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.
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.”
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.