When hunting bears in the western states you must be very good at distinguishing between black bears, which are huntable, and grizzlies, which are protected under federal law. Color is not a determining characteristic; many black bears exhibit the same blonde coloration often associated with grizzly bears, and many grizzly bears come in darker colors. Instead, a hunter should look for two things. The first is the presence of a distinct hump on the shoulders; Grizzlies have one, black bears do not. A hunter should also try to get a good look at the animal’s face in profile. A black bear’s nose slopes down from its forehead in a straight line. A grizzly bear’s forehead dips inward from the forehead before pushing out into its nose, giving its face an indented, slightly concave appearance.
A Bear of Many Colors
Not all black bears are black. They come in many color phases, including blonde, cinnamon, chocolate, and even pure white or blue. Hunt the eastern states if you want a black phase black bear; other color phases are rare east of the Mississippi. Hunt the western states for a brown, cinnamon, or blonde-phase black bear. White phase bears (known as Kermode or spirit bears) and blue phase bears (known as Glacier bears) are found in British Columbia but are protected from hunting by law in the province. Glacier bears, however, are also found in Alaska and can be hunted there.
Look for Crop-Raiding Bears
If you live in a state that will not allow you to hunt bears over bait, you’ll need to figure out where the animals are naturally feeding. One easy way to do this is to canvas farmers in the area you’re hunting to see if any of them are having problems with bears raiding their cornfields, gardens, or other crops. You’ll get a head start on the scouting process, and get the added bonus of expanding the amount of land on which you have permission to hunt.
The Best Time for Bear Pelts
The earlier in the spring you can shoot a bear, the better quality its hide will be. Bears shed their winter coats as the weather warms up, often rubbing against trees, rocks, and fence posts to scrape off unwanted hair. If you shoot one later in the spring it may have a patchy, scruffy-looking hide. Catch them close to when they leave their dens you’ll get a much better-looking pelt.
When Black Bears Attack
Indian hunters will tell you that a fighting black is more to be feared than either the grizzly or Kodiak, for the reason that the latter two species seem always to be in a frantic hurry about mauling a man, while a black will rip and tear at a victim as long as there is a spark of life remaining. This explanation of the Kodiak’s tactics may account for the number of men who have lived to tell the tale after being mauled by the big brownies.
The Curious Eating Habits
Black bear generally feeds on berries, nuts, insects, carrion, and the like; but at times they take to killing very large animals. In fact, they are curiously irregular in their food. They will kill deer if they can get at them, but generally, the deer are too quick. Sheep and hogs are their favorite prey, especially the latter, for bears seem to have a special relish for pork. Twice I have known a black bear to kill cattle.
Tell Black Bear Tracks from Grizzly Tracks
You can’t tell a black bear’s tracks from a grizzly are based on size alone. Large black bears will have tracks as big as medium-size grizzlies, and variations in sex and age make this an even more unreliable indicator. And while grizzlies usually have longer claws than black bears (translating into claw marks further from the tips of the toe imprints), not all surfaces pick up claw marks. The best way to tell which animal left a track you’ve found is this: find the imprint of the bear’s front foot and draw a straight line across the base of the toes so that it’s just touching the top of the front pad. If it’s a grizzly track, most of the toes will be above this line. If it’s a black bear the inside toe will be mostly below this line.
The Differences between Boars and Sows
It can be very difficult to determine the sex of a black bear in the field. Male black bears, called boars, are generally much larger than females (sows) and have larger heads and longer bodies. Female bears rarely reach 350 pounds; boars commonly grow to 500 pounds or more. However, the only sure way to tell a younger male from a female is to look for a penis. This is easy in the spring and summer months but can be difficult in the fall, when a bear’s belly hair will be quite long.
Why Late Season Is a Great Season
Fall bear hunting generally gets better later in the season. One reason is that bears move more often in cooler weather. Another is that in states or provinces where baiting is legal, hunters will often stop maintaining their bait piles after they fill their tags. Animals that were feeding on such bait will actively search for new food sources, making your own pile that much more attractive. Last, if you kill a bear in the late season when the air is usually cold, you’ll have an easier time of getting your meat out of the woods before it sours.
