Fondly Remembered Bear Experiences
Fifty years of crisscrossing North America in search of fish and game adventures has resulted in many bear experiences. Some were funny, several were more than a little spooky and a few bordered on frightening. Each and every one produced excitement and fond memories.
Bears are misunderstood by many people. Some folks consider them man-killers; others regard them as comic-book characters or Saturday morning television cartoon personalities. And then, there’s Smokey The Bear.
In real life, bears are many things: They are as fast as a horse on flat ground for 75 yards; they can and will eat anything from ants to garbage, and human flesh on rare occasions; and they come in a rainbow of colors ranging from black through blond, blue, chocolate, red, cinnamon and white, and sometimes a mixture of two or more colors.
A bear is one of North America’s most intriguing game animals. They are found as far south as Florida, east into New Jersey, west to California and the Pacific Northwest, and throughout Alaska and Canada to the north.
Bears are not endangered. They are reasonably abundant where good cover and food exist, and such spots often produce good fishing and hunting. They are estimated at 12,000 to 15,000 in Michigan, although many believe the numbers is a good bit higher.
This is why people like me often bump into bruins in unlikely areas. It also may explain why bears are second only to whitetail deer in hunter popularity.
I’ve watched bears on so many different occasions. They’ve provided me with countless thrills, some anxious moments and many laughs.
*One of my most dangerous encounters occurred in Montana’s Glacier National Park. A quest for grayling took me on a solo hiking trip high in the Rockies, but a sudden autumn snowstorm sent me scurrying down the mountain toward shelter before I ever had a chance to wet a line.
I was racing down the mountain along a narrow foot trail through rain and snow when I noticed a grizzly track in the mud. It was so fresh that water was still trickling into the big track. My aluminum rod case started banging against rocks and my dry mouth had the coppery taste of fear as I tried to forewarn the animal. I eased around a dogleg turn in the trail, and 20 feet away stood a massive grizzly. It stood without movement and watched me.
The bear’s neck hairs were erect, and we studied each other for what seemed like 20 minutes. In truth, the encounter probably lasted 20 seconds before it whirled and ran away, much to my immediate relief.
*Another time, a black bear offered a comedy act. My hunting stand was deep in an Alger County swamp, and a bear had been hitting my bait with regularity.
I sat quietly for three hours before a twig snap signaled an approaching animal. Long minutes passed before another faint sound put me on full alert as the bruin moved closer. Suddenly, the bear was at my bait. The animal crawled up a slender sapling, which bent under its weight. The bear hung upside down from the bent-over tree before falling with a heavy thump to the ground.
It raced off into the swamp only to return moments later to climb the same sapling. Again, the tree bent under its weight and it fell again. The 160-pound bear attempted to climb that tree four times, and each time it fell. It eventually gave up and disappeared into the swamp.
*Another time, near the shores of Great Bear Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories, a medium-size black bear gave me some anxious moments. I’d seen it from a distance, and tried to sneak within easy camera range.
However, I knew I was unarmed as I headed upwind toward the bruin. The bear didn’t act as if it knew I was there until the first flash picture was snapped at 20 yards. It swiveled its head, looked at me, and began walking my way.
“That’s close enough,” I said to the approaching bear. “Back off. Don’t get too frisky with me.”
I maintained a steady chatter of nonsense as it came closer, and soon it was within four feet and began to slowly circle me. I kept turning to face the animal, kept talking, and it eventually padded directly downwind to smell me. The bear turned, circled back the way it had come, and walked away while looking over its shoulder at me. Whew!
*Once, while touring Wyoming’s Yellowstone Park, I saw a bear bite a man. The yahoo, drunk to the point of being stupid, walked up to a panhandling bear near Old Faithful. The bear reared up on its back legs, and the drunk goofball put his arm around the bear’s front shoulders.
“C’mon Charlie, let’s go get another drink,” he mumbled, slurring his words while the two walked together like two old boozin’ buddies heading for the nearest pub. The bear bit him on the hand and hospitalization was required.
It’s not known whether the bear chewed the guy’s fingers because it was hungry, didn’t want to be touched, or simply disliked being called Charlie. The guy got what he deserved.
