The big black bear plopped its sizable rear end down atop a moss-covered log overlooking the stream, and just scoped out the situation.
This was a beast that clearly had this fishing thing down, at least judging by its drag-the-ground belly and its patient approach to the endeavor before it. Below, half a dozen other black bears jockeyed for position along the salmon-choked southeast Alaskan stream. They tolerated one another, but just barely, as they wandered the banks of the rain-swollen creek looking for likely holding water that didn’t already have a bear in it.
As we watched several dozen bears fishing over the course of an afternoon, it was interesting to note that some were more successful than others. Some, including the big black bear, came to the creek armed with years of experience while others, especially a pair of three-year-old brown bears, were a bit clumsy and awkward.
We watched as bears of all skill levels tackled the challenge of catching a fish for a meal. For the bears, fishing is an honest-to-God necessity, not an exercise in entertainment and adventure. That became abundantly clear to the folks like me who were gathered to watch the bears—it was one thing when a fish and a bear’s jaws met. It was quite another when, scant feet away, the big ursines ripped the still-quivering salmon apart, feasting on the fatty parts and leaving behind the rest for opportunistic bald eagles. The bears needed these fish. And they needed them right then and there.
So, like the big black bear, I sat back and watched, reflecting on what we can learn from the bears and apply to our own fishing — even if chasing migrating salmon and nymphing for finicky trout might not be particularly related.
Observe and be patient
You’ve likely heard it many times before. When you get to the water, don’t just rush in and start casting. Take a few minutes and check out the scene. Are there rising fish? What are they after? Which way is the wind blowing? What’s the angle of the sun, and where will your shadow fall? Read the water. Identify the likely runs and where the fish might be resting in opportunistic lies. This is good advice, and some that the best of the bears practiced. I watched one bruin sit in the same spot for a good 30 minutes before quietly stepping down to the creek bank when the sun went behind the clouds. Within seconds, the bear was back in his perch dining on fresh sashimi.
Find the line
This is probably easier for us, as two-legged anglers, to understand. Finding rising fish, and identifying their feeding lane is relatively easy, and it gets our blood pumping—those moments leading up to the classic dry-fly take are likely among our favorites, and when we put a dry fly in line for the next rise … that’s when the magic happens. For the bears, the endeavor is similar, albeit under completely different circumstances.
In fast water, salmon have to leap from the current to clear obstacles. When a bear puts himself in the right place at the right time, it’s wonderful, just as it is when we put ourselves in a position to succeed. Watching a bear catch a leaping salmon is the equivalent of enjoying a voracious strike on a high-floating hopper. You literally want to cheer.
There’s more than meets the eye
How many times have you heard the declaration that trout feed under the water about 90 percent of the time? Those moments when big trout take big, beefy dry flies are, indeed, rare, and most of us know that, to succeed in trout fishing means you’re going to have to incorporate nymphs and streamers into your game.
Again, under completely different circumstances, bears are forced to go deep, too. We watched some bears literally submerge their faces in the water and actually peer through the drink trying to spot fish. Others stared intently at the surface and only occasionally dipped their heads into the drink when fish apparently came close enough. Success for these critters was … fleeting.
Then we watched a larger male brown bear saunter into the fray and position himself in the water up to his neck. The bear’s shoulders were continually moving, and every few minutes, he’s simply put his mouth near the water and a salmon would invariably come close enough for him to at least make a go of it. It took me a while to figure it out, but when I did, I was amazed at the simplicity.
The bear’s giant paws were constantly working under water, where he would very gingerly “tickle” the salmon that swam in front of him, causing them to move up in the the water column and within range of his jaws. This big griz caught more fish in an hour that most of the other bears did all day.
The lesson for fly fishers? I think we just need to realize that a lot goes on under the surface. And that giant brown bears don’t have to use size 16 Prince nymphs to bring fish to hand.
Location, location, location
Reading the water for anglers is not a unique skill. Bears do it, too. Slack water, eddies, tail-outs … we know they all generally hold fish. Bears seem to understand this, too, so much so, that really great water is prized among the fishing bears, and they’ll fight to defend it. I wouldn’t recommend biting and clawing to keep your spot on the river, but just ask any Salmon River steelheader if it pays to be the first fisherman in the run.
The lesson? Get there early and reap the rewards.
Yes there were some epic scuffles on the salmon stream, particularly among black bears competing for prime fishing real estate. But, considering that, at times, there were a good dozen bears within a 100-foot stretch of stream, the conflicts were minimal. Most of the bears were actually pretty good about sharing. When they caught a fish, they’d retreat back to the stream’s edge to enjoy their meal and allow another bear to step in try his or her luck in the spot they just left.
Fly fishing can be as social and polite as we make it, particularly when many of us descend on generally the same stretch of water. If you’re catching fish and notice that someone else is stuck in a crummy run, what’s the harm in extending an invitation?
A few years ago, while chasing grayling on the Chena River north near Fairbanks, I stumbled into perhaps the best string of pools on the river, and I was gloriously alone. I stuck a few fat fish and then realized that there was a lot of water, and a nearly endless supply of brain-dead grayling willing to hit a Royal Coachman. I wandered back downstream and grabbed my fishing buddy Mark Taylor.
“You gotta come with me,” I said. “This is ridiculous.”
We fished that water together until the sun set, and then some. The lesson? Fishing is always more fun if you have a buddy to back up your story that starts with, “I swear to God it was a good 20 inches long.”
Take a lesson
Honestly, regardless of how you fish, it’s almost always worth the time to watch someone else do it. I love to fish with really good anglers—they rub off on me, and when the day is done, I’m a better angler than I was before the fishing started.
And sometimes, when you have to learn out of necessity, it’s good to have somebody to emulate. The bears seem to follow the same school of thought. I’m sure the big black bear was once a clumsy fisher, and he honed his skills over time by actually fishing, and watching other bears, starting with his mother, chase salmon.
As fly fishers, we likely could all use a lesson now and then. Don’t be ashamed to ask for advice or ask another angler to show you how to double haul or put the perfect mend in the line. A reach cast takes practice, but first, you need to see how it’s done.
The lesson? Take a lesson.
Some of us are steadfastly committed to a single run or a single stretch of water when we fish. I get it. We’re comfortable and we like our chances in the places we know best. The bears know where the good water is too, and rarely is a stretch of fishable water left unoccupied. That means there’s lots of pacing and gruffness as less-fortunate critters are forced to wait their turn.
But a few bears, rather than wait on that one stretch of perfect water, move around a bit. I watched one young brown bear leave the fray at the base the falls and wander well upstream to a swifter, shallower run that contained fewer salmon, but gave her more room to give chase. She caught a nice pink salmon and was able to enjoy her meal and go right back to fishing rather than having to wait.
The lesson? Move around. Find more good water. You’ll up your odds.
Yes, it’s probably silly to put yourself in a position to actually watch a dozen bears at a time chase salmon just a few feet away. Thankfully, there are a number of places where this activity is generally safe. My daughter and I were fortunate enough to get to visit the Anan Creek bear viewing facility located a short boat ride from Wrangell. We were escorted by armed guards along a well-worn path, and never once did we feel threatened. What’s more, never once did we feel that we put the bears in any danger. If you’re ever in the area, this is an experience you should consider.
Even if you’re not a fisherman.