It doesn’t matter where you go or what season it is, field judging black bears can be difficult. Everyone wants a trophy bear. With black bears being so reclusive most hunters have rarely, if ever, seen a wild black bear before the hunt. Unless a hunter knows what to look for almost any bear looks big, and after the shot, they tend to have a great deal of “ground shrinkage”. This happens so often that the average black bear harvested runs about two-hundred pounds.
So what makes a trophy bear? That depends on what a hunter is looking for. Many consider any bear over 350 pounds a very nice bear. A bear that’s 400 to 500 pounds is a true trophy. But, most outfitters don’t have scales to weigh bears and that’s for a reason. A bear’s estimated weight is far better for business than a real weight. Let’s face it. The real weight of 189 pounds isn’t going to impress many perspective customers, but an estimated weight of 200-250 pounds sounds much better. And when the hunter gets home the 200-pound part is going to get dropped and the 189-pound bear grows into a 250-pound bear.
So how does a hunter judge a black bear?
Both bears are trophy size and one's a cinnamon!
The size of a bear’s skull is one way to judge a trophy bear. Basically by adding the length of the skull by the width of the skull the total score in inches is found. Anything over 18 inches in archery and 20 inches with a firearm is considered a trophy. But as impressive as a skull is sitting on a shelf, a bear skin rug is what gets the most attention.
Another way to judge a trophy is the size of the rug. Rugs and pelt size is measured in a square. To find the square, measure the bear length-wise from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, then measure from the tip of one front paw to the tip of the other front paw. Add the two measurements and divide by two. The result is the bear’s size. For example if the bear is seven feet long and six feet wide the two measurements would result in thirteen. Thirteen divided by two is six and a half, which by the way, is a very nice bear.
Yet another way to judge a trophy is the color of the pelt. Black bears come in many different colors from jet black to blonde. The vast majority of black bears are just that, black. Cinnamon and blonde bears are less common so to many hunters a color-phase bear, as they are known, is highly prized. Most hunters are willing to shoot a smaller color-phase bear over a larger jet-black bear if given a choice.
The last way to judge a bear is the quality of the pelt. A thick, shiny, luxurious pelt is far more appealing than a pelt that has areas of hair missing from mating, disease, fighting, or scratching. Fall pelts are more likely to be raven-wing glossy while a spring bear pelt will be dull but fuller feeling.
This bear is a trophy in size and quality of the pelt.
But all things being equal everyone wants a big bear. So how can a hunter judge a big bear? There are ways.
A big bear swaggers. Big bears are bullies and they act like it. They are the baddest dude in the forest and ready to take on all comers. They may be wary but rarely skittish. They are heavy and as they walk they waddle from side to side. Small bears move quickly and are constantly watching for danger. They don’t want to be eaten by a bigger bear and are ready to run away at a moment’s notice.
A HUGE bear.
A big bear’s belly appears to almost drag the ground. Granted, part of the illusion is caused by the long belly hairs. A small bear looks lean and it is quite easy to see under their belly.
A big bear’s head is broad. A trophy bear will even develop a crease down the center of the forehead.
Big bears may have battle scars on their faces. Over their life they have gotten into a scrap or two over food or a pretty sow.
A big bear’s ears look small and set wide apart. A small bear will often look like they’re wearing a Mickey Mouse hat. Their ears will be close and large in comparison to their head.
A big bear. Notice the crease.
A small bear.
None of these tips will help unless the bear is close, and the closer the better. Bears are proportional so a small bear looks like a big bear far away. Let the bear get in close before trying to judge its size.
Many outfitters cut six-foot logs and lay them around the bait site is hopes that the bear will pass close by for judgment. A six foot bear is a better than average bear. Some outfitters use 55-gallon drums as bait barrels. If the bear’s back reaches the upper ring or higher, it’s a nice bear.
A big sow.
Judging a bear takes practice but how can the average hunter practice judging back bears? The answer is on TV. Cable and satellite packages offer hunting or sportsman channels. Many of them are about black bear hunting. Watch the shows and judge the bears that come in as if it was your own hunt. It really does help in field judging black bears. (You will also notice that none of the bears are weighed on camera.)
Have you already harvested a bear? This link will help you score it.
Written and pictures by Alan J. Garbers