*Perhaps one of life’s most harrowing moments can come when digging a wounded and potentially dangerous animal out of heavy cover. It’s often done in Africa, but I’ve never been there. I have, on six occasions though, had to follow up and dispatch a bear that had been wounded by someone else.
It’s a job I’ve always done alone. Not because of some mistaken sense of bravery, but because other people get in the way and make too much noise. Complete and total concentration and silence is required.
Every nerve is as taut as a drumhead. The ability to hear increases; a pulse pounds in your ear and temple; one’s breath is ragged; feet plod ahead inches at a time while eyes look ahead and to both sides for blood sign or a flicker of movement from a moving on oncoming animal. Distractions are not necessary, and could be dangerous.
I once tracked a wounded bruin for 200 yards through a thick swamp. The cover opened up, and 50 yards ahead and too far away for a killing shot from my Remington 3-inch Magnum 12 gauge shotgun, was the bear crossing at a right angle. I ran hard along the swampy edge, got in front of the animal at 40 yards and shot.
It went down, but bounced back up like a rubber ball. It kept coming in my direction, and I fired a second shot at 30 yards, and the wounded bear went down again, only to recover and he kept coming toward me.
A third shot hit the animal at 25 yards, and again, it fell, bounced back up and continued in my direction. A fourth shot centered the bruin at 15 yards, and this time it stayed down for 10 seconds, giving me time to reload. I had just stuffed in a No. 4 buckshot when the bear gained its feet and started for me again. I punched the shotgun barrel forward and shot the fifth time. The bear died six feet from my boots.
It must be noted that the bear had been seriously wounded by another hunter and was probably crazed by pain or in shock. I don’t pretend to know what was going through its mind, but one thing was certain: The wounded bear was potentially dangerous to me, and it had to be put out of its misery.
I’m just sorry it took so many shots to end its suffering. However, bears are beautiful animals, fun to hunt and fun to watch without hunting them. I’ve taken my share of bruins with a bow, muzzleloader, pistol and rifle, and have passed up a chance to shoot far more animals than I have taken.
But as long as bears roam North America, and can provide heart-pounding thrills, they will provide me with a barometer of all that is wild and wonderful in the outdoors.
Fishing Diaries Help Anglers Catch More Fish
I have a bunch of diaries. Each one chronicles separate years of trout fishing: the good and bad days; those times when hatches and trout met in wonderful times of bugs in the air and trout in the water.
Reading back through the pages of many diaries (some were lost in a move) reveal many of the highs and lows of pursuing trout in lakes and streams. These diaries began when I was a youngster, and only tattered remains still exist of the early ones. Some were done during my 1967-1976 guiding career, and others took note of special days on special waters that may have blurred into oblivion if they had not been written down.
My good friend, the late Gordie Charles of Traverse City, beat me to pieces when it came to keeping diaries. Every day of his life, which spanned 86 years, from his mid-teens to over 70 more years of his life, found this man writing daily notations about what that day brought his way. That diary writing continued until two days before his death. In it were notes on trout fishing, deer and turkey hunting, and the disasters and triumphs that every angler suffers.
What is important is that trout fishing for me was the glue that held these thoughts together, but catching trout isn’t the high point in my life. What is more important, I feel, are the friendships I’ve made, the streams and the hatches … and more importantly, just being there.
For instance, I recall these dog-eared happenings from the pages of trout fishing diaries of yesteryear.
*1955: It was on Cheboygan County’s Sturgeon River, when 10 rainbows and browns to 14 inches fell to bait, and my teen-age feelings of doing well at a man’s sport. I remember George Yontz’s patient instruction on how and where to fish, the seclusion and moving water that gave the every trout an edge in fast currents against me and my light line.
*1956: And it was just before the general trout opener when I visited Art Neumann’s Wanigas Rod Company fly shop in Saginaw. He expounded on Trout Unlimited’s philosophy of limiting your kill rather than killing your limit. Those words have remained with me since, and it is a philosophy I heartily endorse.
He tried his best to introduce fly fishing to the mind of a 16-year-old kid, and failed. He did instill the seed of an idea, and that idea has borne fruit. I fly fish as often as possible, but may not have done so had he not sold me on its many pleasures.
