Big Water and Black Bear on the Salmon

By May 27, 2016 No Comments

By Gary Lewis — Originally Run in Boating Sportsman

Idaho’s River of No Return divides some of the most remote backcountry wilderness in the Lower 48. Windswept ridges, steep mountain meadows and clear-running creeks run down to the river. And every canyon has a bear…

A breath of wind blew down the canyon, but its treetop rustle was lost to the murmur of the river – running at 13,500 cubic feet per second – the pulse, its every crash, its ebb and flow and eddy.

Swallows hunted insects above the water and a long-billed bird dipped on a stone near the boat ramp. On the northern bank, yellow spots of color showed against the green grass. I checked my watch. It was almost 11:00am.

On the wind came another sound, the whine of twin fire-breathing 460 Fords. As it grew closer, the beat of the engines filled the narrow canyon. The boat streaked down through the rapids and passed the ramp. Mike Demerse lifted a hand and waved when he saw us.

We shipped the gear on board – duffels, packs, rifle cases and groceries brought by one of the ranch hands – then Mike fired the engines and backed in.

He turned the boat in a circle then pointed the bow upriver into the rapids. On step, the boat threaded between boulder and cut every corner in inches of water. Each turn in the river opened new vistas up long, steep canyons.

Spring Unleashed

Switch-backed game trails snaked down green hillsides to touch the river. There! Whitetail deer in the willows. There! Elk, their flanks dappled by pine-filtered sun. 30 minutes later, the canyon walls seemed to part ever so slightly, then a long grassy lawn came into view and Shepp Ranch was visible on the northern shore.

Spring is supposed to arrive on the 20th of the month named for the Greek god of war. As the days march on, the snows melt, the river rises and the hillsides turn green. Black bear in their dens find their way to the sun. But this year, the snow kept the potential locked in a month longer. We saw spring unleashed in May.

Guide Rex Hubbard, Tim McLagan and I hunted the first evening in a drainage north of the ranch. A sea of green grass on the ski slope-steep hillsides was stippled with color. White prairie stars, purple larkspur and the tiny maiden blue-eyed Mary showed off their springtime color. But it was the arrowleaf that caught Hubbard’s attention.

“We look for the arrowleaf balsamroot,” he said. “That’s how we know when the bears are out.”

“I guess I should warn you that we might see rattlesnakes,” he whispered. He indicated a little white flower – a trillium. “When we see these, we see snakes.” Thanks Rex.

As if on cue, a yard-long reptile slid across the trail behind Tim’s boots. We hadn’t taken ten steps. Since I was the only one that had seen it, my heart assumed the responsibility of racing scared for all three of us.

Minutes later, Tim spotted the first bear, a sow with yearlings. We watched the trio for an hour. The big female had a heart-shaped blaze on her chest, visible when she rose on her back legs. She made short work of the salad, shearing the stalks, crunching the leaves and the flowers. Her offspring padded along behind and scrambled to catch up when she woofed for them.

We compared notes over dinner. John Milton and Bill Moe with their guide, Dave Von Essen, had watched a small bear in the bottom of a canyon; close to water and close to the best feed.

Spring hunts are designed to control predation. Bears take a fierce toll on newborn elk calves. If food is scarce in the summer, bruins wreak havoc in river camps and in the gardens of the few ranches along the river. Bear numbers are so high that Idaho offers a second tag in some units.

The Elevator

The next morning, the tops of our legs on fire, we climbed ‘the elevator,’ a switch-backed scar of a trail cut straight up the face of a cliff. We topped out on a finger ridge, poked along the crest and probed the shadows. There, 50 yards above the creek, but a long way below us, was a bear.

Its long, unrubbed coat shined cinnamon when it passed through patches of sunlight. Rex ranged the bear with his rangefinder. I missed with the first shot but the bear gave another chance.

“302 yards,” Rex whispered. My .30-06 is sighted for a hundred-yard zero; the 165-grain Nosler AccuBond drops 14 inches in 300 yards. To allow for the angle, I calculated nine inches high and squeezed. 20 minutes later, we started down the slope. The bear had come to rest along the creek.

On the third day, we rode horseback along a narrow trail. A big black bear in a canyon kept us busy, as we waited for another look. When the wind changed, we got our glimpse, but that was all. Again, Rex showed us the little ‘rattlesnake’ flower and whispered its name.

Ten minutes later we were in our saddles headed back down the five miles to the ranch. The trails snaked up and down, in and out, carved along the sides of the mountain. One stirrup nearly touched the ground on our right side, the left stirrup hung out over a cliff. Rex’s horse, Belle, dislodged a 30-inch serpent, which dropped into the trail in front of Tim, mounted on Buttercup.

This time it was a real rattler and we almost had a rodeo on a 12-inch trail, 200 feet above Crooked Creek. Belle spun around to stomp the snake. Buttercup turned a tight circle and Pete, my mount, merely backed up a few paces. Cool equine heads prevailed and the rodeo was averted.

Our last full day of hunting, we saw a bear early and watched as it fed out of the canyon into the fog. Below us, the river raged, brown as chocolate milk. Shattered trees bobbed through whitewater waves.

