Monday, March 16, 2009

Fishing the Russian, Part VI - Bears

Alas, it ain't just you and the trout out there chasing after the salmon. You also have to compete with the bears. The Russian River has grown tremendously in popularity over the past few decades and that goes for the bears, too. It used to be unusual to actually see a bear yourself, but in the past several years, it's unusual to spend several hours on the river and not see a bear. Last summer, my wife and I saw six bears in the space of five hours.

Now, when I was younger, this kind of thing used to be a thrill. Somehow it seems ever less fun. I mean, sure, it's cool to see two young grizzlies wrestling with each other a hundred yards upstream. But it gets less cool as they start coming toward you. And it gets even less cool as you struggle to make way for the bear by wading to the other side and, just as you get about half way, you see the bear has changed his mind and has already crossed because wading this river is like walking in tall grass to him; and now you're turning back around, delicately, so as not to get washed away, and the bear is awfully close now and you really, really hope he doesn't change his mind again.

There are two conflicting pieces of conventional wisdom in those parts of Alaska where bears and people come together in relative density: 1) Steer clear of the bears and they will mostly leave you alone; 2) If the situation keeps going on this way, somebody's going to get killed. Both assertions are true. There are thousand, and probably hundreds of thousands of human encounters with bears on the Russian River each year, and most are quite uneventful. Yet people have been killed and maimed there.

Most of the rules for minimizing your risk are pretty obvious: 1) Bears have the right of way; 2) Never get between a mother and cub; 3) Stay off the trails at night.

Some of these are easier said than done: a couple of years ago, I was fishing my way downstream on my way back to the car. A female grizzly was wading up the middle of the river. I began to fall back to the south bank of the river when I noticed that a cub was approaching on the trail there. I had to walk downstream about ten yards to cross to the far bank, bringing me even closer to the rapidly approaching mother. As I reached the north bank (along with some other refugees), we were greeted by a second cub, who hissed at us before entering the water to join mom. (A third cub came straggling up the river behind her.) Fortunately, mama bear was a pretty cool customer and wasn't alarmed in the slightest. Her peaceful disposition didn't serve her in the end, however, as she was shot and killed a few weeks later by what is referred to locally as an "effing idiot." (He was at a distance, and in no danger whatsoever.)

But what to do, then, to avoid problems. Well, if you're concerned, don't fish at night. That will greatly reduce your risk. "Fish at night?" you may ask. "How is that even possible?" Well, remember, this is Alaska, and in June you will have no trouble seeing all through the night. But the bears like the night, and while still somewhat light, if you get into the woods at 3am, it's awfully dusky--easy enough for you to walk up suddenly on an unsuspecting bear or her cub. That's a quick ticket to the front page of the Anchorage Daily News. Also, if you spend eight hours on the river, and head back to your car at 2am, you might not be in the most rational state of mind. I remember once walking up the trail in such circumstance and seeing a giant grizzly across the river. He was looking intently into the water for fish. Having spent hours hunting for the few salmon that had entered the river at that point, I had this brilliant thought: Whatever happens, there's no way I'm giving that guy my fish. (Cough.)

Alaska Fish & Game and other organization that oversee the situation on the Russian River have a set of recommendations to help bear control generally. They ask that food not be left on the banks of the river, but kept on your person at all times. Also, cut the gills of your fish to bleed them in the river immediately upon catching them: this will keep blood off the trails (and it also helps preserve the quality of your filets). Finally, cut fish carcasses into small chunks and throw them into rapid waters to minimize what amount to grizzly bait stations near the cleaning tables.

And remember, if you have to abandon the fish on your stringer because the grizz is following you in a hungry way, toss the fish into the current, so the bears don't get the idea that fishermen are easy pickins.

I suppose we must confront one last question: "To pack or not to pack?" Personally, I like the idea of it, but practically speaking, I just don't want to be worried about managing a firearm when I'm fishing. I don't want to carry it, I don't want to drop it in the river, I don't really want the responsibility of feeling like I might have to make a decision every time a bear approaches someone. It's possible I'll regret this some day, but dying on a fishing trip can't be the worst way to go.

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