*1959: On the AuSable River with the late Max Donovan of Clio. It was my first experience with an AuSable riverboat, a fly rod and too many No. 12 Adams decorating too many overhanging tree limbs. His quiet counseling, his vocal exasperation as I set the hook too hard on a firm take, and my fly loss that decorated the lip of a nice brown trout.
*1966: On the Little Manistee River, when I caught and released a 19-inch brown trout. “This is for you, Kim,” I said, thinking of my first-born daughter with the hope she would someday catch a similar fish.
She later topped the old my dinky brown with a 12 1/2-pounder from Lake Michigan. A photo of her struggling to hold up her prize, her tongue sticking out slightly, and her anger at having “a boy” from Wisconsin beat her by one ounce to claim Field & Stream’s fishing contest for children that year.
She didn’t realize it then, but she was hooked on fishing as surely as the fish she landed. You see, trout fishing is a learning and a teaching experience. My tutors have been many, but all shared with me a love for the fish and its environment. It’s up to us to pass trout fishing fever along to our children and many others.
*1972: I was on the Platte River. Movement was difficult following breaking my back twice, once in 1970 and again in 1971, and the fishing was poor. But being there, and stumbling and wobbling around on one leg that didn’t work right, and catching one late-run steelhead was worth all the pain and effort of the previous two years.
*1975: This was a poor trout opener, my diary reads, at least in terms of trout caught. It was rich in remembering the love song of a ruffed grouse drummed out on a forest log, and the sight of a soon-to-foal whitetail doe drinking at daybreak. The trout didn’t come to a fly, but the kitting out of fishing gear and being with friends made it an enjoyable and well-remembered day.
*1979: It was a grand year. A new graphite fly rod delivered accurate casts to AuSable River sweepers, and the 5X tippet curled over to lay a dry fly with precision. A few trout came willingly to my imitations, and were hooked, fought and released. Wa Wa Sum was the site, and my last fish was the best at 15 inches of red-dotted beauty.
The hordes of anglers thinned, and it seemed the river and I were one. The stream talked with a melody only a trout fisherman could hear, and the day left me feeling good about life and trout fishing.
*1982: This year found John Pinto, Roger Kerby and me on the upper Manistee River. Rain, snow and poor hatches turned the fishing sour, and we spent time with Chris Wright of Grayling as I learned to tie flies. Trout fishing is a smorgasbord of inner emotions, and not all are directly linked to being on the water.
*1986: A meeting of old friends took place at Kalkaska’s National Trout Festival Golden Anniversary media banquet. Old friends and new like Mort Neff, Ken Peterson, Rod Lawrence, Frank Mainville, Gordie Charles, Bob Lee, my twin brother George Richey, Dick Swan, Jim Vercruysse, Marc Wesley, Jack Duffy … all men with whom I’ve shared trout fishing experiences and would plan new ones.
*2003: A special April day when guide Mark Rinckey of Honor took brother George, my son David and me trout fishing on the Platte River. We found a hotspot that was loaded with fish, and other than the four of us, no one else was around. We caught steelhead on a regular basis, and one big buck steelhead took George down the river for 200 yards before the fish could be landed. I was with George in 1952 when he caught his first steelie, and on that day in 2003 when he caught his last one. His death in September, 2003 marked the end of our steelhead fishing trips until we join forces again at some later date. All this, and much more has been stored in personal fishing diaries and my memory bank, and at times like this it’s fun and often sad to recall 56 years of trout fishing.
The years, they pass, and time moves on. The only constant in my life is my love of trout fishing, of places where trout swim, and of past and present friends with whom I’ve shared trout fishing adventures. Those bad and good days, the poignant moments we cherish and remember, and my undying passion for trout is a daily reminder to savor each day and each trout during this long and sometimes bumpy road through an anglers life.
NOTE: My Classifieds section is now up and running well. Anyone interested in placing a buy or sell ad should read the first page of the Classifieds. Readers can place a Wanted To Buy or For Sale ad. All items offered for for sale, or to be purchased, must be directly related to fishing or hunting. We do not accept ads for the purchase or sale of ammunition or firearms. Check it out by clicking on the link on my Home Page. Note that ads can change from day to day as items are sold and replaced with another ad. Thanks! — Dave