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Kodiak Bear on the Fly

The following adventure was provided by Dan Crismore.  Thank you Dan!!

I have listened to many discussions over fate versus our own control of our destiny, and until now, had not taken the time to decide which side of the fence I stood on.  After being part of this adventure, I will have to say fate plays a much larger part of our destiny than I once thought.

Our adventure started with a phone call from my older brother, Cliff and his wife Shari, who live in Fairbanks, Alaska.  They had both put in and successfully drawn Alaskan Brown Bear permits on Kodiak Island, through the state's party system.  After a few minutes of agonizing small talk, the invitation for myself and my two younger brothers, Wayne and Challis, was issued.  Of course, I summoned the courage to accept instantly without first consulting my wife.  After some begging and a new Joan Wulff Winston 5 wt. fly rod, she gave me her blessing!

The next few months flew by as preparations were made for the trip.  As with all big hunting trips, part of the excitement and fun is in anticipation while plans are being made.  In the end, it would be Challis and I leaving Montana to go on what was now being called "The Big Bear Hunt."  With regret, Wayne had prior commitments and was not able to join us.

Challis, who is the youngest of the bunch, and I had made arrangements to drive from our Montana homes to Spokane, Washington, where we would meet at the airport to begin our travel to Kodiak City, Alaska.  All flights went well and by 3:00 p.m. Alaska time, we were on a Cessna 206 headed south to meet up with Cliff and Shari.  They had flown in earlier with all the camping supplies and food for 10 days.  Our weather was not a factor that day and the plans we had spent months making, were executed to the exact minute detail.  I should iterate that Cliff is an extremely organized camper to the extent of earning the nickname, "seven copies", while in Boy Scouts as a kid! As Patrol Leader, Cliff would have typed, double spaced waterproof copies of the agenda, menu, and duty roster to hand out to the 7 members of his patrol.  These organizational skills also helped him Eagle Scout and to later become a Boy Scout Executive. 

With camp set and nightfall quickly approaching, we prepared supper, which was our first meal of completely freeze dried food.  The main course, veggies, and a dessert was served of which I could not honestly tell you what it was, for my mind has conveniently blocked this memory from my collection.  A mind will sometimes do that after you have experienced a horrible trauma!

The next morning, Challis and I awoke to our normal morning schedules which had not transferred over to the two hour difference in time.  Sunrise would be at 8:00 a.m. Alaska time, or as Shari growled, not for another 3 hours.  With bear season not opening for another day, we spent the day hiking around scouting for bear and hoping to find a Sitka deer to supplement our week-long menu of freeze dried meals.

From the plane flying in, we could see a lush carpet of ripened grass that was punctuated by patches of reddish gray alder.  From the air, this vegetation looked like it would be easy hiking for us that grew up in the rugged mountains of Northwestern Montana.  After reaching the first ridge back of camp,  which was only an elevation change of 400 feet, we decided that we liked things better from the plane.  The grass was extremely thick and chest high.  The alders were even thicker and over our heads.  After that climb, we sat a lot under the pretense of glassing for bear, which really translated to, "let's rest for a while!"  We found no bear or bear sign that day, which was fine with me since we were so close to camp.

Opening day of bear season brought us the second day of rain along with fog that held us to playing cards in the tent and catching up on news of everybody's life, since busy schedules and distance don't allow us to see each other every year.

The second day of bear season found us awake long before daylight listening to the downpour of rain on the tent.  We discussed the futility of hunting in the rain versus another day of cards.  I voiced my opinion that since Kodiak gets close to 150 inches of rain every year, the bears had to be out feeding in it or they would starve.  That was all the prodding needed.  No one wanted a repeat of the day before.  After a quick, bottomless, or so it seemed, cup of plain instant cream of wheat, we dressed for the rain and headed out. 

As I stood by the tent waiting for the others to finish with last minute details, I could not help thinking that it has been a good year for Cabela's.  I wonder if they sell stock!

