Women Afield — Tips for Field Judging Bears

Trophy Black Bear

Many hunters and guides will tell you that a black bear is one of the most challenging animals to field judge. Normally, their coat distracts you from seeing what really counts, the size of the head and the length of body and legs. Each hunter has their own version of a “trophy class” bear and it is wise to discuss these expectations with your outfitter long before you are staring down the barrel at your target.

Young black bear in woods.
This is a young bear and would be a fine harvest, but not a trophy. Notice the size of the ears in relation to the head.

What determines a “shootable” bear is different for each person and for different outfitters and even for different hunting territories. For example, on my first black bear hunt every bear I saw was a trophy bear in my eyes. However, what I was willing to pull the trigger on and punch my tag was radically different from what the outfitter thought I should shoot. I was letting my inexperience do the judging. Luckily, I had an experienced bear guide who patiently educated me on field judging bears.

Black bear can range from around 140 pounds to upwards of 550 pounds—a few bruins have tipped the scales over 600 pounds. The fur on a bear can seriously impair your ability to gauge accurately their overall size. Large trophy-class bears often exhibit heads shaped like a melon with the biggest of bears showing a crease running down the center of their forehead. Focusing on the head rather than on the body is crucial according to Fred Lackie, veteran bear guide. “I try to look at the head and the ears first; the smaller the ears in proportion to the head, the bigger the bear. Also, I make an imaginary upside down triangle on the bear’s forehead, with the point of the triangle pointing down towards the nose. If the all three sides of the triangle are fairly equal in size than that is a good-sized bear.”

Trophy Black Bear
This large bear has small ears compared to the sized of the head. Drawing an imaginary line between the ears and down to the bridge of the nose shows a large, trophy-quality skull.

Another good indicator is the length of leg and chest size of the bear. Often a bear that is taller and longer will translate into a larger overall size. It may appear to be leaner and in fact may not weigh as much as a smaller, fatter bear. Typically, you score a bear by how much he squares out and his skull size. You can determine the square size of a bear after removing the hide and gently stretching it. Measure from paw tip to paw tip, and from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. The average of those two numbers determines the overall “square” size of the bear.

There are also two little words that can throw this entire field-judging thing out the window. Those two words are “color phase.” In some cases, the coat on a bear can become a deciding factor on whether or not you want to shoot it. For example, many hunters, me included would love to tag a blonde- or cinnamon-colored bear. In such cases, the color intensity and rarity of color along with the quality of the colored coat may trump the desire for a big bear. Talk to your outfitter or check with Fish and Game prior to hunting a specific area and inquire about the percentage of color-phased bears harvested from the area. Knowing ahead of time what you can expect will help you avoid a hasty decision when you have a small, yet beautifully colored bear, in your crosshairs.

Do you have any bear hunting tips? Share them with us in the comment section.


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Comments (3)

  1. Hey Bill! How about you and me for that Bear hunt? There’s always room for a hunting partner! We could meet halfway….say, southern Colorado or New Mexico! Regards, Pete sends . . .

  2. Interesting, Lisa. While I never have hunted Bear, I can imagine judging in a spontainious moment during a hunt, whether it be for Bear, or other intended game. If you practice how known objects appear at known distances through the apperture sights of your gun, an eye, or part of a nose in your sight, it’s probably time to see if you can outrun the outfitter! Just kidding…….I know nothing about Bears. Pete there does though. Hey Pete!

  3. Great Blog Lisa! Lots of bears are taken each year I think because of a lack of the hunter really knowing what their looking at or for. The Tri-angle, ear size and general head descriptors are what I was taught to look for too. Fred Lackie knowns his black bears. I haven’t hunted Black Bears in the lower 48 but once, and years ago, so its hard for me to make a determination concerning the varying spectrum of size and color that they may be found in. Here in Alaska Black bears can go from deep, glossy black to a near white. Black is encountered most frequently of course. In the Southeast and South Central, brown or cinnamon-colored black bears are often encountered. In the interior Cinnamon-colored and Blond black bears are much more common. There are also a glossy bluish/black color that’s very unique. There sometimes called ” Glacier Bears”. I have seen them up near Yakutat and on occasion in Southeat over the years but have never harvested one. Of the several hides I have seen they are a very shiney dark blue steel sort of color and quite handsome. Black here often have a white star or patch of hair on their chest too. Blackies are different from their larger brothers the Browns in their general size,of course, the adult black being smaller. Their claws, blacks have shorter claws at about 1 1/2 to 2 inches generally. The general shape is also quite different. browns often have a shoulder hump and generally resemble a very large fur covered rock or small hill traveling thru the bush when seen! When they stand up on their hind legs to get a better look at you or smell there is little question that its not a Black that has taken an interest either! Blacks also have a ” straighter” face, and it’s also more alongated than the flatter features of the browns. Blacks have a first rate sence of smell! There hearing and sight are fair and they are or can be very courious. I have heard that our Black population here is in the 125 to 150 thousand range for the overall state and this wouldn’t suprise me a great deal given the number of times one sees them here.
    One of the hunts I have wanted to do and have yet to accomplish is an archery hunt in for a Black in the lower 48, maybe Montana or Colorado. Maybe one day I’ll get that done. Thank you for the great blog, always a pleasure to read your input. Regards, Pete sends . . .

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