What are hunters going to talk about in the middle of winter while they are sitting around twiddling their thumbs? Hunting. Any kind and every kind, including Black Bear, as this is commonly the first season after a long winter of thinking, planning and preparing.
Black bears are awesome to hunt, but there are challenges that come along with selecting a big, old, mature boar. Questions that come up are: Where do you start looking for big bears? What time of year do you have the best chance? How do you tell the difference between a boar and a sow? How do you tell the difference between a trophy bear and a young adolescent bear? These are all good questions, so let’s talk about some answers.
While Black Bears are arguably one of the most popular animals to hunt, they are also one of the most difficult animals in North America to accurately field judge. At a distance, it’s easy to make any bear appear big when you first look at them. It’s easy to make a mistake when looking at a bear in the field, thinking that it’s a large bear when you shoot it, then, when you walk up to it, it’s not what you thought it was.
So how do you tell if a bear is big when you’re looking at it from a long way away? Plain and simple, you can’t. There are qualities that bears portray that tell you a lot about them. How they’re acting, what they’re doing and the habitat around them can give you a better idea of whether it’s a mature bear, or not, rather than strictly trying to judge size at a distance. Sometimes, when hunters see a bear, the first thing they look at is the ears. Are they on the top of its head or out to the sides? That’s not wrong, but there are a lot of other factors that are a better indication of a bear’s size than the position of the ears. You’ve got to look at a whole compilation of factors in order to make an educated decision on whether you want to get a closer look at it or not. That’s why the first thing I look for while hunting bears is the location that they’re in.
Big, dominant bears live and hang out in the best living conditions that are available and will compete with other bears over these spots. These conditions obviously change depending on the time of year you’re hunting. Here are a couple of tips to help you pick an area to hunt. When I think of spot and stalk Black Bear hunting, what pops into my head as the best destination in Canada, is British Columbia. The thick forests that cover most of the province’s landscape and the plentiful food sources provide ideal habitat for these big bruins. In the spring, which is the most common time of year to hunt bears, some of the likely places you will find them are cut blocks, avalanche slides, old roads and along the coastal fjords and inlets. Basically, spots that are out of the way, quiet and secluded are ideal places to find bears and often provide the best chance at seeing and getting a shot at big, old mature boars. You want to hunt places that are off the beaten path, that aren’t pounded by people and where bears can live out their quiet lives without disturbance, for the most part. Bears are lazy and, when they can, they will take the easiest path. This is partly why they choose to walk those old roads and other places that are easy going – that is until they meet you.
In the fall, the habits of Black Bears change. They are generally found up in the high alpine eating berries. A lot of the time there are still leaves on the trees and undergrowth, making cover thicker and bears harder to hunt. If you find the right spot, fall hunting can be very productive, but for the most part, you have to put in a lot more work to get to the high mountain alpine where they are. Fall Black Bear hunting isn’t usually targeted, as most of the time hunters choose to pursue other animals that can only be hunted in the fall. Whether you are hunting alpine Mule Deer, or Stone Sheep and Mountain Goats, packing a Black Bear tag in the fall can be a great add-on to your pocket if you have the time and resources for it and are willing to put in the additional effort. The principles of Black Bear hunting in the fall are still the same as in the spring. You just have to change the location where you hunt.
Early in the spring season, the best living conditions will often be south-facing slopes or avalanche slides that get the majority of the sunshine throughout the day, making things green up faster than other areas that don’t get the same amount of sun. When you find the best living conditions in the area you’re focused on and you hunt those spots, you greatly increase your chances of harvesting a big, old boar. Also, look for bear scat and pay attention to the piles. Not the volume of the pile, but the girth. The bigger the girth, the bigger the bear.
Another thing I look at while choosing an area to hunt is vegetation. If you’re hunting in a geographical area that has dandelions, they can tell you a lot about what areas to hunt, whether that is a valley bottom or a mountainside. There are the obvious things to look for like lush, green grass, but sometimes areas can look like they should have bears living there, even when there’s no sign of them around. Although these areas look great, they don’t have the feed that bears are looking for in the spring. Some of the grass, although green, might be old and not as tender, or have the same nutritional value as other vegetation.
