Bears don’t have easy-to-judge features like antlers. That’s one of the reasons so many novice bear hunters shoot small bears. To them, any black bear looks big and that, coupled with a week of tough hunting and the threat of going home empty-handed, makes it much easier to squeeze the trigger or release an arrow at a small bruin. To make matters worse, record-book entries are kept according to skull size, and it’s impossible to look at a bear and say with any certainty, “Yep, he’ll make the book.”
To paraphrase the old carpenter’s axiom, “Measure twice and cut once.” Most of the time, black bear hunters have plenty of time before making the shot. You should have a fair chance to look the bear over, make sure it’s a boar, evaluate the condition of the hide and relative size of the body, then say “yes” or “no.”
Practice Makes Perfect
Judging black bears is an art in and of itself. After a while, you’ll see that big boars move differently than sows and smaller boars. They just look tougher, bigger and stronger, walking with a barroom swagger that seems to say, “Hey dude! This is my neighborhood, so back off!” Unless provoked or startled, they move deliberately and are unafraid. Young boars, sows and sows with cubs don’t have that swagger and tend to move more quickly.
Because a bear rug is the trophy most black bear hunters covet, judging hide quality is paramount. This is where your high-quality optics earn their keep. You need to carefully look over the entire bear, from stem to stern, top to bottom, looking for the telltale rub marks that are the sign of an inferior hide. When rub marks are obvious, they stand out like a sore thumb. Big circular rub patches on the hips, butt and back are the most common. Subtle rubs are harder to see. Sometimes just the delicate guard hairs on the belly line and legs are gone. These don’t look too bad at first, but when you get the hide back from the tannery they can turn into blotches of hairless skin.
Alaska, guide Jim Boyce and I watched a really big bear for a long time, wondering how in the heck he could have a perfect hide—except for the two circles of rubbed hide around both eyes. We called him “the Raccoon.”
Another time I was moving in on a very large spring bear feeding along a mountain ledge when, for no apparent reason, he stood up on his back legs and started rubbing his back on the sharp rocks. When he was finished he had a nearly hairless stripe down his back. I called him “the Skunk.”
In any event, it’ll pay to take your time in evaluating the quality of a bear’s hide before deciding to take him home. And while there’s no substitute for looking at lots of bears when it comes to judging how big they are, here are seven tips that will help you judge a bear’s size, even on your first bear hunt.
1. Ears. Big bears appear to have small ears, because their heads are so large. A small bear will have ears that appear to be relatively large, sitting more on the very top of the head. The larger the bear, the more the ears appear to be on the side of the head. Also, a record-book class bear will have ears that are probably at least 8 inches apart between the inside tips.
2. Front Feet. Measure the track of a front pad, add one, change inches to feet, and you have the approximate size the bear’s hide will square. Thus, a 5½-inch foot pad will carry a 6½-foot boar. Females rarely have front feet that exceed 4½ inches in length. It must be stressed that this is just a rule of thumb, and there are exceptions to every rule. With bears, though, these exceptions are few and far between.
3. Body Length. A female rarely exceeds 5½ feet in length. Mature males are longer than that, with many trophy-class bears often measuring more than 6 feet from nose to tail.
4. Snout. Big bears have what appears to be a short, squarish snout. We often refer to these snouts as a “stovepipe nose” set on a squarish head. Younger bears and females have what appears to be a longish, pointed snout set on a more sloping head.
5. Beer Belly. A big male will have a large belly, even in spring, that will appear to almost brush the ground when he walks. This belly is much more defined in fall than in spring, when bears have yet to put on their winter weight. Younger bears have smaller, flatter bellies.
6. Height. A larger-than-average bear, when standing on all fours, will have a backline that reaches to, or above, the waist of an average-size man. If there is an upright 55-gallon drum at a bait site, it will have a pair of rings around it. If the bear’s backline reaches above the second ring, it’s a good bear.
7. Cubs. Big boars are loners, except during the rut, which occurs in late spring and early summer. Boars hate cubs. If there are cubs with a larger bear, it’s a female. If the cubs scamper up a tree and the female begins to act nervous, get ready—a boar has possibly moved in.
Sidebar: Boar or Sow?
Because there are no antlers, and because most bear hunters actually see few bears in their lifetimes, telling the difference between a sow and boar when a single bear is spotted can be problematic. Mistakes are easily made, and sows are sometimes harvested by impatient hunters who could have waited for another bear to appear.
With that in mind, here are some tips on telling the sexes apart so that you can be more sure you are shooting at a boar bear.
-Large boars look tougher, bigger and stronger than sows and young boars. Unless provoked or startled, boars move deliberately and unafraid, walking with a bar room swagger. Young boars, sows and sows with cubs don’t have that swagger and tend to move more quickly.
-Boars have what appears to be a short, squarish snout, often referred to as a “stovepipe nose” set on a squarish head. Young boars and females have what appears to be a longish, pointed snout set on a more sloping head.
-Though hard to see, in spring careful glassing can reveal the testicles of a boar between the hind legs. The penis is well hidden, but marked by a tuft of hair extending slightly forward of the rear legs. However, in fall the testicles have been drawn up into the abdomen and hidden by long fall hair.
-Boars, generally speaking, appear long and lanky (though they often have a pot belly), while sows appear more squat and short. Sows rarely exceed 5½ feet in length.
-If two adult bears are seen together in spring, most likely the larger of the two is a boar, the other a sow.
-In spring and summer, an adult accompanied by small bears is a sow with cubs. Boars are generally loners, except during the spring mating season.