Browns, Bears and Bailey’s Wall

By Bob Saile

Denver Post Outdoor Editor

Published in the Denver Post newspaper June 30, 1977

Browns Bears and Baileys Wall

 

West Yellowstone, Mont.---

George Anderson tossed out the bait casually.

“What would you think,” he inquired, “of a spot I know where we would have an excellent chance of taking some browns over four pounds?”

My answer was direct.  “I would think very kindly of it,” I said. But I wondered, what was the catch (other than lunker browns): Was it four hours away, or what?

“More like 15 minutes,” said Anderson, a Livingston, Montana, resident and former West Yellowstone-area guide.  “I haven’t been in there since last year and I haven’t taken anybody there in five years, It’s a beaver pond on a spring-fed slough.”

The picture became a little clearer. The pond was beside a major trout stream and no more than a half-mile from a crowded campground. But it was tucked away in a marshy, brushy meadow protected from easy notice by trees and deadfalls.  And there was one other reason, said Anderson, that nobody much fished it:  Bears.

 

NOW WE HAD THE CATCH.  And I was beginning to suspect that I was the one who was caught.

“I took a friend in there the last time and we were hooking browns up to five or six pounds.”  George recalled with a mischievous grin.  “He looked around the pond and asked me how the fishing could be so good when it was so heavily fished-there was a path beaten down around it. 

“When I told him it was a bear path, he reeled in and headed for the car.”

But Anderson assured me that the area of the pond no longer harbored the grizzlies and black bears it used to-or at least, not nearly as many.  A nearby trash dump had been covered up and the main attraction for the bears had been eliminated.

At 8 the next morning, the two of us, fly rods in hand, were pushing through the deadfalls in the direction of the magic pond. It seemed, looking at the immediate environs, that we were in a wilderness. An osprey flew overhead, returning to its nest at the tip-top of a dead snag.  Signs of deer and elk were everywhere.  All of this was in contrast to the sounds of cars passing by the campground several hundred yards behind us, where we had left the car.

Anderson stopped and pointed to a spot on the ground.  “Look at that,” he said, “Bear Sign.”   I looked.  It didn’t take a naturalist to see Anderson had correctly identified the substance on the ground.

Grizzly Tracks

WE PUSHED ON.  Anderson pointed to the ground again. “Guess what?” he said.  I didn’t need to guess.  Bear sign.

“Probably still a few that pass though here,” George explained unconvincingly.  “We shouldn’t have any problem in the daytime, especially talking and making noise.”

I talked and made noise.  Finally we arrived at the pond.  It was three to four feet deep in most spots and maybe 70 yards long. The beaver dam was about 40 feet from where the spring–fed slough entered the river.  Surprisingly, the banks were mostly free from trees, making casting relatively easy.

We approached the clear, slightly tea-colored water cautiously. There was a slight swirl tight against the far bank, followed immediately by a darting wake which appeared to push water ahead of it for three or four feet.  A small alligator couldn’t have been more impressive.

I waded out, false-casting line.  My choice of fly was a fuzzy No. 14 Hare’s Ear nymph, something generally imitative of the fresh-water scuds the browns probably ate a lot of in their closed-off home.

Browns Bears and Baileys Wall

THERE WAS A BULGING rise just across the pond. While Anderson watched behind me, I made two casts, falling just short of the rise disturbance both times. But on the second try, there was a quick roll, a violent thrust of a tail.  I came up on the rod, but nothing was there.

“Too late,” said Anderson. “He took it, but you missed him.”

Five minutes later, I got another chance.   This time, at the lower end of the pond, there was no hesitation on my part as another glorious brown took the nymph just under the surface.

I felt a jolt down through the rod all the way to my arm and mentally was beginning already to plan the battle so as not to break the small leader point.  But the rod went limp.  The tippet was already broken.

I reeled in and discovered that it wasn’t a break- it was an absolutely clean cut, as if somebody had taken a razor to it about three inches above the fly.  The brown, no doubt a male, had sheared it with his teeth.

Shaking slightly, I fumbled for leader material and Anderson waded in to my right.  He began to fish to a feeding brown about 40 feet across from him.  I was tying a new tippet when I heard a huge splash and George said,  “Got him.”

The brown came up in a crazy leap, all golden in the sunlight.  The pond surface shattered again as it fell back.  Anderson gave it line when necessary, and tightened up when he had to. Five or 10 minutes later, the lunker was turning on its side in the water, and Anderson scooped it up to weigh it.

Browns Bears and Baileys Wall

HIS CHATILLON POCKET SCALE dropped to 5 ¼ pounds.  We took some photographs, and George released the fat, beautiful fish.

All the luck – and probably the lion’s share of the skill – was with George this particular morning.  He took another of the lunkers, a 4 ½ pounder, before the action eventually put all the fish down.

We were walking out, stepping over bear sign and talking about trophy fish, when Anderson suggested offhandedly that if I had landed either of my two fish that morning, they probably would have qualified for a spot on the wall at Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop in Livingston.  Technically, any river fish more than four pounds in weight caught in Montana can be traced in outline on a plaque and given a place of posterity on the shop wall.  Lake fish have to be bigger.

The pond wasn’t really a lake, nor was it a river.  But it was part of a river –a dammed-up tributary – and we supposed that a trout caught from it would qualify.

All of a sudden the possibility of bears was forgotten in my mind.  Back at the car, I suggested that we return in the afternoon and try again.   Anderson agreed.  I could visualize my name on that famous fly shop wall, right up there with Joe Brooks and all the other experts.

 

A LATE –AFTERNOON thundercloud was splatting the meadow with rain when we returned.  I was so intent in my mission that I forgot about bears.

Not five minutes after we arrived, we spotted a feeding fish.  I cast to it and it took immediately.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune.  The trout appeared to be in the 5-6 pound class.

And then the hook pulled out. Just came out, like that.

Destiny seemed to be telling me something, particularly when Anderson landed another four-pound plus brown from BELOW the beaver dam, just up from the river.  But neither of us got another strike.  Anderson said he wanted to check out another pond a quarter of mile away, and trudged off through the willows, saying that he would be back in an hour.  “If I’m not, I guess a bear got me, he said grinning.”        

As the evening light waned, I switched to a Muddler Minnow. But nothing came for it.  The trophy browns – MY trophy brown was in there somewhere, and not feeding.  Under the darkening sky I began to think again about bears.

That’s when I heard a deep-throated sound, something between a growl and a bark.  My heart came to my throat and I turned toward the noise behind me.

George Anderson was standing there laughing.  “Got you,” he said.

“Didn’t scare me a bit,” I said, reeling up the fly line. But the browns were spooked and so was I. 

Bailey’s Wall will have to wait until next year.