When there’s an early spring, south-facing slopes, or avalanche slides, green up before bears really become active. When that happens, I’ve found that bears move on and find a different location where the feeding conditions are better. What I’m saying is look for new growth, new shoots and green grass.
By paying attention to the elevation that dandelions are sprouting up and growing at, you can gauge what elevation to hunt based on that new vegetation growth.
I’m not saying that areas that don’t have dandelions won’t have good bear hunting because there are numerous areas that dandelions don’t grow that still have great hunting. In my experience, in the early-to-mid-stages of spring, Black Bears love eating dandelions when they’re just sprouting up and budding, but not yet in full flower. That in-between stage is prime time.
When you’ve spotted a bear from a ways away and you need a better look, the best advice I can give you is to get in close. That’s what I’ve found works best. Not only will this help you judge size, but it will also make you a better hunter. Bears have poor distance eyesight but have good hearing and a great sense of smell. When you can get inside a bear’s comfort zone (what I have found to be between 60-70 yards) you are fooling all three of the senses that keep him at the top of the food chain. The more frequently you can do that, the better a hunter you become. The closer you get, the easier it is to tell if he’s a shooter or not, and when you’re that close, big bears really do look big, plain and simple.
Also, don’t use your optics because looking at a bear in your binoculars at 60 yards always makes them look big, no matter how small they are. The only time I use my binoculars at that range is when I’m really studying the bear’s head. The more bears you look at, and the more bears you actually put a tape on, the better you will become at judging size.
It is next to impossible to be consistently accurate at judging the size and skull measurements of a Black Bear in the field because there are far too many variables to make this possible while looking from a distance. There are great looking bears with big, meaty heads that make them look huge, but they don’t have the skull measurements to score well, even though they are still exceptional bears. There are bears that have small looking bodies that end up scoring really well. There are short and stalky bears, long and lanky bears and bears that are big and bulky. When I look at a bear I try to “rack bracket,” so to speak, by putting bears into categories for size. Is he six feet? Low-to-mid six feet? High six feet and bigger? Is he small, medium, large or extra-large? However you do it, don’t try to put an exact number on how big he is because, again, there are a lot of variables that change things in a hurry.
Attitude is an important quality I look for in a shooter bear. Think of that bully you know. He walks with swagger, confidence, and arrogance. He looks and acts intimidating. He knows he’s the biggest badass in the neighbourhood and everyone steers clear of him and gives him his space. Well, the biggest, “baddest” bears walk around with a very similar attitude. They walk like they own the space they live in, and they do. They don’t startle at every little sound and movement and they aren’t looking over their shoulder every second. Have you ever watched a bear feeding for a while and all of a sudden it lifts its nose to the air and looks in a particular direction and then bolts the opposite way? That’s usually a small or average sized bear living in a big, dominant boar’s area. The bear smells or sees the dominant boar and is getting the heck out of dodge when you see that sort of behaviour! Small bears generally don’t have the swagger or the attitude that the dominant boars do. Small bears generally pussyfoot around and don’t lumber from side to side. That said, however, I have, on occasion, seen smaller bears or even sows walk with attitude. That’s when it pays to get close.
Here are a couple of things to look for when determining whether the bear is a boar or a sow. A big 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. His ears won’t stand up on top of his head, they’ll seem to be aimed out to the side. A big bear will have well-developed biting muscles on the top of his head and will often have developed a crease down the middle of his forehead due to these muscles.
