S3:E12 Fly Fishing Grizzly Country

fly fishing podcast safe wading yellowstone runners fly fishing lessons hopper season animal season fishing Rocky Mountain National Park

Fly fishing grizzly country should evoke a small amount of anxiety. Surprising a sow at her cubs while making your way along the trail to get to the river is no way to begin the day. In this episode, we discuss the 50-year-old events of the night of the grizzlies in Glacier National Park and come up with a couple takeaways for fly fishing grizzly country.

Listen now to “Fly Fishing Grizzly Country”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last portion of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experiences.

Have you ever fished in grizzly country? What precautions do you take? How do you prepare for a day in grizzly country?

Download a Podcast App on Your Smartphone

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

Or you can simply subscribe to the RSS feed here:

Subscribe to 2 Guys and A River2 Guys and A River

To see every episode that we’ve published, click on “Every Episode” on the top navigation.

The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists

For this episode, we are the Sponsor!

We’ve published a book called, The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short. Catch more fish.

We like to say it is a book of bite-sized snacks. Maybe even like a handful of potato chips. It’s an entire book of lists. The goal is to help you find practical help quickly and in an easily digestible format!

Visit Amazon to get your copy today!

The Glacier Park Grizzly Attacks that Changed Our Relationship with Bears

night of the grizzlies

Glacier Park grizzly attacks are, today, not exceptionally rare. But they were 50 years ago, when an unimaginable night of terror unfolded in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Shortly after midnight on August 13, 1967, a grizzly bear dragged a 19-year old woman, Julie Helgeson, from her sleeping bag and mauled her. She died four hours later at 4:12 a.m. This was the first fatality from a bear attack since the park officially opened in 1910. Then, less than a half hour later, it happened again.

Eight miles away, as the crow flies, around 4:30 a.m., another Glacier grizzly dragged another 19-year old woman, Michelle Koons, from her sleeping bag to her death. Two separate grizzly attacks. Two dead. Same night.

Jack Olsen, at the time a senior editor for Sports Illustrated, provided the definitive account of this double-tragedy in his 1969 book, “Night of the Grizzlies.” In 2010, Montana PBS aired a documentary titled Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies, which featured interviews with living survivors of the attack, as well as park officials and hikers involved in the events of that fateful night.

The fiftieth anniversary of the night of the grizzlies reminds us of the fragile relationship we have with the wild places — whether we’re fly fishers, hunters, hikers, photographers, or mountain-bikers.

Necessary Fear

Granite Park Chalet sits just below timberline at the hub of several back-country trails. It provides a breath-taking panoramic view of ice-capped mountains. But in the mid-1960s, hikers trekked to the chalet to view grizzly bears. The grizzlies were nightly visitors due to a long-standing practice by chalet staff members. They dumped garbage and leftover food at a site about two-hundred yards from the building.

Granite Park Chalet was full at sunset on Saturday, August, 12. So hikers Roy Ducat, 18, and Julie Helgeson, 19, headed to a spot about five-hundred yards from the building. Shortly after midnight, Roy heard Julie whisper, “Play dead.” Suddenly, a blow from a grizzly bear paw knocked him five feet away. The bear began biting into his right shoulder. Then it left him and began tearing away at Julie’s body, eventually dragging her down the dark flank of the mountain where rescuers later found her.

They carried her to Granite Park Chalet, but she died after doctors staying at the chalet tried to save her life.

Eight crow-flight miles to the southwest on the other side of a majestic mountain peak, Trout Lake had its own garbage problem. Hikers left behind their trash and unused food, so bears treated the area like a feeding ground. In the summer of 1967, one underfed, underweight grizzly in the area had been terrorizing campers–including a girl scout troop.

When Michelle Koons, 19, and four other friends arrived at Trout Lake late in the afternoon of Saturday, August 12, it did not take the grizzly long to appear. The bear walked into camp and stole food as the campers ran along the lake shore to get out of its way. The group debated hiking out, but it was late in the day. So they pitched a new campsite along the lake shore, built a bonfire, and tried to settle in for the night. The bear returned briefly around 2:00 a.m. and snatched a package of cookies left on a log. Then shortly after 4:30 a.m., it returned and attacked the campers. Four of them escaped to climb nearby trees.

