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By Ard Stetts of Life on the Line for The Real Skinny

It was August and as summer wound down the season had been pretty much a total bust for salmon. Almost every river from the Yukon in Western Alaska to here in my region was closed for the poor king salmon returns. Our Silvers were closed on many rivers as well.

During July I had become so desperate for fresh salmon I drove all the way to Chitna on the Copper River to try my hand at dip netting for sockeye. All I can tell you about this adventure is that there were 2 decisive outcomes after my 3 days camped in the never ending rain & wind that accompanied the 41* air temp on July 9, the third day. Number one; I was terrified of that river! The swiftness of the currents and the enormity of the river as it plunged down through the sheer rock walls of the canyon were enough to tell me that with but one false move I would be no more. Secondly, I caught nothing although many people were hording sockeye in numbers that defied belief. The limit for a household of 2 is 40 fish with a supplemental harvest of 10. The larger the household the more fish legally kept. This was my first try at this and I didn't have a real 149.00 dollar dip net. I fashioned one from an old boat sized salmon net and an extension handle made for painting I figured that if there were several million fish even I could get a few, I figured wrong.

So along came August and there I was along another river that seemed full of sockeye. Problem here was that the limit was 3 fish. Now go figure? If you dip net you can take 50 - 70 fish in a day if you get into the thick of it but if you fish with a 1981 13' 9" Hardy Spey rod and a single fly you may only possess 3 per day............ Anyway, I made my way down the river until I found a spot where I could see the conga line of fish making their way upstream about 20' from the shore. Now sockeye are not the best quarry for the fly rod because it seems that only one in 30 might take a swipe at a swinging fly. With disregard to this prior knowledge I went about casting and after a while I had my first, a nice male of perhaps 5.5 pounds or so and due to my empty larder at home I killed him immediately. One down, 2 to go, things were looking up eh?

Before long I had a second, another medium size male and he too got the knife within seconds of reaching shore. I knew they were small but I could taste them already. I had spotted an old length of fly line snagged around a rock in the water and since I had no stringer for the fish I waded out and retrieved it. I strung the 2 fish and took them about a yard off shore in maybe 18" of water and tied them off placing a large flat rock on them to keep them submerged. You see, gulls or bears will spot fish either floating or near the shore and when you wander away they will quickly pilfer your prizes so I took no risk with my treasures.

I had moved down river maybe 20 yards or so and was about 150 yards above where the river took a sharp turn to my left and disappeared around the high bank that stretched from where I was at to the point where the water went outta sight. Of course ĎBossí was with me and because I knew we were in bear country. I had clipped his leash onto his collar. With the leash on he will just pick a spot and sit with no wandering up into the bushes and trees and this is what you don't want. If he were to wander off into the forest and come into a bear with cubs the momma would no doubt run him off. He would of course come straight to me with his new running mate in tow so I'm sure you get my strategy here.

So there we are my friend Boss and I, sunny day, the chance to limit out and be back at the truck before noon. Right about now I see a bear down river standing on the point of the shore where the river turns left. It's looking at us and Boss and I are looking at it. I began waving my arms and hollering with Boss backs me up with some big base German Shepherd barking noise. With that the bruin scoots up the embankment and is gone. Still I was a little spooked and decided to go no farther downriver. After a little while and about 100 nervous glances to my sides and to the top of the high bank to my rear I began to relax and try for that third fish.

This is Boss, 94 pounds and a very loyal protector.
This is Boss, 94 pounds and a very loyal protector

I had heard nothing and I suspect that the dog had heard nothing because he was silent. I don't know what made me look but I somehow knew to look left and there just 30 feet at maximum on the shore downstream was the bear. How the hell it got down that bank without making a sound I do not know but there it was. Just as before it was looking at us and we were looking at it!

Neither you nor I can stop a person from chasing fish. I have had to warn several fishermen away from me when they encroached to the point where my chances of being hooked were darn near as high as the salmon they were targeting. I did in several instances remark that it looked like they were trying to snag fish right in front of me. The responses to my comments have been less than positive. I have been threatened, insulted, and otherwise disrespected. I would not advise any interaction with this type of poacher.

