How big is that bear?

How big is that bear?

John Haviland

Here’s how to tell whether the bear you’re glassing is small, average, or whopping big.

The light brown-colored black bear was a puzzle. The bear was busy grazing on spring grass and had failed to see me walk around the curve of the mountainside. I quietly knelt 40 yards from the bear and started going through a mental checklist to judge its size.

The bear faced away, its head hidden by the tall grass, so I couldn’t appraise it by its facial features. The bear’s hide was pale, but evenly colored and unrubbed, which one would expect in early May. After a minute the bear turned to the side. It had a round belly that hung down, making its legs look short. Something alerted the bear; perhaps it noticed that what it thought was a stump had an unfamiliar outline. When it jerked its head up to peer at me, I knew the bear was a little one. Its ears stuck up like radar dishes on its slender head. The bear didn’t wait any longer for me to make a second guess. In a jump it vanished into the timber.

I knelt there contemplating the loss of possibly my only chance at a bear that spring, when, to my astonishment, around the side of the hill a black bear shuffled into view, maybe 80 yards away. My first impression was of a mature male, but I made myself reconsider for a minute. I remembered times in the past when I had been quick on the trigger, only to walk up to a small bear. Only after noting the characteristics of a big bear did I raise my .25-06. The rug from that five-and-a-half-year-old boar now covers a good portion of my father’s cabin wall.

I once saw a T-shirt with a picture of a black bear that had a nice set of whitetail antlers growing out of its head. The caption read, “Beer?” If bears only grew antlers, distinguishing the big ones from the little ones would be as easy as counting points.

Even though bears don’t grow horns, Jack Atcheson, Jr., a booking agent for hunters, says looking at the head of a bear is still the best way to gauge its size. Atcheson has hunted all the prime areas of North America for bears.

“The patented way of judging a bear has always been its ears,” Atcheson explains. Bears have the same size ears from the time they are a cub until they die. From his years in the taxidermy business Atcheson knows you use the same size ear liners on mounts for cubs as you do for the big bruisers.

Atcheson said a young bear has big ears sticking out the top of its head and looks almost like a deer. Cubs and sows have slender heads with no apparent cheekbones.

“A big old male, though, has a blocky, triangular-shaped head with its ears down off the sides of its head,” Atcheson said. “The ears look small and rounded on the blockier head of an old male.”

The demeanor of a bear also reveals a great deal. A young bear has lots of nervous energy, like a puppy. They are always moving around, looking here and going there.

“A big boar doesn’t waste his energy,” Atcheson said, “He’s slow and deliberate in his movements. He lumbers along on legs that look short because of his big belly hanging down,” he said.

While hunting bears, Atcheson pays particular attention to tracks. The size of a bear can be determined from measuring across the print of its front foot and adding one. So a bear that left a five-inch-wide track would be a six-foot bear.

Patiently using binoculars works better to find a bear than hiking around. “Stay and glass an area, if you have found sign the bear is there,” Atcheson said.

After days of fruitless searching, though, a hunter can forget all the rules and talk himself into making a dink bear look big.

Atcheson and another hunter were hunting brown bears once in Alaska with an outfitter who had been in the business for 30 years. They had been hunting for more than a week without any luck, and they were desperate to see a big bear. On the tenth day the hunt was about over when they spotted a brown bear from a distance. “Now the same principles apply to brown bears as they do to black bears,” Atcheson said. “My first impression was that the bear looked small,” he said. However, the outfitter was sure the bear was a big one.

After some coaxing he also had Atcheson and the other hunter believing it.

The shot belonged to the other hunter and the stalk was on. The hunter made a good shot on the bear, but between the time of the shot and when they walked up to the bear, it had shrunk from a 10-foot bear to a six-and-a-half foot bear.

While the size of a bear makes a trophy, the condition of its hide is also important. Short or missing patches of hair on a rubbed hide make for a poor rug. Bear hides can be rubbed anytime in the spring or fall because of irritation from mites, ticks, or warm weather. Atcheson looks for a fairly uniform length and color of hair all over the bear. “Spots and patches of lighter color mean the bear is rubbed,” he said. Bears tend to rub the hair from around their tail, shoulders, legs, and face. “When you see a bear with raccoon eyes, it means he’s rubbed his face,” Atcheson said. “If a bear doesn’t have a uniform color to it, let it go-it’s rubbed.”

With experience, judging a bear’s hide and size is a quick process. Atcheson said he generally follows his first impression of a bear. His first impression was correct on a spring hunt in southern British Columbia. Atcheson and his guide were walking down a trail one evening when they spotted a black bear sitting in the path. They stopped to look at the bear when another bigger bear walked out of the brush. “When I first saw the bears together, the one was so much bigger that the size difference told me they were a sow and cub,” Atcheson said. After studying the heads and faces of the bears for a minute, though, it was apparent the bears were a female and male mating couple.

Atcheson shot the big male. The female wasn’t about to leave her partner. After some huffing and snapping teeth directed at the hunters, the female finally left the dead male. The hide squared seven and one half feet and the skull measured 20/, B&C points. Atcheson rendered five gallons of lard out of the bear’s fat.

“There were three grizzlies in camp taken by other hunters and that black bear was bigger than any of them,” he said. “Those big bears have that look you can spot right off.”

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Apr 1997

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