“Don’t get eaten by a bear!” my wife said to me as I left the house that morning.
Don’t get eaten by a bear? Well, yeah.
Actually, that was the second time she’d said that to me that morning. We’d been talking about bears at breakfast. I’d told her I was hoping to do a little small-stream fishing that afternoon somewhere way back in the mountains.
I’d also told her that I was going to be fishing an area where bears were not uncommon.
Why did I feel the need to mention bears at all? Maybe because bears are always a good topic of conversation. Or maybe I said it because I wanted to impress the lady in my life with my extreme bravery out there in the middle of all that raw and untamed nature.
“Think of it!” I said. “Me and the wilderness!”
“Uh-hm,” she replied. “Have fun.” And then she said it again:
“Don’t get eaten by a bear.”
A couple of hours later, I was parking the car at a pull-off along a rough dirt road far back in the Chattahoochee National Forest. I was “bluelining,” which is fisherman-talk for the art of finding and fishing those delightfully small streams known only as blue lines on topo maps. Such water is remote and often all but unfished, and the experience of exploring it can be incredible.
But it’s not for the faint of heart. Sometimes the trails are bad. Fallen trees block your way. Loose rocks and wicked roots try to trip you. You may encounter yellow jackets, hornets and ticks. And spiders. And rattlesnakes. Wild hogs wander through now and then, and they’re mean. Skunks pass this way as well, and they – well, they stink. And yes, just to make sure you don’t get bored, every now and then you’ll encounter a bear.
But the solitude can be exquisite, and the fishing can unforgettable.
What’s it like to fish this kind of water? To be honest, it can be intense. For one thing, there are of laurel and rhododendron as thick and impenetrable as a fence made of spring steel. Sometimes the creek will unexpectedly narrow, too, with rock crowding in from both sides. You’ll have to clamber over it or detour around it until finally, breathing hard, you get past it and can fish a little more before you have to do it all over again.
It’s fun. Really, it is.
I’d been doing that kind of thing most of the morning, fishing my way slowly up the little creek, when I started to get a feeling. Yes, I had the overwhelming sense that I had company somewhere out there in the deep, dark woods.
I was sure there were no other anglers on the stream, but the feeling persisted. What could it be?
I slowly looked around, and there was my answer: a black bear that weighed 300, 800 or maybe 10,000 pounds standing broadside to me in the middle of the creek about 10 yards away.
I must have been downwind of the bear, for it didn’t seem alarmed. It just stood there and looked at me, and I saw the hair on its back rustle as a whisper of wind blew up the creek.
This, I thought to myself, is interesting.
Bear and I continued to stand there looking at each other. Perhaps 20 seconds ticked away.
What, I asked myself, do I do now?
Still the bear stood motionless.
Slowly, very slowly, I turned my head right and then left to see what my options might be. I figured I needed to be prepared, just in case, for I doubted that there was much defensive power in a 5-foot fly rod. I scanned the hillside on both sides of the creek. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of escape routes. My options were pretty limited.
So I turned my gaze back to the bear –
But the bear was gone. As in gone. Vanished, Disappeared. Like it had never been there at all.
Had it really been there? Yep.
Was it there now? Nope.
But it was somewhere. Yes, somewhere in the woods around me was a 25,000 lb. black bear in stealth mode, and I had no idea where it had gone.
Snap decision: songs! I’d sing a song, and surely that would scare the bear away. Actually, if you’ve ever heard me sing, you know that’s not as farfetched as it sounds.
So sing I did, and loudly too.
Just in case the singing wasn’t working, I decided I really didn’t need to fish that area any further. I decided it would be a good time to head back, which I did with no attention at all to moving quietly through water or woods. Picture it: singing, crashing through the underbrush, waving that fly rod like a crazed swordsman, all the while knowing that the bear was still there somewhere.
I’m writing this now, so you know I made it out alive. Eventually, I even went back to fishing and caught some more brook trout too.
I’d have a lot to tell Ann that night. I’d found fish in the wilderness, and I had not been eaten by the bear.