Gospel Hump Wilderness, Idaho
By Gary Lewis
Steep is an understatement. The Salmon River (Idaho's River of No Return) divides some of the most remote backcountry wilderness in the Lower 48. With elevation changes that take a hunter from 2100 feet above sea level to 4000, 6000, 8000 feet and beyond, the Salmon River gorge is the second deepest canyon in the nation; right behind Hells Canyon.
Bighorn sheep and mountain goats are at home on the cliffs above the river, but this is Rocky Mountain elk country. And elk country is black bear country. The best time to hunt the bears is in the spring when they seek out green grasses and broadleaf plants.
"We look for the arrowleaf balsamroot," Mike Demerse said. "That's how we know when the bears are out."
Mike Demerse of Shepp Ranch, Tel. 801-573-6096, says the bears in north central Idaho are 50% brown, cinnamon, blonde or something in between. The rest are black. Demerse says color-phase bears have longer hair. Bears average 150 to 375 pounds. Mature boars square between 5-feet and 6-feet, 6 inches (measured nose to tail). Early-season pelts are less likely to be rubbed.
The spring 2009 bear hunt in units 19 and 19A falls under the general black bear season and runs April 1 through June 30. In unit 19A, the season runs April 15 through June 30. There is a two bear bag limit in unit 19. It is unlikely a hunter would encounter a grizzly bear in these units.
Shepp Ranch is a historic fixture on the main Salmon River. From the hand-hewn main lodge at the mouth of Crooked Creek, bear hunts are conducted in the Gospel Hump Wilderness.
Hunters are picked up at 11:00am at the "End of the Road" 26 miles east of Riggins. The ranch is a 30-minute jet boat ride upstream. After lunch, hunters sight-in rifles then hunt till dark and dinner time. The next three days are full day hunts, followed by a morning hunt on the last day.
Hunters rise early, going in either on horseback or accessing remote trails from jet boat. The bears are day-active, but warm weather can limit midday activity. While the bears are napping, hunters glass shaded ledges or catch up on a little sleep in the afternoon sun.
Guides have many options over the course of the hunt, but can be limited by high water when the snowmelt raises the level of the creeks.
The fires of 2007 burned over 125,000 acres. Lightning struck just a quarter of a mile from the ranch on Jersey Ridge above Rattlesnake Creek. Within minutes, the fire was headed west.
The ash has spurred new growth among the charred standing timber and fallen logs. Blackened stumps look like so many bears on the hillsides, but most of the major drainages have bears. Guides take the hunters sidehill, watching the wind, binoculars at the ready.
Shots may be taken cross-canyon. Be prepared to shoot to 350 yards if necessary. Often, a stalk may be planned to get the hunter within 100 yards or less. On our hunt, we took shots at 40 yards, 302 yards and 306 yards.
Hunts are conducted with two hunters per guide; a maximum of four hunters and two guides. Guides are experienced, patient and professional and have been employed with Shepp Ranch for many years.
Back at the ranch, breakfasts and dinners are served family style in the lodge; a sack lunch goes on the trail. There is more than enough good food; expect home-grown vegetables and fruit, homemade bread, fresh milk, hand-churned butter and ice cream.
The lodge is well-staffed and personnel are very friendly. Accommodations are clean. Electricity is provided by a generator. There is a wood-burning sauna and a propane-fired hot tub to soothe tired muscles.
Success rates (based on opportunity) average close to 100 percent. On our hunt, we saw 10 bears and shot two. The other group saw 9 bears and shot one in two half-days and three full days of hunting. We saw dozens of elk and mule deer every day.
Demerse recommends that hunters focus on a four-week period when bears are concentrated by the feed. "We usually quit hunting before they go into the full rut. We like to hunt spot-and-stalk and we have to do that in the last two weeks of April and the first two weeks of May."
This springtime hunt is a great way to introduce a new hunter to the sport. Idaho offers licenses and tags for youth at a fraction of the price of the adult license. Hunters enjoy seeing a variety of game, the weather is great and the success rates are high. Non-hunting spouses or guests are welcome and can accompany the hunter or stay at the lodge, ride horses, pick mushrooms, watch hummingbirds or just relax.
A four-day spring bear hunt at Shepp Ranch costs $1800 per person. Non-hunting guests/observers are welcome at a cost of $1140 per person.
An Idaho non-resident hunting license is $141.50. A non-resident bear tag costs $151.75 and a ‘bonus' non-resident special bear tag costs $31.75. A junior hunting license costs $7.25 and a junior bear tag costs $6.75 For more information, visit the Idaho Fish and Game site.