Web Site: Rappahannock Books
Trout fishermen have their vacation interrupted by a travelling grizzly. 5th in the series of excerpts from the novel, The Last Grizzly
Jerry Willis threaded and looped the fine 3X tippet of his hand-assembled leader through the tiny wire loop on a number 18 Lee Wulff Special dry fly. It was admittedly not much of a meal for a Colorado River Rainbow trout that he hoped would top twenty-three inches. The barb on the hook barely protruded past the splayed feather barbules of the spiraled feather. The feather was wound tightly about the tiny hook shaft with a nylon wrapping thread—of smaller diameter than one of the unruly brown hairs tufting from his beat up, trout-fly bedecked fishing hat.
Jerry was not a dry-fly fishing purist, as some who pursue this sport. When it came to catching fish, he would resort to using wet flies and streamers in appropriate situations. Years ago he had even used live bait—worms and hellgrammites occasionally, but as the years went by, he had become more and more an enthusiast for the pleasures of seducing wily old native trout with artificial offerings, taking his fly-fishing more seriously each trip. Like many another aficionado, Jerry had become a bit of a fly-fishing snob.
It was with this strongly felt but well-veiled attitude toward his fishing companions that he had easily agreed to separate from them for the evening's fishing here on the beautiful North Fork of the Colorado. His companions both used ultra-light spin fishing gear and Jerry was less than comfortable fishing the same stretch of water with them. He liked both men as friends, but when it came to actually putting lures into the water, he wanted distance between himself and what he considered to be their crude methods.
He had elected to fish downstream in some of the pools they had passed on the way to camp. They had expressed a desire to continue upstream from camp. The three agreed that tomorrow they would swap fishing areas, rendezvouing at their riverside camp about dark, hopefully with enough keeper sized fish for dinner.
Norris White had suggested a month ago that they get away from their Denver based white collar jobs for a quiet spiritual revival on the North Fork in the high country. He had fished it before and found it both beautiful and productive. The small river lay just west of the continental divide at the northwest edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, only sixty miles northwest of Denver.
Pete Bradshaw heard about the proposed trip and wanted to go along. And now they were here in one of the most beautiful streams any of them had ever fished. They had hiked up the riverside trail from the vehicle guard at the road and had set up camp under some large spruce trees spread over a low finger ridge running to the edge of the river.
Jerry stood and surveyed the scenery. Yeah, everything on this trip was going well. The weather had been made for bluebirds, and while the fish were not exactly on a feeding frenzy, they had been quite cooperative. It was wonderful, beautiful. The fast, gurgling, roaring white water churned through the rapids and falls, away toward the distant Pacific, only having just started its journey at the top of the imposing snowcapped peaks a few miles to the east. The beautiful spruce, aspen, and pine trees lining the valley walls presented a mottled dark green funnel that opened upward into an inverted bowl of powder blue, streaked high with wispy clouds. Variegated red and pearl streaks radiated from the falling sun. It really made his heart sing, just to be alive here!
He had fished hard most of the day and the anticipation of camp pleasures with his friends was truly soul satisfying. Coming back to camp from a hard day's fishing in the river was a treat one could only dream about the rest of the year. The river constantly pulled at your legs and body, trying to draw you down, take you to the sea. It was a struggle much of the time to stand or walk with sometimes deep holes and always slippery rocks of almost any size hidden in the watery path.
The constant energy expenditure, while not taking your breath, eventually sapped your strength. When you returned to camp, you felt physically and emotionally drained. But soon, camp magic would seep back into your flagging spirit. Shared stories and conversations took on special flavor, like the pan fried trout and biscuits, washed down with black, river water coffee.
Jerry returned to camp first, just before dark. He was tired. He had caught enough fish for one day. He cleaned his two nice keepers at the edge of the river before trudging up to camp.
He had the fire going nicely when Pete showed up, walking in from up river with a couple of cleaned keepers ready for the pan also. He laid them on the foil next to Jerry's fish. "How'd you do?" Pete asked, low keyed.