Michelle Koons did not. She screamed when the bear approached her. She struggled to unzip her sleeping bag, but the zipper stuck. The bear dragged her away and mutilated her.

“The incidents that night were the catalyst for the move into a whole new era of grizzly bear management,” recalls Jack Potter, Chief of Science and Resources Management in Glacier National Park.

“We could no longer stand by and either actively feed or allow garbage to be left out for grizzly bears.”

Bert Gildart, a former park ranger in Glacier, remembers flying into Trout Lake a few weeks after the fatal attack to pick up garbage. He and another ranger loaded about seventeen burlap sacks of garbage onto a Huey helicopter. It was garbage campers had left behind.

Thankfully, the policies implemented in both Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks following the “night of the grizzlies” have limited grizzly attacks mainly to surprise encounters rather than predatory aggression. No longer do grizzlies scavenge food out of garbage dumps. Gone are the grizzles that became habituated and lost their fear of human beings.

Role of Humans

In 1975, grizzly bears were classified as a “threatened species” under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The most recent estimates from the National Park Service show a population increase among grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem from 136 in 1975 to 757 in 2014. This has been followed by a decline to 690 bears in 2016. However, the stable number of females producing cubs in Yellowstone suggests that the park may have reached the “ecological carrying capacity” for grizzlies.

So what should outdoor enthusiasts do to help manage grizzly bears and their habitat? Packing out trash and keeping clean campsites is a great place to start. Giving grizzlies their space is another. They are crowded as it is.

“The most distant place in the lower 48 states from the nearest road is 23 miles,” says Douglas Chadwick, a Wildlife Biologist and Conservationist, “which would take a bear a morning to walk out of. There is no big wild left out there. These guys are going to have to learn to live with us, which I think they are doing.”

We need to learn to live with grizzlies, too.

I still shudder when I recall a group of tourists in Yellowstone a few years ago standing outside their vehicles — with their young children — about sixty yards from a grizzly. My children were not happy when I refused to let them get out and join the crowd of onlookers. I still remember making eye contact with a park ranger who was on patrol. He returned my glance with a shrug and a look which seemed to communicate, “I’m not happy about this either, but there’s not much I can do.”

This kind of behavior puts grizzlies at risk just as much as it puts humans at risk.

According to the National Park Service, “There were 58 known and probable grizzly bear mortalities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 2016. Thirty-eight were attributed to human causes. Four were of undetermined cause, 4 were natural deaths, and 14 [are] still under investigation.”

There are, of course, more complex issues related to grizzly bear management. Within the last few weeks, the Yellowstone grizzly bear has been delisted from its status as a “threatened species” under the Endangered Species Act. Some outdoor enthusiasts celebrate this. Others are outraged. There are good people (and arguments) on both sides. We must continue to listen to each other and work together to insure management practices which will allow grizzlies and humans to co-exist.

No Danger Free Zone

On June 29, 2016, in Glacier National Park, Brad Treat, a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer, rounded a blind curve on his mountain bike at about 20-25 miles per hour and ran into a grizzly. The surprise encounter resulted in the grizzly mauling and killing Treat.

No amount of management can make the wilds a danger-free zone.

Last fall, my podcast partner, Dave Goetz, and I fly fished a couple days in Yellowstone National Park. One morning, we came across a fresh set of grizzly bear tracks. Thankfully, we had no bear encounter. But a week later, two fly fishers a few miles from where we were was fishing stumbled into a grizzly bear and narrowly escaped when it charged them.

Whenever I fly fish in grizzly bear country in Montana and Wyoming, I follow the standard safety protocol. I make noise, pack out my garbage, avoid going alone, and always carry bear spray. I did the same when I lived in Montana for two decades and hiked and bow-hunted elk in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park.

Mountain bikers are, perhaps, more vulnerable to surprise encounters due to the high rate of speed at which they can approach a grizzly. Chris Servheen, who served on the board that reviewed the tragic death of Brad Treat, cautions mountain bikers to take it slow when their sight-distance is limited. He offers this advice to mountain bikers in grizzly country:

    When the trail is thick with vegetation or has curves, we recommend you slow down and shout when approaching blind curves. Speed and noise are the factors that get people when they’re out on their bikes. They’re moving faster and quieter.”

