"The Other Fisherman"
by Tom Hawthorne
The summer of 1998 brought many things to light in fly fishing, one of
which was always pay attention to the fish while on your line. A group
of fly fishers from Arkansas traveled to the Alagnak Wilderness on the
Alaska Peninsula to fly fish for salmon and rainbow trout in the
The trip to Alaska started with a flight to Salt Lake City, a quick
change of equipment to start the 5 hour leg to Anchorage. On these long
flights the anticipation begins to build to a busting point. I remember
tying some last minute flies, making entries in the journal, eating a
snack, watching a movie and still asking the flight attendant how much
longer to Anchorage, with her reply setting me back in my seat when she
said we would be landing in about 45 minutes.
The flight always seems to be longer than it actually takes. However,
the last 45 minutes is when the weather is clear and provides the most
spectacular display of mountains, glaciers and oceans one will
experience. I remember one trip in particular, passengers, all 300 of
them, would move from side to side as the captain described the terrain
below. My thoughts moved to the cockpit, knowing the pilot was required
to make flight control corrections as the weight of the people shifted
in the aircraft.
Once the anxiety of claiming our luggage past, we were on the way to
the hotel. After freshening up, we were off to my favorite place for
some long anticipated fresh Alaskan king crab. One knows he frequents
an establishment much too often when the staff can set a clock on the
time of year. I recall one year, one of the staff remarking, "I can
always tell when it is August because Tom shows up for a crab feed." I
think I look forward to the crab dinner as much as the fishing.
The next day will complete the remainder of the travel to King Salmon
and then on to the camp in a DeHavilland Beaver on floats. The ride to
camp is one of the best flights I have ever taken, a low level trip
over the tundra and landing on the river right out in front of the
camp. The scenery is spectacular, snow covered mountains in the
distance, lush greenery, salmon in every turn of the river and an
abundance of wildlife. All this and we have not even fished.
The day was filled with anticipation. After all, we had seen all those
fish moving through the river on our flight into camp. After a big
breakfast we gathered up our gear and paired up with a guide who helped
us rig up and briefed us on safety precautions for fishing on the
Alagnak River. Now, you would think what kind of safety precautions
besides the obvious fishing hazards regarding hooks, wading and boating
should I be concerned with on this trip. Well, in the first 5 minutes
of the day it was extremely evident why the safety briefing was so
important when I saw my first Alaskan Brown Bear. They were present in
each in every spot we fished. After all, they need those salmon to put
on weight to survive the cold Alaskan winter.
The first spot of the day was The Terrace, named by the guides. The
name was appropriate because bears would sit up on the high bank
looking into the river for fish coming out of the main current into the
eddy to rest for the remainder of the journey up river to spawn. We
parked the boat, made a quick survey of the area for bears, tied on
flies and started casting to the holding fish. As advertised, it did
not take too long until we all had fish hooked. For the next couple of
hours, everything seemed normal as we caught and released many sockeye
salmon. The fight of sockeye salmon wears ones arm strength down after
a few fish. Besides, it was time for a cup of coffee and a good cigar.
While we were drinking coffee and lighting cigars, a number of big king
salmon moved into the eddy. Our guide grabbed a bigger rod, rigged it
with a fly and urged one of us to cast for one of the big kings. We
suggested he take a turn while we enjoyed the break in the action. He
made several casts then finally hooked a very large fish that produced
a spectacular show in the eddy for the rest of us. For several minutes
our guide franticlly fought the king salmon and when some control had
been achieved, he turned to us for some approval and praise.
We only had surprise and apprehension for what he had done because what
we saw was a very large bear attached to the fish. The bear appeared
from the brush during the fight when our attention was focused on the
show of jumps and runs from the salmon. As the fish relaxed, the bear
made his move, catching the fish in his paws and returning towards the
brush to enjoy his easy meal of freshly caught salmon.
We excitedly encouraged our guide to take a look at his catch and to
either give the bear the rod or the fish. The decision was made to
break off the fish and let the bear have his free lunch but the first
attempt to break the line only accomplished pulling the fish from the
grasp of this big bear, which only proceeded to get bigger as he moved
forward towards us to retrieve his meal that had escaped. The guide
finally managed to get the fish back into the grasp of the bear and
break off the fly - crisis averted.
The experience taught us many things in just a short time. An 800-pound
bear can appear undetected from the thickest brush, tippet size is very
important not only for landing but breaking off and guides give safety
briefings for really good reasons.
Reflecting back on this experience throughout the week, I realized we
were only guests in the brown bear's world and they could have had us
for dinner just as easily as he had the salmon.