One of my goals for this Alaskan trip was to photograph a bear fishing. That’s an easy thought to have from the comfort of my chair at home: “Hey, I’d like to photograph fishing bears!” But turning that thought into reality, in Alaska, in the wild, is quite a different story. Luckily, I had a plan. Whether or not this plan would work remained an open question, but there is only one way to find out. It was time to set forth and find my fishing bears.
The first step of the plan was getting to Alaska and getting myself in a position to locate bears in the first place. I did this by sailing in the inner passage, and you can read about that part of the adventure in Humpback Whales. Once I was satisfied with my efforts with the whales, it was time to head to Admiralty Island, which has an exceptionally dense brown bear population. This island was my best bet to find a bear and, perhaps, the best opportunity for fishing bears.
Admiralty Island is an enormous island and is as big as the island of Hawaii’s O’ahu. There is only one small native village on it, with just a few hundred people living there. Beyond that, the island is pristine wilderness, untouched and unworked by humans. In other words, a perfect place for me to find bears, with the bear density estimated at one bear per square mile. Since the salmon were running, the easiest way to locate a bear was to find a stream, then walk up it looking for where the bears fish, then wait for them to come again. My plan was coming together. I sailed to the east side of the island, as far away from any established facilities, trails, or other human signs as possible.
When it comes to finding the right stream, one is as good as any other to start. Because I was out in the wilderness, there were no guides, no books, no reference, and no information whatsoever. I anchored in a small, sheltered cove and took a zodiac to the shore, landing near a small stream. I made my way to the mouth of the creek, watching for salmon. There were a few, to be sure, but not enough, so I headed back out in the zodiac to another nearby stream. It took a couple of tries, but eventually, I found one that had a decent amount of fish. Now it was time to see if the bears were here.
I was exceptionally cautious because I was in the wilderness with an unknown number of bears with unknown temperaments. I bushwacked my way upstream, which was both easy and complicated. It was easy because all I had to do was head upstream. It was complicated because although I could wade in parts of the stream, in other places, deep water and fallen trees blocked my progress. In these cases, I had to go around, and where the banks were steep, this was not easy. All the while, I needed to be extraordinarily quiet and careful, lest I encounter a bear before I was ready. There was a lot of stopping, listening, and looking very carefully all around me.
Eventually, I found a place I thought would work out. There were quite a bit of recent fish remains, so I knew the fishing bears were here. I found plenty of cover for me, too, and I had an excellent vantage point behind a fallen log a short distance away. There weren’t any bears, though, so that was not so good. Since it was now later in the day than I cared for, I marked the spot for tomorrow.
The next day dawned bright and clear and was a perfect day to photograph fishing bears! I got up early and repeated yesterday’s trek to my chosen location. I set up, settled in, and waited. And waited. Then I waited some more. The woods around me were both at once quiet and noisy, but as the day went by, I became more accustomed to the sounds, and all became normal. The wait continued. Eventually, planning and patience paid off!
I almost didn’t see them at first; they came so silently. Before I knew it, a bear was crossing the stream right toward the fishing spot I was watching! And right behind the bear were three small cubs. Not only did I encounter a bear, but I encountered Momma and her cubs, too. Momma bear was aware of me, but I was far enough away that she was not concerned with me at all. She waded into the water, and before I knew what was happening, she had successfully taken a salmon! She brought it back to the shore for her cubs, who devoured the meal in moments.
This process repeated several times, and after Momma Bear satisfied the cubs, she had a meal herself. As quietly as they arrived, they disappeared into the woods, although I continued to wait. After all, fishing bears is what I came to photograph. I was impressed at the skill and speed the bear caught a fish. I didn’t know what to expect. The bear would walk into the stream, and a couple of moments later would splash out with a fish. The skill of the bear was terrific to watch, and she made it look incredibly easy. It isn’t, that’s for sure.
The bears came and went several times throughout the day, and I watched and photographed them each time. This photograph, Gone Fishing, is the one I am most proud of from that entire time, even though it showcases only one of the cubs. Its expression is priceless, and you can see the anticipation of another meal in its eyes.
Alas, it was eventually time to move on. I did explore several other streams and locations, but this one was the best. And there was more of Alaska to explore, too, which we will do in the next story.