The Alaskan Experience
I yelled, as my seven weight fly rod bent over and the line played it's magical tune of "zinging in the rain". It was hard to tell just how big the fish was or if it was a Rainbow or big Dolly Varden.
Hooking a big upper Kenai river trout in fast water doesn't leave much time for species identification.
"Hang on to it-we'll chase it and go land it in some calmer water." said Allen, who was behind the sticks of our 20 foot Willie drift boat.
We had just entered the Canyon section of the upper Kenai river and while my three other compadres fishing with me on the boat had already hooked some BIG Rainbows and Dollies, I had yet to catch what I will call a "quality" upper Kenai fish. That of course means insulting every trout on every other river in North America, since the eighteen inch Rainbows and twenty inch Dolly Vardens I had already caught were hardly chopped liver!! It's just that I had watched numerous twenty-four inch fish caught in the morning and listened to Allen comment on how this was the best morning of fly fishing he had had on the upper Kenai this year. Again, don't get me wrong-I was catching my share of fish - but this was the kind of fish I was waiting for.
I stood up in the front of the boat, and Allen gave chase in our wide bellied river pursuit vehicle. I held my rod high and reeled to keep a tight line on the fish.
As we drifted towards the "river right" bank, we heard some crashing in the trees. In my peripheral vision I saw some movement, but kept my eyes fixed on my pulsating rod tip. Allen nonchalantly mentioned that we had a Brown bear over on our right, kind of like a guy mentions seeing a 1957 Chevy.
It's neat-but nothing to get to crazy about. Keep fishing.
Now, I don't know about you, but when I pass within twenty yards of meat eating carnivores-I like to give them more than just a passing glance. Especially, since most of us on the boat were seeing our first Brown/Grizzly bear in our lives, and not everyone gets to see a Grizzly when they come to Alaska. Not to mention that any one of us would make a delicious mid day snack for a bear with the munchies.
Allen, trying to be the consumate Alaskan fishing guide, was trying to pass it off as an everyday occurence and make you feel like -"Heck, most of us guides sleep with bears"--but you could tell by his watchful back and forth looks--that he didn't get to see bears that often.
As Allen lowered the boat anchor in a nice back eddy, I turned toward the fish and got back to the task at hand. Pump, reel down, pump, reel down.
About that time, I started to hear some more commotion from the bank, and about the same time as my fish revealed his Rainbow identity by making an acrobatic leap into the air, I turned to see a bear clawing it's way up a tree.
Good, that's what I like to see from man eating carnivores!
I turned back at the fish--and then did a double take on the bear.
OH @%$+ IT WAS A CUB...
... and we're not talking the kind that play in Chicago!!
Faster then I could get the words " it's a cub" out of my mouth, mama bear went into protection mode. We all heard brush being knocked down like tackling dummies at the Chicago Bears training camp and then we saw "Mamas" round face, shoulders hunched, claws digging in as she made a charge at us towards the bank.
We all looked over at the same time, and for a brief second, my first thought was: "Oh great, why does this have to happen when I have a nice Rainbow on? I hope I don't lose this fish." Of course, sitting twenty yards away in a boat - in the water - gives one a sense of security.
A false sense of security.
That bear took to the sky like "superwoman". Paws out and legs flying - without even breaking stride - she was IN THE WATER.
You never saw ten eyeballs get so large in your life.
I looked at my fish, I looked at Allen, and I looked at that Grizzly, and thought to myself; "Great, I have three other fishermen on this boat and they all match the criteria that I had required to fish with in bear country. They are all bigger and slower and at this point - between me and the bear!!" BUT, if we had to go overboard-I sure wasn't confident that I could outswim these guys. Plus, I had a rod in my hand, a fish on the line, and a natural fishermen's instinct - to not want to lose my trout!! The bear would certainly pick me, because he would get the bonus of having a trout for dessert after having his "Fisherman ala Gore-Tex" entree. I guess I shouldn't have been too worried, afterall, Allen wouldn't have wanted to return to the lodge without his "guests"--too much paperwork!!
Allen frantically grabbed at the anchor rope, while "mama" thrashed about in the water. Meanwhile the rest of us had that "deer in the headlights" look, waiting for either instructions from Allen-or the voice of God - to tell us what to do next.
"I think we'll fight this fish somewhere else." Allen said, while grabbing the oars and pulling us away with Herculean strength.
That - is what they call an understatement. Somewhere else indeed!
How about Pennsylvania?
Mama had done what she had intended, danger to cub-gone, fishermen white as ghosts, and Brown bear Peace and tranquility restored to the right bank.
She turned, and splashed back to the shore...
I don't know if it was the lowering of the anchor that had startled her, or the banging of the boat, or the splashing of my Rainbow, but we had just witnessed - first hand - how the Grizzly bear protects her cubs in the wild.
Pretty much by going NUTS!!
We drifted over to "river left", downstream about another 100 yards, and finally landed an exhausted 23 inch FAT Rainbow trout. Of course, the fish seemed an after thought now as all five of us checked our waders for "brown spots", but after all that, it would have made us cry to lose that fish.
We all "high fived" each other and still couldn't help but looking back upstream--just to make sure "mama" wasn't still angry. Allen said that it was the first time he had seen a Brown bear jump into the water like that.
Then we sat there and all gave our accounts of how the scene "went down". It was great to hear everyones reaction and different version of the "thirty five seconds of drama".
We took a picture of that fish - which will be forever on be referred to as the "Bear Fish", and even though it wasn't the biggest fish on that float--it will certainly be the one most remembered.
There was no picture of the bear-since everyone was riveted on the real bear on not the Kodak moment.
When we got back to our lodge, Allen told the story of our Alaskan experience and some of the older guides looked at him "sideways" like he might be working on a good fish story or nickname. I could see it now... "Who you going out with today? Grizzly Gillette? Allen the Bear Slayer?... Of course there were four witnesses that were ready to back him up and it wasn't exactly like we had said we had seen "bigfoot" or "aliens" for heavens sake!!
All in all, I would say we got the true Alaskan experience that day. Nice fat upper Kenai Rainbow trout and Dolly Vardens on a fly, false charged by a Grizzly mom and an unforgettable day in incredible scenery.
As the years go on--I am sure the"Bear Fish"will get bigger, the bear will get closer(maybe even into the boat!!) and the legend of "Grizzly Gillette" will grow tall.
But not nearly as tall as that BEAR!!
A. J. Klott