Dave Jones is a great example of an Alaskan story teller. He and a partner own Alpenview Wilderness Lodge on Kodiak Island. He comes down south here several times a year. Dave is wearing glasses, jeans, a checkered shirt with a down vest and a baseball cap. He has a short beard, mostly gray. He talks quietly and sips coffee. We were just chatting in our dining room, but my mind was way up north in Alaska. We were sitting around in his lodge with his guests as he told tales about fishing, Kodiak bears, and salmon.
When that first bunch of salmon comes in, they’re all bright and strong and they’re not ready to spawn yet. So for bears to catch them, it’s even more difficult than when the salmon are tired and just looking to finish their lives by planting new life along the riverbeds.
Watching bears fish a small stream full of salmon is . . . well, you can spend hours doing it really. I’ve even seen people who are just Gonzo fishermen put the rod down, sit on the river bank and watch . . . because it’s fun.
One place that comes to mind is the Red Lake Creek Confluence with the main channel of the Ayakulick River. The main channel of the Ayakulick is a deep, big piece of water where fish are relatively safe from bears, but the Red Lake Creek is a small, clear gravel tributary. It comes from Red Lake, and sockeye are a lake dependent species of salmon. So every sockeye that comes up that big channel of the Aya has got to run a gauntlet of bears and fishermen. It’s a shallow clear stream between the main channel, the river and the lake where they’re all eventually going to spawn. They build up in huge numbers in the main channel of the river and shoot up this small stream. That’s when the bears can cut loose on them. Because the water is shallow and clear, the fish are concentrated and it’s child play.
The bears are all over the place when it comes to skill levels and fishing. Some are really very well adapted to it and others are really clumsy and have a hard time. One of their favorite things to do is to get upstream in a river and just charge straight down that river full speed ahead with their claws out chasing fish. That spooks the fish and gets them moving.
The bear will run, run, run, run, run until it sees an individual fish. And it’ll take a big dive, you know, into the water with a huge splash. (Laughing) Nine times out of 10, they come up empty handed, they’ve got nothing. But once in a while they get successful and they’re successful in a couple of different ways. One is that maybe they scare these fish so much that one of them spooks and it just swims right up on the beach trying to get away from the bear. The salmon just runs out of water. That’s a good way for a bear to get them. Two, others can sometimes grab one in their mouth and bring it up from the river bed.
Imagine a four wheel drive truck coming down the river with big claws on each wheel and a mouthful at teeth and it runs down and it dives into this group of 50 salmon and boom, it may not catch one. But there’s a very good chance that it has actually maimed several of them. Later in the day, the bear can walk up and down the river and look in the water and there’ll be dead fish that were injured during the bear’s attempts to catch them. It doesn’t matter how they get one. If they can pick it up, they’re pleased to get it that way.
That reminds me of a story that I tell a lot about Veronica, who was our cook at Alpenview. She worked for me for 14 years. And she used to cook some part of the summer at our out-camp. While we were out fishing during the day, and she didn’t have a lot to do, she liked to go swimming. So she would just jump into the river and swim around. On one occasion, some people had come in and camped down the river from us a-ways. They were walking up past our camp, Veronica had been out swimming, and she kind of noticed over her shoulder that these folks were walking up the river and so she thinks to herself, “I’m gonna give these folks a treat.” So she’s swimming around in a pool. These folks are walking up the river, but down on the bottom of the river is one of these sockeye that’s nice and bright. A beautiful fish. It’s dead because it was probably knocked out by a bear. But otherwise it looks just fine. And she dives down to the bottom of the river.
Just as these people are passing her spot on the river, Veronica comes up with this fish in her hands. She shakes it her hands and flips it around like it was still alive . . . and splash back in the water it goes. Veronica shakes her head and goes, “Darn it! Darn it! Missed another one.” Then she says, “Oh, hello. Didn’t see you there.”
You can imagine those folks walking along the bank of the river looking down and here’s a gal swimming around and comes up with a beautiful, bright salmon in her hands and loses it. Just another day on Kodiak Island . . . and the stream of things.