Fish are for Bears

Picture it: a one month long road trip, just me & Steve, camping in the North American wilderness, putting our newly acquired fly fishing skills to use in the serene landscapes of the West, staying as far away from people as possible. That’s the dream, right?

Our Subaru Outback we purchased for this exact circumstance now had a nice cargo topper, making it look as an Outback really should. Our guiding & camping gear from the summer was safely stowed out of the way above us, so our back hatch housed our “posh-life” car camping set up, freshly acquired from Wal-Mart, including a blow-up mattress, camp stove, cast iron pan, & table. If we were going to car camp, we were going to car camp. None of this ultra light equipment we hike with. Cast iron or bust!

The first leg of our fishing road trip was, of course, Alaska. Steve has his year-long fishing permit, so he could fish any place we stopped. I had to strategically pick the 3 days we would get most of our fishing in to buy a 3-day permit. We found a good weather window ahead and began planning our 3 days in the Kenai Peninsula, home of some world-famous fly fishing!

We were at the tail end of salmon fishing, which is really the biggest draw of the area, for both people and bears. The NatGeo worthy salmon runs were petered out by the time our Denali season was done, but this time of the season is called “Bead Week”, where anglers can fish with literal beads that mimic the millions of salmon eggs laid as the salmon run, spawn, then die. This method is to fish for the trout and other fish that feed on the smorgasbord of salmon eggs in the streams and rivers at this time of year.

Sounds pretty straight forward and practical. Our boss, Dennis, gave us a lot of information about this type of fishing, and even made some egg “flies” for us to use! The part a new angler doesn’t think about during this fishing time frame is that *dying* part of the salmon spawning process. Boat fishermen may not even think about this much as they are out in the water away from the edges. But wading fishermen, like us, *really* experience this aspect of the season.

We went into Soldotna for our first morning, on the recommendation of our Air BnB host. Armed with our new flies & some new gear, we hit Centennial Park on the Kenai River to see what we could catch. This large river seemed to be mostly car fishermen aiming for the second run of silver salmon, but we found our way further along the river to some wade fishing places to maybe find some trout. But we were greeted with a salmon graveyard, with salmon carcasses strewn over every inch of the shoreline, having completed the final step of the spawning process – death. Smelled like my hometown of Beardstown. <ha!>

The water’s edge was filled with zombie salmon– the ones that hadn’t accepted the final stage yet. They were running on instinct of ‘I’m supposed to keep swimming’ until they finally run out of energy and succumb to the peaceful beyond. The carcasses decompose over time and the nutrients return to the earth to continue life cycles around us. But in the meantime, I don’t care to step on them with my cleated boots.

After the initial shock wore off, I was able to concentrate on the task at hand — fishing for live fish. The wind kicked up, and with it, my enthusiasm blew away as my skill in the wind didn’t exist. Our first couple hours ended with low results. This seemed to be a challenging place to wade fish, so we chatted with some locals while on lunch break to get some more advice on where to go. We were redirected to a different section of the Kenai River further upriver, a more wade-friendly region.

Mid-afternoon, we found a nice road side pull off very close to the river, where only 2 other vehicles were parked. We went down to scout out the area, chatting with the anglers already down there to see what was biting and to what success. They had a couple fish on their stringer, and said they didn’t mind if we joined them, so we geared up and clambered back down.

This area of the river was much more shallow and narrow compared to our morning location. The sun was out, the breeze blocked by the trees, creating a much more enjoyable environment all around. Drift boats floated by as guides placed their clients on the best fishing spots along the river. An angler on the other shore landed a beautiful salmon. She was stoked and I was stoked for her!

Steve waded up river a ways to give distance to our fishing neighbors. I was a bit distracted with the pretty red salmon weaving around my feet. I worked on my casting with the different fly set up than I had learned on in Denali. The bead week style was a new concept for me. I did my best, but my knowledge was very limited compared to Steve, who absorbed fishing videos all summer, as well as the advice from our co-workers, guests, & friends. This was definitely more his hobby that I was enjoying, too, though I also enjoy the location of the activity and often find a log to sit on and enjoy the scenery.

As we were fishing along the shallow bend, Steve noticed a bear several hundred yards up river from us, sitting on the bank, browsing for a fresh carcass. In the Kenai, as a general concept, bears are more tolerant of people around them. In Denali, the bears don’t know people. It is a vast area, sparse on people, and no area the bears congregate. In the Kenai, the rivers are a gathering place for bears and people alike for the rich food source of salmon. There is plenty of food for everyone, so there isn’t a drive for competition among the bears. They aren’t as territorial, compared to Denali bears, because they know they won’t go hungry. In Denali, if another bear came upon a kill site claimed by another bear, it wouldn’t be friendly. *By no means am I saying Kenai bears are friendly, approachable, or tame.***They are still extremely wild bears** Their tolerance of others being in their space just tends to be higher.

