“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.
The 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 little shy.
Next 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.
When 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 other.
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.