Written by Josh Clark of @Hunt Montana

As the snow starts to melt from the warming rays of sun in the high country, black bears across North America begin their annual journey from the depths of winter isolation to spring food.  There is something about bear hunting that evokes a sense of wildness that all outdoorsmen should experience at some point in their hunting career.  There are several methods of hunting bears that appeal to many different types of bear hunters.  Regardless of the weapon or hunting style, bears remain to be one of the hardest big game animals to judge in the field.  The focus of this article will be to highlight some of the best methods for field judging these iconic creatures.

Set YOUR Goals

Setting personal goals for your hunt is a good place to get started as you develop a bear hunting plan.  What makes the best experience for one hunter may differ from what you see your dream bear hunt is.  Another factor to consider is getting to know the territory you will be hunting and the trophy quality of the animals that live there.  If the word “trophy” in your eyes means having a chance at a color phase bear, you might want to make sure that there are color phase bears where you’ll be hunting.

Some hunters go hunting exclusively to fill empty freezer space while spending time with family and friends and are jacked to simply put a tag on an animal.  Other hunters get excited for the opportunity to notch their tag on something unique, while others are after a large dominant bear. We’re all hunters and we need to support one another regardless of our individual interpretation of the word “trophy”. 

Here Are Your Pro Field Judging Tips

No matter what kind of trophy bear you might be looking for, the tips in this article can help you hunt and field judge black bears. This article will discuss characteristics of maturity, sex, size, tracks and even scat.  Whether your goal is simply notching a tag to fill your freezer or you’re looking for a bear that will qualify in the record books, here are some pro tips for field judging black bears.

Species

Knowing the right species of bear sounds a little silly, but it’s necessary. This important detail is something many bear hunters will experience during black bear hunting season.  Several Western States and Canadian Provinces have thriving and expanding grizzly bear populations. Make sure before your hunt you know the difference when hunting in grizzly country. Consider these 4 points: 

  • You’d think that identifying a black bear versus a grizzly bear would be easy but depending on lighting conditions, age, color, and body position even the most seasoned bear hunter will occasionally make a mistake.  Every year someone shoots a grizzly bear on accident due to misidentification.  Don’t be that hunter.
This boar might be hard to tell the difference between a grizz and black bear, especially at a distance or under poor lighting conditions. Be sure of species when hunting in habitat that supports grizzlies and black bears. Not only will it ruin your hunt, it might ruin a lot more. PC: Adobe stock/ BGSmith
  • Bears aren’t always in the open and can be moving quickly. Take the time necessary to properly identify what you are looking at. 
  • Most black bears are black, however many other color variations are spread across North America.  A young grizzly can easily be mistaken for a cinnamon, brown or blonde color phase bear.  This all points back to one of the first lessons we all learned as hunters, “be sure of your target, once you pull that trigger you can’t take it back.” 
  • Obviously, there are distinct differences between grizzly bears and black bears. However, make sure you confirm your target before you squeeze off on what you think is a giant chocolate or blonde color phase black bear. 

I’ve had an opportunity to harvest both black and color phase black bears over the years, but I’ll never forget that Montana blonde-backed chocolate-legged adolescent grizzly I watched in the brush from 400 yards for over an hour before I was able to properly identify it. 

Sex

There is no exact science to this one other than the anatomical difference between male and female.  There is no gray area with bears, if it has a penis and testicles it’s male, if it has a vagina it’s female.  Bears haven’t yet earned the right to decide what they want to identify as. Use these 7 points to help you identify sex: 

