Editor's note: This is an essay for First Person: Ageless Adventures, a occasional series of essays by readers and Star Tribune staff members.

 

This is a story which I assure you is possibly true. It’s about the dangers of fly fishing as discovered by my friend O’Neal. O’Neal was a firm believer in destiny and followed the maxim, “My body is mostly water, so I fish. If I were mostly grass, I would be fulfilled mowing the lawn.”

Thus driven, he found himself in Montana with a fly rod in his hand and a trout stream at his feet. Word was that the middle fork of the Flathead River was where big bull trout lived, and he wanted some of the action no matter what the danger. Now the danger part of fly fishing in Montana comes from the slight matter of grizzly bears. The matter was even less slight here where the Flathead flows out of the Great Bear Wilderness.

But O’Neal cared nothing for the hints; the bull trout were calling. So O’Neal, who was after all mostly water, felt invisible and hiked upstream into the jaws of the wilderness. An hour later he rounded a bend and saw the perfect spot. However, there was a minor problem. The gravel bar from which he’d like to fish was occupied by a smallish griz also convinced it was the perfect spot. O’Neal stared, the bear’s nose went into the air, and off it splashed to the nearby bank, out of sight and gone. Or so thought O’Neal.

Bull trout are big, so O’Neal rigged heavy line and a big fly. Casting from the bar would be tricky because of the trees along the back. The first try plopped in the water barely 20 feet in front of him. Concentrating as intensely as he could, he wound up and let fly. Damn if that big fly wasn’t hung up in a tree behind him. No worries, he thought. With his heavy rig, he could just pull it free. Still facing the stream, he gave a mighty yank. A snarl, a couple of woofs, and some very agitated teeth clicking brought him around to face the unhappiest grizzly in the world. The problem wasn’t that the stout fly was firmly hooked in the bear’s ear, the problem was that the bear was coming down the tree.

Two questions instantly appeared: How to unhook from that griz, and how to get out of there. Not only was there no way to unhook the bear, but it was inadvisable to try. So much for the first question. Climbing a tree came to mind, but this little griz clearly knew how to climb. So, O’Neal jumped into the Flathead and swam downstream as fast as he could, and the bear thrashed about undecided over the twin distractions of the big hook in its ear and the fool splashing away downstream. Arguably the only thing that saved O’Neal was the bear getting further entangled in the line and rod. The furball of snarls, whipping line, and breaking bamboo rod parts sent off O’Neal, but unchased to his relief. The rangers found him later buck-naked by a streamside fire drying his clothes. Thereafter O’Neal was known in some parts of Montana as Bear O’Neal.

Now here’s the underlying story which is certainly true: I am O’Neal, the bear was a black bear, he never got my rod, and I escaped with dignity. It began with a stop roadside near Greyling Creek north of west Yellowstone. The stream was not 50 yards away beyond a dark grove of pines. A path led through the pines to the stream. As I approached in the darkness of the grove I saw a black bear on a gravel bar. It at once sniffed me out and ran off. I returned to the car and told my wife of it, and said because the bear was gone I would return and fish for a while. I set up on the gravel bar and made a wonderful cast. Alas, at the same moment I heard just behind and above me the huff-huff and rather loud (it seemed to me) clicking of teeth. I knew instantly what it was — but it was sooo close! I turned to find the bear in a tree almost within touching distance of my outstretched 9-foot fly rod — AND HE WAS COMING DOWN! It is not possible to overstate the sweet gentleness of my verbal response as I slowly backed away, “OK, mister bear, I understand you want to dine undisturbed, so I’ll just leave now.” And thus I left. It was later reported in the Bozeman papers that a black bear had been harassing some park rangers in the same area. But all ended well. Also, no ranger ever found me buck-naked.

About the author: Louis Lavoie, 80, is a retired physicist who writes and lectures on various science, Russian, and Islamic subjects when not trout fishing. He lives in Plymouth.