Bear Behavior and Proper Etiquette


Katmai National Parks guide to:

Proper bear behavior and rules of the park pertaining to bears.

Katmai National Park offers tremendous fishing opportunities for rainbow trout, arctic char, and salmon. Its run of sockeye salmon, in particular, also supports some of the highest densities of brown bears on earth. No matter when you visit, fishing in Katmai requires extra care and responsibility to protect people, wildlife, and the experience.

A splashing fish sounds like food to a bear. Bears will often move in your direction to investigate a fish on a line. Always be prepared to cut or break your line, so that you can free the fish and move out of the water until the bear passes. Never let a bear acquire a fish from you.

It is easy to become so engaged in fishing, that you forget to be alert for bears. They are surprisingly quiet and difficult to see in dense grass or tall brush, so always have someone spot bears for you.

At minimum, keep 50 yards between yourself and all bears. All fishing must cease when a bear is within 50 yards of you. No flies can remain in the water. Stop fishing and move away well before a bear approaches within 50 yards. If bear is close and you hook a fish, you may lose your tackle as you break your line or find yourself in a situation with a fish on the line and a bear in pursuit. 


Bear Viewing Etiquette

Always be aware of how our presence may affect the bear. We want to keep a distance from them not just because of safety, but also to help preserve the bear’s natural fear of humans. The second is not to surprise them, and the third is not to encourage them to see humans as a source of food. Respect the environment around you accordingly and the safety and imminent protection of you and these animals will be preserved.  Never run around bears, you do not want to start a cat and mouse game, that means jogging or running from one place to another.  Bears pursue running animals or people.

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Brown Bear Behavior

Brown Bears are characteristically solitary animals. The majority of their interaction is at rivers and lakes where large populations of salmon hold and congregate. To maintain their personal space bears use different types of communication and behaviors. What is interesting is that their limited gamut of behaviors is not ritualized and their connotation is heavily reliant on the circumstance of the situation. It is important to concern yourself with different bear behaviors. At the same time, one must take into account the broad and common meaning in its specific context because each behavior is highly unique. 

The following is from "The Bear Fact" published by the Alaska Natural History Association in cooperation with the National Park Service. Upon understanding some of the general meanings of their behaviors you will have a different perspective.


Brown Bear Posturing

STANDING: A bear standing on his hind legs is typically not expressing aggression. Bears generally stand on their hind legs to gain more information visually and through smell.

STATIONARY ORIENTATION: A bear may stand broadside to assert itself in some instances. In encounters with humans, it has usually been interpreted as a demonstration of size. 

STATIONARY AND FACING YOU:  If a bear is standing and facing you; it is certainly not being submissive. This is an aggressive position and may signal a charge. It is likely waiting for you to withdraw. 

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Brown Bear Vocalizations

HUFFS: When a bear is tense, it may forcible exhale a series of several sharp, rasping huffs. A mother may also huff in order to gain the attention of her young. 

WOOFING: A startled bear may emit a single sharp exhale called a woof which lacks the harsh quality of a huff. If her cubs woof, a mother will become alert to the situation. 

POPPING SOUNDS: Females with young often emit a throaty popping sound, apparently to beckon their cubs when danger is sensed. A mother vocalizing in this manner should be considered nervous and extremely stressed. Bears other than sows also jaw-pop. 

GROWLING: A clear indication of intolerance and possible aggression is coming when growls, snarls, and roars are heard. 

YAWN: Indicates tension. This behavior may result from the close proximity of another bear or human presence.  Another Indicator: Salivation 
A clear sign of tension, excessive salivation may appear as white foam around the bear's mouth. Only severely distressed bears exhibit this characteristic. 

CHARGING: The vast majority of charges are false charges one in which the bear stops before making final contact. The intensity of the charge or associated vocalizations may vary, but it is distinct in that it is an aggressive or defensive act clearly directed at another bear or human. Bears may charge immediately, as a sow fearing for her cubs, or may emit stressed or erratic behavior before charging. 

SLEEPING BEARS: It is very common for adult bears to sleep near a prominent food source, example a small river or stream full of spawning Salmon, a moose or Caribou carcass or gut pile. Never startle a sleeping Bear, this is a very dangerous position. 

BE ALERT: By understanding bear behavior clues, you may have a better understanding of how they will react to different situations. But remember, when in bear country it is important to be alert, watch for bear signs (scat and markings on trees), avoid areas of limited visibility, make noise when walking around, and travel with others. The best way to be safe around these animals is to give them lots of space and to avoid surprise encounters. 

BE SAFE: The ability to grasp the meaning of their behaviors is not the answer to being safe in bear country. It is highly recommended not to go into bear country alone.  Traveling with a group or better yet an experienced guide is the best bet. 


Fishing with Bears

The park’s annual salmon runs support some of the highest densities of brown bears on earth.  No matter when you visit, fishing in Katmai requires extra care and responsibility to protect people, wildlife, and the experience.

A splashing fish sounds like food to a bear. Bears will often move in your direction to investigate a fish on a line. Always be prepared to cut or break your line, so that you can free the fish and move out of the water until the bear passes. Never let a bear acquire a fish from you.

It is easy to become so engaged in fishing, that you forget to be alert for bears. They are surprisingly quiet and difficult to see in dense grass or tall brush, so always have someone spot bears for you.

At minimum, keep 50 yards between yourself and all bears. All fishing must cease when a bear is within 50 yards of you. No lures or flies can remain in the water. Stop fishing and move away well before a bear approaches within 50 yards. If bear is close and you hook a fish, you must lose your tackle to break your line or find yourself in a situation with a bear pursuing your fish.


This is the time of year that bears need to feed so they may hibernate and survive through the long winter.  We do not want to interfere; respect and proper behavior will keep us safe.  Remember they would like to avoid us, as we would like to avoid them.  If they hear you coming, they will try to get out of your way.


Link to Katmai National Park’s Bear Safety