By Clay Newcomb
It was only the second bear I’d ever seen in a hunting situation and it happened quickly. I was bored and discouraged, so I climbed out of the stand to go for a walk. Rookie mistake. I was ten yards from the stand when I met a bear face to face emerging from a thicket. Both of us in disbelief of our unfavorable circumstances, the bear burst over the lip of the ridge in retreat, and I tip toed a few yards and peeked over the hill. He hadn’t gone far. Knowing it was a legal bear, I released an arrow that found its mark. I walked up to my prize, which I assumed was a full-grown bear only to find the critter wasn’t much more than a 115 pounds. I experienced some massive ground shrinkage and it didn’t feel good. I vowed I’d never make the same mistake again.
Shooting young bears isn’t just a “trophy” mishap, but it’s a conservation mishap. Targeting mature animals is best from a management standpoint as well. And even better, targeting older mature males is the name of the game, and if you can select the right one for harvest, everybody wins. Judging trophy bear is difficult, and many consider the most difficult big game animal to judge. Horned game is relatively easy compared to it. Here are five thoughts on judging trophy bear that didn’t come from surfing the internet looking for the traditional judging methods, but have come from personal experience judging bears all across North America.
1. It’s All About Scale
Any bear, no matter its size, standing alone in the forest can look like a mature bear. They’re blobs of black fur making it difficult to distinguish the traits of the body. With lighter colored animals, like deer, you can see their features and more easily infer maturity. In any situation, you’ll have to use objects the bear is near to scale them for size. Whether it’s trees or bait barrel, you need to gain size perspective in the locale you’re hunting. This could be knowing the approximate height of blueberry bushes in Montana when glassing a bear from a mile away. Or it could be knowing that a 55 gallon drum is 36-inches tall, and any bear between the highest ring and the top is a shooter. Scale is everything and if you don’t understand it you’ll make a mistake.
Here’s a great example of understanding scale. A mature boar and a mature sow could easily be mis- taken for one another by their body shape. A sow may have a potbelly, short legs and a stocky neck – all poten- tial traits of a large boar. If you don’t understand scale you’ll think, “That’s a shooter!” However, she may be half the size of the 350-pound shooter you think she is. Your eye recognizes maturity features: saggy belly, thick body, and maybe even a crease in the head, but a mature bear, male or female, have some similar traits. A bear that’s as tall as a 55-gallon drum is a shooter in most any camp in North America. Mature male bears don’t get much taller than 36 inches at the shoulder. The 550- pound bear I killed last fall would have been roughly as tall as the barrel, but his hair would have stood above the top. The bear had an eight-foot wingspan and squared a true 7’6”. Remember, I’m talking about actual height, not perceived height. You can get a trail camera picture that will make a 200-pound look taller than the barrel (if he’s standing in front of it), but he isn’t. Don’t “big-eye” a bear to make your- self feel good. Usually they’re smaller than you think!
2. Use More Than One Trait to Determine Size
Whatever features you key in on you’ll need more than one “positive” to confirm you’re shooting what you think you are. A mistake I’ve made is only using one metric to judge a bear. I like looking at least two or three factors to get a positive on a bear’s size. Once while hunting Northern Saskatchewan I was placed on a bait the outfitter had seen a giant bear on the day before. As he left he said, “Be ready.” Shortly after he left a sow appeared and then a big boar! The boar came in and towered over the 55-gallon drum. Without hesita- tion I said, “That’s him.” I shot the boar and it ended up being only a six-foot bear at best. I thought I was shooting a seven footer. Where did I go wrong? The bears had been digging grease under the barrel and it actually sat about six inches below the ground. The bear towered above the barrel because it was in a hole! I used only one thing to judge the bear and I made a mistake.
Not only will this keep you from shooting a lesser bear, it can keep you from letting a big one walk off. Here is an example: for years I’ve heard people say to “look for a bear with small ears.” Or they’ll say, “don’t shoot a bear with big ears.” What they’re describing is a type of mature bear with a head so large it makes their ears look small. This is a good thing, and sometimes giant bears display this trait. Here’s the catch: some big bears have big ears. One of my first hunts in Alberta three of us killed six Pope and Young bears in a week. I would have described most of those bears as having “Mickey Mouse” ears. Only one bear that week would have qualified as having “small ears.” We had to use mul- tiple variables to determine size. On this hunt it was mainly height. All these big males were really tall and they were easy to distinguish. If all I’d known was the ear thing, I’d have let them walk off. It was on this hunt I learned that height is a major indicator of the size of a bear.
3. Determine Sex & Then Determine Size
While hunting Saskatchewan last year we watched bears for eight hours a day for six days. Determining the bear’s sex was the first thing I learned to do before judging size. Often it would take some time, and was usually relat-ed to one primary factor – height. The males were tall and the sows were short and squatty. The boar’s legs were four to six inches longer, but other than that, it was hard to distinguish them apart. Spring bears have long hair and most of them are relatively thin. The other thing is looking for penal sheath under the bear about 2/3 back from the front of the bear. Often it’s a small cluster of long
hairs that hang down below the other belly hair.
Another common feature that gives away sex is large feet. For some reason I notice this be-fore almost anything. Almost every big boar I’ve killed, I noticed his wide front pads. It’s especially easy if you’ve seen lesser bears and sows and then you see a big one. You’ll notice wide feet and thick ankles. Then moving your eyes up from the feet, look at his front legs. Sows have noticeably thin ankles. Continue looking up the leg and notice the circumference of the front legs. Most mature boars, in any region of North America, will have front legs that look like stove pipes.
4. The Head
In the last two years, I’ve noticed many mature sows will have boxy heads and might even have a forehead crease. This is confusing; because you’ll hear hunters and outfitters describe boar heads as “boxy and creased” – which they certain-ly can be! Not to confuse you anymore, but of the largest-skulled bears I’ve ever killed, not one of them had a noticeable crease down the middle of his forehead. It’s kind of like saying: “all big bucks have antler bases as big as coke cans.” Well some do, but there are plenty of giant bucks that don’t. If that’s the only trait you used to determine a mature buck you’d let a lot of dandies walk off.
In the Boone and Crockett scoring sys-tems, bears are measured by the length and width of the skull. The length is always the longer mea-surement and thus a higher percentage of the score. Typically, what hunters notice is a wide head on a boar, when really the length of the skull is more important! The largest skulled bear I’ve ever taken was tall, relatively thin bodied, but his skull was over 13” long. My point? Length is more import-ant than width. However, an immature bear will look long and thin in the face.
5. They Act Different!
I’ve seen older boars act in all different ways, but the common theme is they act different than most bears. I’ve seen mature boars that bar-reled into the bait like they owned the world. This is the stereo-typical behavior that bear hunters talk about. However, I’ve also seen GIANT boars that seemed timid and skittish like a whitetail. But in almost all situations, the older boars act different than the other bears at the bait. This is espe-cially noticeable on hunts where you see a
lot of bears. More than once, I knew a certain animal was the target animal by how distinct-
ly it acted. I’ve found sows, even the older ones, to be less cautious but the older boars usually have unique actions. And I’ve seen trophy boars all over the spectrum of activity and you can’t put them in box – except this one – they act different. Here’s the key: if you see a bear with multiple of the maturity factors described and he looks like a mature animal that you’d be happy with – take him. Take your time and don’t rush your decision. Bears are notorious for ground shrinkage, so don’t become a statistic in 2019.
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