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Gun-toting fishermen, brown bears and sockeye salmon are sharing close quarters at Sweetheart Creek, a popular fishing stream 40 miles south of Juneau. It's a potentially volatile mix that has biologists concerned.
"Everything's concentrated in a pretty small, tight area, with just a couple trails running through it, and the configuration is such that people and bears are fishing right together," said Polly Hessing, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Douglas. Sweetheart Creek cascades through a brushy gorge, and visibility in the convoluted terrain is not good.
On Tuesday, Neil Barten was fishing the creek and watched a fisherman pull a handgun and shoot toward a bear. Barten, a biologist with Fish and Game, was off-duty at the time but advised the man that shooting was inappropriate.
"The bear wasn't doing anything that presented a danger, just standing on a rock along the river looking into the water. It wasn't necessary," Barten said. "There were people back in the woods and suddenly there's a bullet flying."
The man told Barten it was a well-placed warning shot, but Barten said the incident highlights a problem at Sweetheart Creek. People from Juneau don't see brown bears much, Barten said, and they should be prepared to see bears at very close range at Sweetheart Creek. Being bear savvy is better than simply bringing firepower, he said.
Barten said people should realize bears are there for the same reason they are, to catch fish. They are generally not aggressive toward people unless surprised, so people should make noise when traveling along the stream. A warning shot has two outcomes that are dangerous to people: The bullet could hit a person or the shot could scare the bear into another person down the trail.
A warning shot doesn't necessarily mean anything to a bear, Hessing added. It's much better to simply yell and make noise - just let them know you are there.
Sweetheart Creek flows into Gilbert Bay in the Snettisham fjord system. It's about a two-hour skiff ride from Juneau, and is a popular personal-use fishery for sockeye salmon from mid-July to late August. A free personal-use permit from Fish and Game's commercial fisheries division allows an Alaska resident with a sport-fishing license to use a dip net or cast net (a hand-thrown net) to catch and possess 25 sockeye per day per household.
The fishing is concentrated in a cascading 250-yard stretch of river, and most fish are taken from three pools. Fishermen anchor in the bay and take a half-mile-long trail through the forest from the beach to the fishing areas. The winding streamside trail is brushy, steep, muddy and frequented by brown bears.
Fish and Game records indicate that last year about 140 permittees used the fishery and caught 2,587 fish. The numbers of users vary from year to year, and in 1998, the peak year, 316 permittees reported catching about 6,000 sockeye.
Those numbers are appealing, but it's not easy to net salmon from the clear, turbulent waters. Kim Titus has fished the creek a number of times and said proper gear, technique and good timing are essential. The stream also supports a strong run of pink salmon, and reaching the sockeyes in the deeper water can be difficult.
"You need to do it right or you're not going to get fish," Titus said. "A lot of people go down thinking all you need is a salmon net and a pair of boots and you're going to get 25 sockeye. It's not like that, and it's physically demanding. The people who catch fish have been there and figured out how to do it."
In past years the water has been much higher and swifter, and the trail can be very muddy, Titus said. All things considered, it's not a place for unsupervised children.
Titus and two friends fished the creek last week and netted 75 fish. Hauling that much fresh salmon through convoluted terrain and bear-infested brush also takes some know-how, Titus said.
"You have to go down with enough people so that when you're hauling fish to the boat you don't leave any fish unattended," he said. "It's definitely not a good place to be at 6 or 7 o'clock at night. That's when the bears are really coming out, especially the shyer bears that are trying to avoid people."
Titus said one brown bear, clearly habituated to people, was swimming and fishing in the lower reaches of the creek right near the trail at mid-day.
There is a big difference between a bear that's habituated to people and one that associates people with food. The second is a problem bear. Throughout Southeast Alaska, people and bears share the same areas. The key is making sure bears don't associate people with food, whether that's garbage, lunch in a backpack, or a stringer of fish.
"Don't let bears get your fish - keep your fish close at hand, and when you are walking to and from the creek make a lot of noise," Barten said. "Give a bear space to pass if it's trying to go up or down stream."
The bears will generally avoid people, given the option. But it's important to keep track of other people as well as bears. It's not safe to send a bear into the path of a fisherman downstream.
"Don't shoo a bear unless it has an out," Barten said. "Otherwise you're just creating a problem for the next person down the line, and getting the bear excited."
Overall, the personal-use fishery at Sweetheart Creek always makes for an interesting summer trip, Titus said, and the chance to get some superb fish for summer barbecues, smoking, or freezing for the winter.
"Sharing is part of the Sweetheart experience," he said.
Riley Woodford is a writer for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Juneau. For more information on Alaska wildlife, see www.wildlifenews.alaska.gov.