Our plan was to hike back along the bay to the west of our camp and glass for bear on the opposite ridge.  If we found anything, we could then walk around the end of the bay which was only a mile or so from our camp, and climb the ridge.  With the tide being out, this would be an easy walk.  At a point halfway to the end of the bay, we decided to glass for a while.  With the low light and the rain, it was going to be tough spotting.

At this point, I believe that fate was starting to take charge.  I was lucky to spot a Brown Bear sitting in a spot void of grass and alders.  His back was to us and his nose was facing into the wind.  The bear was looking up the hill.  Nervously, he would look down and then snap around to look up again.  The motion was what caught my eye.  I am sure Cliff, Shari, and Challis could tell how excited I was as I struggled verbally trying to direct their binoculars to where the bear sat.  After several tries, we were all looking at the bear.  None of our bunch was very experienced on sizing bear, even thought Challis had taken an 8 ft. bear on a previous hunt with Cliff two years before.  Before we could guess the bear's size, it jumped up and started running downhill.  His point of origin was approximately 600 years above the bay.  Watching the bear run towards us was mesmerizing.  We were snapped out of the trance when the bear entered an alder patch and we could no longer see him.  In vain, I searched the alder patch with the spotting scope looking for some sign of movement.  My emotions had felt like I had just stepped on a roller coaster, first up, then down.  Then Shari spotted the brown walking along the beach, heading our way.  We had ranged across the bay earlier and found that it was 380 yards from our point to the bank the bear was on.  This was too far for a shot, but our hopes were up that somehow it would work out.  As if listening to our wishes, the bear entered the ocean waters, swimming directly at us.  I know that Brown Bear can be aggressive, but this bear had no clue that we were anywhere around.  He just kept swimming to our point.  This began to unnerve more than just myself.  Cliff's leg was resting against mine, and I could feel him shake.

Shari decided to use my rifle, a 300 ultra mag, to shoot the bear with, and Challis was to back her up with his Winchester 300 mag.  Both Shari and Challis had a good rest on a rock about 5 feet to my right.  Challis looked to me and mouthed the words, "now?", and I whispered back, "let him get closer, we have to get him out of the water somehow."  At 30 yards, the bear's disproportionately little dark eyes stared right through us.  He could not determine that the 4 camouflaged lumps on the bank were actually humans.  At 25 yards, Challis again looked to me, which I whispered to go ahead and have Shari take him, I think I can get him out.  The bear was pushing close to 20 yards when Shari shot.  Challis fired a backup shot seconds later.  An old time guide had told us that there are no one shot kills on Brown Bear, so we figured we would be wise to follow his advice.

All of us were now on our feet staring at the form of the dead bear.  The water was changing from blue to red as the bear bled out.  I was rattled out of my state of awe by Challis stripping his clothes off.  I did not want him to go in alone, so I stripped to my fleece and long johns as Cliff retrieved a rope out of one of his packs.  Challis grabbed one end of the rope and started wading to the bear with me on his heels.  On several occasions throughout my life, I have swam in lakes in Montana that were mostly covered with ice, whether it was to retrieve a duck, or a dare from one of my siblings, usually Challis!  I have to say that it is always cold, but nothing prepared me for how cold that salt water was.  Challis had stopped thigh deep, still 15 yards from the bear.  I took this as another dare as he handed me the rope. Two more steps and a little drop off, the water was up to my chest.  Suddenly, there was no oxygen left on earth as far as I could tell.  One classic pirouette and a couple of graceful leaps that would make a ballet dancer jealous, I was handing the rope off to Challis as I headed to shore.  Above the gasps coming from the body that I could no longer determine was mine, I could hear squalls, roars, and cackling of laughter, which must have been caused by my dance steps..  I had to strip my long johns off so I could breathe.  The rain and 40 degree air felt comfortably warm.  I was grateful that I was amongst family as I stood helplessly on the edge of the bay dressed in just my baseball cap, boxers, and socks!