Some outdoor enthusiasts prefer carrying a .44 magnum to a canister of bear spray. Of course, firearm use is prohibited in Glacier or Yellowstone National Parks. But even in national forests or private land where firearm use is legal, I’ll take a canister of bear spray over a sidearm every time.

First, while its effects are temporary, bear spray usually incapacitates a grizzly instantly. Even a bear shot in the vital organs can keep coming.

Second, bear spray is the only safe way to get a grizzly off of a human being during an attack. Several years ago, I bow-hunted elk with a friend in Taylor Fork, a grizzly-dense drainage just north of Yellowstone National Park. We saw a lot of grizzly sign—both scat and overturned logs and rocks—but never encountered a bear.

The following fall, my friend was hunting the same area with an orthopedic surgeon when a grizzly charged them. The bear attacked the surgeon, eventually breaking his fibula, ripping gashes in his thigh and arm, and tearing off his ear. My friend charged the bear and shot it with a cloud of bear spray. Thankfully, the sow and her cubs took off running.

There was no way my friend could have attempted a shot at the grizzly without the risk of shooting the surgeon he was trying to protect.

Finally, the goal is to rescue a human from being mauled — not to destroy a bear.

There is no reason to eliminate a grizzly that attacks in self-defense. Defensive attacks, unlike predatory attacks, like those on the night of the grizzlies do not increase the likelihood that the bear will attack again. The grizzly which killed Brad Treat a year ago did not consume any part of its victim’s body. Nor did it attempt to cache the body by covering it with dirt or rocks. Unlike the “garbage bears” of the 1960s, this grizzly disappeared and has not developed a pattern of bothering hikers or mountain bikers.

Life after the Night of the Grizzlies

Today, about 1500 grizzly bears roam in the lower 48 states. Well, they don’t actually roam any longer. They are confined to particular areas in the intermountain west. About 800 grizzlies live in Montana, including 300 or so in Glacier National Park. Another 600 members of the Ursus arctos horribilis subspecies live in Wyoming in the Yellowstone-Teton area. The combined number of grizzlies in Montana and Wyoming includes the 690 in Yellowstone National Park. An additional 100 grizzlies live in northern and eastern Idaho.

Over forty years after the “night of the grizzlies” in Glacier National Park, the father of victim Michelle Koons expressed no ill will towards grizzly bears. In fact, he expressed sympathy for them. In an interview, he said: “I always would think about what civilization has done to bears, forcing them to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.”

Survival of both grizzlies and humans means learning to adapt and keep at a healthy distance from the other species. The grizzlies are learning to do this. Humans must continue to do so as well.

Five Tips for Fly Fishing Lakes

We call our podcast “2 Guys and a River” for a reason. Both Dave, my podcast partner, and I are fond of rivers and streams. We like to fly fishing moving water. But neither he nor I are “anti-lake” kind of guys.

Dave has had some fantastic days catching cutthroat trout on dry flies on lakes in Colorado’s Collegiate Wilderness area. Some of the largest trout I’ve caught on streamers have come out of Henry’s Lake in southeastern Idaho. We have fly-fished lakes all over the Western states and have had slow days and terrific days. It’s just like our experiences fly fishing rivers.

If you are new to lake fishing, here are five tips that will give you a better chance of catching the trout when fly fishing lakes:

1. Do your homework

This seems obvious, but I’m surprised how many fly fishers don’t take the time to learn anything about the lakes they intend to fly fish. I’ve been there, done that. But over the years, I’ve done much better when I’ve taken the time to read a guide book or check a fly shop website or talk to a guide at a fly shop about the lake I intend to fish.

When my friend, Jerry, introduced me to Hyalite Reservoir in the mountains above Bozeman, Montana, he pointed out certain places where the fish seemed to concentrate more than others. He knew spots where the lake was deeper or where the trout had a favorite hang-out by a drop-off or shelf.

I remember the advice I received from a fly shop owner in Estes Park, Colorado on how to fish Spruce and Loomis Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. I would have wasted a lot of time wondering where to fish and what flies to try without his expertise.

2. Don’t ignore the shoreline

Lakes resemble rivers in at least one way: some of the best fishing is right along the bank. Now this is not true for every lake. But I’ve caught my share of rainbows (years ago) and Greenback cutthroat (more recently) in Spruce Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park by casting to feeding fish along the shore. This technique also worked well in Upper Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park.

Personally, I’ve found that early morning or early evening is a perfect time to find feeding fish along the shoreline of a lake.