"Last count, I had released thirty-one, most of 'em good sized fish. How 'bout you?" Jerry stepped away from the camp and busied himself untying the rope to the food sack. He brought it to a large, flat rock work table near the fire pit and began preparing the evening meal.
"Twenty-two. All good fish, too. Hooked one beauty that broke off early, so I didn't count him." Pete removed his waders and stepped into his camp shoes, a curled forefinger pulling a crumpled leather shoe top from under his heel.
"Bugs bother you?" Pete asked.
"Not much. I expected them to be worse. You have any trouble?"
"Trouble keepin' from singin'. Man, what a place. I could take this for a long time." Pete moved one flat rock over and set it on another, making a rough stool. Digging in the food sack, he produced a packet of concentrated orange powder and made a jug of reconstituted orange juice. He filled his canteen cup and sat gingerly on the improvised stool. Sipping the sweetened juice, he looked through the darkening gloom under the trees up the river. "That must be Norris now. Something wide's comin' through the bushes."
Jerry smiled at his two friends' running feud as he stirred the fire. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, Norris clumped into camp with one cleaned keeper.
Soon, fish and bannock were sizzling. Working the fish around the frying pan, Jerry selected one that the fork slid through easily, drained it over the pan for a few seconds, laid it on a paper towel on one of the plates beside a section of pan bread.
"It’s ready." He handed the warm plate to a drooling Pete, who sat on his stool and set the plate on his clamped knees. Fork in hand, digging into the flaky fish, Pete brought a bite to his mouth. He blew on it a second or two before taking the still steaming white flesh and crisp, golden batter between bared front teeth. He chewed gingerly for a few seconds his tongue rolling over the steaming food. "Whew, doggies, that's good," he sighed as he reached for the bannock. Jerry knew the compliment was genuine. He set the fry pan with the remaining two fish in a warming position away from direct flames and began his own meal.
Norris sighed, "Every time I'm out like this, eating fresh trout, I say it's the best I ever had. Well, this is the best I've ever had," he said past a mouthful of pan bread and fish.
It was quiet for a few minutes. Jerry motioned at the pan. "Two more sittin’ there, guys. Eat 'em while they're hot."
Pete said, "No more for me. I’m stuffed." He sipped his juice and stretched, obviously enjoying himself thoroughly.
Norris shook his head. "I don't see how you can sit on a damn rock all the time, Pete. You ain't got enough fat on your ass to cushion your bones. Wonder they don't come pokin' through your skin, bleedin'." He headed for the fry pan.
"Don't worry any about my ass. You're the one needin' to start lookin' behind you. Don't you get the feelin' somethin's creepin' up on you?"
They carried on a continual battle of words when they were out camping. Fat versus skinny—they both loved it.
Jerry poured coffee for everyone and they settled back, enjoying the steaming black liquid. Each was engrossed in his own thoughts, relaxing after the feast, blankly watching flames leap, mesmerized by popping of the burning wood and flying sparks.
After a few minutes of the fire as the center of attention, Jerry broke the spell. "Now it's time for music appreciation." Two pairs of eyes lifted from the pulsing glow of the flames. He waited an appropriate few seconds, through the pregnant pause. "Now if I’d said, 'Mary, Mary, Quite contrary, How does your garden grow?' I guess I would have gotten the same reaction from you guys."
"Well, wha'd you mean, 'music appreciation?'" Norris asked sharply. Pete stared.
"I mean, can you tell me what that sound was?"
"What sound? I don't hear anything." Norris sat up, head cocked.
"I mean, that low droning sound, almost a roar at times. Hear it?"
Norris shrugged. "Yeah, sure. I can hear that. I didn't think you meant that. That's been going on since before dark. It's just cicadas and crickets. Maybe katydids. I just sort of block all that out."
