Pro Tips: How to Recognize a Problem Bear

When a bear looks directly at you, it’s time to start formulating an exit plan.
Photo by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

We have posted before about how important it is to carry bear spray when you venture into bear country—whether you’re in Alaska, Glacier national Park, or Tennessee. But we’ve all seen plenty of photos of anglers fishing near huge brown bears without a confrontation. So what’s the best way to tell the difference between a bear that’s minding its own business and one that’s going to be a problem?

First of all, the only place you’re ever going to fish near bears without worrying is on a river during a salmon run. Bears that are stuffed with food and/or focused on catching more salmon generally won’t be bothered by nearby anglers, unless there are cubs involved. This is a general rule, of course, and all it takes is one animal in a bad mood to make things considerably more uncomfortable. However, inland grizzlies and black bears or animals actively searching for food should always be considered dangerous.

Chances are, if a bear on a salmon river hasn’t been surprised by an angler, it’s not going to charge right away. Instead, it will signal any displeasure through a series of “displays” that are actually meant to avoid confrontation. These displays are the bear’s way of saying, “Hey, I’m not happy, so unless you want a fight you’d better get out of my way.” Bears use these displays to communicate with one another and thereby avoid injury, since a fight can be dangerous even for the winner. Any angler in bear country needs to be able to recognize the signs that a bear is getting aggressive.

On my last day as a guide in Alaska, I took some clients to videotape bear activity at the confluence of Moraine Creek and Funnel Creek on the Alaska Peninsula. (Where the video above was also shot.) It’s a known brown-bear hot spot, and we saw something like 24 different bears over the course of the day. At one point, however, we got run off a sandbar by a young bear that was probably pissed off because it had been kicked around by his elders all day. Finally, he came across someone, us, that he could bully.

His displays were classic, and we got out of his way without incident. Here’s how it transpired:

  1. The bear, which had been fishing at the top end of the bar—about 50 yards upstream—stopped what he was doing and got out of the water.
  2. Display #1: As the bear walked slowly across the bar, although not in our direction, he began looking straight at us. This is unusual and a sign of aggression. Normally, bears will avoid eye contact at all costs, even with other bears. On the videotape, you can hear me tell the clients that the bear is “staring at us,” which means we should start moving.
  3. Display #2: The bear turned sideways to us. This is how bears show off their size, as a way to intimidate a possible adversary. Whereas the staring might have been just curiosity, there’s no mistaking the intent of the sideways display.
  4. Display #3: The “hackles”—or hair on the back of the bear’s neck—stood up, making the animal look much more menacing.
  5. Display #4: The bear began shifting his weight from one foot to the other, swinging his head from side to side. I have been told that this is often preparatory to a charge. However, at this point, we were already in full retreat, giving the bear no reason to attack. Once we were across the creek and heading away, the bear turned away, content that he had shown us who was boss. It took my clients a few minutes to stop hyperventilating.

There are other ways bears show aggression—huffing, foot stomping, and clacking their jaws together, for instance—and your ability to recognize these signs will allow you to know when to back off. I believe that the anglers in the video above were much too sanguine in their response. I would have started backing away much earlier than that angler. The video below shows an encounter much like the one I described, and note how the anglers respond by backing off and having the bear spray at the ready.

Thousands of fly fishers cast for trout and salmon in bear country without incident every year. In my three years guiding in Alaska, the event described above was the closest I ever came to a real confrontation, and even then I never really felt the bear was going to charge. Although I carried a shotgun—bear spray was still not widely accepted as an alternative—I never needed to use it or even chambered a round out of fear. So, if you’re headed to Alaska or Canada, arm yourself with bear spray and knowledge of bear behavior and then just focus on having a great time fishing.

11 thoughts on “Pro Tips: How to Recognize a Problem Bear”

  1. Pingback: It's Wild Wednesday. Time for some Wild Links! - WildThings - The GuideMeWild Blog
  2. I experienced bears on salmon run. Kept my line out of the water and the bear walked up stream, looking for the easy pickings. I did keep my head on swivel after that. :0 Great tips!

  3. Pingback: Tippets: Fishing in Bear Country, Bud Lilly Profile, Beginning Gear | MidCurrent
  4. Great tips, with the exception that, always carry with one in the chamber, reaction time and mechanical manipulation always a factor for obvious reasons!
    By the way, given the times we live in, “Situational Awareness” should be a life skill!
    End of speech.

  5. Also, if there’s room to move, try to position yourself so the bear can get your
    Not easy in the bush, but doable on the tide-flats

  6. Thanks, Phil. Your info about grizzly displays was spot-on (although I would add yawning to the #4 display). As someone who has spent some fifty years fishing in Bristol Bay and western Alaska, I would add a couple of comments. In the first video, shot at the confluence of Funnel and Moraine Creek, the fisherman was either a fool, or someone who could read bears. I presume the latter, but I would not have dropped a line in front of him. That is not the time to hook up. Those are habituated bears, but back when we called Moraine just Bear Creek so it wouldn’t be discovered, I had my most dangerous encounter with a bear that looked very much like that big boar.
    In the second video, I would have become much more assertive when the bear began running back and forth. That was obviously a bear that was trying to decide who was the boss, and I think they would have been better served at that point to stand their ground. I have had the safety off on my my bear spray a number of times, and its greatest benefit is to give a fisherman the courage it takes to call their bluff. This is particularly true for pushy sub-adult boars.
    And on a side note I can tell you from personal experience, if you carry that spray on your hip for fifteen years without replacing it, it has all the range of an old man with a prostate problem. Check the expiration date.

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