Carry Tracking Line to Mark a Blood Trail
According to Richard P. Smith, author of The Book of the Black Bear, one of the best ways to keep track of a bear’s blood trail is to carry a couple of spools of Game Tracker line. This line is more commonly used by bow hunters (it attaches to their arrows and spools out after they shoot) but is also very helpful for hunters carrying guns. If you’re trailing a wounded bear, simply allow the tracking line to pay out for you. You ’ll get an easy to follow, continuous record of the trail you’re following, and you won’t have to break your concentration in order to tie bits of surveyors tape to branches or mark the trail some other way.
Size a Bear by Looking at Its Tracks
You can get a good idea of how large a bear is by looking at its tracks. Average- sized black bears (150 to 200 pounds, dressed) will leave front tracks that are 3½ to 4 inches wide, and rear tracks that are from five to six inches long. The tracks left by a trophy-sized animal will be much larger, with front pads five to six inches wide, and rear pads eight inches or longer.
Talk Loudly to Avoid Startling Bears
According to Richard P. Smith, author of The Book of the Black Bear, a hunter should rarely sneak when hiking in to hunt a bait pile. If a bear is already feeding there, the sudden appearance of a human may startle the animal, which could cause it to avoid the bait in the future, or to feed on it only at night. Instead, the hunter should warn any bears in the area of his approach well in advance of arriving at the bait. Whistle and talk in a normal, calm voice on the way in; this will notify the bear that you’re on your way before you’re close enough to startle the animal. Bears know that bait is left by humans and while they will move away off to avoid being seen when they hear people approaching, they will not be spooked as long as they are not taken unawares, and should return once they think you are no longer in the area.
Give a Bear Time to Die
Be careful when trailing a bear you’ve shot if you’re only hunting with a bow. Pay attention to where your arrow hits the animal, and delay tracking it until you’re confident that the bear has had time to die. Wait at least a half an hour if you hit it in the lungs, an hour if you hit it in the liver, and at least four hours if you shoot it in the gut. If possible (and legal), bring along a friend with a gun.
What a Bear Trail Looks Like
Because bears will generally step in the exact same places when taking familiar routes, well-used bear trails often look like old, deep footprints worn into the forest floor rather than the smooth, groove-like paths normally associated with game trails.
Trail a Drive to Bag a Trophy
One of the best ways to bag a big bear when putting on a drive through thick cover is to post a couple of shooters behind the drivers. Older brains do not startle easily and will avoid leaving their security cover if at all possible. Instead of running out ahead of the drivers as a younger bear might do, a big bruin will often simply circle around them. Hunters following the drive stand a good chance of seeing bears that behave this way.
Bow Hunting Black Bears
Time was when only the top experts even thought about taking a bear with a bow. Not today. Many of the same bow hunters who bag whitetail bucks with their bows are on the hunt for black bears—mostly over bait in Canada. Opportunities to bag a bear with a bow abound in Canada. When Googling for information, make sure you type in the province you’re interested in, and, of course, look for the guides and outfitters who have solid records in bow hunting.
How to Measure a Trophy Bear
Boone & Crockett recognizes four species of bear in North America: the Alaska brown bear, the grizzly bear, the black bear, and the polar bear. All are scored the same way, by measuring a dry skull’s greatest width and adding it to its greatest length. The minimum scores required to make the all-time B&C books are:
- Alaska Brown Bear—28 inches
- Polar Bear—27 inches
- Grizzly Bear—24 inches
- Black Bear—21 inches
Where to Shoot a Bear with a Gun
The best place to shoot a black bear with a rifle, shotgun, or handgun when the animal is broadside to you is directly in the center of its shoulder. If you’re using the right caliber rifle (.270 or higher) this shot should break both of the animal’s shoulders and penetrate its lungs. If the bear is facing you the best place to shoot it will be directly in the center of the chest. If it’s facing away from you, shoot it in the center of its back, directly between the shoulder blades.
Use Multiple Knives When Trimming Bear Fat
Bears spend the summer and fall months building up a thick layer of fat in preparation for their winter dormancy. If you shoot one in the fall, you’ll need to trim off this fat before storing the animal’s meat. The meat will keep longer and take up less space in your freezer, but the process takes time. Save some by having a few spare knives and a sharpening tool handy.
Don’t Plan a Spring Hunt Too Early
Watch the weather when planning a spring bear hunt. A warm spring will get bears moving earlier in the season, but an unseasonably cold one will discourage them from leaving their dens. If you’re traveling out west or to Canada to hunt spring bears, it’s a good idea to build a bit of cushion into your schedule in case winter lingers longer than normal.