Loaded for Bear

Lever action rifle, pointed right on a white background

Across much of the country, fall bear season has been in full swing for a couple of weeks. If you are in Alaska or Canada, it has been open even longer. Regardless of where you pursue them, there are three main methods of hunting bear.

Lever action rifle, pointed right on a white background
Although in the right hands, a lever-action is fine for longer ranges, it’s typically considered more of a short-range gun ideally suited for busting through brush and dense hardwood environments.

One of the most common questions I receive is, “What is the best caliber for hunting bear?” The answer—as is so common in shooting—is, “That depends.” For example… I grew up and live in the Midwest. In my home state of Wisconsin, there is a healthy population of bears. (Even healthier than was originally thought as new counting techniques show there are at least twice as many bears here as was previously believed.) The terrain the bears live in, however, is dense forest, swamp and marshland that cover the entire northern part of the state.

Spot-and-stalk isn’t really an option… unless you don’t want to see many bears!

Bait and Dogs

We use bait and dogs in Wisconsin. We set up most bait hunts with a firearm with a shot between 50 and 100 yards—even closer if you use archery tackle. Choosing a gun for most is rather simple. Your regular deer rifle is perfect. Make sure to choose and spend the extra money on a premium bullet such as Barnes X-bullets, Hornady GMX, or Nosler Partitions, to name a few.  You want to ensure the bullet delivers accuracy and holds together when punching through a tough animal at close range. I’ve seen inexpensive jacketed bullets blow up on a deer under 50 yards. Bears are tough and their fur is long. At times, the fat will even seal up a hole from a bullet or arrow.  You want to use a heavy-for-caliber bullet.

With dogs, your shot will be very close and you’ll probably have plenty of time to set up and deliver the coup-de-grais. Many prefer a shorter “brush gun” in this situation such as a lever-action .30-30 or .45-70. Both are ideal. As you move west into mountainous country, both the method and the necessary equipment for a successful bear hunt change.


Most western states and several Canadian provinces allow for spot-and-stalk hunting of bears. Western bears are typically found by hiking logging roads where they forage for berries and grasses that grow along the edges or by glassing open meadows from a distance that provide the same buffet but in larger amounts. In this country, while grandpa’s ol’ .30-30 will certainly kill a bear if you get close enough, it is not the ideal weapon to take a shot at 200 yards.

Two male hunters, kneeling on the ground, dressed in camo with a stand of trees in the background and a black bear in the foreground.
Black bears are thriving both in numbers and age. Newer survey techniques have shown population may be as high as double previous estimates.

No, when you are shooting bears at a distance, a much better choice are guns that end in “um…” as in .300 Winchester Magnum, .240 Weatherby Magnum, 7mm Remington Magnum, .338 Winchester Magnum, and .375 H&H Magnum. These guns carry a great deal of energy over distance and still pack quite a wallop at 200 to 300 yards.

However, no gun is a good choice if you can’t shoot it well. Choose the heaviest caliber that you can put 5 shots into the bottom of a pop can at 200 yards and you’ll be just fine.

Hunting bears anywhere is a lot of fun. Not being the only thing at the top of the food chain is exciting.

Follow this advice and you’ll do just fine.


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Comments (10)

  1. Hey Bill!!,
    Alls good here hope your doing well down your way. Maybe I can get you up here this next year for a visit/hunt. You and the wife? She would enjoy it! The guest cabin awaits! Eye sends. . .

    1. On a recent showing of the Family Feud on TV there was a question about polar bears. Not that Family Feud is a source of accurate information but one of the answers was that Polar Bears were “endangered”. What do you say?