Across the canyon we searched out the arrowleaf and examined each blackened ‘stump bear’ with our binoculars. Rex promised he’d say no more of rattlesnake flowers.

Back at camp, we heard the thump of the big V8 as Sara Jean came into view. John and Bill climbed out and walked up the bank. Their guide, Dave Von Essen had a satisfied smile on his face.

John and Dave had spotted the bear at over three hundred yards as it fed in a patch of wild onions. While they watched, the animal stretched out on a rock and went to sleep in the sun. Rather than take the shot, John elected to see if he could get closer. Over the next hour, the pair kept the wind in their favor, crossed the canyon and climbed to the top of the ridge.

With 40 yards left to go, a grouse flushed and that woke the sleeping bear. He spun up from his rock and turned to get a look at what was coming. That’s when John shot him.

Skinned, the boar measured five-feet, eight inches from nose to tail and six-feet-even from claw to claw. Layered with fat, the well-fed boar was as round as a barrel.

By the end of the trip, four of us, with our guides, had seen 19 bears. Nearly half of them were color-phase black bears: blonds, cinnamons and browns. Sitting on stand one afternoon, Bill Moe saw a wolf.

Five days after we started, we boarded the Mary Belle again. The river was swollen with snowmelt to a measured 36,500 cfs. Deadfall and debris swirled in eddies. Rex Hubbard watched the water for bobbing trees. I watched the hillside for arrowleaf and examined each black stump for legs and a head.

In the Lower 48, some of the best hunting is far beyond the end of any road and the ground is so steep that it is out of the reach of the best pilots and the most maneuverable tail-draggin’ airplanes. That’s the way it is on the Salmon River, but you can get there with a pump and a shallow-running boat. And a good pair of boots for that trail up and away from the river.

To order a signed copy of Deer Hunting send $24.95 to Gary Lewis Outdoors, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709 or visit


Shepp Ranch, Idaho
N 45 degrees 26.080’
W 115 degrees 39.934’
2098’ elevation

License and Tags

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

The deadline for applying for a controlled hunt is May 31. Results are available by July 10. For a controlled hunt or general season deer tag, the resident pays $19.75 and the non-resident is charged $258.50. If tags are still available, hunters can purchase a second tag at the non-resident price.

Elk tags are limited and often sell out by September. Residents pay $37.50 for an elk tag, while non-residents pay $372.50.

Under the Junior Mentored Hunting program, children aged 12-17 that hunt with an adult can pursue deer and elk at reduced rates. A license costs $7.25, a deer tag is $10.75 and an elk tag is $16.50. The price is the same for resident and non-resident youth.

Thanks to a law passed by the 2000 Legislature, you can use a non-resident deer tag to take a black bear or mountain lion instead of a deer, as long as deer season is open and the season is open for the species taken.

For rules booklets and nonresident license applications call (800) 635-7820. For more information, call the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at (208) 334-3700 or click on


Shepp Ranch Jet Boats

The Shepp Ranch Mary Belle is a 31-foot Miller Marine with twin 460 Fords and Legend Pumps. This boat is all about utility with big stern decks that can be used to transport building materials, saddles, hunting gear, ATVs and people. Seating is positioned amidships with benches on each side.

For hunting, Mark Demerse or one of the Shepp Ranch guides, employs the Sara Jean, a 26-foot Bob Smith boat, powered by a single 460 Ford and a Berkeley Pump. Both boats are directed by stick steering, a Bob Smith innovation. “Bob Smith was the first guy to install stick steering in a jet boat,” Demerse said. “He was in an accident and had broken both arms. He designed stick steering so he could drive with two casts on.”


Gear List

  • Bolt-action Ruger .30-06
  • Leupold 4.5-14x scope equipped with A.R.T. reticle
  • Versa-Pod bipod
  • Alpen Teton 10×42 binoculars
  • MOTHER pack
  • Gerber Santiam folding knife
  • Game bags
  • S.P.O.T. satellite personal tracker
  • Rawhide Gear scabbard
  • Bushnell laser rangefinder
  • SportHill camo jacket
  • Visa Endurance primary layer
  • Fanny pack with survival gear
  • Compass
  • GPS unit
  • Wilderness Athlete energy bars and energy gel


Price and Contact Information

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.
View Current Rates.

Fall Hunting along the Salmon River

Known for its rugged mountains, the Salmon Region holds good prospects for success on mule deer. The terrain and lack of hunting pressure allow backcountry mule deer bucks to grow old.

Grass land and sagebrush steppe give way to timberlands in the high country. Look for more timber on the north-facing slopes. Some units have good road access, while others have very few roads, giving the hunter a chance to get away from the crowd.

The Salmon Region is a good bet for the hunter who likes to see a lot of deer with lots of opportunity for young to average-size bucks. Many hunters take advantage of the general season in this part of the state, but controlled hunts allow hunting later in the year and a good opportunity to pursue mule deer in the rut.

In several units, deer, elk and bear seasons overlap, giving hunters the opportunity to hunt multiple species at the same time.

Good numbers of mule deer and elk can be found in many units. Your best opportunities for big bucks and bulls are in the kind of rugged country that discourages the faint of heart.