By Clay Newcomb
Black bears can be one of the most difficult big game animals to judge before the shot. It can be difficult for hunters to decide what makes a trophy bear, or more importantly, a bear that is going to meet their personal standard. Unlike antlered ungulates, several factors play into the overall evaluation of a black bear. In any type of deer hunting, antlers are everything. A hunter doesn’t care if it has a small body or if its hide is in good shape, as long at the horns are all there. In bears, four factors play into trophy evaluation and discussion of the four areas is relevant: skull size, body weight, hide quality and color phase. Not all four are equal and combinations often outweigh strength in one specific trait. In this article we’ll discuss skull size. Read on, you might just learn something about bear skulls.
Skull size is the basis by which all the record keeping organizations score bears. It is, in essence, like the “horns” of a whitetail or elk. The skull is a significant part of the trophy status of a bear, albeit, the most difficult to estimate. Bears are measured by the dried length and width of their skulls. Record keeping organizations choose to use the skull because it’s the one thing on a bear that can be measured consistently. Weight may seem the best bear-to-bear comparator, but it poses many variables, such as how to certify scales and whether to use dressed or undressed weights. What about animals that are capped and quartered during retrieval? Clearly, skull size is the best way to compare and track bears.
It is difficult to estimate the exact score of a bear while it’s alive because the units of measurement that separate them are usually in 16ths of an inch. Under the hair, muscle and fat of a bear’s face, it’s hard to be exact. It is possible, however, to grade bears into size categories with some consistency in the field. Categorizing animals is simplistic at best and doesn’t tell the whole story, but it helps. The four classifications I use to think about skull sizes would be like shirt sizes – small, medium, large and extra-large:
- Bear < 18” (bears less than 18 inches) (small)
- 18-19 (medium)
- 19 -21 (large)
- bear > 21 (X-large) (bears greater than 21 inches)
To put this into perspective, an 18” bear would be comparable to a 125” whitetail, a 21-inch bear to a 170-inch whitetail (typical). We created a chart to compare whitetail scores with black bear scores. Most people are familiar with the whitetail scoring system, and understanding how your bear compares will give you a greater sense of what you’ve got. A 19-inch bear might not mean anything to you until you realize that it’s equivalent to a 145-inch whitetail, a true trophy for most hunters.
When it comes to field judging skull size, there are many variables. One important factor is the time of year. A spring bear is leaner than a fall bear. A bear that “looks” like he’s got a big, boxy head in the spring may very well be a large skulled bear. When a human loses weight, often times the first place you notice is their face – it can be the same with bears. Vice versa, a fall bear that is carrying an extra 25% of its usually body weight will have a “fatter” head. I once harvested a bear on November 30 whose head looked like a bushel basket. The bear was almost ready to den and was at peak weight. Walking up to the bear, I knew it was a 20-inch plus animal, probably over 21. I was surprised when the bear scored 19 8/16”. The amount of muscle and fat on the bear’s head and jaws were significant and deceptive.
Larger bears that appear to have short, boxy snouts usually aren’t short at all. As a bear grows more mature his facial features fill out, almost like his cheeks grow towards his nose. The snout appears short and thick. Usually this is an indicator of a mature male. Ears can be deceptive as they differ from region to region. Several of the large bears I’ve harvested looked like they had Mickey Mouse ears, making the old adage of “small ears” quite inaccurate. More than size, it’s the placement of the ears that indicates age. Ears lower on the side of the head are a good sign, but bears can keep their ears erect when on alert, especially when entering a bait site.
Age and genetics are the main factors. You can’t control genetics, but you can limit yourself to harvesting mature males. The more mature a male is, the better chance he’ll be sporting a big head. Boars will always have larger skulls than equivalent aged females; very few sows make it over 18 inches.
Looking for other indicators of age is a must even when trying to field judge a high scoring black bear. Big feet, a short neck, thick legs, ears on the side of the head, broad shoulders and a big rump are starters. A forehead crease is an indication of age, but is not always present or visible on big bears. Sometimes a crease is only visible when the bear’s ears are in the fully upright position. Neither of the bears I killed in Alberta last spring had a notable crease, yet they scored 18” and 19 6/16” green. Additionally, sows can also have distinct creases on their foreheads. Last year, a friend shot a sow after thinking it was a boar because it had a deep, distinct crease. From the front, the bear had a blocky head with a crease. From the side profile, however, its head was thin and pointy.
Geographic Differences in Skull Sizes
It would be convenient if there was a direct correlation between skull size and body size. There isn’t, but there are some guidelines that may help. Shooting a large-bodied bear often results in a good scoring bear, but it gets tricky and can go the other way. In some regions in the North, spring bears in the 225-pound range can be Pope and Young qualifiers at 18 inches. I would like to present some generalizations in relation to body size and skull measurements. I reiterate that these are generalizations and bears can easily break the mold.
In Arkansas, a boar bear in the fall weighing 300 pounds will have a chance at breaking the 18-inch mark. By the time a bear reaches 400 pounds he’ll likely be over 19 inches. A 500-pound bear could just as easily scored 19 8/16” as he’ll score over 21 inches. Above 500 pounds, you will not know until you’ve got the skull out of the hide, but will likely be over 19 8/16”. The “300-Pound Rule” for a fall bear making Pope and Young in most parts of North America is a rule that usually works. However, there are exceptions.
Floyd and Linda Gasser of Wisconsin aren’t strangers to Pope and Young bears. Floyd, also a taxidermist, said, “The bears we killed in Saskatchewan last year couldn’t have weighed much over 225 pounds, but they scored over 19 inches. In Wisconsin though, a bear might have to weigh in the 400-pound range to make Pope and Young.” Keep in mind that the Saskatchewan bears were spring weights. By fall they could have easily weighed over 300 pounds. In Wisconsin there’s a bait pile every half mile. “In Ontario in the fall we see bears in the 275-pound range making it in the low 18s. We’ve also killed some bears pushing 500 pounds that didn’t make it to 20 inches.”
Really Big Bears
How long and wide are really big bear skulls? In the most recent awards book printed by the Boone and Crockett Club, they’ve listed all the entries over 20 inches registered in the last three-year period. Typically, bears that are going to score in the low 20-inch range have skulls at least 12.5-inches long and usually 7.5-inches wide. Either measurement could give a little on each side, but you’ll rarely see one out of this range. A 21-inch bear will almost 90% of the time be over 13-inches long and over eight inches wide. In the entry period there was one 21-inch bear that that had a skull length in the 12s. The bear was exceptionally wide – almost nine inches.
Before releasing the string or pulling the trigger, every hunter wants to know that what he’s shooting at is what he thinks it is. Not every hunter has expectations of killing a Boone-and-Crockett-class animal, but we all hope the animal we take home meets our expectations. Use this article as a starter for estimating skull size on black bears.