A big boar will have massively developed, big and bulky front shoulders. The lower forearm, wrist and the foot on a big boar are all the same width, while a sow’s wrist will pinch in directly above the foot. A big boar often appears to have shorter legs because the body is so much thicker. It’s important to remember, when looking at bears, that even from a couple of hundred yards, small bears can look as proportionately big as big bears do because you don’t have anything else compare it to. They both have their belly low to the ground, they both appear to have shorter legs, (though one of the two will, in fact, have short legs if you were to ground check it) and they will both look big and filled out. When you’re unsure, think about the location that it’s in and make a call based on that. If it’s in a spot that you think a big dominant boar would live, then it might be worth going in for a closer look. If it’s in a spot that isn’t a prime location, for instance, the top of a steep logging clear-cut with little vegetation growing, then you have a pretty good idea that it’s a small young bear. If you’re a couple of hundred yards away and still can’t tell, that’s when it pays to get really close.
Also, look for scars on the face and ripped ears. These things are a good indication that it’s an old bear who’s been around the block a time or two. Finding a bear in a prime feeding location, who walks with attitude, has the physical characteristics I described above and has scars and ripped ears is exactly what you’re looking for in my books.
As far as the best time to hunt Black Bears goes, every month of the spring season has pros and cons. While hunting in April, you can expect to see fewer bears than in May or June, but the hides will be in better condition. You may have to put in more time to find a bear, but you also may not have to look through as many to find a shooter, because, generally speaking, the big bears are out first. If you are planning a coastal hunt, late April and early May are a great time to hunt the salt chucks and secluded inlets that Black Bears love feeding around. The shorelines green up first, giving bears an early feed source to kick-start their metabolism after a long winter in their den.
Mid-to-late-May is also a great time to hunt. Warmer weather brings new growth and more bears. While you have the chance to look at numerous bears, use it as an opportunity to compare, really paying attention to size. Depending on the area you’re hunting, late May or the beginning of June will be the time of year when bears start to rut. This is a great time of the season to find big bears. Boars will start to travel in search of sows and often that means they’re out walking old roads, cut blocks or clear cuts. When you see a breeding pair walking around, that is the easiest time to tell which bears are big and which ones aren’t. It’s the perfect scenario to judge size when you can look at two bears at the same time, side by side, because there will be a noticeable size difference between big boars and sows. Whether you’re hunting roads, cut blocks or avalanche slides, if there are two bears together that aren’t a sow and her cub, the boar will usually be the one in the back. Around any corner could be the bear you’re looking for!
At this time of year, deer and other ungulates are giving birth to their young. If the bear has winded you, or is simply just walking away, by using a hand-held predator call, such as fawn in distress, you can get the bear’s attention long enough to get a second look. Sometimes all you need is that extra couple of seconds to seal the deal. It’s also possible to call them in, giving you an up close and personal experience.
One of the cons to hunting late May or the beginning of June is making sure you shoot the right bear. The average size of a sow is between 5 and 5 ½ feet, with a really big sow being 6 feet. If both bears look the same size, chances are it’s not a bear of any great size.
The best time of day to hunt is in the evening, between 3 o’clock in the afternoon and dark. It’s not that you won’t see bears in the late morning—late morning is a great time to scout and find an area you want to hunt—you just have a much better chance of connecting on a bear in the evening. Pay attention to the temperature, you will be surprised at how much of an impact it has on bear activity. 16-17 degrees Celsius and overcast would be the ideal temperature and weather condition. I’ve found that in weather cooler than that Black Bears aren’t usually as active, as well, any temperature much above 20 degrees Celsius and bears again become less active. Find and pick your areas to hunt in the morning, so that you are in the right place at the right time for those prime evening hours. If you have found good sign you may want to hunt that particular spot all evening. Other times it’s beneficial to check one good spot after another until you find that right bear.
The last piece of advice I’m going to offer is to go with your gut instinct. Be logical and think rationally, of course, but sometimes you just know when the time is right. Whether that means letting the bear walk away or knowing the second you see it that you need to drop the hammer, I strongly believe that you should listen to your sixth sense when it’s telling you something. More often than not it’s right, even if you can’t explain it.
You may have to look at a few bears before you find the one you’re truly looking for, but that’s the fun isn’t it? Whether you’re new to hunting, a guide or an experienced hunter, when hunting is your passion one thing is for sure, if you’re not out there doing it, you’re thinking about it.