Probably the toughest part about black bear hunting (other than running baits if you’re a DIY hunter) is judging the size of bears. My time in the bear woods has been limited—three hunts so far—but I’ve seen a fair number of bears now. However, even experienced guides will admit that sizing up a bear can be extremely difficult.
First of all, the size of black bears varies greatly depending on where you’re hunting. While a “big bear” in Maine might be 250-300 pounds, a “big bear” in northern Alberta is a 7-footer. Hold on, weight vs. height? That’s right: Field judging a bear becomes further complicated when you take into consideration that there are regional/cultural differences in measurement standards. In some parts of North America, it’s all about weight. Other places, it’s the length of a bear that matters. Elsewhere, it might be the skull size. Then, realize that not even all of these respective measurements are taken the same way when a bear’s on the skinning table.
The point is, you need to understand that it’s all relative. If you’re planning to hunt bears, make sure you understand what’s considered a high-quality representative specimen in the area where you’re hunting. I’m not suggesting you need to shoot a giant bear to be happy, but it’s good to be aware of what you’re up against.
Will you be able to judge skull size or weight of a bear in the field? Maybe … but I wouldn’t count on it. Your best bet is to use physical objects to judge the size of a bear when you’re in the heat of the moment. This is easiest if you’re hunting over bait, in which case there will typically be a barrel or a hanging beaver carcass. These objects have a known size, so when a bear is hanging around, pay close attention to how it compares to those objects. Oftentimes, if a bear commits to a bait site, you’ll have some time to analyze the animal and make a shoot or no-shoot decision.
In this video, John Burtnick from W&L Guide Services shares his advice for judging the size of a bear using the barrel and beaver methods. Pay attention—John’s been around the bear block for more than 30 years.
Editor’s note: If you’re unable to view the video, click here.