I’ve always been impressed with the Alaskan brown bear. A creature that is huge, yet has the agility of a cat, and the ability to run 35 mph. Carl Lewis can run about 25 mph, and I’m no Carl Lewis, even without my waders on. No I thought to myself, if I were ever to encounter one of these majestic creatures I would have to outsmart it. A troubling thought because I’ve never been accused of being Einstein either.
I had visited the Brooks River before, and it was the highlight of my life. I spent a relaxing day of bear watching and fantastic fishing on a river teeming with sockeye and trophy-sized trout. “this day is very similar,” I thought to myself as the pontoon plane was landing – 72 degrees and sunny. The jagged mountains and turquoise lake, into which the Brooks river flows, were even more beautiful that I remembered. Before deplaning, our pilot told me and my fishing buddy, Cam, to report to the Brooks River Lodge for a brief meeting on bear safety. On the way there, we stopped to chat with two fishermen about the river. They told us about the Oxbow Hole. It was a spot on the river where the sockeye stop to rest before starting their treacherous journey upstream.
The fish were ‘so thick” the angler said, “that any moron could catch one.” That hole had my name written all over it. We skipped the meeting and went fishing.
Cam, a beginning fly fisherman, started catching some nice sockeye on a rod and reel he’s rented from the lodge. I was using a 5-weight rod with my little no name trout reel and was growing totally frustrated. I had taught Cam how to fly cast two weeks ago. He was catching fish – I wasn’t. Cam thought that was a humorous – I didn’t. Sure, I was hooking sockeye all right. They would make my reel sizzle and quickly be well into my backing. Realizing I’d better do something, I would palm the spool with all the delicacy of a rhino and “ping,” there it was, the annoying sound of my eight-pound leader snapping, followed by the even more annoying sound of Cam giggling. This became the ritual.
I put on an 18-pound test leader to solve the problem, but if anyone found out I was using 18-pound test on eight-pound fish it would be awfully embarrassing. Even with the new leader I didn’t land a fish.
We walked back to the lodge. Cam needed a break – something to do with his arms being tired. We sat down and ate our standard fishing meal, peanut butter sandwiches on stale bread. When in bear country you should always pack something even the bears won’t eat. I noticed Cam grinning between bites. “What’s up Cam?” I asked.
“If any moron can catch a fish at the Oxbow, what does that make you?”
After lunch I decided it would be best if we went our separate ways. I set out on my own to fish the mouth of the river.
After a few casts, “boom,” a big fish took! My reel screeched with the run. This sockeye was fresh, feisty and made several spectacular leaps. I let out a loud “hoot” as I landed the fish, in hopes of drawing attention to myself. Before releasing the fish, I held it up high and looked over my shoulder to see if anyone had witnessed the fishing clinic I had just put on. To my delight three fisherman were watching.
One of them yelled, “What fly are you using?”
“A Woolhead Sculpin!” I yelled back in a moderately cocky voice. The angler then asked, “What pound leader?”
Without thinking, I told the truth, 18-pound test!” All three anglers burst into laughter, and I overheard one of them say how he had once landed a marlin on that.
I kept spotting sockeye out past the mouth of the river, which was just beyond my casting range. The lake was shallow, so I kept wandering out until I was up to my chest in water. I know it was just a matter of time before I would find the right depth for my fly and experience fishing that one can only dream about. I was all alone 300 yards from shore with fish all around me, and nobody knew it but me.
I had fired off two, maybe three cast, when I heard a faint whistle from the direction of the shore. I knew it was directed at me, so I glanced over my shoulder in time to see a large grizzly making its way towards me. It was approximately 40 yards away but moving at a clip that would intersect me in about 45 seconds. The grizzly was directly between me and the land.
There comes a time in your life when a crisis happens, and you don’t have time to think; a time when you deepest most basic instincts take over and you just hope you do the right thing. This was that time! I reached over to the pocket of my fly vest, pulled out my forceps and held them between the bear and me. Unfortunately, the bear was not intimidated.
Realizing that this bear probably hadn’t attended the safety meeting either, I cut to the right. A loud float plane was roaring in for a landing, and I thought it might frighten the bear. I deemed that theory to be false when the bear began to follow me toward the plane.
I took a quick glance towards shore and saw that a crowd had gathered to watch my mauling. I was honored. Twenty seconds to the intersection.
The bear continued to follow me all the way to the plane, his ravenous eyes fixed on me.
A ranger had stepped to the forefront of the now large crowd. I could see he was armed. I would have felt better, however, if he had been armed with a rifle instead of a walky-talky. He instructed me to stand still because he didn’t “think” that the bear was interested in me I would have been more inclined to stop if he hadn’t used the word “think”.
I made it to the float plane, now parked, and scrambled up the ladder to higher ground. The bear snorted in disgust, then turned and ambled off. I climbed off the plane and walked toward the crowd on the beach.
I sensed that the crowd was disappointed that I hadn’t been mauled. I didn’t care. Noticing that I was now kind of a celebrity, I faced the crowd and said in my best Clint Eastwood voice, “I need a drink.” The crowd laughed, and I was feeling pretty impressive until one lady decided to question my intelligence.
She said, “I don’t know why you would want to fish out there. Don’t you know bears go out there every half hour or so?” I decided that rather than tell her I was clueless to that fact, I would stick to the Clint Eastwood thing. I grimaced, spat, and drawled, “Ma’am, there were fish out there.” I then swaggered off the best I could with weakened knees and soiled waders.
The crowd then dispersed, I assume to go look for another potential maulee. Only Cam remained. With true heartfelt sincerity he said, “I wanted to help you, but I couldn’t think of anything.” Glancing down, I noticed he had a rock in his hand.
"Thanks anyway Cam."