It’s my first time fishing the Shoshone River near Cody, Wyoming. It’s my first time fishing with bear spray clipped on my wading belt. It’s the first time a guide has followed me into the willows when I sneak off for a bathroom break.
I’m used to living, working and playing in Idaho’s bear country. I’m bear aware, but Cody takes the conflict to a whole new level. The area has to. Grizzlies have a stronghold here.
“That’s heavy bear country,” says Chuck Bartlebaugh, Be Bear Aware director. “Anywhere along that river, you should be aware. There are bears with almost no warning.”
That’s why a can of spray is attached to me and my guide goes when I need to go. He follows me to my makeshift latrine, searches the willows, steps a few feet out of my sight and turns his back. It’s as much privacy as I’m going to get and he’s not quiet about it. He’s hollering ‘hey bear, ho bear’ while he waits.
“I make noise,” says Tim Wade, North Fork Anglers owner and outfitter. “There’s no point in asking to get eaten by a bear.”
He carries bear spray on all fishing trips. He’s used it twice in recent years. He’s fished all day with bears across the river from him and there’s no trouble. On other days, he stops casting and starts spraying when grizzlies come within 10 to 15 feet of him.
“That’s close,” he says. “They can hit you then.”
I don’t want to be hit. I just want to fish. The North Fork of the Shoshone River is 50 miles of trout water. I land a thick-bellied cutthroat trout on my fourth cast. Wade makes his living on this water. Now that’s he’s sharing it with bears, business is changing.
“They’re good for my business,” he says. “People don’t want to be alone.”
I see their point when I see bear-proof bins in the campground and rules for hard-side units. It’s trailers only here. No soft-side tents allowed. Greater Yellowstone Coalition works with the U.S. Forest Service to put those preventative measures in place. Bear-proof storage bins and garbage containers are in 103 of the 164 Forest Service campgrounds in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem which includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks plus portions of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
“Public campgrounds are usually the first entry point for visitors in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” says Scott Christensen, Greater Yellowstone Coalition director of conservation. “People come from around the world to visit and most of them are from places without grizzlies.”
Many of the campers in those campgrounds are fishers and they stop at Wade’s shop in Cody. He started selling bear spray in 2001. He sells more than 700 cans of it annually. He’s one of the largest bear spray sellers in Cody.
“Makes it more interesting,” he says. “People are afraid of bears.”
Bartlebaugh sees just the opposite in his line of work. He’s vigilant about bear awareness. He thinks most people aren’t fearful enough. He suggests anyone within 100 miles of Yellowstone National Park carry bear spray. That means I should carry it in my hometown when I go to the grocery store. I don’t see that happening, but I do see his point too.
“We have people going off trail alone without spray and we have people going helter skelter by walking up to wildlife,” he says. “That’s dangerous.”
Bartlebaugh talks of technique by showing me how to spray toward the ground and out rather than into the air. He also reminds me of the few precious seconds spray offers for escape, but none of that matters if it’s not in my hand.
My fly rod is in my left hand so I slide the can around to my right hip thinking a reach with my free, right hand will be quicker. I also cut back on hydration so I don’t need bathroom breaks for the rest of the day. Having Wade holler during my precarious hover is hard enough. Having a grizzly barrel into my bathroom would be my unbearable end.