May 30 2017
Three Booner Bears
By Clay Newcomb
Twenty-inch bear skulls are big anywhere in North America. If you travel to the “top locations” of the black bear range like Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, Saskatchewan, Manitoba or Alberta you’ll be an outlying statistic if you bring home a “Booner” black bear (Twenty inches is the Boone and Crockett minimum for a black bear making their Awards book.) Recently at the Bear Hunting Magazine global headquarters in West Fork, Arkansas we had a trio of Booners in the office at once. All three came from the Ozark and Ouachita regions of Arkansas and Oklahoma.
I’m not claiming this a trophy destination like the Northern regions. These bears aren’t the “norm” being harvested. Currently there are less than 20 bears from the region that have scored over 21 inches. Out-of-state hunters are at a significant disadvantage because most bears are harvested over bait on private land during a short window in the fall. The season structure isn’t geared towards killing big bears. Frankly, earlier season dates would promote older, more mature bears being killed by archers. That being said, there is no shortage of giant bears. Almost anyone that has a decent bait site gets pictures of 350-pound-plus bears every year. The biggest bears in Arkansas can reach over 600 pounds. Killing them, however, is a different story. You’ve got to do a lot of things right to kill a mature bear over bait.
(Left to Right) Myself with my Oklahoma bear (20 8/16"), Brandon Mitchell of Advanced Taxidermy with Tony K's bear (20 7/16"), and James Hankins (20 15/16") and his three daughters at the BHM Global Headquarters in West Fork, Arkansas.
Having “trophy bears” indicates more than just good hunting. It indicates a healthy age structure, quality habitat, and an overall healthy population of bears. Considering bears are an “indicator species” (They are at the top of the food chain and their presence indicates a lot of good things ecologically), their presence is a positive thing that I celebrate internally almost every day when I gaze across the rolling Ozark Mountains. I seldom look across the landscape without thinking “How many bears there are out there?” Currently the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission says we have 5,000. Oklahoma says they've got 2,000 in southeast Oklahoma.
James with his big Arkansas bear. The bear weighed around 350 pounds live. The bear was 12 15/16" long and 8 inches wide.
I officially Boone and Crockett scored James Hankin’s Searcy County, Arkansas bear at 20 15/16” – just a 1/16th shy of the All-Time records. The bear had a live weight of around 350 pounds. I would consider this an outlier in terms of weight for a BC qualifier in Arkansas. Most bears with qualifying skulls are going to weigh in the 400 to 500-plus-pound range. That being said, my Leflore County, Oklahoma bear weighed only 360 pounds but measured 20 8/16”, making him my largest skull to date despite not being the biggest body-sized bear I’ve taken. Brandon Mitchell of Advanced Taxidermy in Van Buren, Arkansas cleaned all the skulls and graciously brought them to West Fork. My bear had already been officially scored, but I scored James’ bear and another Arkansas bear killed by Tony K in Madison County. Tony’s bear officially scored 20 7/16”. GIANT!
I wouldn’t come to this region as an out-of-state hunter and expect to kill a giant bear, however it’s possible. The legendary regions mentioned above cover much larger areas and have more possibility for bears. Bear Hunting Magazine represents some tremendous outfitters in these regions and I'd be glad to share their info with anyone. Our area is a relatively small region of habitat. Northern Canada and Alaska have almost unending black bear habitat and much of it isn’t hunted very hard. To find consistent success, traveling bear hunters should probably head North. However, for the DIY “locals” willing to work hard and be patient in the Ozarks and Ouachitas – you’ve got a chance at a good bear.