  • There are several characteristics to look for when making sex determinations in the field.  The very first thing to look for is cubs.  In most circumstances, a large bear with cubs will be a female.  Also, female bears with cubs will typically have visible nipples as the baby bears pull out the hair around the nipples when feeding.
This sow is a decent sized bear and if a hunter didn’t wait for a few minutes for a cub to come over the hill a hunter may have made a terrible mistake and shot a sow with cubs. PC: Adobe stock/ PhotoFellow
  • Sows also tend to have a pear shape to them, a lower and smaller front end with a large backside.  A lot of people frown upon shooting female bears but if you find a sow WITHOUT cubs and it’s legal to harvest then don’t feel bad for harvesting her. Remember females harvests are part of bear management and predator management as a whole. 
  • When you spot a female with cubs, take some time to study her movements, body features and demeanor.  This may help you later on and just adds to your experience as a bear hunter.  Every encounter can be a learning experience, soak it up. 
  • Mature boars are wide and blocky in both the front and the rear and don’t have that same taper that females possess.  
  • If you have a chance to observe a bear for a long time while trying to determine sex you might get the opportunity to watch them urinate.  Boars will urinate beneath their bodies as a female will urinate near the rear of their body.  If you have the correct angle, sometimes you may be able to see a boar’s testicles from behind. 
  • Females often will have a longer look to their face and their ears will often appear larger, more like a young or smaller bear. 
This female has a typical long face and large ears compared to the size of the head. See photo further down and compare her to a boars head and face. PC: Adobe stock/ hntr
  • Another one we forgot to mention was the front legs.  A female’s front legs will slightly taper at the bottom near the front pad, a big boar will have a thick front leg all the way to the ground. 

Body

One of the best indicators of a big bear is it has a big body.  Pretty easy you might think? Not exactly. You need something to compare that body size against for reference. Here are 6 ways to help you judge body size:

  • Bear hunters that are sitting at bait stations will have a much easier time at this because they will get the opportunity to see how the bear measures up to the barrel.  Not all bait stations are close range so having an object to reference a bear next to is very useful and I recommend this method if you can take advantage of it.  A 55-gallon drum is roughly 35 inches tall and typically both plastic or steel have about the same dimensions.  I’ve known a few outfitters that will make marks on trees near a bait site at the same height as the barrel in case the bears have knocked the barrel over or don’t come all the way into the bait station.  These marks serve as additional reference points to make your job easier when deciding if the bear that is coming in is big enough.  If the top of a bears back is anywhere between the top ¾ of the barrel and the top, you’ll want to start getting ready as you are likely looking at a shooter bear.  Some bears will be “no brainers” as they dwarf a barrel but usually, you’ll see many smaller bears before a mature bear comes to a bait if you are hunting an area with high bear density. 
  • Big boars may appear to be so big, you can’t see underneath their body when they are moving around.  That’s a big bear! Large bears typically look heavy and overweight.  If the bear you’re looking at appears to have long legs, it’s probably because he has a smaller body.  Hunters that are judging a bear on a distant hillside will need to look a lot closer to find features that will help reference size. 
  • Good optics will help a lot when you are observing bears in the field.  Just like many other species, a giant black bear will look giant but only if you know what to look for.  If you can’t determine if he is a shooter or not from a long way off, GET CLOSER. 
  • A big black bear will have a very large, blocky looking head.  The shoulders of a mature boar are normally wide, muscular, thick and are usually just as wide as their backside.  Their ears will look small, and almost off to the side of their skull a little.  Smaller bears will have a small, narrow head and their ears will be much larger and defined. On a big boar you might even see a crease down the center of its forehead, if this is the case you better get ready to shoot. 
Check out this boars features. Very noticeable is the large blocky head and small ears. Compare his head, face, and ears to the sow pictured earlier. PC: Adobe stock/ nialat
  • Other features to look for on a mature bears head would be scarring around the face.  Mature boars often have ferocious fights during the breeding season, and it is not uncommon for them to have plenty of battle scars around their muzzle, eyes and ears.  Younger bears typically will have a much fresher looking face with minimal signs of fighting. 
  • Look at the ears as it relates to the head. If the bear has a giant looking skull and small ears you might be looking at a trophy sized bear. The only measurements that matters for Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young records is skull size. It takes 21 inches to make Boone and Crockett and 18 inches for Pope and Young all time awards. 

