June 1, 2006 in Outdoors

It pays to always be prepared

Rich Landers The Spokesman-Review
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A Spokane fly fisherman caught a once-in-a-lifetime North Idaho experience in Tepee Creek Monday, and we’re not talking about cutthroat trout.

The angler asked to remain anonymous because … ahem … he doesn’t want his boss to know he was out fishing.

(Note: The Spokesman-Review Outdoors Department tends to protect the identity of otherwise upstanding citizens who call in sick when powder is perfect on the ski slopes and hatches are in full swing on trout streams, especially when they report back to the paper with an experience that bristles the hair on the necks of veteran outdoorsmen – and keeps them up at night wishing they had been there.)

The angler, a pilot, had strayed from his opening weekend drive up the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene to see how the Magee landing strip had come through the winter. Then he started sampling the high waters in Tepee Creek.

“I didn’t catch anything there, so I drove downstream,” he said, noting that he parked and busted through some brush to a promising stretch of water. As he tied a Turk’s Tarantula onto his tippet, he heard something crashing on the slope about 200 yards above.

“It’s typical North Fork country with rounded ridges that drop off steeply as they get down to the creeks,” he said.

Brush parted, branches snapped, rocks dislodged and tumbled down the hill as a cow elk streaked across the slope.

“I saw something behind her and I figured it was a yearling (elk), but then she turned and headed straight down toward me,” he said. “That’s when I realized she wasn’t just running – she was running for her life.”

The pursuer was big and dark. Surely a black bear, he thought for a moment until it burst out of the brush.

“A wolf, black as it could be, closing in,” he recalled. “At that point the elk was only a few hundred feet away, still coming down toward me, and the wolf was just 20 feet behind it.

“The cow was in a real panic and I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I mean it seemed like slow motion as I watched her lose her footing where the slope got real steep and she started tumbling end over end. She flipped over the last 20 feet of sheer rock right into the creek about 50 feet upstream from where I was standing, frozen.

“It was horrific to watch. When she hit the water, the elk didn’t move. She was dead as a mackerel. Broke her neck, I guess. But Tepee Creek was pretty high and she was floating right toward me when the wolf skittered down the cliff and pounced on top of the elk as if it thought it might have to finish her off.”

The wolf was determined to save its catch. With a cliff on one side of the creek, it was tugging the elk to the shoreline where the fly fisher was standing, still frozen stiff as the trees behind him.

“There I am with a hungry wolf just a few rod lengths away,” he said, noting that his three-weight rod suddenly looked like a noodle.

This angler, however, was among maybe 1 percent of fly fishers who pack insurance when they wade into Inland Northwest streams.

He reached inside his waders and pulled out a .357 magnum handgun.

“I didn’t want to retreat back into the thick brush because I didn’t know whether the wolf had buddies out there. I couldn’t cross the creek because of the cliff on the other side. The only way to maintain some visibility was to move back upstream – closer to the wolf on its kill.”

The wolf’s hind legs were in the water with its front paws on the elk’s body when it spotted the angler taking his first step away.

“All I saw was teeth,” he recalled when asked to describe the wolf’s posture.

“It was all black with little tufts of gray. Big, maybe 125 pounds, although I didn’t try to weigh it. I don’t remember any sound because there’s a riffle there and a lot of background noise. Its eyes were piercing through me, but mostly it was all teeth.”

The angler froze again for just a few seconds.

“I started thinking like a lawyer instead of an outdoorsman,” he said.

“I’m wondering about the legality. Protected species. Parameters. Would I have the right to shoot him if he came at me?”

The angler raised his handgun and purposely fired a round over the wolf’s head. It was as if he had shot into a TV, the picture gone, only the static of the creek remained.

“I figured I’d let the wolf make the call, and he made the best one for both of us,” he said. “He spun around and scooted upstream and I beat it out of there, passing about five feet from the floating elk carcass.

“I got back to the car, put my rod away and declared that section of river as belonging to the wolf.”

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