Katmai National Park: Bear Fishing Strategies

Brooks Falls brown bear
Brooks Falls brown bear

 

The brown bears of Katmai National Park like their fish fresh, juicy, and in large volumes.  The biggest males eat between 80-90 pounds of food every day, and much of it is in the form of salmon.

So obviously these bears are experts at what they do—catching fish.  They start young, learning fishing techniques from mom, and then branch out from there.   Some bears have successfully learned a variety of methods, while others employ one or two that work for them.  Here’s a look the fishing styles that we observed at Brooks Camp.

Stand and wait:
Bear catching salmon at Brooks Falls
Cheri’s favorite bear fishing at the lip of the falls

With stand and wait, a bear will position itself at the lip of the falls and wait for salmon to jump close enough to be caught.  Photographers go gaga over  this technique because it offers the chance to take that quintessential Brooks Falls money shot.  Stand and wait requires a bit of luck, both for the bears and for the photographers: the bear has to be in the right place at the right time, and the technique obviously works only when the salmon are jumping.  But it can be effective, and the lip of the falls is a prime fishing spot.  It’s often the domain of the most dominant bears, but adult females can be found here as well, as well as Cheri’s favorite girl, a young subadult female pictured here and in the photo above:

Bear catches salmon on lip of falls
A successful stand-and-wait catch!
Sit and wait:

This tactic is straightforward: bears simply sit in one spot and wait for fish to come to them.  At Brooks Falls, there are several prime sit-and-wait spots, including the “jacuzzi” and the far pool.  These spots are generally occupied by the most dominant bears because the fish are easy pickings; it’s merely a matter of catching or pinning a fish that moves into the bear’s vicinity.

Brown bear waiting for fish to swim by.
Crowd favorite Otis was a patient practitioner of sit-and-wait fishing…
Brown bear eating a salmon
…which can clearly be an effective method!  He occupied the far pool, a primo spot that belonged solely to him when he was present at the falls
Snorkeling:

When snorkeling, bears walk around with their heads submerged, either picking off and pinning fish that are swimming by or scrounging dead or dying fish off of the bottom.

A bear looks for fish with head under water
A large male snorkels around the falls
Dash and grab:

This technique requires a lot of energy, as bears chase and pounce on fish, so it’s more likely to be seen early in the salmon run, when there are more fish to be had.

Bear searches for salmon in the river.
She gets ready to make her move…
Bear lunges towards a salmon.
Lunge!
Diving:

This is not a common technique but can be seen near the mouth of the Brooks River or when dead salmon litter the bottom of the river or lake.

Bears at the mouth of the Brooks River.
Bears fishing at the mouth of the Brooks River; they were snorkeling and perhaps diving for their salmon
Pirating:

Larger, more dominant bears often steal fish from other bears.  We saw subadults that would catch a fish and then run away anytime a dominant bear made a move towards them.  The young bears frequently ran into the forest, a more secure place to enjoy their snack.

Adult bear chases another bear for a salmon
A subadult runs from an adult male that’s after her catch
Begging:

Bears generally do not share food with other bears, but that doesn’t stop some from trying.  Begging is not a common or very successful behavior and usually only happens between bears that are highly tolerant of one another.  The beggar approaches a more dominant bear, getting within inches of him or her.  It may even vocalize like a crying cub.  If this tactic does work and the beggar does get something, it’ll likely to be the parts of the fish that the giver doesn’t want, such as the gills, entrails, and mandible.

A bear begging for a bite of fish
A cub begs from its sibling
Catch a boat:

Although not a technique officially recognized by the National Park Service, I’m pretty sure Bear 410 (Four Ton) is taking a snooze while waiting for some good sport to take her to a good fishing spot.

Large female bear sleeps next to a boat.
Bear 410 takes a nap while waiting on the boat captain

With the exception of the last technique, this information comes from the National Park Service, which we summarized here using our own photos.