Having just seen Dan Bigley’s recent presentation at Kenai Peninsula College and with the continual progression toward spring, the time seems ripe for talking about bears in Alaska, especially when it comes to fishing around them. For those that missed Dan’s talk or are unaware of him, he is the fisherman who was attacked and severely mauled on the Russian River back in 2003. The attack, which resulted in the loss of his sight, along with the aftermath and his amazing recovery, is the subject of his book, “Beyond the Bear: How I Learned to Live and Love Again After Being Blinded by a Bear.”
Mr. Bigley is a mesmerizing and often humorous speaker and his story and book a true inspiration, yet his account of this terrifying ordeal brings up many questions, the most important of which might be: What steps should fishermen take to avoid a similar confrontation? It is a topic that often generates a great deal of speculation and debate. While bears are most active during evening hours, trouble can occur at anytime and it’s important for anglers in Alaska to first and foremost be “bear aware,” and that means being in constant touch with where they are and what they’re doing.
Larry Lewis, a Wildlife Technician, who among other duties teaches bear safety for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, preaches this during his classes. He maintains that too often people get in trouble because they lose contact with their surroundings, becoming totally engrossed in their fishing, for instance. The other problem, he says, is complacency or a cavalier attitude, believing that “it couldn’t happen to me,” or that because I know all the “rules” for being in bear country I’ll be alright.
While it is extremely important to be mindful of these rules, Lewis emphasizes they are only guidelines and never a guarantee. After years of dealing with nuisance bears and investigating attacks, he says the one thing he’s learned for certain is that these animals, just like people, are individuals and it’s impossible to know how each one is going to behave in a given situation. “You simply don’t know if a particular animal is agitated already. Has it been provoked by other bears in the area, or have other fishermen been getting too close?” It’s always best, Lewis advises, to ere on the side of caution, and that means not fishing in the middle of the night and avoiding areas where there’s even a chance of trouble. This may create a dilemma for die-hard anglers, most of whom are guilty of fishing at off-hours in order to beat the crowds. Nevertheless, with the ongoing loss of bear habitat and a steady increase in both the number of bears and anglers, it’s a question we may all need to take into serious consideration in the future.
Bear Safety and Close Encounters
It’s always best to avoid an encounter and to give bears the opportunity to avoid you. Make plenty of noise while hiking. If possible, travel in a group. Clap your hands, sing, anything that will make your presence known.
When you do have an unwanted encounter, it’s important to remain calm, and never run. It’s natural for bears to give chase and impossible to outrun one. First, identify yourself, let the bear know you’re human, talk in a normal voice. If the bear continues approaching, become more defensive: raise your voice and wave your arms. Make yourself as large as possible. If you’re in a group, have the members stand together and shout. Usually this is all it takes to avoid a confrontation. When the time comes to retreat, back away slowly, move off the trail, and always leave the animal a route out.
If you are attacked, experts say you have two choices—play dead or fight back—depending upon whether the bear is behaving defensively or seeking food. In most cases, brown bears that attack are reacting defensively, often defending a carcass or protecting their young. If this is the case, and the bear is a grizzly, play dead. Lie on your stomach and cup your hands behind your neck.Usually the bear will end its attack once it perceives the threat over. It’s important, however, to remain in this position for as long as possible after the bear breaks off its attack, as movement often causes the bear to return. If it’s a black bear, or any bear trying to break into a tent or cabin, fight back.
What about carrying a weapon? The experts agree: If you are not proficient in the use of a firearm and not fully prepared to use it, don’t even consider bringing one; it only increases the chance of injuring yourself or someone else. For those comfortable carrying a gun, choose the right weapon. Many tote large-caliber pistols because of their convenient size, but experts say they are not the best choice. A hunting rifle, a .338 or .375 caliber, is standard, although a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with rifled slugs probably offers the best protection at close range.
For those uncomfortable packing heat or who like the addition of a non-lethal defense, pepper spray is often the answer, and has been proven to be an effective last line of defense against bear attacks. Many experts believe that, especially for fishermen, it may be their best line of defense, as carrying a firearm and a fishing rod can be burdensome and bear spray is almost as easy as carrying a cell phone. Many recommend a shoulder harness rather than carrying it on the belt. Although the spray is closer to your face, it keeps the weapon away from trees and other obstacles that could easily bump it and unexpectedly set it off.
While easy to carry, the only drawback to these sprays is that if they are discharged upwind, they can disable the user. It’s important to know how to use the spray and take the appropriate precautions.
Knowing the rules, and carrying a firearm or pepper spray, should never preclude simple common sense. Avoid crowding bears and allow them plenty of “personal” space. Plan ahead, stay calm, and make noise.
Alaska is home to a vast array of wildlife. They should neither be feared nor taken for granted, and we should exalt in the fact that we are still able to share this land with them. We should respect what they represent and enjoy their presence, but always in a safe and nonthreatening manner.
Additional Bear Safety Tips for Fishermen
■ Bears are attracted to splashing fish. If you have a fish on and a bear approaches, cut your line immediately—even if it’s a 30-inch rainbow. Then, slowly back out of the water, move to an open area, preferably with other people.
■ If possible fish in groups, or have a lookout.
■ Fish in an open area, where you can see bears and they can see you.
■ Try to avoid “tunnel vision,” make it a habit to take a break from fishing and look around every few minutes.
■ Try to avoid odors by storing fish in a bear proof container and sealed plastic bags.
■ Bears are attracted to carcasses, so if possible fillet your fish at home.