Seeing a bear while fishing can be quite a thrill. Sometimes it’s a good thrill like seeing an eagle catch a fish. Other times it’s a scary thrill, like seeing a cottonmouth coiled on your boat seat. Whether the experience is pleasant or frightening depends on the person’s attitude.
Fortunately, if anglers follow a few simple safeguards, the chance a bear will cause problems is small, and any encounter with a bruin – a grizzly or black bear – is likely to be a good one.
Bears actually are shy. They prefer avoiding humans and usually retreat unless trying to protect their young.
Most encounters between bears and humans occur with the human unaware that it even happened. Bears sometimes become bolder, however, if they are very hungry or have become habituated to humans. Most commonly, habituation happens when bears learn to associate humans with a food reward.
You also should remember that bears are easily surprised. This seems strange for such a large, powerful animal. But if you startle a bear, corner it or provoke it, it may perceive you as a threat. Bears are especially protective of their cubs and food carcasses they’re feeding on.
Avoiding a Bad Encounter
It’s best to avoid bears if you can. There are several ways to do this.
First, learn to recognize bear sign, and avoid areas with fresh tracks, torn logs, flipped rocks, scats or clawed trees.
Also, be cautious on windy days when it’s harder for bears to hear and smell you coming. Be attentive where you can’t hear or see well such as deep brush, along stream sides and at bends in a trail.
Reduce your chances of surprising a bear by clapping your hands, talking, singing or otherwise making noise. This lets any bears know you are coming and you are human. Bears can then retreat and avoid you. Avoid late evening hikes and returning to camp in the dark.
Hungry bears also are attracted by the smell of food around camps. To avoid problems, smart campers store all foods, including dog food and horse feed, in closed, bear-resistant containers or suspended above the ground. They also keep sleeping bags, tents and sleeping areas free of food and beverage odors. And they never sleep in clothes that were worn while handling fish or cooking.
Keep a clean camp. After meals, wipe down tables and chairs. Wash dishes and utensils immediately and dispose of wastewater downwind, at least 100 feet from your sleeping area. Store all odorous items, including food, garbage, toothpaste, deodorant, lotions, creams and sprays in bear-resistant containers.
When leaving camp, pack all food scraps and trash in sealed plastic bags and take it with you for proper disposal. When left behind or buried, these items attract bears to campsites, increasing the chance of bad encounters.
If You Meet a Bear
Even with an individual’s best efforts, it is still possible encounter a bear. Usually the bear will detect you first and leave. But if a bear doesn’t retreat, here are some suggestions.
Stay calm. If you see a bear and it has not seen you, calmly leave the area. Detour as far away as possible. As you move away, make noise so the bear knows you are there.
Give the bear a chance to identify you as human, and not a threat. If the bear stands up, it is trying to see, hear and smell you better. Speak softly while backing away. Avoid direct eye contact; the bear may think this is a threat. Continue backing away slowly and cautiously, retreating to a safe place. Watch what the bear does, and adjust your actions accordingly.
If the bear is close to a trail and you cannot pass it or return the way you came, wait for the bear to leave. If the bear approaches you, identify yourself as a human by allowing the bear to hear and see you. The bear should avoid you.
Do not run or make sudden movements. Running may cause the bear to charge. Besides, you cannot outrun a bear, and they can climb trees.
If a Bear Charges, Spray, Don’t Shoot
On rare occasions, a bear might not retreat or avoid humans. Instead, it seems prepared to charge. What should you do?
Many outdoors enthusiasts are inclined to carry a gun and use it if necessary. But a misplaced shot may just wound the animal, making it even more dangerous.
The best way to defend against a bear attack is bear pepper spray. Everyone who fishes in bear country should keep a full can where they can quickly reach it. Bear pepper spray has been proven more effective than a gun during bear encounters.
Unlike a gun, bear pepper spray does not have to be aimed precisely to stop a charging bear. The spray unit makes a fog in the air. When the spray hits the bear, it causes temporary blindness and makes the bear choke and cough. According to experts, there is no better way to stop an attack by an aggressive bear.
When you buy pepper spray, be sure the container says the product is made for stopping or preventing bear attacks. Other types of personal defense sprays may not work.
Also, be sure the canister contains at least nine ounces. Cans smaller than this may not last long enough or spray far enough to stop a bear’s charge.
Always carry the can with you in the field and in camp. Keep it in a hip pouch or chest holster where you can quickly reach it. In your tent, keep the spray next to your flashlight.
In the event of an attack, remove the safety clip from the can. Aim slightly down and toward the approaching bear. Spray a brief shot when the bear is about 50 feet away. Then spray again if the bear continues to approach.
When the animal retreats or stops, leave the area quickly without running. Go to a safe area such as a car or building. Do not chase or pursue the bear.
Remember, bears aren’t really mean. They aren’t man-eaters, and they usually want nothing to do with us. When we have a bad encounter, it’s because the bear usually is acting defensively rather than aggressively. By understanding the behavior and needs of bears, we can avoid unpleasant encounters. And when we see a bear, it will be a good thrill, not a bad one.