3. Go deep

When the fish are not feeding on the lake’s surface, it’s time to fish streamers. But you’re going to have to go deeper than usual. Again, the right guide book or fly shop website or the guide behind the counter will tell you how deep to fish.

Going deeper may be as simple as using more split shot. But if you spend much time fishing lakes, you’ll be wise to invest in a sink-tip line. I carry an extra spool with a sink-tip line for these situations.

I suggest buying a sink-tip line at a fly shop so a guide can explain the different sink rates and which one might serve you best. For example, sink-tip lines are rated (often as Type I, II, III, etc.) for their sink rate. This rate can be anywhere from two inches per second to eight inches per second. If you need to get down eight or ten feet, you can do the math and figure out how long to let your line sink after you cast it before you begin the retrieve.

Also, keep your line tip in the water when you strip in your line. This prevents slack, enabling you to control your line more effectively as you retrieve it.

4. Try a float tube

This is a convenient, inexpensive way to make your way around a small lake. It takes a bit of practice, but after you do it a couple times, you’ll get the hang of it. You’ll want a nine-foot rod (rather than something shorter), because you are a lot closer to the surface.

It’s like casting when you are sitting down rather than standing up.

Safety is critical. I don’t recommend float-tubing alone. Also, you really do need to wear a life-jacket.

Yes, a float tube has at least two air compartments so that the entire tube will not deflate in case of a leak or puncture. But I never fish in a float tube without a life-jacket. Proceed with caution if you are new to float-tubing.

5. Fish the outlet and inlet if you can

This tip is not simply based on my love for moving water. The outlets and inlets can sometimes provide some fantastic fishing. They can get overlooked by fly fishers, yet the trout will sometimes congregate in these places because the food line is rich.

I’ve had days where I’ve done much better in the outlet of Upper Two Medicine Lake than in the lake itself. When I hike beyond Mills Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park to fish The Loch Vale or Sky Pond, I typically do better in the outlets and inlets than in the lakes themselves. In fact, one of my sons asked me the other day when we can go back to this glacial gorge just to fish the outlets to these lakes.

Two Guys and a Lake?

Dave and I still love our rivers. Neither one of us thinks we’ll change the name of our podcast any time in the future. But there is some great fly fishing on lakes. We look forward to our next opportunity to cast a fly on one of them.

Great Expectations on Upper Two Medicine Lake

In episode 21, we discussed the challenges of fly fishing lakes. When Steve was nineteen, he fulfilled a long-time dream to fish a lake where his father and grandfather had a stellar day of trout fishing years before. He expected to duplicate or exceed their success. In this piece, Steve muses about how great days on the water are not necessarily a harbinger of what will happen the next time you fish the same spot.

It was one of those magical days, and I dreamed about re-living it.

When I was seven, my dad and his dad hiked four miles from our campsite at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National park to Upper Two Medicine Lake. U2, if I may call it that (with apologies to Bono), sits at timberline and is surrounded by cathedral mountains which shoot up to the clouds. It is simply stunning. All I remember is that when my dad and grandpa returned, they each had a creel full of brook trout. They laid them out in rows on the picnic table benches.

As I grew older, I often heard stories of that magical day. The Kodachrome slides of the experience burned it into my imagination. Here is the short version. My dad and grandpa set out with their fishing poles (neither were fly fishermen), a carton of night crawlers, and a box of spinners. The limit was around a dozen brook trout, and they had heard reports that the fishing in U2 was good. When they arrived at the lake, there was not another soul to be found. They quickly baited their hooks, made their first casts, and … nothing. Not a strike.

After a half hour of casts to the left, the right, and straight ahead, my dad decided to try a Mepps Spinner. The brookies went crazy. My dad said that he caught a fish on every cast. It only took a half hour or so for both my dad and grandpa to catch their limit. The brookies were all in the 10-12 inch range, and they were great eating. Every time I heard that story or saw pictures of it, I couldn’t wait for the day when I could make the trek to U2 and revel in that kind of fishing.

