Story Behind the Bear Jam Photo

February 23, 2016 Posted by: Michael Fitz

Many bears splashing in water near a wooden bridge

Bears often fish for salmon near the floating bridge at Brooks Camp. For safey considerations and to reduce our potential impact on bears, the bridge is closed when bears are within 50 yards (46 m) of it. When the bridge is closed, you are in a bear jam.

Nine bears can be seen in this bear jam from early July 2010. What were they doing there and what were the circumstances that brought them together? This photo tells a story of hunger, instinct, and survival.

In late June and early July, brown bears at Brooks River are particularly ravenous for salmon. After surviving months of winter hibernation and harsh, starvation conditions in the spring, anything that looks, smells, and sounds like a fish attracts them. The sound of a splashing fish, in particular, started the cascade of events that led to the photo.

Sockeye salmon often move in schools when they first begin to migrate into Brooks River. The first large waves of sockeye usually enter Brooks River in late June. As the fish move upstream, they can mistakenly choose the wrong channel or get pushed by their brethren into shallow water near the river bank or above a submerged gravel bar. Salmon are vulnerable to predation, especially in shallow water. During the initial stages of migration, salmon on the fringe of the school begin to swim frantically.  As the salmon in the shallows fight to return to deeper water, they startle other fish. Instinct might tell these others, “That fish is fleeing something. That something might try to eat me. I should move away too.” 

In an instant the river is churned into a froth by dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of fish. The water looks like it is boiling. A fish frenzy like this obviously attracts the attention of bears.

Bear jumping in frothy water full of salmon. Other bears standing in grass in background.
Boiling salmon capture the attention of bears. NPS Photo.

On July 7, 2010, I was standing on the wildlife viewing platform near the mouth of Brooks River. Upstream, where the river snakes and disappears, I remember watching salmon boil in the water. I can’t recall whether it was caused by the salmon themselves or a bear chasing them, but I do remember the salmon turning downstream, still boiling, while a bear gave chase. 

Splashing fish sounds like food to a bear (a fact that anglers should consider when they are trying to land their fish in Katmai). The sight and sound of the boil caused another bear in the vicinity to take notice. It soon joined the pursuit.

Within a few seconds, another bear appeared on the edge of the river, then another and another. It was though every nearby bear heard the noise and came closer or stood up to investigate. Once these bears realized what was happening, each began sprinting through the water. The escaping fish continued downstream, now pursued by almost ten bears. 

Salmon aren’t easy to catch where they have avenues to escape. Fishing for salmon is much more challenging for bears in deeper water. That’s why Brooks Falls is so popular with bears in July—bears can sit and wait for the salmon to come to them. In July, areas of Brooks River downstream of the falls are demonstrably less productive fishing spots, but hunger was driving these bears to take the chance. Perhaps salmon numbers were low in the preceding days. Whatever the exact circumstances it was clear these animals were ravenous. Their need to consume calories was enough motivation. 

Soon enough, I watched a wall of bears run downriver driving the fish toward the lake. As the bears approached the bridge, they still hadn’t caught any salmon. Now the water was getting deeper and the salmon weren’t slowing down.

When they got near the bridge, deeper water hindered the bears, but it helped facilitate the salmons’ escape. The salmon swam under the bridge, while the bears splashed in the water near it, almost like they were confused about their prey’s escape. This is when I snapped the photo.

Afterwards, the bears slowly dispersed in various directions—toward the lodge, upriver, and into the forest. It was an event that repeated itself a few times that week, but I had never seen the likes of it before nor have I seen anything quite like it since. Hunger drove the bears to give chase. Escape instincts caused the salmon to flee. This photo, for me, is more than a bunch of bears pouncing in water. It captures a story of hunger, instinct, and survival.

Below: Other views of the bears searching for the meal that got away. NPS/M. Fitz.People on elevated deck watching watching many bears splashing in water near a bridge.