Jerry said, "Yeah, cicadas, katydids and crickets.” He raised one hand and swept it in a semi-circle. “What else are you blocking out? You hear any more roarin'? What about the river? Is it making any noise?"
Norris cocked his head in the other direction. "Yeah, but I been listenin' to that all day. It's gurglin' close here and roarin' off in the distance. I got more to do than pay 'tention to somethin' like that."
"Okay, What else is going on out there?" Jerry’s pedantic questioning continued.
"Nothing, I don't think." Norris sat up straight.
Pete still stared at Jerry, but his head was cocked a little, interested. "I hear some frogs down at the river. You hear 'em, Nor?"
Norris waited a few long seconds. "Yeah, there, croakin' low. An there's some high pitched ones, too."
"What about that? That a coyote?" Jerry brought more of the symphony to their attention.
Pete nodded. "It's more'n one. They're yappin', way off. Just can hear 'em over the river." He was playing the game well now, listening to the sounds just identified, some repeated from time to time. "What's that, closer in? It was a different yap than a coyote."
Jerry wasn’t one to allow indiscriminate statements to go unchallenged. "Was it a yap or a yip?"
Norris said, a little irritation in his voice, "I don't know what you mean, 'yap or yip'. It was a damn yap, I guess." He was mystified at his companion's question.
"Well, if it was a yap, it was a red fox. If it was a yip, it was a gray fox."
All ears perked at a distinct sound quite a way off.
Pete was first to comment. "That a bobcat, yowling and screeching like that?"
Jerry ventured, "Maybe, but it sounded more like a raccoon to me. Probably a couple of them fighting over something,"
Their ears strained for more from that direction but they got no further variation in the sounds—only repeats of some they had already identified.
Norris broke the silence. "Later in the year, you might hear elk bugling. Higher up, about timberline, you can sometimes hear wild rams buttin' heads—clangs, almost. Echoes all around the mountains."
Jerry added, "Listen long enough and sooner or later you’d hear a cougar screaming from right here. Some of ‘em still live in these mountains. You can never tell what critters will walk through these woods. Maybe there'd be a lot more bears if poachers weren't selling their gall bladders for big bucks."
Pete said, "And big bucks for their claws and teeth. Let's hope folks start turning these guys in."
Norris yawned and said, "Well, while you two arguin' over gall bladders, I got to empty mine and go to sleep. I'm goin' to bed. Want to really get 'em in the mornin'. You gonna set the clock, Jer?"
"For about five thirty. Think I'm going to hit the sack, myself. But I don't think it's your gall bladder you want to empty. Just your bladder."
Pete's "Mine too," echoed as the shadows of the men rose and danced grotesquely against the backdrop of dark spruces in the dying light of the campfire.
Jerry liked the idea that this was truly one of the last remaining wilderness areas. “Tomorrow it’ll be a quick breakfast at dawn and another day in paradise. Of course, the problem with paradise is, you never know what devils may be passing through the home of the angels.”
Norris stopped shuffling with his sleeping bag. “Now, why’d you have to go and say something like that, Jer? You got me spooked already, with all that listenin’ an’ stuff. I ain’t never gonna get to sleep.”
Fifteen minutes later the only sounds from the camp were snores—three sets.
The only disappointment in the trip Jerry had so far was that he hadn't hooked any really large fish. Maybe that would change on this stretch of quiet, calmly rippling water just ahead.
His enthusiasm rose at the sight. A pool perhaps seventy-five yards in length opened before him. It had a sand and gravel bar formed at the lower end, just ahead. He eased onto the sand at the far left side, walking softly to keep his chest waders from making noises. He knew better than to walk right into the pool out in the open. Trout had sharp eyes and would spook at a shadow in this gin clear water. A fisherman had to keep his profile low for these wary predators.
Careful not to tangle in the trees and bushes behind him, he rolled out a cast with a sturdy whipping action, the eight foot boron rod bearing the weight of the tapered fly line—a tactile pleasure. The target of his offering was the upper side of a desk-sized boulder about fifty feet from where he stood.
