the time. Now he was tying
on an olive green, sculpin, streamer sort of a fly that he had dreamed
up and tied for the Rainbows on this river.
“Cast this right to the far bank and let it drift along the
grass edge,” he instructed. My first cast, that actually landed
in the water instead of the willows, was perfect. The fly plopped
gently into the current a couple of inches from the bank and drifted
slowly down stream. As the fly sank, it disappeared into the shadow
of the overhanging grass.
I stood there, bent forward in knee-deep water, frozen with concentration,
waiting and preying for any little twitch or stop in the leader. A
couple of feet upstream from where I thought my fly would be by now
I saw a ghostly, white, triangular shape appear and then disappear
in the shadowed water under the grass overhang. By the time my brain
was about half way through the deductive process of realizing that
the ghostly white shape was the inside of a huge Rainbow mouth, opening
and closing somewhere near my fly, I realized that Dan was shrieking
“SET, SET, SET” at the top of his lungs and jumping up
and down like his waders were on fire.
For reasons known only to the fish, he still had the fly in his mouth
when I finally did get around to setting the hook. He turned out to
be a lovely, fat, twenty-three inch Rainbow with a spectacular raspberry
stripe down his side. We took a couple of pictures and then let him
go, and it was just about this time that we heard Derek say “Hey
Bear” with such intensity and enthusiasm. As Dan and I reacted
to Derek’s voice, we both realized that just moments before
we had heard a really loud splash from up that same direction.
Dan, heavily armed with a plastic water bottle and a six-weight fly
rod, instantly charged downstream toward Derek, stumbling and staggering
through the muddy grass tussocks on the riverbank. I charged after
him, possibly in an effort to help out or maybe I just didn’t
want to be left all alone when there were bears around. It turned
out that the splash had been from a very large Grizzly dropping down
out of the willow thicket, into the pool Derek was fishing.
Derek had announced himself with “Hey Bear”, she had whirled
around to face him and stood up on her hind feet. The fact that Derek
neither bolted away in terror nor soiled his waders is a continuing
source of amazement for me.
By the time Dan and I arrived on the scene the bear was back down
on all fours and she and Derek were standing in the river looking
at each other.
Estimating distances in a tense situation like this is impossible.
At the time it looked like they were close enough to spit on each
Trying to look back honestly, and looking at the pictures I took,
they were probably sixty or seventy feet apart. The Grizzlies in the
Togiak Wilderness have a reputation for being very afraid of humans,
something to do with Inuit hunting. They always take off at high speed
at the first sight or whiff of a person. But this bear was standing
her ground. She wasn’t threatening though. Twenty-five years
as veterinarians has given both Derek and me a finely tuned ability
to read animal body language. Neither one of us felt the slightest
bit threatened by this bear. Everything about her posture and behavior
said “leave me alone, I want nothing to do with you people”.
But she didn’t leave. As soon as he arrived on the scene Dan
had stepped into the river between Derek and the bear.
I figure he was either taking his guiding responsibilities very seriously
or he was trying to avoid all the tedious paperwork required by the
state of Alaska if you feed a paying client to a bear. Either way
I was happy to see him step up and I took the opportunity to take
some pretty exciting photos of Dan and the grizzly in the same frame,
staring at each other. I figured if Dan got himself mauled doing something
brave and noble he would appreciate a photographic record of the event.
By now Dan had progressed from “hey bear” to language
best left to the imagination of adults, but the bear still wasn’t
budging. After a minute or two Dan picked up a rock and chucked it
in her direction. She gazed at him distrustfully for another few seconds
and then turned and vanished into the willows.
We stood around for a few minutes talking excitedly and taking deep
calming breaths and trying to act nonchalant. I think we all needed
to pee but none of us were willing to admit it because nobody was
going to pull their waders down around their knees. That just leaves
you feeling exposed. At this point reasonable people would have returned
to the boat and moved on to a different stretch of river but there
were two problems with that. Number one, this little side channel
had some of the best fishing that any of us had ever seen in our lives.
And number two; the bear was between us and the boat. We didn’t
think she would bother us but why not fish for a while and give her
a chance to clear out.
As we moved on upstream the channel became little more than a medium
sized creek but the number and size of the fish in it were mind-boggling.
There were hundreds of salmon spawning in every pool and you could
catch big, shiny, colorful Dolly Varden on almost every cast if you
wanted to. Derek caught two twenty inch Rainbows out of a little corner
pool that was no bigger than a king sized bed. Anywhere there was
a downed willow providing cover in a foot or more of water, we had
a good chance of finding a Rainbow.
Eventually we came to a bigger, deeper pool that looked like the perfect
spot for a really big Rainbow. The crystal clear water looked to be
about twelve or fifteen feet deep and the pool was about twenty feet
across and forty feet long. Dan had me move to the upstream bank and
skate a mouse pattern across the surface.
The big Rainbow, that we all knew had to be there, rose slowly out
of the deepest part of the pool and, in clear view of all three of
us, moved right toward the fly. This fish was magnificent. Huge, fat,
darkly colored and perfectly shaped. This is the fish that keeps me
coming back to this river year after year. This would be the fish
of the trip. My heart was beating far faster and harder than it had
when we were facing the bear.
When he got to within about two feet of the fly, the fish slowed and
paused. Obviously, he was inspecting the mouse fly to see if it warranted
a strike. For what seemed like forever, I kept my cool and kept the
fly skittering slowly across the surface while this amazing fish held
position just below it, looking, waiting. Finally with no warning
whatsoever, the Rainbow exploded through the surface of the pool,
slashing at the fly with a huge, wide-open mouth. Only years of experience,
and cat-like reflexes, allowed me to snatch the fly to safety before
the Rainbow could close his jaws on it.
We tried for another half hour to get that fish to strike at about
fifteen different flies but even in a wilderness, the big fish don’t
get big by doing something stupid twice. He had us figured out after
one encounter and wasn’t buying what we were selling.
Its not the fish I catch that make me want to return to a river. It’s
the ones that get away. Sometimes when I lie awake during the long
nights of a New Hampshire winter I see that fish and that strike.
I have to go back.
We headed back to the boat after that, about an hours walk. About
half way there I saw something blond and furry moving toward the channel
from our left.
I stopped Dan and Derek and we stood still and watched two small
blond grizzly cubs, maybe fifty pounds each, splash through the water
less than a hundred feet in front of us and disappear into the willows.
Happy and clueless as only the very young can be. Now we knew why
Derek’s bear had stood her ground. She was willing to stand
nose to nose with the only thing in her world that was dangerous to
her so that the cubs could clear out to safety. Now here they were
blundering into us again. It was definitely time for us to leave.
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