Guest Blogger: Clay Cunningham, Cody, Wyoming, retired National Park Superintendent

bear charge pelican_ck_signLocation: Pelican Creek, Yellowstone National Park, 7,700 foot altitude
When: Summer 1968
Who: Clay Cunningham, Madison Sub-district ranger, Yellowstone

Yellowstone’s Pelican Creek originates in the tributaries of the Mirror Plateau of Yellowstone then flows through the incredible wildlife habitat of Pelican Valley and empties into Yellowstone Lake at the 7,700 foot elevation level. The creek was a primary spawning area for Yellowstone cutthroat trout until 1998, and during subsequent years when the population was severely impacted by Whirling disease. This parasite attacks the nervous system of young fish and kills them outright or leaves them as easy prey for larger fish. In recent years, the trout that survived or had a natural defense against the disease have reproduced and the population is recovering.

After a winter of daily ski patrols during Montana’s extended elk season along the park’s northwestern border, I was assigned to the Madison River sub-district for the summer. Having been a fly tier since I was twelve years old, I felt like I had won the trout fishermen’s lottery. However, bear antics, car wrecks, injured and lost visitors, criminals of all kinds and my day-to-day duties tied me up in the patrol area until one day in mid-August when I was able to make the hike into Pelican Valley to fish for trout. I hiked several miles up the valley along Pelican Creek. It was early afternoon and my plan was to fish downstream arriving at Fishing Bridge at dusk. The late afternoon is prime time for many insect hatches. Surrounded by grasses, rushes and sedges I started fishing where Pelican Creek ran deep and slow with a large meadow at my back and a steep mud bank on the opposite side of the creek. Two otter were playing tag with each other in the water on the opposite bank. Just in front of the otters was a trout slurping something from the top of the water. From experience, I knew that very large trout often just create a vacuum by opening their mouth and drawing in floating insects.

Wading out as far as my hip boots would allow, I started stripping fly line from my reel for what would be a long cast for my eight foot, Heddon Black Beauty fiberglass rod and my casting ability. My fly of choice was a size 16 elk hair caddis. Carrying as much line as I could in the air, my first cast settled softly above the “slurping” trout, but not far enough to pass over his feeding lane. Worried that smaller trout might take the fly and prevent me from hooking what I was sure was a much bigger fish, I hurriedly retrieved the fly as carefully as I could. For the next attempt, I needed to make a longer cast and I double hauled the fly line to increase line speed and distance of the cast. The elk hair caddis silently landed at the right distance to float through the trout’s feeding lane. I couldn’t see the fly, but I did see the “slurp” in the area where I thought my fly would be. I lifted the rod to set the hook. Fish on! The powerful fish made a strong run upstream peeling line off my Hardy reel at high speed. Before he got into the backing, I gently jabbed him to get him to turn around. He did quickly and now I was winding line as fast as I could so he wouldn’t have any slack and break off as he turned and ran downstream. I was so busy with this fish that I didn’t notice a large grizzly bear on the opposite bank watching me intently. This was not good.

The nearest tree was many yards behind me. If I started running that would cause the bear to charge, and with hip boots or even running shoes, I couldn’t out run a grizzly. Besides, hip boots make very poor tree-climbing footwear. I was wrestling with a large trout fighting for its freedom and a large fish-loving omnivore was watching my activity. Bears can’t see very well, but their hearing and sense of smell are outstanding.

Normally, with a fish this size I would move along the stream in the direction the fish was going, but any movement on my part might cause the bear to charge. The bear stood up then dropped to all fours and shook his head vigorously from side to side. I was sure he was going to charge, and he did. It wouldn’t help for me to break the fish off, because I had no way to escape. I would have to drop to a fetal position, protect my neck, groin and kidney areas as best I could and endure the mauling, but I wouldn’t do that until the bear was very close because that could encourage him to complete the charge. Bears often make false charges and you can’t tell the difference until they quit or run over you.

The bear hit the water at full speed, but stopped halfway across the creek. It swam with the current downstream for several yards, came out of the water on the opposite bank, shook himself off, glanced back at me and ambled away and out of sight. I have no clue as to why he quit the charge. I caught the large fish and released it. However, now I had the added challenge of knowing there was a large grizzly somewhere in the area downstream from me where I had to go to get back to Fishing Bridge before dark.

3 Comments

  1. Just that teensy little half-pinch of adventure, Clay, that’s all you got? 🙂

    Wow, there are bear stories and the rare charging bear story, but yours was also a Griz, and way out there, alone. And you never stopped fishing! Now that’s fly fishing dedication. Incredible story; thanks for sharing. I’m going to forward that to a bunch of my friends. I really look forward to your other tales, too.

    (And I guess it’s only fitting that the gods rewarded you with such an incredible memory, since you’d showed such loyalty to the mother of all wilderness flies, the Elk Hair Caddis. 🙂

    – Mike

  2. Lucky this time. When fishing AK rivers, including the Russian River carry pepper spray + a chest holster that keeps my .44 magnum Ruger out of the water. One unlucky fisherman on the Russia River after dark several years ago badly mauled and lost his eyesight.

  3. Back around 1969 I was fishing the Yellowstone River just below Buffalo Ford in the Park. I was fishing a channel on July 15, the opening day of cutthroat season, I was crushing fish after fish just swinging a nymph in the flow. It seemed I had attracted the attention of a bunch of tourists as they were gesturing to me from the road and yelling something I couldn’t hear.

    A couple of them were pointing at me (not) and I was feeling pretty cool that I had all this attention. I finally looked over my right shoulder and about 100′ away was a bear! I don’t know if it was a grizzly or a black bear in brown phase. I didn’t want to stick around too long. So I just turned back towards the road side and calmly waded back to shore. Too close for comfort.

    I too used to fish Pelican in the later 1960’s. While I was never approached by a bear during any of those visits once I had just walked in from the trail head and was about ready to walk out from the tree lined trail to start fishing when not more than 150′ away was a cow moose and calf! She looked towards me and I was scared. I kept my eyes on her and started walking backwards. When I was able to walk out of her field of view I turned around back to where I’d come in and made a steady bee line back to the road and the safety of my car. Suffice to say I didn’t fish Pelican that day.

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