  2. Ace,
    Looking for company? Always looking for company! There’s is always room at the house or guest cabin, a comfy chair by the fire and a place at the table. Don’t forget to bring your fishing rod when you come too! Its always a pleasure to host a friend or three for an Alaskan hunt. Better yet when it a dream return trip to the Great White North. Bring your rifle of choice an a couple changes of clothes and camo in your favorite back pack, we have everything else you’ll need! I’m always up to throwing together a hunt/fish trip. Have a friend or two here that will go at the drop of the hat as well. How would a trip into the Prince William Sound out of Whittier be? Got a boat there and it makes for a good trip. Black Bear and Black Tail hunting is pretty good! See the glaciers, throw out the shrimp pots and drop a Halibut line for a dinner or two. Would make for a good blog I’d bet. 😉

  3. Gentlemen, a lively discussion.
    1. Sometimes, things are lost in translation…and editing. In my revised, I have it as “Into a paper plate at 200 yards, but putting them into the bottom of a pop can is even better.. then I sent the original. Big duh on my part. We used to shoot at milk jugs off-hand at 200 yards to get into “shooting shape.”
    Of course, the best range for you to shoot game at is range that you will feel comfortable. Shots at bears “out west” (and in Alaska!) can often be far. Most Midwestern-ers take shots at game less than 150 yards.
    I have hunted the west a LOT an my AVERAGE shot is about 175.

    2.Leon- That would be a good idea, except that taking any animal with the aid of a drug or narcotic is ILLEGAL in most states.

    3. Merle- 3 methods: Bait, Dogs, Spot-and-stalk

    4.Pete, I’d sure love to try. I’ve only been to Alaska once, but it calls to me every year around this time… Let me know if you’re ever looking for company, even if it’s just to guard your back!

    5. Bill, hunting is under assault from every possible angle against every means in every state in this nation, as well as in many countries.
    My number one advice is to pick up the phone, call your legislators (and others- I was involved in the fights in Colorado as I like to travel and hunt there)and become an advocate for responsible, sustained use under the North American conservation model, which is proven the most successful conservation model and movement in history. Look for an article on this soon.

  4. I heard today on NRA News, that the ney sayers of Maine want to ban any type of Bear hunting or trapping by humans. So……..get yourselves the best pair of running shoes you can find, and a bottle of Ketchup there, people of Maine. Hey Pete! Hope you’re well, haven’t heard from ya in awhile.

  5. I was expecting one more paragraph concerning Alaska and northern Canada bear hunting. But given the subject I understand that that is really a level of magnitude above and a stand alone article in and of itself. Should like to hear more about the general archery requirments for hunting bear in the Midwest. It has been on my bucket list to try bow hunting the little blacks sometime. I am also presuming that your “5 shoots in a pop can at 200 meters” was a comment designed more towards comfortable and consistant accuracy at distance with larger caliber delivery and not an actual general ability as I don’t think that majority of hunters out there can manage to accomplish this in the field. I do agree with your premis that one needs to have a fair level of competency with whatever firearm they choose when shooting at distance. Most hunters, I would guess, seldom if ever will take a shot over 125/150 meters in their hunting careers with a few epxceptions. Distance hunting is, I belive, just a small percentage of the overall hunting that is done in a season. If for no other reason than there just aren’t that many places where “long distance” hunting is the norm and a great deal of distance hunting is animal specific requiring a somewhat different set of skills, mindset and hardware. Agreed with your bullet choices and cabilbers. I have never had to “bait hunt” or use dogs to hunt bear. Up here seems as if all you have to do hunt deer or moose and the bears will find you! If your looking for a heart rush, drop a Sitka Black Tail and the have 800 to 1000 pounds Coastal Alaskan Brownie step out of the green timber and look at you as if asking “Dinner?? For me??”. I guess we do hunt bear with bait up here, we just call it deer season. LOL. thanks for a good read read. Look forward to your next Blog. Pete sends . . .

  6. Why not have the dogs encourage Yogi and BooBoo to move toward the bait, which you have placed a sedative ingredient in, then after a snack, they get sleepy and lay down for a siesta, allowing you to stalk in and take a closer shot? “Bear”-adryl ?

  7. With all due respect, IMHO the number of average hunter/marksman equipped with a common man large caliber rifle of their choice and topped with optics which most people can afford, that are capable of such somewhat long range (200 yard) accuracy as you mentioned of 5 shots in the bottom of a pop can, which measured 2.6 inches, are few and far between. I agree that practice with ones weapon and ammunition of choice are very important in order to make well placed lethal and humane shots but to say that you have to be able to hit a 2.6 inch bullseye at 200 yards with 5 consecutive shots in order to be qualified to take down large game such as bear is not necessary. To be able to put those 5 shots at 200 yds. in the bottom of a 1 gallon can is much more realistic and feasible.

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