Gerald Almy: Tricks for judging size of a bear

Many western states and Canadian provinces offer spring and early summer bear hunting. If you’re planning to try such an adventure, here are some tips on how to judge the size of bears.

These tips will also come in handy this fall in the Shenandoah Valley when bear seasons arrive locally. They can also be fun for non-hunters who simply want to learn more about bears and the size and age of animals they might see sneaking through the woods or raiding their sheds and bird feeders.

The key to accurately judging a bear is to study as many traits as possible that can help you determine its sex, size and age. Wayne Wiebe, a legendary bear guide from British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, warns not to give any one aspect too much significance by itself.

“There are all kinds of tricks and things to look for to help you decide when an animal is mature or not. But none of them work all the time. Use them, but don’t rely on any one thing to make your final decision.”

Initial impression
If you’ve been in the woods quite a bit and have seen a number of bears or harvested a few, start by considering your overall first impression. Your initial feeling about an animal can be surprisingly accurate many times. It’s the few times that it’s not accurate that you have to be careful about. Rarely is it wise to harvest a bear based on this initial “feel” about an animal.

Most of the time, a mature bear with some bulk to it simply looks big and impressive. This is especially obvious when there’s something to judge the bear against — an object, for instance, or another bear.

If several bears are out and none of them are cubs, you can compare the bear’s size to the other animals. It will usually be very clear which one is most impressive.

If a bear wanders out in a verdant green field or onto a coastal flat with no objects or other bears around, however, be wary of your first impression. Take note of it, but don’t make a final decision whether to shoot based solely on that initial feeling.

If the ears appear large, it’s probably a young bear. If they look normally proportioned to the body, you’re looking at an average to good bear. If they look small, chances are it’s a brute.

Where the ears protrude is also a key. If they seem to stick up on the top of the bear’s head, it’s a small bruin. Those that appear to grown more out the side of the head are typical of a large bear.

Face and head
An old boar tends to have a blockier, thicker face and head than younger males and females. The overall appearance of the head, though, may look small compared to the enormous body it sits atop.

Shoulders and neck
The front shoulders of a mature bear are muscular and broad, right down through the forelegs. The neck is thick and heavy and blends seamlessly into the body, a lot like a mature buck’s.

Big bears are voracious and eat any and everything they can digest. That shows up in the stomach area. It tends to sag down and the belly fur almost seems to touch the ground. With a small bear, there’s usually substantial daylight between the bear’s mid-section and the ground.

Leg spacing
Front and rear legs that appear to be far apart indicate a big bear. If they appear close together, it’s likely a small animal or female, one that will square out 5 1/2 feet or less.

Leg length
The chest and stomach area on big boars are often so thick and deep that the legs will look short. In reality they aren’t. But they look that way. If a bear’s legs look long, it likely means he’s small or average with little bulk in the mid-section.

Attitude can also give clues to an animal’s age and stature in the bear hierarchy. Just as with the oldest bucks, mature bears seem to act like they own the world. There’s a kind of macho look and a swagger to their walk and demeanor. They don’t constantly look around nervously like young bears often do, high-strung and flighty. Old bears are calm and plodding, supremely self-confident, and not afraid of any other animal.

Behavior with other bears
How they interact with other bears and how those other animals treat them is also a key to a bruin’s size. Big bears seem to treat other small and medium bears like they were invisible. If the bears around the animal you’re looking at cower or scamper out of the way, you can be confident the one that intimidated them is a trophy worth taking.

Claw marks on trees 7 feet or higher, large scat piles about the size of a loaf of bread, and large front pad prints are all signs made by a good bear. A 5-inch pad indicates a 6-6 1/2-foot bear, a 6-inch pad a 7-7 1/2-foot-squared bear.

As Wiebe advises, don’t let any one thing convince you a certain bear is the one you’ve been looking for. None of these tricks and techniques are totally foolproof by themselves. Rather, go through the checklist to study as many traits as possible.

And if you’re on a guided hunt, trust the instincts of your outfitter. He or she likely knows more about bears than you or I ever will.

Look at as many physical traits as possible and watch the animal’s behavior and attitude. With patience, you’ll eventually come upon a bear that leaves you with do doubts: this is a big one!

Snap its photo quickly or take your shot if you’re hunting. It may not stay there for long.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.