He made two false casts with the line looping out well to the left of the rock and let the line in his left hand shoot forward at about waist height. Just before the line straightened out he made a deft movement of the rod father to his left— a "mend" in fly-fishing parlance. It didn't affect where the fly itself was to land, but the line waved off to the left. This would keep it from frightening any fish that might be lying in wait either upstream or downstream from the rock as it touched the water.
The line settled lightly to the surface in a curved sign wave pattern, making barely a ripple, while the lure floated down to alight with only a dimple on the surface. The slow current began carrying the fly toward the rock, the line slowly bellying downstream without drag on the fly. "Perfect," Jerry tensed in anticipation.
Before the lure reached the rock, it disappeared, only a small ripple left as a marker. Jerry pulled back on the line with his left hand, raising the rod abruptly at the same time, into a healthy resistance.
"Hello!" Jerry's greeting to the fish was exuberant. "Thought you might be home!" Coils of rubbery line stripped through pinched fingers until it was gone. The reel sang a happy song as it spun smartly, the fish making a frantic effort to end their meeting on very short notice.
It headed for the upper end of the pool with a deep surge. Finding that to be ineffective in ridding itself of the stinging barb, it came up, performing a nice ten foot tailwalk across to the edge of the pool through the prisms of a brilliant rainbow in the generated spray. It ran strongly toward the rocks at the side of the pool, thrilling Jerry and at the same time making him nervous.
"This is a really nice fish," he marvelled anxiously as his eyes corroborated the story the taut line had been telling him. "If he gets behind those rocks, it's bye-bye. Gotta turn 'im."
Jerry applied all the pressure the gossamer tippet would stand, pinching the racing line lightly between thumb and forefinger. At the last second, the fish swerved back into the main pool and surged for the other edge. It made a swing there and burrowed back into the deeper part of the pool to stop and sulk.
It was a standoff—the fish refusing to budge, the rod bent in an arc, line humming with tautness. "Can't let you do that, Mr. Fish." Jerry pounded the butt of the rod with the heel of his left hand. The jarring signal brought the heavy fish sky-rocketing out of the pool.
Jerry fought to keep slack from the line, using the rod to absorb the head-shaking fury of the leaping fish. It disappeared in the glinting spray, a chameleon of the air, camouflaged, one fleshy rainbow merging into refracted light beams of another. A great splash marked its return to its home element as it bored straight down river toward the backpedaling, line grabbing fly fisherman.
It headed for the narrows that emptied the pool. If successful, Jerry knew it would be all over. The light leader would never stand the force of the fast current of the rapids. When the backing on the reel gave out, the tippet would separate—no question.
He put all the pressure he dared on the line again and again the fish swerved back into the pool. "Just don't want to leave home, that it?" Jerry felt relieved to see the run back to the upper part of the pool didn't seem as strong. At the top of the little amphitheater, the fish moved slowly back and forth across the river, then reluctantly came part way back.
Another run almost to the top of the pool, and the battle was mostly over. The great fish moved back slowly through the deeper area and Jerry led it gently toward him. After another short run the fish turned on its side, near exhaustion. Jerry stripped in line carefully, leading the fish to the edge of the sand bar. He waded a few feet into the shallow water. Pinching the line against the rod with his right hand, he slid his left hand under the heavy fish.
Holding the rod in the crook of his right arm, he removed the barb from the fish's mouth, then stood and walked back to the sand bar, proudly admiring the beautiful trout. "Just a minute and you can go back. I gotta take a good look at you. Thank your luck for living so far in the boonies. If I had a way to keep you fresh, you’d definitely be going on my rec-room wall. As it is, I sure wouldn't kill you just for dinner."
Jerry started to walk back toward the pool with the gasping fish when he stopped short, staring in amazement at the other side of the sand bar. Standing fully upright not thirty feet away was the biggest bear Jerry had ever seen.
