A few days ago, my cousin Bill and two friends of his and myself were up a tributary of the North Fork for a mid-morning through late evening fishing trip.
Expectations were high because the weather was right for seeing hatches of mayflies and just warm enough for fishing hoppers and terrestrial insects too. We were really looking forward to laying out long leaders and hooking fish until late. Bumping into a grizzly was not on our agenda.
It turns out my cousin has a bear phobia. I wasn’t made aware of that fact until just before the sun set. We had cut some bear tracks, not uncommon in the Shoshone National Forest, but his questions about bears and what would we do if we encountered one, were not given much of an answer or thought.
The answer was, “That’s what bear spray is for” and “we’ll make a lot of noise” when asked. He seemed assured at that point, so with no further questions we hiked off to go fishing.
We fished a lot and once we left the tracks of humans behind. The four of us made a lot of noise as “Fish on,” bounced back and forth, echoed from the volcanic cliffs that afternoon. That should have kept bears and other anglers far away from us we thought. The technique worked great until the sun dropped over the Absarokas and we could no longer see as well in the coming shadows and darkness.
Since I often see bears, both black and grizzly, that time of night on the river, I will emit loud piercing whistles from time to time to let the bear, wolf or whatever else know where I am. Unfortunately, I chose that moment to really get a good whistle off, at the same time I was coming up behind my “cuz,” who was casting upstream and facing away from me.
Before I could say, “Hey, Bear” as a follow up to my whistle, my “cuz” nearly leaped clear of his wading boots. Can’t say that I blame him, I probably would have done the same thing, maybe more, if some idiot had just walked up behind me and shrilly whistled unexpectedly.
“What the blankety-blank was that?” my cousin yelled after he let go of the lodgepole he had managed to climb nimbly while on the way out of his wading boots. His demeanor had changed from one of a serious angler to one with a panicked look on his now pale face. “What time do the bears come out?”
“About now. That’s why I whistled,” I said. “It’s time for the spinner fall. Aren’t we going to stay and see if it comes off this evening?”
“No way, Dude! It’s late! Are you nuts?” The verbal assault kept up for awhile, then I asked him if he was afraid of bears. Believe it or not, he said, “No!”
That was good enough for me, so I pointed out the car was not much more than a half mile down the creek by now and almost within sight. I tried to calm him down by saying we wouldn’t see any bears tonight anyway because I just whistled a few minutes ago and bears don’t come out until after the spinner fall this time of year.
At that moment, destiny intervened and a bear walked into the picture. Not just a bear, but a big boar grizzly bear, and he was not coming down, up or across the river, but directly down the trail between us and the protective environment of our vehicle.
Yep. My cousin freaked big time. So did his friends and, honestly, I wasn’t all that cool at the moment either. Thankfully, the bear was not looking for a fight and when he heard Bill scream, he hightailed it for the next mountain range. I know the bear was checking his own underwear, if he had any, after the fear factor and subsequent adrenaline boost resided. I’m sure of this fact because I checked mine, after Bill’s scream scared the devil out of me, too, for by now, three of us were off and moving quickly in the opposite direction of the bear and for the same reasons. No one wants to be around a mentally deranged individual – bear, human or otherwise.
After 50 yards or so, we all calmed down and discovered Bill wasn’t with us while the rest of us had begun hustling back to the car. So, we went back to where Bill was standing and looking in the direction the bear had gone. When we reached Bill he said, “I told you I wasn’t afraid of bears.”
Who was I, Steve and Mike, his two friends to argue? He was still where he was when all the commotion and adrenaline calmed down. The bear and us were not in the same places. I certainly won’t have to worry about bear attacks with him around in the future, but we never did get to experience the mayfly spinner-fall that night. A trade off, I guess, in order to keep a favorite cousin and his friends coming back every September for some great fishing. Bears not invited, of course.
Bumping into a bear, when stumbling back to the car after a long day’s fishing, is not what an angler wants to have happen. Carrying bear spray, especially more than one can where it is handy on a belt and convenient to use, is the best advice one can give an angler or any other outdoor enthusiast, especially in the fall once the hunting season has begun. September is the month bear activity increases in riparian areas where rivers and streams flow. Wade softly, cast far and fish hard, but look around – a lot.