Kodiak Brown Bear and Coho Salmon Fishing
Chris Maxcer

Fishing with the Bears

I’m standing in this bear’s fishing spot.

Several years ago — too many, actually — my unassuming next door neighbor turned out to be a wicked cool guy who went fishing with Kodiak brown bears every year. Better yet, he made it a habit to go with a regular band of men. Lucky for me, he was also willing to take along a rookie. I jumped at the invitation, a whole ten months in advance of his next trip, and started saving money. The result? On Day One I hooked my first coho salmon — on a fly — while a Kodiak brown bear came up on me while I was alone on the wrong side of the river.

Rewind

This bear, which seems to be a juvenile male that’s still far larger than any black bear I’ve ever seen, is working its way up the river from about 300 yards downriver from me. After I hook a coho, he just keeps on coming in. I’m standing on a spit of sand out in the open, and there’s no way he can miss me. But he keeps closing in until he’s 100 feet out, and with my fly rod arching with a fighting salmon on the line, I can tell he’s looking me over and thinking about what to do. I can see his eyes and the way they flash over me and around the area. By the time he’s fifty feet out, I’m not sure if he’s going to come right up to me or what, and I put the camera away in order to get out my can of bear spray. He hangs out around forty feet away, half scanning the water for fish and half eyeing me.

Mr. Nonchalance actually keeps eyeing me.

I have no where to go. At my back is a bunch of brush and I don’t know what is in there. In front of me is a raging torrent of deep fast water. Can’t cross there, and I certainly can’t swim with waders on — plus the bears are astounding swimmers. Not good.

What about the guys from my camp? They’re across the river watching me and the bear, and as near as I can tell, they’re mostly curious about what I’m going to do — shit my pants, hold my ground, or do something really stupid like run?

There’s two guns in camp, a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot plus a sweet and heavy S&W .50 caliber revolver. Not good. Even if I was getting chomped on by a bear, I wouldn’t want anyone shooting with either of those less-than-accurate options from 40 yards away on the other side of the river. That was a lose-lose situation if I ever imagined one.

Finally the leader of our pack shouts some encouragement: “Hold your ground! Stay calm!”

Stay calm?

My heart is thrashing in my chest. I consider hauling hard on the fish to break the line, but then I’d know I wimped out. With the fast water above my spot, there was nowhere I could lead that fish to land it except below me in the calm shallow water — right in front of the bear.

Kodiak Brown Bear and Coho Salmon Fishing
Uh oh.

Man, what a test. Then I notice that one of the guys across the river has set up a tripod with a video camera on it. Are you kidding me? What, to document my demise? I could imagine my buddy handing over the tape to my grieving fiancé.

About this time the bear decides I’m not going anywhere and diverts off into the brush to go around me.

Nice, I’m thinking, though I’m aware that there’s tall brush behind me and the bear could be 12 feet away before I knew he was back. But I stood my ground and he walked around. I holstered my can of bear spray and threw up an arm with a pumped fist for the guys across the river.

And then my fly line went slack and I lost the fish.

Damn.

Of course, it’s hard to be really pissed when there’s a shit-eating grin on your face.

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  1. First off nice photos! Hey can you throw up an essentials gear list for this kind of trip. Bear Mace, Fly Rod with type, and other things. I have a friend at work who has been thinking about this type of trip as well.

    Fear is great topic, you won out in this one. I will have to think on it and see if I can come up with a strategy for conquering fear in the moment. Unless you have one?

    1. Conquering fear . . . it’s mostly about not wetting your pants.

      For the most part, if you’re there at the right time — there’s plenty of salmon in the water for bears to eat — they are totally focused on the salmon and bulking up for winter. Get there too early, and the bears are grouchy waiting for the salmon. Get there too late, and the bears are wandering around thinking they’ve got one more chance to put on fat before hibernation, and look at you and go, “Oh, what’s this?”

      Old bears having a hard time putting on weight — dangerous. Juveniles like the one in the photos, probably fine unless they think they want to test themselves.

      So I was pretty sure I was fine, but it’s one thing to be pretty sure . . . and faced with super low odds of a bad encounter slowly rising into just low odds. These bears are big. And they peel off a side of salmon far easier than we can peel a piddling orange.

  2. In all my short time living in Alaska when I was young, I never fished with bears.

    That story was sure one worth telling. One that proves that sometimes the fishing isn’t about catching the fish, but the story you get to tell afterwords.

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