It waved its head from side to side, loose lips drooping, mouth drooling. Its eyes were small for the size of its head, staring at him from a bright yellow face. The light color shaded into darkness on its legs, very dark brown or black. The fur was wet and he couldn't be sure—and at the moment, he didn't care.
"Now just a minute, here" he said with a quaver in his voice. "Back up!" he yelled. He waved his fly rod at the bear, then looked stupidly at the four ounce weapon. He may as well have said, "Come on to dinner." The bear dropped to all fours with a menacing growl, teeth snapping. It began walking briskly toward a very frightened Jerry. His promise to the fish no more than uttered, he promptly forgot it. He dropped the hapless creature to the sand with a thump, an instinctive response proper only by accident.
Jerry backpedaled, dropping the flimsy flyrod in the process. Turning after a few steps, he scrambled up the river bank into the trees. He quickly located a spruce tree with reachable branches growing in the comparatively open woods. Climbing was cumbersome in the waders, but he pulled himself up on a sturdy limb, squirmed between several narrowly spaced, thick branches to gain altitude.
Gasping for breath, he looked out between the drooping fronds of the tree toward the river to a partially obscured view of the sand bar. The bear was still there. He could see movement of its neck, up and down, its large shoulder hump very apparent. Once, as it turned toward him, he could see it chewing a long strip of the trout that obviously was not alive any more.
Jerry considered yelling for Norris and Pete, then reconsidered. They would probably not understand anything he said, even if they were close enough to hear, which he doubted. If they did hear, they might come running to see why he was yelling. That could put them and the bear face-to-face. "What’s this joker going to do when he finishes that tidbit?"
The answer came without delay. The crunch of a dead branch near the river bank made chills travel up his back. Looking down through the boughs of the spruce, he saw the bear heave the last few feet up the bank to the flat area where his tree stood.
Jerry realized, almost in a panic, that if the bear stood up, it would be very close to his feet. Maybe it could climb, too. He struggled up a few branches higher, watching the bear's activity intently. It sniffed the ground near the tree, then the tree itself. It reared up, placing its front paws on the tree trunk, smelling the limb where Jerry's hand had grasped it. The sniffing sound from the wriggling black nose added to Jerry's discomfort. It was yet another dimension of the unwelcome intruder. He put the palm of his hand to his nose. "The fish scent—it’s still on my hand."
The bear looked directly at him—its eyes very focused and inquiring. Its movements were slow and deliberate as it raised a front paw into the branches next to the trunk. The great claws arched and pressed deeply into the soft skin of the tree, raking downward with a powerful stroke.
Long shards of bark peeled away and dropped to the ground. Twice the bear repeated this process, then dropped to all fours. Sidling to the tree, the bear leaned, almost doglike, urinating on the lower trunk and exposed roots.
Moving a couple of steps away, it scratched great puffs of dead needles toward the tree. Without even a backward look, it wandered off down river, toward their camp. After a few yards it was out of sight in the brush.
An amazed and shaken Jerry Willis shook his head, wishing desperately they had brought the walkie-talkies. Maybe it was waiting out there, watching for him to come down. The gloom of the forest was not to his liking at all. He had to wait a little while, give it a chance to move on away.
Several minutes later, he worked his way down the tree to the lowest branches. After looking about for a few more minutes he swung down. Still holding to the bottom limb, he looked wildly about for anything to move.
Nothing. He dropped clumsily to the ground, tensed for return flight at the first sign of anything suspicious.
Nothing. Cautiously, he walked back toward the river. He thought it would be better to stay out in the open rather than in the trees along the river's edge. On the sand bar, he retrieved his fly rod. Looking about constantly, he uncoupled the rod and reeled the loose leader until the tiny fly snugged the rod's tip. He set off down the river, skirting deeper currents and rapids, travelling as fast as possible.
As he neared the camp stretch of river, he heard the unmistakable galumph, galumph of his friends running in their waders. "Get a fire going quick!" Pete's voice had an edge to it that spoke volumes to Jerry, considering what he already knew.
