Gerald Almy: What qualifies as a big black bear?

Gerald Almy

Countless articles, books, DVDs and videos tell us how to age and score whitetail bucks in the field, but very little advice is available on how to judge bears. That’s unfortunate because bears can be particularly difficult to judge, especially for the novice or those who haven’t hunted them much. Even for the non-hunter it’s fun to try to determine how big a bear is that you see skulking through the woods or ambling across a field while out for a hike or drive.

The best approach with bears is to decide first whether a bear fits in one of three categories: a youngster (1-2 years old), an average bruin (3-4 years), or a large mature bear (5 years-plus) that you don’t want to pass up if you’re hunting when you see it.

Just as with deer and other antlered game, the basic rule of thumb should be that if you’re not sure about the animal’s size and age, it’s probably best not to shoot or release your arrow. Once you make that decision, it’s too late to change your mind.

If you’ve never hunted bears much, try to watch as many videos of bears and study photos in books and DVDs to see how different an old, heavy boar bear looks from a young, lean male or a female bear. The more you sear the images into your brain of a large bear versus a small bear, the more likely you’ll know when an animal steps out whether it’s a brute or a baby.

“Black Bear Hunting,” by Richard Smith, is one of the best references I’ve found. You can order that book, as well as instructive DVDs, from the author at Richardpsmith.com.

The three factors used to judge bears —

Three things go into the measure of what makes a bear big. Weight is obviously one. A 125-225 pound bear is average in most areas. If you bag a bear lighter than this, you’ll probably be disappointed. A few states even have minimum weights of 100 pounds or so for a bear to be legal.

A bear over 225 pounds is above average. One topping 300 pounds is exceptional. A 400 pound-plus bear is enormous. The largest bear ever officially documented was killed in North Carolina by Tennessee hunter Coy Parton using hounds. It weighed 880 pounds. Several other bears over 700 pounds have been taken in the coastal region of that state. Pennsylvania and Minnesota have also produced bears over 800 pounds, and most Canadian provinces have yielded bears over 700 pounds.

The squared measurement of the hide is the second way to judge bears. Measure the width and length, divide by two and you get the squared size of the bear. Black bears squaring 5-6 feet are about average. A bear over 6 feet is excellent. Seven-foot bears are trophies of a lifetime, likely 400 pound-plus animals.

The final measurement of a big bear is the skull. This is the one used for record-book purposes to judge bears. Measure the width of the skull and the length without the lower jaw. Add those two together for the score.

A black bear must measure 20 inches to make Boone & Crockett for the current recording period. It takes a 21-incher to qualify for the all-time record book. A bear scoring 18 inches makes the Pope & Young record book.

Age. Those are all visible measurements of a bear’s size. I would add a fourth factor to be considered, one many veteran deer hunters have become more and more concerned about: age. Like whitetails, a bear five-years or older should be considered mature and a good one to take. But bears can live much longer in the wild than most deer. The oldest bear on record was a 39 year old female from Minnesota, according to Smith’s “Black Bear Hunting.”

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

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