Last August Dave Brown, A.K. Best, and I were barreling down an old, wet logging road in the mountains of British Columbia, on our way to a cutthroat trout stream, going faster than you’d thing you’d want to through slick mud, standing puddles, and jumbled rocks. We’d been barreling for an hour without seeing another vehicle or even a tire track in the mud, and, as far as I could tell, we were nowhere near a river.
Dave, a fly fishing guide out of Calgary, Alberta, wanted to check out some water he thought he might like to guide clients on, and A.K. and I were along for the ride. Dave would refer to the river only as Grizzly Central, because it flows through a corner of B.C. that has the largest concentration of grizzly bears in the province. (Of course that’s not the river’s real name, but I guess it is your one hint if you care to pursue it.)
About an hour and a half up the old logging road – along which there’d been several opportunities to take a wrong turn and get lost – we pulled over at the forested lip of a steep gorge. It was a cool, windless, drizzly day, so quiet I could hear a single chichadee far down the slope, and from way down there I could just make out the faint hissing of running water.
The route down followed game trails for a while then dropped off into thick brush and slippery mud. After several hundred feet of this, it began to occur to us that in order to get out of there, we’d have to drag ourselves up the same steep slope.
When we finally got to the river we found it was on the small side, but still plenty big enough. There were places where you could ford it easily and other places where one bad step would float your hat. It had that raw, dramatic, flood-blasted look of a glacial river, with polished, chalky-looking rocks. In places the channel and banks were choked with splintered log jams; some old, some from the previous spring runoff still oozing sap and sporting green needles.
Elk Fly-FishingThe riffles and shallower runs were glass clear, but the deeper pools had the eerie aquamarine cast glacial rivers get. Since the larger trout tend to pod up in the deep holes, you quickly learn to associate that color with fish.
I don’t think the woods there are technically rainforest, but in places they give that impression, right down to carpets of moss and waist-high ferns. One minute you think you could hear a grizzly bear coming for half a mile in this stuff, and the next minute you think you could step on a sleeping bear before you saw it. Whichever way you look at it, you can’t help thinking of bears.
Although the river does have a reputation in certain circles, it’s not well known even locally, and it protects itself pretty well. Many of the fishermen who aren’t discouraged by the long, rugged drive are turned off by the climb in and out of the place. And others who could handle all that okay are scared off by the grizzly bears. The upshot is, not many people fish the river, even those who know about it, and of course not everyone knows about it.
The drill on many of these British Columbia cutthroat rivers is, you fish dry flies because they’re classy and because nine times out of ten they’re all you need, at least in the summer and fall. The year before, on another river in the area, Dave tried a nymph because a guide needs to know what all will work, as well as what’s the most fun. He gave up on it after several fish in a row ignored his Pheasant Tail and tried to eat the strike indicator.
That was on a larger river that actually gets some fishing pressure, though not much. On the more remote streams, the cutts are even bigger suckers for dry flies, if that’s possible. If there’s a hatch on, you fish something roughly resembling the real bugs. If not, you try a big hopper or stonefly.
To most of the fly fishers I’d met in the area, a small fly was about a size 16, and exact imitation of real bugs was considered unnecessary for cutthroats, if not downright effete. The first time we’d fished over there, I had dutifully brought along my South Platte and Frying Pan River fly boxes with dozens of painstakingly tied mayflies and midges in sizes 18 through 26. Dave had shaken his head at the tininess of them, said they were real pretty, and told me to leave them at home next time
But Grizzly Central was the project of the moment, and we waded across a shallow riffle and spread out, stepping over white driftwood and clattering through loose cobbles. Dave – always the guide, off duty or not – pointed me toward a long, deep pool and told me to try a size 8 Stimulator. On my first cast with it I missed what looked like a 20-inch cutthroat. (I was still limbering up, catching my breath, taking in the scenary; I wasn’t ready.) Dave said, matter-of-factly, “Nice fish, eh? Maybe we’ll get ‘im on the way back.” A few casts later I was into a smaller trout, Dave had just released one upstream from me, and downstream I could hear A.K. laughing, which meant he had one too. A.K. has the habit of bursting out in laughter when he hooks a fish as if, after a lifetime of fly fishing, he’s still amazed that it actually works.
From there we leap frogged upstream, if only because upstream always seems more adventurous than down. We went mostly from pool to pool, sometimes fishing close enough together to talk, other times wandering off out of sight, alone, and I would begin to think about bears again.
I haven’t fished a lot in bear country, but I’ve done it enough to have learned one thing, namely that phantom bears can be worse than real ones. On rivers in Alaska I’ve had brown bears stroll down to the same bank I was fishing to catch salmon. Sometimes there’d be more than one adult; sometimes a sow with cubs – the most dangerous combination. It’s a shock, but it can also be sort of a relief. I mean, the largest part of the mystery is solved because there they are!
On the other hand, wondering if they’re there can gnaw at you. It’s possible to hear things in the constant rushing and tumbling of a fast river. I’ve heard distinct voices at times, so growls, grunts, and heavy footsteps aren’t much of a stretch for me. And on that river in B.C. I noticed that if you glanced into the dark forest on the far bank, you could easily locate any number of large, brown things, and if’ you looked up quickly from the stream, with the afterimage of the flowing water still working on your retinas, they could even seem to move.