Running into camp, he pitched his rod into the open equipment tent door flap as the two other men came flopping to a breathless halt. Jerry began breaking kindling twigs and piling them on top of paper he crumpled into the fire pit as the men arrived.
Norris was first to speak, stumbling and puffing his words. "A bear—a grizzly—chased us—got our fish. We were just walking back to camp from down the river there. He come up on us real quick. Pete had three good trout on his stringer—I had one I was keeping. Going to eat 'em for dinner." Norris was still having trouble breathing and his hands were shaking. He looked back down river, and picked up firewood as he talked.
Jerry's hands were shaking, too. He retrieved a butane lighter. A few strikes of the wheel, and he delivered a quivering flame to the bottom of the little kindling heap.
"I know," he said, piling more little limbs. The wood was dry and flared quickly. "I almost got to be his dinner partner, myself. That ugly bastard took the best fish I ever caught—best I ever saw—had to be twenty-eight inches—took it away from me and put me up a tree. Ate my fish, then come over and clawed my tree. Then pissed on it and kicked stuff at it then walked off, pretty as you please. A big yellow-faced grizzly."
A few minutes later the fire began popping and spitting sparks. It lit the area and pushed their shadows into the darkening woods about them, giving their courage a most needed boost. Immediate danger not pressing for the moment, Jerry had time to reflect on the incident. "Did he chase you guys after he got the fish?"
"No, I don't think so." Pete shook his head thoughtfully. "When we saw the damned thing, it was in the bushes at the edge of the water. Come out in the water after us, growling and snapping his teeth. It was real shallow, next to a sand bar. Norris just slung fish, stringer and all, on the sand bar close to the booger and we sidled around, then I threw my whole stringer at him too. He got busy grabbing the fish so we walked a little more then put in the afterburners. Got up on the trail and haven't seen him since." He pulled some larger limbs closer to the fire as he talked.
Jerry scowled out at the river. “It pisses me off that that son of a bitch was so—well, so disdainful of me. It not only wanted my fish, it wanted to humiliate me.”
Norris stared into the gathering gloom. "Well, what we gonna do?"
Jerry said, "I hope nobody else runs into this fish-stealin' bear. Sooner or later somebody’s gonna get hurt. I think tomorrow we got to go and tell the rangers." He thought about that a few seconds. "Yeah, we got to do that. But right now we need to get dinner. Use up some of those dried food packets. I'd just as soon not go smellin' up the woods with fish, even if we had some. And tonight we got to pull guard duty in shifts, be awake without dozin' off. Who wants to take the first watch?"
Norris opened his mouth, but Pete was quicker. "You guys can sleep with your heads in that little nylon tent if you want to. But I'm stayin' up to keep the fire going—sittin' right here on this stool all night."
Norris nodded. "Good. With you on the job we can sleep like babies. Your skinny ol' bones rubbin' on that rock—ain't a chance in hell you're gonna doze off."
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|Reviewed by Regis Auffray
|Thank you for sharing these "bear tales," Leland. Your kinship with these creatures is most evident. Love and peace to you,
|Reviewed by Elizabeth Taylor
|You really bring the scenes alive. In all your stories.|
|Reviewed by Tinka Boukes
|Tsk Tsk!!! Than damn bear.....the damn fish thief...next time when we go fishing...we take some extra damn food with us....and teach the bastard to eat canned food instead.....hehehehe....I was laughing like a mad woman for the tree climbing ......and so he left fishy smells.....or was it shitty smells as far as he ran before he climbed that tree........no wonder bear had developed a weeeeee and had to water the tree....he must of thought he entered a restroom/toilet/longdrop/looooo or some thing........hehehehe....i promise you if he has just given that fish to that bear to eat......maybe they could of started a nice beary-friendship...like you and me........hehehe..lol!!
Hope to read another one soon!!
|Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado
|good contination of the bear series; enjoyed!~ ((((HUGS)))) :)|