In early July 2022, we made our third visit to Katmai National Park. Our first time to Katmai in July of 2016, we stayed at Kulik Lodge and we returned there again this time. As before, we thoroughly enjoyed this remote fishing resort.
Our goal this trip was to see the bears again and to tour the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Our bear viewing was successful, Ten Thousand Smokes not so much. The day our tour to Ten Thousand Smokes was scheduled, everything was so socked in that the float plane couldn’t fly us to Brooks Camp to make the tour. Since the tours are limited and booked ahead, we hoped someone would cancel the next day and we could go then. Turned out, it didn’t matter if someone canceled or not as the tour bus to get to the edge of the valley had mechanical issues so the tour was canceled for that day. So it goes sometimes.
This post is mostly about bears as the weather did not particularly cooperate. It was rainy and cold a good deal of the time so fishing and hiking were not the best but we spent a day at Brooks Camp to watch the bears. These bears are amazing and it’s easy to spend hours watching them.
The bears of Katmai are brown bears. Brown bears and grizzly bears are the same species (Ursus arctos), but grizzly bears are currently considered to be a separate subspecies (U. a. horribilis). The difference between grizzlies and brown bears can be fairly arbitrary but generally brown bears have access to coastal food sources like salmon and grizzlies live further inland. As a result of habitat and diet, brown bears are much larger.
About 2,200 brown bears are estimated to inhabit Katmai National Park. Katmai’s brown bears are some of the largest bears in the world. They can stand 3-5 feet at the shoulder and measure7-10 feet in length. When one of these big boys stands up on his hind legs, it’s an impressive sight.
In the spring the bears emerge from their dens thin and hungry. They become eating machines in order to pack on the pounds before retreating in October or November for winter hibernation. The largest and most successful bears can catch and eat up to 40 salmon a day -over 100 pounds and 100,000 calories. When fish are in abundance, they often only eat the portions of the salmon that are the highest in calories (“high-grading”) and leave the rest for gulls, eagles, etc. Large male bears in Katmai can routinely weigh over 1000 pounds in the fall. Adult females average about 1/3 less in weight.
Every fall, Katmai National Park and Preserve hosts Fat Bear Week which is an annual tournament celebrating the success of the bears at Brooks River. In a single elimination tournament, the online community is invited to compare photos of bears when they first visit Brooks Falls in the spring to photos of the same bears at the end of the summer and vote for the fattest of them for the title of Fat Bear. The 2022 winner was bear “747” who has become one of the largest brown bears on earth, perhaps weighing as much as 1400 pounds.
We enjoyed watching Otis who is somewhat of a celebrity at Brooks Falls. Otis is about 27 years old and is an experienced fisherman and very efficient. He catches salmon with the least amount of effort possible. Otis has learned to conserve energy and salvage the most calories possible out of each catch. At his preferred fishing spots, Otis waits for salmon to come to him. He once ate 42 salmon in a sitting using this strategy. Otis has won more Fat Bear titles than anyone. He was the inaugural Fat Bear Tuesday champion in 2014 and Fat Bear Week champion in 2016, 2017, and 2021.
Otis faces strong competition from younger male bears. The average life span for a wild brown bear is about 20 years although many bears live longer than this. The oldest wild brown bears known lived about 35 years.
On the hike to Brooks Falls, we came across an unusual sight – a sow nursing her two cubs. In Katmai cubs generally stay with their mothers for 2 ½ years, separating in May or June of a cub’s third summer.
Brooks Falls is one of the best places for brown bear watching as early in the salmon run the falls creates a temporary barrier to migrating salmon. This results in a particularly successful fishing spot for bears. The viewing platform at Brooks Falls has a limited capacity so you have to wait your turn and are limited to an hour at a time. However, you can get back in the queue to make multiple visits, which we did.
The bears exhibit different fishing styles. These styles are often learned behaviors. Several sows were teaching their cubs to fish in the river below the falls.
We watched one young bear on the edge of the falls attempting to catch salmon. He wasn’t a very good fisherman but he didn’t give up and he did catch some.
Common different styles of fishing include:
- Stand and Wait – bears will stand on top of Brooks Falls and wait for salmon to jump close enough to catch in their mouths. They rarely shift position once they have established a place to stand is this can be quite precarious.
- Sit and Wait – bears will sit just underneath the falls in several places and wait for the salmon to swim to them
- Dash and Grab – bears often chase fish and attempt to pin them to the river bottom with their paws
- Snorkeling – bears that snorkel are looking for fish under the water
The bears of Katmai National Park are fascinating, amazing creatures.
For more information: