When one thinks of the iconic brown bears of Alaska, it’s common to picture these massive beasts perched along a salmon stream in places like Books Falls of Katmai National Park, grabbing salmon after salmon out of mid-air with their big, sharp teeth. Yes indeed, brown bears and salmon go hand in hand, as these abundant fish are a primary source of nutrition for the coastal bears of Alaska. While photos and videos of salmon fishing brown bears are very popular and tend to portray bears as skilled fishermen, it can actually be quite challenging for a bear to catch a salmon and they have to employ a variety of techniques to do so. And that’s the topic of this blog article.
Kodiak brown bears and the coastal brown bears of the mainland of Alaska rely heavily on the abundant runs of Pacific salmon that make their way into the rivers during the summer and early fall months. However, even though there are thousands of fish that swim up any given salmon stream, it can be quite challenging for bears to catch them. When salmon are fresh in from the ocean and are just starting to swim upstream to their spawning grounds, they’re still healthy, strong, and fast, enabling them to quickly maneuver around and get away from a bear. As a result, again, the bears have to employ a variety of tactics in order to catch the fish they need to fatten up on for the winter.
Chase and Grab
One of the most common fishing techniques that bears use to catch fish is to aggressively rush into a large group of incoming fish while swatting, clawing, and biting at every one they see in an attempt to pin a fish to the river bottom or grab it with their mouth or claws…if they’re lucky. In a similar manner, they sometimes chase a group of fish out of the water and onto the riverbank where the salmon are much easier to catch and eat.
Sit and Wait
Another popular way that bears catch salmon is the good old sit and wait method. This is what’s commonly seen at places like Brooks Falls, where a bear will sit or stand right in the flow of water where salmon are actively moving through and try to grab them as they jump out of the water to head upstream. While bears can get pretty good at this method, it still takes a lot of practice and they still miss many fish.
A similar method to catching fish along waterfalls and fast-moving riffles is for bears to congregate in slower moving pools of water off to the sides of the main river channels. Large schools of salmon regularly gather in such locations to rest and regroup during their exhausting run. Bears know this and will often sit either by themselves or with other bears in such spots as if lounging around in a big hot tub and wait for the fish to get close enough to sit on, grab, or pin to the bottom of the river.
Later in the summer and fall, when the salmon have depleted their energy reserves and start to slow down and eventually die, bears can be seen doing what many refer to as “snorkeling” and will swim around with their head under the water looking for salmon that are easy prey and that don’t have the energy to swim away.
If a bear doesn’t have the necessary skill or good luck to catch a fish, they sometimes resort to stealing or begging. Larger, more aggressive bears will sometimes exert their dominance and take a fish away from a smaller bear through fear, intimidation, and force. This is why many younger, smaller bears will often run away and hide when they catch a fish, so they can eat it in peace…without the threat of a big, bully bear taking it away from them.
Along with stealing fish, some bears also resort to begging for fish. In general, bears don’t share their food and even sows will usually eat their fill of fish before sharing a catch with their cub. However, when a young or desperate bear timidly approaches another bear who is enjoying a meal, they’ll sometimes communicate their desire for a bite to eat through submissive body language or vocalizations similar to a bawling cub. Sometimes a bear will share the leftovers of a meal in response to such begging behavior, and sometimes they won’t.
Finally, bears that become very desperate for a meal, especially in the fall months at the end of the salmon run, will sometimes be seen diving all the way down to the bottom of a pool of water to retrieve any dead fish that may be down there. This is not all that common, but it does occur from time to time.
So there you have it, that’s an overview of the different ways that the big brown bears of Alaska fish for salmon. Check out the video below to see more…