I have friends who fish in Alaska. They tell cautionary tales of entire rivers taken over by hungry grizzly bears gorging on spawned-out salmon. Their wisdom about grizzlies is this:
In Alaska, if a bear takes over the river you’re fishing, you yield.
I’ve never been to Alaska. I fish mostly in New Hampshire, where I chase wild brook trout in the skinny waters of our forested mountainsides.
These fish are wary. They startle easily. If you spook them, they dart for cover and stay hidden for longer than I usually care to wait. You might as well call it a day… try that stretch of water again next year.
To catch these little fish, you stalk them. You sneak up slowly, never splashing, never throwing a shadow over the water. Some people wear camouflage face-paint and ghillie suits like Simms-bedecked Navy Seals.
One morning last summer, I put on my own battle-rattle, found a little river I’d never fished before, and followed it deep into the White Mountain National Forest.
Already redlined from the uphill slog, my pulse jumped again when I heard it: rushing water, the sound that haunts my dreams.
That beautiful noise was coming from a three foot granite ledge in the middle of the river. There was a long, flat pool below the falls. There were fish rising. Concentric rings again and again. Square-tails taking bugs off the surface. The holy f’ing grail.
Still in stealth mode, I found my footing in the gravel. I scouted above and behind my perch. Low brush and plenty of room for a back cast. I stripped line out of my reel, focusing all of my being on the fish-dimpled water thirty feet away. A false cast, more line, another false cast.
It was a transcendent moment, one that defines fly fishing for me. I knew before I finished my first cast that I would catch fish. Perfect fish. I would briefly admire them and release them back into their perfect pool. It would be epic.
In the instant before I put my fly on the water, I was jerked from my revery by a crashing sound. Out of the woods bounded something scarier than any Alaskan grizzly bear.
Six-foot-four, at least. An easy three-hundred pounds. Fiery red hair, matted into dreadlocks that tumbled down his naked back. A red beard, braided in twin forks that hung a half foot below his massive jaw. From my end of the pool I couldn’t see details, but there were tattoos, and the impression of freckles grown into a uniform shade of tan that perfectly matched the khaki of his cargo shorts. He looked like a Viking, if Vikings had spent a lot of time playing hacky sack at outdoor music festivals… shirtless and bereft of sunscreen.
I never got his name, but I call him “Thorvald.”
He advanced towards the hole at an alarming speed.
He’s so big! And so barefoot! How does he move so fast?
Then Oh My God look at him now! He’s airborne!
My fly hit the water just as this human depth-charge exploded in the pool. The geyser was magnificent — twenty feet high if it was an inch. My #18 para-Adams surfed back towards me on the crest of a tsunami, and like that, my day was over.
As I started to reel in my line, he pulled a bar of soap from his cargo shorts and started taking a river bath. An honest to God bath… in the middle of this pristine little river. My pristine little river.
As I turned downhill to leave, he finally saw me and shouted in a big, friendly voice: “Hey Dude! Aren’t you gonna stay and fish? There’s some nice trout in here bro!”
We don’t have grizzly bears where I fish. I’d almost rather we did. Instead we have Thorvald. My wisdom about Thorvald is this:
In New Hampshire, if Thorvald takes over the river you’re fishing, you yield.