Posted on November 13 2020
I visited Yellowstone for the first time in July or August in 1989. I'm sure of the year because I know it was the year after Yellowstone burned. Actually Yellowstone burns to some degree every year. The Park averages between 10 and 20 fires a year. In 1988 over 200 fires joined together to burn 800,000 acres, about a third of the Park. That September, a quarter of an inch of snow fell and put the fires out. Fortunately, most of the high volume tourist spots escaped damage so I was still able to do all that stuff...Old Faithfull. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, etc.
It was during a ride around that I saw a Grizzly for the first (and only) time. I pulled in to a small turnout where 4 or 5 cars had already pulled over, and their occupants were scrambling out of their vehicles with their cameras and 10 inch lenses. There was a Grizzly in the adjacent field casually making its way along the base of a mountain towards the narrowing end of the clearing. Cameras were clicking away when for some reason, the bear turned 90 degrees and ran straight up the side of the mountain. All of us suddenly caught, slack jaw, as the bear displayed power and speed that had us all shaking our heads. Trees were being uprooted and boulders were flying through the air like they were marbles, and the bear was covering an impossible amount of ground with every leap. Then he was gone. We all stood there staring at the mountain for a while. The Bear's path was visible and his route looked to be straight up the steepest part of the mountain's face. I drove off but the experience spooked me a little. I liked the idea of fishing in bear country but sometimes reality differs from those ideas. That was the beginning of my, "bear thing", as some of my fishing buddies refer to my unusual mania about Grizzly.
My buddy, Richard, who has also fished the Yellowstone area for decades, makes a habit of reminding me he was an athlete in high school so can outrun me if we do bump into a bear. He says he'll make his escape while the bear slows down to eat me. It gets me thinking...
Then, every year or so a Grizzly does attack ...almost always the media points out that the victim was not following proper protocol that should be practiced when in bear country. I have developed a habit of yelling, "Hey Bear", as I'm wading up the Yellowstone streams. I am almost always by myself these days as some of buddies have given up the chase.
My most recent trip was almost 3 years ago. I landed in Last Chance, Idaho during the third week of September. I planned on fishing the Ranch section of the Henry's Fork for a week or so, before moving up to Gardiner, Montana so I could conveniently fish the Northeast corner of the Park for a few days....then up to Big Hole country before finishing up on the Missouri. My schedule was flexible but I was focused on fishing the Ranch. I knew from past experience that size 16 Mahogany Duns would be hatching and that those Ranch Rainbows would be on them. This is the only respite this time of year from the size 22 and 24 Baetis, (blue wing olives) that I have a hard time fishing now that I'm older. 14' leaders with 40 inches of 7x tippet hitched to a fly the size of a pin head is just not my cup of tea anymore. But those Mahogany Duns float on the surface nice and perky looking, and the Trout love them. That is if they hatch.
When I pulled into the Trouthunter shop, I found that my friend Rick Smith was working so after a little catching up with each others' lives, we got into the serious stuff..."are they biting, what's hatching, and where are they"? It was in the 20s with snow in the air. I told him where I was camping for the night as a check in, and we planned to have breakfast together the next morning. I had a cap on my truck and had a mattress and a warm sleeping bag to crawl into. As I was leaving the shop, Rick asked me, "Got bear spray"? As it turned out I didn't. I planned on buying a big can before going in the Park but hadn't given it any thought for that part of Idaho.....until right then. Rick showed me a picture on his phone...a track with those long claws disappearing from the top of the phone's screen. I didn't want to ask him but I did, "where is that". "Along the third channel" ,he said. That was stomach jarring news. The third channel doesn't get much traffic this time of year and I had thoughts about swinging by to make the short hike in to just check it out before going to the campsite. I bought bear spray and went to set up the truck cap for what turned out to be a restless night No hike in to the channel for me.. At dawn it was 19 degrees and we had 4 inches of snow. I put the truck in 4-wheel drive and headed for the Trouthunter diner and saloon. It sits next to the "Fork" and one can sometimes see heads breaking the surface....not this morning. Rick was part of the early shift so he came in and had his breakfast with me. We should have been talking tippets and flies, but we ended up talking about bears again.
Although I knew part of the story, Rick filled me in about TroutHunter's owner, Rich Paini's, bear story. Rich and the Trouthunter manager, Jon Steil, had gone elk hunting the previous fall. Although they brought their bows, they were really just scouting around a little. They separated but stayed within voice range. A bear came out of a thicket and attacked Rich. Hearing the commotion, Jon ran over and found Rich trying to fight off a bear. Jon sprayed as the bear ran off. Rich had been able to hold up his bow to keep the bear off of him a little, but the bear bit the bow where Rich was holding it and his thumb ended up in the bear's mouth. It didn't come back out. There was some luck involved that let them survive the attack and more than a little courage involved as well.
We finally got around to the normal fishing conversation, but I had thumbs on my mind.
The Mahogany duns were around they said, but the reports were sketchy and details seem to break down when specific locations were brought up. I moved out of my truck and into one of the Trouthunter rooms for the rest of my stay. I caught some fish but it was tough. I did get one solid report of the duns coming off but it was happening at....you guessed it, the Third Channel.