Cliff wrapped me in a survival tarp, a kind brotherly gesture, so I thought.  But in all honesty, it was to get Shari to quit that annoying cackle of a laugh she had.  Apparently my boxers had gaped open.  Ice water and manhood will never be in the same statement of flattery!  From one of the bunch, I heard the analogy of "it" being no bigger than the wrinkles on your elbow!!

Dan Crismore reeling in a 7-1/2 foot Kodiak Brown BearAs our stress relieving laughter subsided, our attention once again turned to the bear.  We were again on the down swing of our emotional roller coaster.  The bear was sinking into the blood clouded water.  With the rain pelting and the wind rippling the water, it was almost impossible to see the dark form of the bear.  To add more to the depth of our despair, the tide was rapidly moving in, carrying the blood spot along with the bear up the bay and further away from shore.  Quickly, Plan B was initiated.  Cliff and Shari hiked back to camp for the 8 wt. Winston fly rod I had brought along with the hopes of some late running silvers.  Challis and I would stay with the bear and wait.  In Montana, we don't have any experience with tides, but I can now state for a fact that tides coming in means the water is coming up.  Cliff and Shari found all of our gear either floating or under 2 feet of ocean water.  After salvaging our gear, they caught up to us another 400 yards up the bay.  Now, we could just make out the bear's dark form laying on the floor of the bay.  The tide had gone slack and the bear was too far for me to cast to.  As I stood on the bank shivering under my tarp, time felt like it had come to a complete stop, when in all reality, several hours had passed.  Since all we could do was wait, Cliff and Shari decided to take a load of wet gear back to our tent to start drying.  Challis and I would again stay with the bear. 

Cold and wet, we huddled under my tarp/coat with an emergency stove warming one side at a time.  To pass the time, we reminisced about previous times that we had been stuck in other miserable situations.  Challis thought that there may be a pattern starting to form when we are together!  Finally, the tide started to recede and it was time to make our vigil again.  Without the stove, it wasn't long before the early warning signs of hypothermia were setting in on both of us.  We agreed that, bear or not, we would have to go back to camp and regroup. 

Within 5 minutes after leaving the bear, we met Cliff and Shari on their way back.  They would take the next watch.  It would be an hour before Challis and I would return with dry clothes and high hopes.  The water level had dropped substantially, so our hike back to Cliff and Shari went swiftly.  We were sure that we would be able to get the bear now.

When we arrived back to where Cliff and Shari were, they informed us that the bear had floated to the surface and had traveled out to the middle of the bay.  They could no longer see the bear. This was not just a downhill plunge on the emotional roller coaster we had spent our day on, but an absolute crash. Dejectedly, we gathered our gear and started trudging back to camp.  I still did not want to give up hope of finding the cherished trophy, hoping that maybe the tide would bring it back in. 
Dan and Shari Crismore with the tropy Kodiak Brown Bear
As the cloud laden sky began to darken with the oncoming nightfall, I stepped up onto a rock to search out into the bay for our trophy.  There was an odd V shape in the ripple approximately 100 fee from shore.  My heart leaped into my throat when everyone confirmed my hopes, that this was the back of the bear floating barely above the surface of the ocean water.  It was just seconds later that I again felt the cold salt water as I waded in over the tops of my last dry pair of boots.  Standing waist deep, using a double hull cast on the 8 wt Winston rod with 1x tippet and a yellow fly I had tied for salmon, I set the hook on what I considered to be my greatest catch, a 7-1/2 foot Kodiak Brown Bear.  Steady pressure and patience led the bear into shore where we could get our hands on it and claim it as ours.

As we hugged and hollered in celebration in the now dark and rainy night, were we celebrating a victory of man controlling his own destiny, or the acceptance of our fate guiding us?
Change (and Spring!) is in the Air
Sweetgrass Bamboo Rods on Nelson's Spring Creek
 

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