Three Bulls and a Bear

Story by Peter McMullan with Photography by Nick Didlick

PITT RIVER LODGE, BRITISH COLUMBIA – It’s still raining. That’s no surprise since the forecast was for up to two inches, par for the course in a long valley through the Coast Range Mountains as the fall deluge starts in earnest. Baglo is in the kitchen working up a feast of filet mignon and tiger prawns, Didlick is mixing mind-numbing martinis while Hume and Smyth mull over the first day’s adventures.

Meantime I am writing this piece with the memories of what happened a couple of hours ago still in clear focus, vivid enough to last a lifetime. Wilderness fishing is always going to be different and sometimes challenging, that goes without saying, but this was an encounter never to be forgotten.

The river had come up a good foot since first light but was still running clear and fishable. Wiser men would probably have gone in for dry clothes and warm drinks by mid-afternoon, but after a long day, Hume and I headed off to try a deep, broad run no more than 10 minutes walk from the lodge. Two hours later he had had enough and was on his way with a shouted “see you soon”.

The pool was long and strong, the sound of moving water and the familiar rhythm of cast and step, cast and step, almost hypnotic. The deep-wading fisherman is totally absorbed, eyes only for the river and a break in the flow that will soon come within casting range, perhaps a potential holding lie.

A splash to my back broke the spell, a running fish I thought, close up behind me against the river’s edge. I turned – to see instead a full grown black bear staring at me from no more than 15 feet away. It had come off the gravel bar, to wade up to its chest. I was waist deep – and with a reach, could have touched the tip of my fly rod, to its heavy, black head.

Who knows how long it had been there or what was on its mind? It contemplated me with no signal of aggression, curious for sure and far, far too close for the comfort of any fisherman.

My instinctive reaction was to shout…..and shout loud.

Go away! Go away! F— off! F— off! I yelled. A string of other equally meaningless commands followed.

The bear stood its ground. Not moving forward. . . . or backwards. It didn’t make a sound.

With nowhere to go for sanctuary, no one to call for help (the radio was forgotten, buried deep in a dry pocket beneath my jacket) we were in stalemate. I shouted again, raised and shook my wading staff, as if a thin stick with a little bit of lead at the tip was going to be any deterrent.

The bear, grown heavy by feasting on the river’s salmon for years, weighed over 400 lbs. It would have been magnificent, admired across the width of a river or seen from the security of a vehicle.

I didn’t have time to be really scared, but long enough to wonder what would happen if the bear made a move in my direction. A few strides, a single leap would close the gap in an instant. Instead, at that moment, the bear slowly turned back toward the river’s edge. I shouted after it, and the bear stopped in the shallows to look back. After 20 yards, it paused again – looking at me for the last time – then it scrambled away over a jumbled pile of logs left by previous floods.

The walk back to the lodge as darkness fell was hurried and anxious, thoughts racing as to what other outcome might have resulted. My reactions in a situation of undoubted risk had been instinctive but effective. But I was left wondering: was this just a curious bear ? One that came out of the bush to check on an unknown presence in its home river without aggresive intent? Or was it stalking me?

Back in the comfort of the lodge, with a large shot of Bushmills to steady the nerves, hosts Lee and Danny Gerak were simply astonished.

“I have never, ever heard of a bear deliberately going into the water close to a fisherman like that and I haven’t seen a bear around here for at least three months”, Danny said.

Baglo thought for a moment and offered: “Just as well you didn’t drop your back cast. You’d have been on the backing pretty fast.”

And how was the Pitt River fishing that first day? For me a three fish effort as the river inched ever higher, landing bull trout of 20, 22 and 24 inches, solid takers in heavy water with the last and largest turning and making a good 50 yards down the rapids before coming to hand. The fly each time was an egg-sucking leech with only one eye, definitely the secret of success on a day of days for such very different reasons.

Little wonder I was entrusted with my own bear spray canister for the rest of the trip.

Did we encounter any more bears? Of course not.