Many bears splashing in water near a wooden bridge

bear, Brown Bear, Brooks Camp, Brooks River, salmon, sockeye salmon

20 Comments Comments icon

  1. March 04, 2016 at 01:17

    Thank you for the pictures and the fascinating story behind them, Ranger Mike.

  2. March 02, 2016 at 06:18

    Ranger Mike, Thank you for sharing this amazing series of photos and the story behind them. I think I can speak for all the Katmai bear watchers when I say that I am hungry as a bear for information about our "bear friends" when March rolls around.

  3. March 02, 2016 at 06:18

    Ranger Mike, Thank you for sharing this amazing series of photos and the story behind them. I think I can speak for all the Katmai bear watchers when I say that I am hungry as a bear for information about our "bear friends" when March rolls around.

  4. February 29, 2016 at 06:37

    Thank you Ranger Mike for sharing your photo and story. You always provide interesting details about the lives of these beautiful bears. I now know they weren't participating in water aerobics. :):)

  5. February 28, 2016 at 08:53

    Thanks for sharing your pictures and explanation. Very interesting. Love how 7 of the 9 bears are facing your camera.

  6. February 27, 2016 at 08:55

    So fascinating and amazing, Ranger Mike! Thank you for sharing this experience and information with us.

  7. February 25, 2016 at 10:00

    Ranger Mike, you are such an eloquent, articulate speaker and writer. Your blog posts and talks are always informative and digestible; you'd be a great classroom teacher, but I think you've found your calling. You should think about putting together a journal/memoir/non-fiction book of your experiences; you have such a unique insight into the bear world with your position and a wonderful, engaging way of conveying your knowledge to others.

  8. February 24, 2016 at 10:54

    Great story! Lucky you to have such an exciting, and wonderful, memory. Sounds like a Brooks Bears version of Black Friday. The great photos are icing. Many thanks.

  9. February 24, 2016 at 10:24

    Thank you for sharing this amazing moment with us Ranger Mike. There's always something new to learn and you convey it in such a beautiful way.

  10. February 24, 2016 at 04:11

    Thank you Ranger Mike. I look forward to your blog posts and really enjoy learning as much as I can about our bears.

  11. February 23, 2016 at 06:11

    Wonderful to find out the story behind the picture and to see the rest of the pictures. Thanks a lot for delving deep into the records and your memory to share this with us

  12. February 23, 2016 at 05:05

    Magical! Thanks for the back story,Ranger Mike!

  13. February 23, 2016 at 04:56

    Thanks for sharing the photo as well as the explanation. What an incredible sight it must have been to witness!

  14. February 23, 2016 at 03:58

    Thank you for this post, Ranger Mike, and the great pictures!! Can't wait for the live bearcams this summer!

  15. February 23, 2016 at 03:43

    hunger, instinct, and survival. It is a serious happening! Take care.

  16. February 23, 2016 at 03:27

    Thanks - your words just entice me more to head up that way!

  17. February 23, 2016 at 02:17

    Thanks Ranger Mike. Reading this blog post and understanding bear mentality, especially during lean times when they need to eat and haven't for months, gives me a better understanding into 775 Lefty's behavior when he arrived at Brooks Falls last summer. It helps to explain why he was frenetically chasing after each salmon and doing his belly flops as though he hadn't eaten a meal in months, which he probably hadn't.

  18. February 23, 2016 at 02:07

    A fascinating post -- and very moving, too. I can't imagine how hungry those bears must've been -- and how eager the salmon must've been to escape. Thanks for another enlightening post, Ranger Mike. The photo is amazing -- and the back story is remarkable, too.

  19. February 23, 2016 at 02:05

    TY so much Ranger Mike, you are a fast, but wonderful writer. I love your blogs and the description what happend in this pic. its interesting i didnt see such a event since the last years ( started at 2013 to watch the cams) but now can imagine very well how such a bear jam will happens. TY again for your fast reaction to my request about this post!!!

  20. February 23, 2016 at 01:55

    Very interesting. After watching the bear cams, I can imagine the sight and sounds of what was going on. Thanks for the play-by-play!

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Last updated: February 23, 2016

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