Great Unmet Expectations
I finally made it to U2 when I was nineteen. My parents and my brothers and I camped in the Two Medicine Lake Campground, and my dad and brothers and I hiked to U2 with great expectations. We had visions of brook trout leaping in our heads. By this time, my brother, Dave, and I were novice fly fishers. So we took our fly rods. My dad and my younger brothers, Mark and Kevin, brought spinning rods. The fishing started out like my dad and grandpa had experienced. Nothing. Eventually, we started catching fish, but not in large numbers. As I recall, we each caught a trout. But none of us caught more than two. However, each brook trout we caught was in the 15-17 inch range. I managed to catch a sixteen-incher off of the surface on a Royal Coachman.

I left with a strange sense of sadness and elation. I was thrilled to catch a sixteen-inch brookie on a fly rod. That’s a monster. But I was sad that I didn’t quite have the magical experience my dad and grandpa did twelve years before. Besides, it was tough going around U2. My dad said that the head-high underbrush we had to fight through along the shoreline was not that high when he and my grandpa had their exceptional day.

Over the years, I’ve learned to savor the magical moments. As much as I hope to duplicate them, it simply doesn’t work that way. Each new day on the same lake or same stretch of river you fished in the past will be different. It might be better, but it often does not live up to the expectations you brought to it. I had great expectations on Upper Two Medicine Lake, but they were flawed.

The experience changes like the river itself. The spring runoff changes the flow. Beavers leave their dams. Silt happens. Good holes disappear. Yet new ones emerge. And sometimes the trout get bigger. A lake may not yield a dozen foot-long brookies. But maybe it will give you a sixteen-incher. And that sixteen incher will become the stuff from which new dreams are made. Go ahead and dream big. But temper your great expectations with reality. Be grateful for whatever the river or lake gives you on any particular day.

Stupid Is As a Stupid Fly Fisher Does

Forrest Gump gets credit for the line “stupid is as stupid does.” But I suspect this aphorism originated with a fly fisher. After all, fly fishing brings out the best and the worst in a person’s behavior. I can imagine one fly fisher laughing at another who has just fallen face first into a stream while trying to move too rapidly over the slick boulders beneath its surface and then saying, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

In this post I offer a few of my more stupid fly fisher moments:

Stupid Fly Fisher Hiking

One of my “stupid” moments happened a few years ago at 10,000 feet above sea level in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was fishing with my brother, Dave, and my Uncle Ivan. Dave I and were in our teens. Our Uncle Ivan was old enough to know better. The plan was to take a short-cut to the upper reaches of a mountain stream which had a healthy supply of brook trout.

You can guess what happened. We got lost.

A half hour after realizing we were lost, my Uncle Ivan feared that our quest would not lead us to the little stream. I simply feared for my life. We had been following a faint game trail. This trail must have been made by Bighorn sheep because it took us over a ridge line onto a steep hillside. Before we knew it, we were hanging onto small Aspen trees to keep from sliding into the canyon below us.

A snowfield loomed ahead. How did we end up here? Stupid is as stupid does.

We finally found a flat spot where we could sit without the fear of sliding down the steep hillside. My Uncle Ivan decided to eat his lunch. I was too scared to eat. Just then, we heard a helicopter and saw it flying up the drainage in between our hillside and the opposite one. We all started waving and shouting, “We need help.” But it never changed direction or speed, and soon it was gone. What were we thinking? Was the helicopter pilot really going to see or hear us? If so, would the pilot really assume we were in trouble and begin some sort of rescue mission? Stupid is as stupid does.

Although my Uncle Ivan resembles a character right out of a Patrick McManus tale, he is an astute woodsman. He scanned the steep hillside and noticed another trail on a bench above us that would take us on a much gentler grade. It took some work to scramble safely up the hillside to that bench. But we did it. We hiked for another thirty minutes until we found the object of our pursuit.

For the next two hours, we caught so many brookies that we forgot about our peril. We fished far enough downstream to find a more substantial game trail, which led us to one of the trails maintained by the National Park Service.

The fishing success seemed to repress the memory of those scary moments on the side of the mountain.

I didn’t think much about it until a year later when I tried to take my younger brother, Kevin, around Upper Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park to get to the “better water” on the other side of lake. Before we knew it, the bank had ended and we were on a steep stone cliff with intermittent seeps of water. We ended up hanging onto scrub brush so that we would not slide down into the glacially cooled lake. I wondered what I had done. With one slip, my parents would lose two sons. Since I’m writing this, you know that I made it around the lake safely.

So did my brother. What else can I say, but … stupid is as stupid does.