By Lee Leschper
I was daydreaming, in the rhythm of flipping a fly into the clear Russian river, lulled by warm sun and no fish.
So it took a second to recognize the great furry brown head that poked out of the brush and ferns 30 yards in front of me. And to realize my teenaged nephew in mid-river was a lot closer than I.
“Daniel! Bear! Get out of the river!”
Daniel, visiting from Texas, looked at me, then at the bear, then back at me. For a second, with a look of amazement on his young face, I thought he was going to wade closer to the brown bear.
“Out of the river! Now!”
He and his younger brother and Dad joined me on the bank and we walked the juvenile brown bear stroll down the river bank, periodically dunking his head into the water and pulling out a carcass.
And he kept working up stream like a shark on a blood trail. We quickly noticed a group of anglers, a couple hundred yards up the Russian, blissfully filleting fish and pitching the carcasses into the river…and the bear was working straight up to them.
Somebody hollered “bear!” about the same time the six men and women anglers noticed the brownie, now less than 75 yards and closing fast. The six huddled together in the middle stream, rods poking out toward the bear like an 8-weight pin cushion, as he came within a few dozen steps, now also in the water.
The bear seemed almost oblivious to the anglers, until he couldn’t find any more carcasses. He looked up, gave them a long stare, shook off and casually, almost arrogantly, turned and wandered back down stream.
It was one of those good encounters with Alaska bears on a salmon stream—everybody got a good story, Yogi got a snack and nobody got hurt. But at that distance, it could have gone bad very fast. a
This month if you want to guarantee to see a bear anywhere on the Kenai Peninsula, few places are more of a sure thing than the Russian River. Now that a couple of weeks of good sockeye fishing have filled the water with carcasses, it’s a magnet for bears, many that grew up foraging for salmon carcasses here.
It’s been the scene of some horrific bear-human conflicts too including at least one serious mauling and an number of dead bears.
So here are some reminders, on being bear-safe while you’re getting your reds. And these rules apply anywhere bears are feeding on salmon, not just on the Russian and Kenai.
First, be bear aware. In Alaska, you’re in bear country. On a loaded salmon stream like the Russian, you’re in the bear dining room.
Bears are quiet and almost invisible in thick cover, which is pretty much every salmon stream in Alaska. They will appear suddenly, very close and may be just as surprised to see you as you are them.
Surprise and bears are bad. Brown bears have an absolute sense of personal space. Too close and they’ll assert themselves, and even a “warning” from a brownie can ruin your day, or life. Your best and first defense is noise. Make yourself known and visible. I’m not a fan of bells, but singing, talking loud and being very obviously human all help.
I’m not a big fan of dogs in bear country. Fido certainly will notice a bear before you do, but he may also provoke an attack by barking or running toward a bear.
When you see a bear, pay attention to its demeanor. If it’s moving, searching, making vocal sounds, be on high alert. Know your exit route, slow and away from them. If you’ve got bear spray, get it out and be ready to use it. If you’re with friends, huddle together and make yourself appear as large as possible, like that group at the beginning of this story.
If you don’t see a bear, but hear something moving through the brush, without hearing footsteps, assume it’s a bear.
Carry everything on your belt or in a backpack. Anything left on the ground is not only at risk, but likely to draw Yogi’s attention. I’ve watched a sow work a whole beach below the Russian Ferry, working from pack to pack and herding fishermen out of the way.
Carry bear spray and know how to use it. That means carried in a holster to instantly deploy. And prepared to pull it out and have it in hand when you see a bear and before it gets aggressive.
If you are skilled with a handgun, it’s a judgement call on whether to carry it. But be honest about your ability. If you can’t hit a moving target with no preparation or warning, your odds of stopping a bear are slim. If the only way you can honestly be sure you’d hit a bear is if it’s standing you, better to leave the hog leg at home.
If you can pack your fish out, to fillet elsewhere, that’s better than leaving more carcasses to draw bears. If you do clean them on the river, using the cleaning tables provided, chop the carcasses into small pieces and pitch them far out into deep water.
Don’t assume that bears on a salmon stream are nocturnal. They’re there to eat any time of day or night. Most of my encounters have been in early afternoon.
None of this is meant to discourage you from fishing in bear country or being so paranoid that you can’t enjoy the experience. Being in the presence of these giant predators is one of Alaska’s greatest treasures. Just make sure it’s an experience everyone walks away from.
Leschper is publisher of AlaskaOutdoorDigest.com and a frequent visitor to places bears love.