Big bears are the toughest, meanest sons-of-a-guns in the valley and they act it. Watch a human bully walk down the street, he walks with a swagger and an attitude. A big bear walks the same way. He doesn’t fit and start at every sound like a small bear will. A big bear doesn’t have to; he believes he’s got nothing to fear. Once you’ve spotted your bear on the prime feeding spot during prime time, it’s time to get serious about how that bear is behaving.
It is important to note that long before you judge the size of the bear, you must judge the sex of that bear. A big, old sow will have all, or more correctly, almost all of the physical characteristics of a big, old boar. She’ll have the nasty looking face that’s seen one too many FIGHTS in the ring, the potbelly and the sway back. The one thing (besides the obvious) that she won’t have, except in exceptional cases, is the “I’m the biggest and baddest son of a gun in the valley” behavior that determines sex more effectively than if that bear was wearing a bikini.
Watch to see if the bear stands on his hind legs and rubs his back on a tree, that’s a boar. If it walks along and straddles small trees, wiping its scent on that tree, it’s a boar. If it stands up and breaks saplings over its shoulder, it’s a boar. If it encounters another bear and gives chase, it’s a boar and if it is following a smaller bear, it’s a boar.
Believe it or not, if the bear has attitude, meaning if it displays any of the above behavior and is feeding on the best food source during the best part of the day, I will have already made up my mind for my client to take the bear. No looking at ears, head, belly or tail, if we’re close enough, and the bear is about to disappear. I’ll call the shot and live with the consequences. That’s how important “location” and “attitude” are.
The simple fact of the matter is, no matter how much longer I look at that bear, I’m still not likely going to be any surer about the size of the bear’s skull than I was when I first determined it was a boar! It isn’t like judging any of the horned or antlered game—there’s nothing to look at, and it’s like judging the size of a whitetail buck’s antlers when those antlers are inside a burlap sack. It can’t be done, or at least not accurately.
There is one last general appearance tip to judging black bears that makes the top three in importance, and that is scale. A big bear looks big . . . but so does a closer, smaller bear. Here’s a quantitative example of this. If the bear is 150 yards away but the hunter thinks the bear is 200 yards away, the hunter will overestimate the bear’s relative size by somewhere near 25 percent. In other words, the hunter is in for a serious case of ground shrink when he walks up to his bear. Get as close to the bear as you can. The closer the bear, the less chance there is of misjudging the distance to the bear, and thereby misjudging the bear’s relative size.
SPECIFIC TIPS FOR JUDGING BLACK BEARS
When I’m guiding, if the bear my client and I are judging fails any one of the above general conditions, then I will normally let the bear walk. It’s tough and I’ve been wrong before, but at least there isn’t a dead small bear lying on the ground. Call it a personal aversion to profuse apologies. If it does pass all the above criteria, and there is time to get fancy on the judging, I’ll use every second I have to confirm what I already know. Normally I’ll tell my hunter to be ready to shoot because at that particular instant I believe it’s a big bear worth tagging, but the longer I can look at the bear the higher the odds that I’ll be right.
1) Body Shape: Do you wear the same size pants as you did when you were in high school? Be honest, does your spouse poke you in the belly once in a while and tell you to cut back on the Twinkies? Bigger bears are older bears, and like most of us, they don’t have the svelte bodies they once did. They tend to look “heavy” and out of shape. Remember, they monopolize the best feed and habitat, and therefore exert less energy to live.
2) Head Shape: A big bear (boar) will have a deeper, wider and longer snout than a smaller bear or a female. His ears will appear to be wide apart and small. If he is aware of you and looking your way, his ears won’t stand up on top of his head like a dog’s ears, they’ll seem to be aimed out to the side of his head. A big bear will have well developed “bulging like Arnold,” biting muscles on the top of his head.
3) Legs: A big bear will have massively developed front shoulders. His shoulders will look big and burly. A sow’s wrist will pinch in directly above the foot. Not so with a boar. The lower forearm, wrist and the foot on a big boar are all the same width. A big bear often appears to have shorter legs because the body is so much thicker, but keep in mind that the best-scoring bears for the records book are often the lankier looking, longer-bodied bears.
LET BOONE AND CROCKETT SORT THEM OUT
We’ve got a saying around camp, “Let Boone and Crockett sort them out,” and we live by it. There isn’t a guide or hunter in the world who can accurately call the skull measurement of a black bear. It’s impossible. There are simply too many variables that affect the final dried measurement. Sorry if it bursts any bubbles or offends other guides or hunters, but after outfitting for hundreds of black bears and seeing thousands upon thousands of them, I stand by what I said.
There are bears that have meatier heads; bears that look great and are great trophies, but that don’t score well. There are others that have short skulls, block-headed beasts that look impressive, but that don’t score well at all and there are lanky, skinny bears with donkey faces that score like the devil, but that a hunter seriously looking for a records book bear wouldn’t walk across the street for. Black bear morphology is just too darn diversified to make a science out of judging. Trust me, I’ve been on both ends of the surprises when it comes to the actual score of the black bear I just told my hunter to take.
The best way to hunt for a records book boar is to simply shoot the bear that looks good to you and that hopefully you’ll appreciate. If it’s got a nice hide, be happy with your animal. If it has long claws and weighs a ton, good for you and congratulations. If it isn’t as big as you’d like, don’t fret, you’re not alone and the rug on your wall will still look great.
From Boone and Crockett.