Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Don't go fishing for bears

By Dave Atcherson
For the Redoubt Reporter

Bears in Alaska. They’re a fact of life, especially for fishermen. How we deal with them, how we live and play in their presence, is a topic that often generates a great deal of speculation and debate.

What steps should fishermen take to avoid confrontation? Is carrying pepper spray always a good idea? What about firearms, and which are best?

While bears are most active during evening hours, trouble can occur any time and it’s important for anglers in Alaska to first and foremost be bear aware. That means being constantly in touch with where you are and what you’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 knowing all the “rules” for being in bear country means they will be all right.

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,” he said. “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 err on the side of caution. That means avoiding areas where there’s even a chance of trouble and not fishing in the middle of the night.

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 the number of bears and anglers, it’s an issue 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 give bears the opportunity to avoid you. Make plenty of noise while hiking. If possible, travel in a group. Clap your hands, sing, do anything that will make your presence known.

When an unwanted encounter occurs, 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 and 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 an escape route.

When an attack occurs, experts say there are two choices — play dead or fight back — depending on 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 nonlethal defense, pepper spray is often the answer, and has been proven to be an effective last line of defense against bear attacks. Many experts, such Dr. Stephen Stringham, author of the book, “Bear Viewing in Alaska: Expert Techniques for a Great Adventure,” believe that, especially for fishermen, it may be the best line of defense.

“That’s because it’s a rare fisherman who can tolerate the inconvenience of shouldering a rifle or shotgun while casting or reeling. But carrying pepper spray is as easy as carrying a cell phone, and you’ll have it with you at all times,” he says.

While easy to carry, the only drawback to these sprays is 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. These animals 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 unthreatening manner.

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 fillet your fish at home, if possible. If you fillet the fish on site, cut leftover carcasses into small pieces before depositing in the river.
For more information:
  • Alaska Department of Fish and Game Web site,

Dave Atcheson is the author of “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula” and an instructor of the Kenai Fishing Academy.

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