I’m lucky enough to have been to Alaska and I’ve seen grizzly bears fishing for salmon with my own eyes. I know – I was spoilt, but the sad thing is I was only ten years old at the time, so the memories are fairly hazy.
One thing I do remember is the bears. We were fishing out of Rainbow King Lodge in Iliamna, Alaska, and most days we flew to the various rivers and fishing spots. One of the lodge’s signature pools was called ‘The Gorge’ and, boy, was it special. An absolute torrent of water poured down from the anglers right-hand-side, opening out into a very wide and steadying pool. In this pool were literally thousands of salmon – tens of thousands. They were waiting, building up their energy (or maybe courage!) to tackle the rapids.
How those fish negotiated that water, I have no idea. It’s so rough that we were told, at the time, nobody had made it through alive by kayak, and several had tried. But make it the salmon could – some of them at least. nevertheless, beneath the rapids was a sight to be seen – salmon-upon-salmon stacked up.
I know, for a fact, that I caught one hundred sockeye salmon that day. I know that because that was my aim when I started, so I counted them. By the time I’d caught sixty, I was regretting setting such a goal – one hundred is a LOT! But I had the stubborn brain of a ten-year-old, so I saw it through.
The fishing, of course, was way too easy. We were, long before the end, trying NOT to catch the fish. We removed all the dressing from our flies, we cut more and more of the hook off, so that eventually you would have thought it impossible to land them. But land them we did – and we hammered them. It showed me just how hard you can be on a fish – and how quickly you can get them in. In fact, I’m sure I play fish harder now as a result, which must be a good thing, right? After all, landing them quickly means they expend less energy and can be returned with a greater chance of survival. That’s my view anyway.
But I digress – this post is about bears. While fishing the Gorge pool, it wasn’t long before some grizzly bears appeared on the far bank. At first I was afraid, but it was a very wide pool and there was a lot of water between us and them. Our guides were relaxed (and packing .45s!), so we soon calmed down and began enjoying the spectacle.
The bears were catching fish as easily as we were then, interestingly, dragging them out of the river and eating just a tiny bit before jumping back in to resume fishing. It seems that, in times of plenty, the bears just eat the brains and roe – leaving the meat for scavengers. This is the most nutritious (or maybe tasty?!) part of the spawning salmon and the bears are on a mission to pack on weight and consume as many calories as possible. But that doesn’t mean they’re afraid to use energy. They were avid, persistent and sometimes spectacular fishermen.
One of the bears – a female, according to the guides – would clamber up onto a high rock, maybe 30 feet above the water. Looking down on the salmon, this bear would decide where to fish, then propel herself from the rock and into the water, with a stunning leap. If she didn’t catch a fish 90% of the time, my memory has let me down. She was a queen among fishers.
One day, when I can afford it, I’ll go back. The fishing in Alaska is unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. A truly amazing treat for any fisherman, let alone a ten-year-old. Thanks Dad – I owe you one (or two)!!!