I steadied the dog with the 'STAY' command loud & clear and looked for a place to put my rather long rod down safely. The bear came closer. I unzipped my wading jacket and hoisted it up like a sail over my head and began raising a very loud warning to this bear. All of this is supposed to make you look bigger and much more threatening to a bear. The bear came closer. Snatching up Boss's leash and my rod I began to back up the shore line while facing the bear. The bear followed. Then as I was almost up to where the hidden fish were I had to make a decision, leave them (this bear would surly spot them) or try to get them and get outta there, no way would this bear attack us over 2 small salmon when the river was full of em right?

Like Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon my mind was set, I made my best stealth move into the water and grabbed the fish. Quickly I concealed them behind my back / butt; no way would this bear smell or see them, right? Again I started backing away and .............. you guessed it, the bear followed. Within seconds I kicked my left heel into a goonie the size of a small engine block and nearly went full on my ass! The bear took a couple quick bounds closing the gap to maybe the original 30' or less when it appeared I was going to surrender. I said out loud (very loud) "I know you aren't supposed to do this but letís get the hell outta here Boss" with that I turned my back and ran maybe 10 yards. The cobble along the river and the waders - rod - dog leash, all made it nearly impossible to do the old hot foot so I stopped to see what was going on to my rear. The bear was coming and was much closer.

I haven't said anything about the size of this bear. I've never shot a bear and then had it weighed so I'm not the greatest source for size estimates but about 2 weeks after this encounter I had lunch with a fellow who is 6' 2' and 350 pounds. It was at this time with him sitting directly across from me that I realized the bear had to have been at least 600 pounds!

It was time to do something! I dropped the rod and bellowed at this animal and I can make a big noise being 6'4" tall at 225 pounds with good lungs. Boss is about 85 pounds and now he's raising quite a racket as well at the end of his leash. Through all this excitement on our part the bear seems to be making up its mind about something. I brandished the fish! "Here, is this what you want dammit"! With that I tried to throw the fish to the bear. My throw was underhand and clumsy. The fish landed about 2' from shore and began to float & sink in a sickening sort of rolling motion as they headed downstream.

The bear rose up its head & shoulders almost taking its front paws off the ground and stretched its nose toward the floating fish............. then it turned and faced Boss and I. My fish floated out of sight.

Now you might think I did everything wrong, maybe I did but I lived to tell about it so I'll keep telling. Now I was pissed! My fish gone, my rod and reel 20 yards downriver in the dirt, yeah I was pissed. I dropped the leash that connected me to the barking shepherd and reached into the front of my waders with both hands. With nimble thumbs that surprised me I popped the safety caps from the 2 cans of 'Counter Assault' Bear Spray and I started toward the bear bellowing the word STAY to Boss as I went. For the first time the bear stopped coming toward or following me and it began backing up. I stopped and started to back off too hoping this was over but Noooo...., it took another couple steps soon as I backed up!

With that I let loose a cloud of mustard green looking stuff at a distance of maybe 15 feet! The bear saw it coming and made a move that defied both its size and morphology. It completed a 180* turn in a millisecond and started to tear up over the steep embankment. Now I was on its ass spraying away and howling bloody murder along with a substantial string of vulgarity's that surprised even me and I'm good with vulgarities.

With that, the bear was gone as were my hard fought sockeye but Boss and I were unscathed and good for another day. On the way back to where I had parked the truck I got one more substandard fish and took it as the third of my limit. Next time I will show no quarter and will go after and spray the devil outta any bear that acts like it has any nefarious intentions. I now have 4 of the regular size sprays and one of the Jumbo sizes also. Of course a gun would be the final pull but as I learned here, the bear just about s--- itself when I unleashed the gas so I'm OK with that.

So there's the story of the bear encounter, we've ran across quite a few but none that ever came at us. Lesson learned I guess.

Iím Ard Stetts & Thatís The Real Skinny.


Ard Stetts

The Real Skinny, is a regular feature of informative articles written by Ard Stetts for Salmonfly.Net about fly fishing for salmon and steelhead.  Ard Stetts was born in north central Pennsylvania and now resides in Alaska with his wife Nancy.  He has been tying classic Salmon, Landlocked Salmon and Featherwing Trout Streamers for over 35 years and has learned from some of the best. Ard is now the owner and operator of Life On The Line an Alaskan fly and Spey fishing guide service operating out of Wasilla, Alaska. Also see The Flies of Ard Stetts.

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