So seeing a bear that far away wasn’t really cause for alarm. There were probably bears even closer, just obstructed by the trees. We are always bear aware, carrying our bear spray, making noise while walking through obscure areas. Always keep your stringer of fish near by. If a bear approaches, don’t throw your fish to it in an attempt to distract it while you exit. This will just teach them to approach others for an easy meal.

Due to the bend in the river, I was fishing with a view upriver, while Steve had a view of down river. I noticed the bear upriver was leaving the shore and entering the water. I called over to Steve to let him know. The bear was still probably 300 yards up river or so, but it didn’t hurt to be mindful. Then suddenly the bear rounded another curve of the river and appeared about 100 yards away. I called over to Steve again to let him know, though we were tucked into a nook of the river, versus the main stream of the river. Before we knew it, the bear popped out around the corner, about 25 yards from Steve. Steve had already started moving back to shore toward me after I said the bear was approaching with the current, but it was a mucky bottom in waist deep water, so he didn’t make much distance before the bear was there.

In this moment, Steve was about 15 feet from the bear, 20 yards from me, and 30 yards from the shore behind me. Also to note, I had bear spray. Steve did not today. Fortunately the bear was just as surprised as Steve to encounter each other. The bear began to come into the nook area we were fishing in, while Steve and I both continued backing up to the shore peninsula behind us, where the other 3 fishermen were located. Calm, stern words of affirmation were spoken at the bear as we continued to give space. The bear really just seemed interested in the fish carcasses floating around, which was fine with us!

We climbed our way out of the water to join the other three anglers, who by now had gathered to watch the bear encounter. The bear would look at us gathered on shore, then go back to browsing the fish options around him, but as it seemed the selection weren’t to his liking, he continued his downriver path, directly toward us. He meandered closer, pawing at various interests. We yelled at him to deter him from being comfortable that close to us. As he got within 10 yards of us, he found a tasty carcass, and sat to rip into the remaining flesh.

His food stop lasted 20 minutes before he decided to continue on his way to find his next feasting site. He made his way over to the main river where the current moved him on downriver. At this point, all five of us decided it was a good time to head home for the afternoon. They had grabbed their stringer before the bear rounded the bend to deter him from snagging an easy to-go meal. We headed back without fish, but with quite a first day for our fishing trip.

Between local recommendations & the good ole world wide web, we had several creeks and rivers noted to check out for the next 2 days of fishing. We also wanted to enjoy the area in the fall, so we took time to drive down side roads to take it all in between fishing sessions. We put the Subi to the test as we bounced down dirt roads to find some hidden fishing lakes and ponds. We fished at Cooper Lander, Girdwood, and Chickaloon.

Alaska was proving to be a challenge to our fishing skills. We knew the grayling in Denali were a great “starter fish”. They really don’t take much skill to catch. These other fish really shouldn’t have been too difficult to catch, but learning the right flies for the time of day and time of year, where in the waterway the fish are hanging out, and when to call it quits on a spot, were all things to be learned in person still. You can study and learn as much as you want, but nothing beats in person practice.

After our errands were complete, it was time to leave Alaska behind, and start the journey south. With Covid, Canada is very strict on travel. Only essential travel is allowed through Canada in the Alaska loophole. We had opted to drive to Alaska to allow for more travel flexibility with shutdowns and to avoid airports as well.

Canada only allowed Americans traveling to and from Alaska to enter/exit through 4 points along the main border: 2 in Washington, 1 in Montana, and 1 in South Dakota. All other border stations were closed. The amount of time you were allowed to make the traverse was based on which point you were travelling to. We planned to exit through Osoyoos, British Columbia to dump us on into eastern Washington to begin our next part of our fishing trip. This allowed us 3 days to travel directly through, no stopping except for fuel and drive-thru food. Government campgrounds weren’t open and private ones were hit and miss.

From all the stories we’d heard about dumb Americans using the Alaska loophole as an excuse to recreate in Canada illegally during the pandemic, we wanted to be 100% obvious we were not recreating while in Canada. Though I would have loved to drive through Banff & Jasper National Parks on the drive, it’d be a big target on our backs as illegal tourists. So we were sure to take the most direct route possible, which really was quite beautiful. We followed along the Alaska Highway until we reached the Cassiar Highway to drive down through British Columbia.

I could see this remote highway as a place to come visit again, when we’re able to stop at the parks along the way, go fish & play, and enjoy what BC has to offer. We spent two nights camping along the way, with the first night offering an open view of the northern sky. The naked eye wasn’t able to see anything, but a long exposure on the camera allowed for some beautiful green captures of the northern lights surrounding us. The next night seemed too cloudy for any captures, but offered a peaceful night next to a small river. Through the rainy weather while driving, we could peep some gorgeous mountains lucky behind the clouds, waiting to be appreciated on another day.

We’d love to go back to Canada when we didn’t have to rush through it, but in the meantime, we were happy to be back in the US, even with the surly American border agent greeting us on our return. Now, part two of our fishing adventure could begin!

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