Don’t get caught up in inches during your bear hunt as even the largest bears may disappoint you when they don’t hit the magic number you are seeking.  Big bears often will have really muscular biting muscles on their head and are often referred to as “meat heads”.  A mature bear with a pumpkin sized skull is definitely worth your tag.  Do some research if you are only looking for book animals and find those units, states or provinces that have produced many B&C and P&Y animals.  Genetics plays a large role in this much like trophy areas for mule deer and elk, but age will also be a major factor.  A bears skull never stops growing so the older the bear, the more likely its skull will be large. 

Tracks

Can you tell the size of a bear by the tracks that they make?  The answer to this one is simple, yes.  The size of a bear’s track will help determine how big of a bear it is.  A small track is always left by a small bear and a big track by a big bear.  So what is a big track?  Here are 2 rules to think about when looking at a track:

  • If the front pad measures 5 inches wide or more, you are looking at a large bear.  I’ve learned from other very experienced bear hunters over the years that you can roughly add 1 to the width of the bears front pad width to determine a bear’s approximate size in feet. 
  • A bear with a 5-inch-wide track will be roughly a 6-foot bear given the above formula.  I personally have not verified this with any of the bears I’ve harvested but I’ve learned to trust guys with gray hair and a lot more time in the woods than me. 

Finding the bear that made the track has always been the tricky part, just because you found the track doesn’t mean you will ever lay eyes on that bear.

Scat

Do bears sh*t in the woods? Yes, and you can use their scat to help field judge black bears, and even find bears.  The first thing you need to do is taste it.  If it has a smoky vintage oak flavor it’s likely an older bear that enjoys single malt scotch and fine cigars.  If it tastes fruity and bitter, it is likely some young punk hipster bear that only eats berries and grass (sarcasm intended). Here are 3 unscientifically proven aspects to think about when looking at the pile of crap: 

  • It’s not so much the size of the pile that will help determine the size of a bear, it’s the diameter of the logs.  A large bear will have a larger b-hole and will leave a more impressive loaf than a smaller bear.  Those of us who live in the west have a harder time with this as it is very hard to distinguish a grizzly bear dump compared to a large black bear.  Knowing that a big bear is in the area will always give you an upper hand especially in the spring. 
  • Bears will often defecate near their primary food source and you may catch him there again.  Big dominant bears will often hit the same spots over and over as long as the food is there. 
  • Bears are somewhat lazy especially in the spring.  If you find several large diameter piles of scat on an old logging road, you should target that area as he will likely be back to feed sometime early in the morning or evening.

Behavior

Big dominant bears behave like big dominant bears, go figure. Dominant bears fear little, and everything else fears them. Watch how a bear behaves will help you field judge black bears. If you see these 4 characteristics you might have a dominant boar in sight: 

  • They will appear to move in sections as if they had a hinge between their front and back half.  This swagger or waddle is a good sign you are looking at a large boar.  Sometimes you’ll find a big female that will act like this also so make sure you look for those other features that will help determine sex. 
  • When big boars decide to move, they move with intention where as small bears will make indecisive almost fearful movements.  Smaller bears are typically more alert and skittish compared to a larger bear, especially near a bait site or prime food source. 
  • A dominant bear acts like he’s a boss, especially when other bears are around.  Just like any other hierarchy in the wild, a big boar gets a lot of respect from other smaller bears.  He will act like this because he is the boss.  Big bears are bullies, they do what they want and are not afraid of other bears.  Dominant bears will even kill and eat other bears for food or to force a sow with cubs back into an estrous cycle.
  • Dominant bears will mark trees by biting saplings, scratch their backs on trees and will chase off other bears.  If you observe any of those behaviors, chances are you are looking at a boar.

Use Reference Material

Use some reference material during the off-season. As the spring season approaches, take some time to look at videos and photos of bears in the wild.  The more bears that you look at, the better your ability to judge them.  YouTube has plenty of hunting videos out there to help hone your skills and there are also books, articles and blogs all about bear hunting.  There are guys out there that eat, sleep and breath bear hunting, seek them out and learn as much as you can from them.  These guys are a wealth of knowledge and can make you a better bear hunter just by picking their brain.  I hope that these tips will help you on your next bear hunting adventure.  Good luck out there.

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