- By: Tom Montgomery
During my extensive bear studies, which include analyzing nearly 1,000 bear attacks in Alaska, with outcomes ranging from a few scratches to death, one common thread weaved throughout the data—nobody thought it would happen to them.
Does this mean bears are like Tasmanian devils spinning wildly around the landscape, striking hapless victims at random? The answer is no; in fact, most bear attacks involve persons—wittingly or otherwise—who set bears up for conflict. But it’s also true that anglers are at high risk in bear country because they frequent places favored by bears and because dense brush, noisy waters and stealthy movement all increase their odds of unexpectedly running into a bear.
The following information, gleaned from examining the circumstances around black and grizzly bear attacks for the past 20 years, offers your best tactics for avoiding bears and, in the worse-case scenario, surviving an unexpected encounter. You’ll recognize some of this information as standard, but you’ll also see some data that blows the doors off conventional wisdom. Understanding all of this information gives you your best chance to avoid a fateful encounter while casting around bear country this summer and fall.
Hiking to the water
People hiking in bear country, including anglers heading off to their favorite streams, get in more trouble with bears than any other group. Moving fast, quietly and alone along established trails results in otherwise avoidable bear interactions. This is true because bears that are unable to detect a person’s presence will not have time to melt into the underbrush and get out of the way. Research shows that, given even the slightest chance, bears will go to great lengths to avoid clashing with people. But you have to give them a chance. Why hike close together? My studies in Alaska show that two people standing their ground have never been touched by a bear; this includes both black and brown/grizzly bears. But you won’t stand your ground if hiking alone and without a deterrent. So stay together, with each member of the party carrying bear spray. Deterrents—most often bear spray or a firearm—must be readily available. My research on both showed that less than two percent of people who used bear spray during an attack in Alaska were injured by a bear, whereas 28 percent of persons carrying a firearm during an attack were injured or killed. Sure, firearms can kill bears, but in the hands of novices or those with shaking hands, they are ineffective. Also, while fishing your hands are busy and the lag time between dropping the rod and grabbing the gun may be too great. Only highly competent and deadly accurate people with nerves of steel should carry a firearm as a deterrent. It’s your choice, but be honest when assessing your ability to fire accurately under pressure. And remember—this isn’t like the range you practice at. In the wilderness the targets will be chasing you.
Fishing is often a solo pursuit, a time when one savors the sounds of the wilderness and moves silently, often so they can stealthily sneak up on fish. But you must make adjustments, particularly when fishing areas likely to harbor bears. Be alert, listen for movement, and occasionally let out a yelp (“Hey bear, hey bear”) to let bears know you are on the stream. I’ve fished among grizzlies for many years and they mostly want to be left alone. But if you surprise them they will respond with reflexive fury—so it is best to not do that. Be aware, too, that in some areas bears have learned that the sound of line stripping off the reel means “fish on” and an easy meal. In places like Alaska, you should cut your line immediately if a bear approaches or you will become a two-legged vending machine that delivers fish to bears. When fishing, keep bear spray (or firearms) on your hip, pack strap or chest harness. It is of no use to you anywhere else.
Camping near the water
Just like you, bears prefer to move along trails and the edge of the water. Never camp on a streambank or lakeshore, or along a trail. Doing so greatly increases your chances of an unwanted bear encounter. Sure, we all love a good view, but give the bears room to move along the shore without stepping on you or your tent. I never let bears touch my tent because if you are inside a sleeping bag and inside a tent and a bear comes to check things out, it is in control of the situation. You can’t do much inside a tent with a bear on the other side. So I use a perimeter alarm such as the PackAlarm ($69.95), a motion sensor such as the Critter Gitter ($69), or a compact electric fence like the Sureguard Bear Fence ($215) to notify me of their presence and to drive them off. All of these options weigh ounces and provide many nights of quiet sleep. They also guard your gear while you’re off fishing. You may also find that your spouse, partner or friends are more willing to go on an adventure once you explain that you’re prepared to ward off bears.
Bear encounters: myths and truths
“Lie down and play dead.”
“Don’t look a bear in the eye.”
“Wave your arms over your head so you look larger.”
“Talk softly so that the bear will know you’re human.”
We’ve all heard this advice, but let me tell you: After studying bear/human conflict for the past two decades, I’m convinced such advice is not only misleading, but dangerous. Here is the bottom line about what to do if you encounter a bear at close range.
JStand your ground—don’t back away—and never lie down or play dead, unless you are knocked to the ground by a grizzly bear.
JGroup together. Stand abreast of one another, so a bear can see multiple people.
JReady your deterrent and be prepared to use it the moment a bear advances. Your range with bear spray is 25 feet and a bit farther with a gun, that distance dependent on a person’s nerves and accuracy.
JGive a bear the chance to size you up and move on. If after a minute or two the bear does not move on, keep your eyes on it, keep your deterrent pointed at it, and back away.
JShould the bear charge, stand firmly and spray (or shoot). Do not move or lie down. If the bear makes contact with you, remain standing if possible. Lying down signals submissiveness or subordination. You don’t want to send that message.
JIf knocked to the ground by a grizzly, lay face down, be still, protect your neck and wait for the bear to move on.
JIf dealing with an aggressive black bear never lie down and play dead. Fight for your life and try to do so from a standing position. w
Dr. Tom S. Smith has studied all three North American bear species for more than two decades. His expertise is focused on bear/human conflict, and he publishes on that topic in numerous scientific journals. He’s a professor of plant and wildlife sciences at Brigham Young University.
5 simple rules
in bear country
1 Never enter bear
country without a
2 Do not hike alone if
you can avoid doing so.
3 Make noise
4 Camp in places that
minimize the likelihood
of bear trouble.
5 Never let a bear touch