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Ard Stetts Series

  "Fishing with the Bears"

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The meal!

By Ard Stetts for The Real Skinny

Almost always when talking or writing to people from outside Alaska about travel and fishing here, they ask the same question, ďArenít you afraid of bears?Ē Without being pretentious and acknowledging the danger of a close encounter with a bear, I try to explain about fishing with them. In answering, I reply ďafraid no, aware yes.Ē

The rewards are always worth it.I wasnít born in Alaska, but then in 1954 my part of Pennsylvania was not exactly like downtown Manhattan. My parentsí home was on a large lot that bordered the forest at the base of the Bald Eagle Mountain in North Central PA. Seeing white tail deer, fox, and an occasional black bear in our yard was just part of growing up. My father raised me to be an outdoorsman. Childhood life was filled with back country hiking, lessons in nature observation and tracking. Over the many years since those boyhood experiences. I have camped and fished in bear country wherever they exist here in North America. On occasion I have had to move from an area because I had encroached on Grizzly territory.

The most memorable exit took place in Montana. In 1981 I was camped many miles up the old rail spur that led from the town of West Yellowstone to Big Springs. The rails had been torn out many years prior to my visit. I had accessed the old line by motorcycle. My big mistake was setting up the tent prior to doing a good wide perimeter check for bear signs. By the time I discovered that I had camped way too close to a well traveled path leading to the South Fork, it was nearly dark. The path showed heavy use by Grizzlies and those signs were very fresh. Deciding to err on the side of safety, I broke camp and made my way back the precarious trail I had taken to this remote spot in total darkness, save for my headlight. The point I would hope to make with this quick remembrance is that 99% of the time caution and due vigilance will keep you safe from a dangerous encounter with Americaís largest carnivore.

A dark haired brown watches me from the opposite river bank.I got my first look at an Alaskan Brown Bear in 1989 while on a short shore leave from my job as a commercial fisherman. Just a glimpse of the bruin dashing across the Sterling Highway revealed the size and capable speed of these fabled beasts. Many years later and with every encounter logged in memory, I am still awed by that size and speed of the brown bear. It is with that in mind that we fish the streams and rivers both in the interior, where our cabin is located, and the more urban waterways where many fatal bear encounters occur. I am not prepared to quote statistics regarding bear attacks in Alaska, nor am I a bear expert. I will venture to state that the encounters between man and bear are more often deadly for the bear than for the human. My wife Nancy and I keep a constant watch for any signs of bear and of course we always have our German Shepherd Boss along when we are in the outdoors.

Our German Shepherd BossHis acute hearing and sense of smell is simply the best early warning system we could ever hope for. Many bears go unseen because of the ruckus raised by the dog and we never discourage barking in the bush. Of course not everyone who fishes in bear country has a canine security system handy as we do. You must rely on some tried and true methods of alerting nearby bruins of your presence. The most popular advice is to make noise. Making noise, and I mean a noticeable level of noise, will no doubt seem foreign to a fly fisher. Trust me here, it is better to be heard and not seen by a bear than the opposite. Sockeye salmon flood a stream. A good example of what will draw bears!When I happen to be in the bush or at streamside without the company of my dog, I talk loudly and frequently. Better put, I holler and call out as if hailing a downstream partner. Trying to maintain the presence of mind to do this may seem difficult, but if you find yourself fishing a brush choked creek in bear country it will come naturally for you. I find it hard to ignore the very real danger of a surprise encounter with a wandering bear, no matter if I am fishing close to home or 100 miles from the nearest road. So remember, make noise.

Two Kodiak browns forage for salmon at the mouth of a river.I have included photos of brown bears during the sockeye run on a nearby river, but please donít be misled by the seemingly close proximity from which they were taken, I employed a 500mm lens and made them very aware of my presence.  When I come upon bears who are acutely focused on catching fish, I feel a little more secure than I did last August when on a float trip. Making the catch.I found myself dangerously close to a fresh moose kill, so I put the oars to the water and as much distance between me and that carcass as I could. Once again I was both lucky to have spotted the kill and cautious in making a prompt exit. The image of a bear large enough to take down a full grown moose charging into the water to drive away an interloper (me) was one that I never want to see. That was the only time I really wished for a 65hp motor on a drift boat.

My wife, Nancy with Sockeye and a side arm for protection.If you trek or camp in bear country for salmon or trout, you must avoid smelly foods. Things I keep off my menu list include smoked jerky or salmon, canned sardines, or tuna. To make it short and sweet, stick to granola bars and water and bury all your wrappers. When camped along a river instead of using bear proof canisters and hiding them away from camp, I form a nice pile of gear topped with the coffee pot and anything else that will The mixed bag of August that draws the bears to the creeks. In the picture of the big Char, notice the bear spray clipped to me.create a racket if upset in the night. I donít want the only thing that smells interesting to a bear to be me. At river camps and at our cabin nothing beats keeping a sanitary living area. The less your camp smells like a good place to prospect for a meal the safer you will be. For the ever present chance of an encounter that goes wrong, we each carry a large canister of bear spray, and we keep additional means of protection close at hand.

Two large bears had beat me to a tidal pool.Considering the amount of time I spend in the bush, I find that stories about people shooting bears donít meet my threshold of presenting imminent danger. I have not yet had to use any tear gas or deadly force as a deterrent. I have exited many areas quickly and loudly when a bear was discovered or their presence perceived. Recently while fishing on Kodiak Island I found two large bears had beat me to a tidal pool I intended to fish as the tide went out. I took a few long range photos and went in search of a less crowded spot. There are no salmon to be caught that are worth the risk of a lethal face off between a bear and I.

Nancy casts in a deep and silt roiled pool, a good example of where the bears donít fish.If you are planning a trip to Alaska, unless you schedule a bear viewing tour you may not even see one of these legendary beasts. If you decide to take a trip off the beaten trail, be forewarned that a surprised bear can be one of the most dangerous animals Landing an interior may ever see. Donít rely on a weapon as your sole form of defense. An informed person with an active mind and open eyes offers better safety and defense than a panicked scramble for a magnum. Remembering that whenever there is an abundance of fish in a relatively shallow body of water, you are in a prime fishing hole for the Alaskan Brown Bear. You would do well to find an open area where visibility is not blocked by foliage and where the depth of the water is not conducive to a bear easily obtaining a meal there.

The beauty combined with the rewards of a great fly fishing.A remote creek.When I am salmon fishing it is always my intent to be the hunter not the prey. I have included many photographs of streams and fish in this article to illustrate the levels of seclusion and the beauty of my home fishing grounds. The fish are indeed plentiful and the areas remote. I have had few bear encounters when photographs were practical, but there may be one around the next bend of the river.

I will leave you with that thought and promise next issue to provide tales of high expectations and diminished hope while casting in fishermanís paradise. 

Ard Stetts

The seclusion and the beauty of my home fishing grounds. The fish are indeed plentiful and the areas remote.

"The seclusion and the beauty of my home fishing grounds. The fish are indeed plentiful and the areas remote."


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 35 years and has learned from some of the best.  Also see The Flies of Ard Stetts.


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