Scared Sheepless

Turning around is never easy. 

Sheep Lake is a deep body of crystal-clear water, maybe 20 acres in size. It sits in a glacial cirque at an altitude of just over 9,000 feet near the south end of the Madison range, not far from the Idaho border. The lake is accessible only by horseback, mountain bike, or on foot, five miles up a trail with an elevation gain of 2,800 feet. When you reach the shore and look up at the surrounding mountains—especially if the wind is calm and the water is still—you tend to forget that you came here to fish. Even when you do get around to fishing, it’s hard to stop gaping at the scenery. I’ve missed more than a few strikes because I was looking at the mountains instead of watching my fly.

The fish in Sheep Lake are rainbow trout, with colors so bright and vivid that they appear neon when seen through the water. They run between 10 and 14 inches, but I’ve caught a few up to 16—not what you would call trophy size, but certainly respectable. They are strong, healthy fish and when hooked, they put on an unsurpassed acrobatic show. The difficulty of access keeps the fishing pressure down to a point where the fish remain somewhat naïve. Like most fish in the high country—where the water is iced-out eight months of the year—they are opportunistic feeders, and can’t afford to pass up the chance to eat. I am not a great fisherman, but I always enjoy good success up there. Come July, when the lake ice has finally receded and the trails are clear of snow, I can’t resist a visit.

Last year, I picked a day and had my wife drop me at the trailhead at 8:45am; she promised to return at 6pm. It was a fine morning and I was in a great mood as I made my way up the trail, looking forward to arriving at the lake by 11:30. That would give me four hours of fishing before I had to start hiking out. The first mile of trail passes through a mixed forest of hardwoods and conifers with a fair amount of undergrowth, meandering along Sheep Creek before curving up a ridge into open country—thick fields of wildflowers and postcard vistas overlooking the Madison Valley.

After half an hour I was still in the wooded part of the trail when I glimpsed movement about 50 feet ahead. I could tell it was small, and thought it might be a deer. Just as I realized it was the wrong color for a deer, the grizzly cub stood up, looked back at me, and loped up the trail. The hair on my neck bristled and I immediately started backing away with one hand on my pepper spray, knowing that the mother couldn’t be far. I stopped after a few minutes to assess the situation.

I really wanted to go to Sheep Lake, but grizzly bear sows are powerful deterrents. They’re probably gone, and I won’t see them if I continue up the trail, I thought. But then common sense kicked in: It would be really stupid of me to go up there, knowing there is a grizzly bear and cub in the vicinity. I reluctantly decided to postpone Sheep Lake—and those glorious rainbows—for another day. A quote came to mind as I made my way reluctantly back down to the trailhead: Discretion is the better part of valor.

Especially when it comes to bears.