You’re supposed to make noise so if there is a bear around, you won’t surprise it. I did that, but then it occurred to me that maybe a middle-aged man in the middle of nowhere singing Grateful Dead lyrics off-key might be a little surprising in itself. As I said, it can gnaw at you. You think, Maybe it’s common knowledge among bears that old hippies are delicious and easy to catch.
Some people who spend a lot of time in bear country wear bells on their packs or vests to alert bears to their presence. There’s an old joke about that: How can you tell the droppings of black bears and grizzlies apart? The grizzly turds are the ones with the bells in them.
Fear of bears isn’t something any of us had talked a lot about. A.K. had mentioned some misgivings about being on foot and unarmed in bear country, in the thin-lipped but casual way of someone who knows there’s not much to discuss, and he did seem a little subdued. Me too, maybe. I’ve noticed that in spots like this I’m torn between wanting to make lots of noise and wanting to hold my breath and listen for the snapping of twigs.
Dave, of course, seemed completely unconcerned. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Those who live and fish around bears eventually grow a harder shell than the rest of us, and guides also know that most clients are easier to spook than high-strung racehorses, so they learn to exude a Chuck Yeager-style calm, even when things get a little tense.
The trout were all sizes, from streamlined dinks in the pocket water to fat 16 and 18-inchers in the pools, amybe even a few larger than that. (I want to say 20 inches because it’s such a round and satisfying number but I can’t quite say it with confidence because we didn’t actually measure any fish.) They were light-colored trout, to match the bare-rock bottom of the river, with pale-olive backs, yellowish bellies, pinkish-orange fins, slashes, and gill covers, and small, black spots running high along the back and clustering toward the tail.
And they were romantic as hell, being trout that could trace their ancestry directly back to the last ice age with no interruptions, no detours through a hatchery.
They were pretty gullible, too. Even with no hatch on they’d rocket off the bottom of a 4 or 5-foot-deep pool for a big dry fly, without a hint of suspicion. There’s a kind of fisherman who calls wild cutthroats stupid; I guess I’ve said that myself a time or two, just to make the point. But really they’re just unused to the idea of human fishermen, and they have no idea some god-awful shaving brush of a fly could be anything but a real, edible bug.
A.K. and I have talked about this. It takes time, trouble, and sometimes money to get to places where wild cutts live, and when we travel there, it’s not so much for the easy fishing as to experience the kind of innocence those fish still have. Maybe we’re hoping a little of it will rub off.
The next morning we hiked in to the same river at another spot. If anything, the climb down was longer, steeper, and muddier with looser rocks. We caught more cutthroats, about the same size range, though maybe not quite as many, and also hung a few bull trout on streamers. Some of those were 20 inches easy, fine fish, but nothing too outrageous considering that even in the smaller rivers they can grow to 10 pounds on a diet consisting mostly of young cutthroats.
There are resident fly fishers up there who specialize in bull trout and head-hunt them with size 2, lead-eyed Geek Leeches and such. They’re a really cool fish, actually: chubby, moody, big, a kind of Dolly Varden, they say, although they strike me more as a cross between a lake trout and a pike. They’re gray-green, seriously predatory, and almost monstrously out of place in a small river.
I hadn’t forgotten about the bears, but I guess I’d relaxed a little. If nothing else, having a full day of phantom bear sightings under your belt makes you think you might just survive the whole trip – especially if you remain vigilant.
When it comes right down to it, I’ve actually reached a kind of inner peace about bears. After all, I love wild places, and in North America grizzly bears are the hand-written signature of wildness, so they’re part of the deal. I knew that, statistically, at least, I’d be in a lot more danger on the drive back over the mountains to Alberta. I also understood that getting killed and eaten by a large predator in what was then the forty-eighth year of a mostly good life, would probably be a better end than most. Not that I hoped for such an ending – far from it. I guess I just found it interesting that I could be scared spitless and happy at the same time.
By the end of that second day we’d worked our way downstream into an enormous, mile-wide glacial moraine, a surreal landscape of polished cobbles and scattered, ruined tree trunks between high, steep, intimidating scree slopes, above which were forested mountains and, higher still, rocky crags that would now and then materialize out of shifting banks of cloud.
The river seemed smaller there, dwarfed by all that space, but in fact if would have been a little biggers, having taken on a few small tributaries. In places it ran for hundreds of fishless yards in shallow riffles but, true to form, every blue-green pool we came to had a few nice trout in it.
While I was taking a shortcut, heading for what looked like the next pool on the river, I came on a small bar of washed sand with one big, crumbling, indistinct track in the middle of it and half of another right were the sand shaded into rock again. Some kind of large animal with a long stride had walked through there in the not-too-distant past, but I couldn’t tell what it was.
I glanced downstream. A.K. had gotten a good quarter mile ahead of me, but I could clearly see his green rain slicker against the gray expanse. I wondered if he’d fished that next pool or left it knowing I was coming along behind him. He has a gentlemanly streak in him, so it was a real possibility that he’d passed it by. But then he’s also a fisherman, so maybe not.
Dave was coming up behind me and he walked over to see what I was looking at. I pointed at the tracks and said, “I can’t be sure, but I think that’s a small bear.”
He looked, shrugged, and said, “More likely a big wolf or a mountain lion.” But then he sensed my disappointment (professional guides have a nose for that sort of thing) and said, “But it’s not very clear. It could be a bear. In fact, I think it is a bear.” I guess he’d seen this kind of thing before: the sport who spends two days praying he won’t see a grizzly bear, but late on the last day, gets a little sorry he didn’t see one.