“Gibbon River Griz”

Fly Fishing with Bears

Jitze Couperus image

I stop by Blue Ribbon Flies on my way back from the airport.

I have an old Ross Gunnison G-2 reel that needs a new 4-weight double-taper line. I’m going to pair this with Henry’s Sage 490 RPL rod to fish small flies to those big runners. The fly fishing world careens from new rods to new reels every year, and the new stuff comes with a big price tag for small improvements.

I’m in love with the action of that thirty-year-old Sage that found its way into my life by a little miracle, and I want to pair it with a smooth, tough, noisy thirty-year-old reel. The Sage RPL line was hot stuff back in 1985, and it took me three solid months of commercial fly tying to pull together the $250 for a 490 RPL. I loved the smooth power of the rod, and it wasn’t too stiff. I like a dry-fly rod that can cast just the leader—but also push out fifty feet of line without having to think about it. I can feel a Sage RPL flex just a little bit into the butt on a longer cast, and I like that feeling.

I want to use this rod for casting small Blue-Wing Olive mayfly and White Miller caddis to big runners, as that slightly softer action will help protect light 5X and 6X tippets. And, yeah, it is a great rod to play big fish.

Luke is behind the counter, and he asks how my daughter’s visit went. This is pretty typical of this guy—he’s into fish like any other trout junkie, but he’s also into people.

“It was great,” I say. “She got sick and didn’t fish, but she saw me change flies on a Slough Creek cutt for about an hour until it finally got bored and ate a fly.”

Luke laughs as he spools the new line on my reel.

“Go get ’em,” he says. “Stop by later, and tell me what happened.”

It’s another hot, breezy afternoon, and I can’t believe it was spitting snow three days earlier. We’ve gone from summer to winter and back to summer, and I wonder how the fish handle all these changes.

It’s breezy and getting hot as I drive back into the park. I drive past Seven Mile Bridge and wish that Courtney was sitting in the passenger seat. I decide to park near the Madison Campground and fish the Gibbon River’s meadow water just upstream of the spot where the Gibbon and Firehole meld to form the Madison. I rig up the 6-weight Hardy, as I suspect the fish are looking for hoppers and beetles blown into the water.

I hike up past five bends in the river. I’m looking for an outside curve with deep water and an undercut bank. Runners love hanging out in those underwater caves. I get on my knees just downstream of the sixth bend and watch the water. The breeze is swirling through the meadow grass, and small trout are dimpling in the shallow, weedy flat downstream of the bend.

Chester Allen image

Then a slow, swirling rise appears about halfway up the bend. I tie four feet of 3X tippet onto my twelve-foot 2X leader and then cinch on a Longhorn Beetle, which is a bigger beetle fly with rubber legs and feelers made from Krystal Flash. I make thirty-odd casts along the bank as I inch forward on my knees. A nice fish—a Runner brown—eats the fly about twenty feet below where the nice fish rose. This catches me by surprise, and I bungle the hookset. The fish boils at the surface, does a headshake, and the fly pops out.

One of the mysteries of my life is how a trout can take me by surprise when I’m actively casting for a trout. I guess I have a bad habit of expecting where a trout will whack my fly, and I lose focus when the fly drifts past my imaginary sweet spot. I also tend to look around at the scenery and animals when I’m in Yellowstone.

I check the fly and cast my way up the bank. Nothing happens when the fly drifts over the spot where the fish rose earlier. I change to a winged ant and a small cricket fly. Nothing.

This stretch of the Gibbon coils back on itself in this stretch—almost like a pulled-out spring—and it feels like I’m working my way up through a maze. I cast to one bank, and I can see another fishy spot just a few feet across a little peninsula of meadow. But there’s about a hundred yards of bank to loop around before I get to that fishy spot. If you stretched out this bendy meadow water into a straight line, I’m sure it would be four or five times longer than the meadow.

I’m back with the Longhorn Beetle, and a nice resident brown—about thirteen inches—wallops the fly and darts among the underwater weed beds like a football player returning a punt. I bring the fish to hand, and it shakes off the hook all by itself. The fish darts under a weed bed. That’s when I notice a pod of runners about thirty feet upstream. They’re hanging out in the shady water along the bank.

I frog-walk upstream within casting range. I drop a cast about five feet above a nice fish, and it spooks—taking the whole pod with it. The water in this stretch is very clear and very slow, and the breeze is gone for the moment. This is like fishing in an aquarium, and the fish can see everything.

I decide to drop down to 5X and show the fish a size 14 beetle with a CDC shellback. I creep upstream to the next bend. I feel a little goofy showing these fish such a small bug, but I want to see a rise instead of submarines darting around in a panic.

I’m not sure that any runners are along this outside bend, but a big nose pokes up and takes down my fly. I set up, and the old Ross Gunnison chitters away as the trout makes a run. I see a silvery flash in the clear water. It’s a rainbow—nice and thick.

I get lucky, as this bank is clear of deadfall trees, and the trout runs itself into exhaustion. I lay on my belly on the bank and slide my hand under the trout. I quickly put my rod down and dig my camera out of my wader pocket. I drop my hand away from the rainbow’s belly, and it holds still as I take a few quick shots of it hovering in the current. An olive back, a red blush on the gill plates, silver sides, and lots of black spots. It looks like a freshly run half-pounder steelhead from Oregon’s Rouge River.

The fly—shredded—comes out easily, and the rainbow swims upstream. I roll onto my back and look up at the sky. I hear the water gurgling against the bank, and a cow elk barks from a stand of trees about a hundred yards away. I roll back onto my belly and see a bull bison come out of the trees and ease down toward the water.

Then, as the bison gets closer, it turns into a grizzly bear.

I get on my knees and stuff the camera into the wader pocket and reel my leader up into the guides. The breeze is back, and it’s blowing right from me to the griz, which is about seventy-five yards away. The griz stops for a second, sniffs the wind, and keeps moving in my direction.

I get up and slowly walk downstream to shallow water. I ease into the water and slowly wade across the Gibbon. The bear is still two or three bends away, but it’s too close for my comfort. I’m not scared, but I feel sweat on my back. I pull the bear spray from the holster and slowly walk across the meadow toward the road and my car.

I’m careful to keep a measured pace, and I take a route that lets me keep an eye on the bear, which is still ambling around. I always hope to see griz when I visit Yellowstone, but I’m always happier when I’m in the car—or they’re further away or walking in the opposite direction.

It takes about ten minutes to reach the road—and my car. People are already stopping their rigs and taking pictures as I walk up the little slope to the Subaru. The bear is still about seventy-five or eighty yards away, and what was a tense moment for me is now a fun story to tell friends. The bear was never closer than seventy-five yards, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t interested in me.

Still, I’m happy to be at the car. My first goal of every fall trip to Yellowstone is to not become a meal for a bear—or get between a bear and its meal. I read a lot about Yellowstone bears, and I know this is the time of year when they get hyperphagia, which is biologist-speak for Goddamn Hungry.

I put my rod on the roof and open the hatchback. A woman, in a yellow tank top and black shorts, walks over to me.

“Did y’all see that bear?” she says in a southern drawl that makes me think of eastern Texas or Louisiana. “Why didn’t you stop and get a pitcher?”

I look at the woman. She stares at me.

“You shoulda taken a pitcher,” she says. “You blew your chance.”