By Clay Newcomb
Season after season we are all confronted with the same question as we review our trail camera pictures. The question is the same one that hunters have been asking since they first started chasing bears. How big is he? You never really know until you’ve got your hands on him, and still you don’t really-really know until you weigh it on a scale. However, for the in-the-field knowledge, judging the size of bears based on trail camera pictures is critical for targeting the right bear.
Judging A Bear’s Weight from a Photo
No one should ever write an article about judging bear weight based off of camera pictures (haha). Here’s why – it’s just guessing. It’s subjective, tricky, and it doesn’t really accomplish much. Every year I send my pictures to friends that are bear hunting veterans with years of experience of killing and weighing bears, and every year we scratch our heads guessing the weight. Often we’re wrong. It is, however, fun and can help you pick a target bear. Getting pictures and guessing weights and size is one of the most enjoyable parts of baiting bears. Understanding the basics is key to accuracy. Knowing the pitfalls will keep you out of the “liar” category amongst your friends. The difference between a bad judge of weights and a liar is a fine line, you know.
Guessing bear weight is like satellites triangulating on your GPS unit to pinpoint your location. If you’ve only got one satellite, your exact position will be less accurate. If you’ve got multiple satellites, your location is more accurate. In judging a bear’s weight, you use multiple independent factors. The more factors you have the more accurate you can be. The three biggest factors I use are height at the shoulder, distance of the belly from the ground, and what we’ll call “maturity features.” Many outfitters talk about bear length, but I’ve never really keyed on that too much, though I’m certain it’s valuable.
Know the Bear’s Height:
Knowing a bear’s height at the shoulders is the most important thing to me. When you think about it, an inch of height adds a significant amount of body mass. In humans, the difference between someone who is 5’10” and 6’ can be significant in terms of weight. Two inches stretched over an entire body can make a big difference. A slender guy that is 6’2” can weigh more than a chubbier guy that is 5’5.”
When using a standard 55-gallon drum (36-inches tall), a bear whose shoulder blades are as tall as the barrel is a large bear ANYWHERE. Please note, that I am talking about the actual shoulder blades of the bear, not the top of his fur. If you can’t use barrels, distinctly mark a tree at 36 inches for reference. The truth is that few mature adult bears will actually be 36 inches at the shoulder. However, many will have fur that extends to that mark. A bear can have over 3-inch guard hairs (3.25 is the longest I’ve actually measured off the shoulder), massively exaggerating his size.
When you look at a trail camera, assuming that the camera is pointed at the mid-point of the bear and he’s on level ground, you should subtract 1 to 3 inches from the sightline of the shoulders (accommodating for the guard hairs). This will bring most bears “back to earth” and within the realm of accurate judgment. I will let this statement be a solid generalization that I believe to be true: a black bear with shoulders 36 inches tall is a very large, shooter, male anywhere in North America. I have never heard of nor seen a sow that is 36 inches tall. So, if you see a bear this big, you don’t need to see testicles to know it’s a male.
Here’s another generalization about weight as it’s correlated to height. In the spring or fall, a bear whose shoulders are taller than the barrel will likely weigh 300 pounds plus. The bear might weigh 500 pounds (he’s got the frame to), but at minimum he’ll weigh 300 pounds and square between 6.5 and 7 feet.
Know a Bear’s Belly Line:
A bear’s belly line gives you the second triangulation point for determining weight. A bear can have a giant frame, and in fact be a mature male, but not have the weight because he simply hasn’t packed it on. You’ll often run into this in the spring. A flat belly showing 18 inches of air between the ground and hairline is an indication of a thinner bear. A sagging belly, showing only 12 inches of air, is a fat one that has packed on the weight. If a bear is 36-inches at the shoulder and has only 12 inches between his belly and the ground – he’s a giant. In Arkansas in the fall, I would easily say that it is a 450-plus-type bear (and probably well over 500 pounds).
However, in contrast, while hunting in Northern Alberta in the spring our guide described the large, target males we’d be after as tall, lanky, and with flat bellies. These bears denned for six months of the year and rarely packed on great amounts of fat, especially after emerging from the den. The main thing we looked for was the height of the bear. In this context, a bear with a sagging belly usually indicated a shorter, squattier bear. The big ones didn’t have sagging bellies. Our target bear was one whose hairline was taller than the barrel. In that week of hunting it proved to be a good indicator as three of us killed six Pope-and-Young-class bears.
Using other Photos for Reference:
One of the biggest tools I use for judging a big bear is based off other pictures of different bears in the same spot. Usually you’ll have more than one bear coming into the bait. If you’ve got a smaller one coming, estimate his weight and determine how much bigger the target bear is than him. It’s fairly easy to estimate the weight of a 150-pound bear (not as much room for error). Is the larger bear 1/3 bigger? Is he twice as big? Usually you’ll over estimate, so I like to figure my estimate then subtract 10-15%. Usually this will get you in the ballpark. Sometimes a single bear picture doesn’t do it justice, but when you compare it in size to another you can really tell how big it is. Use all the tools you’ve got to judge bears via trail cameras.
This brings up another valid point. Do not judge a bear based on one single picture. Often times a bear that is positioned just right will look like a giant, and then in the next picture he’ll look average. Cameras have a way of distorting the truth, so multiple pictures are valuable.
Interpreting Maturity Features
When driving past a cattle pasture full of cows and single bull, it isn’t hard to pick out the male. Aside from his male anatomy, his body features give him away at a glance. His large square body, bulging chest and shoulders, and narrow hips give the bull away. Judging bears can be this easy, too. Understanding and interpreting the maturity features of a male black bear is key for judging bears via trail cameras. In theory, if you just had a single picture of bear’s head you get a good idea of his maturity and sex. Secondly, if you only had a picture of his legs you could gain a lot of information, too.
First of all, the classic presentation of a mature male bear is going to be a blocky, thick head. His muzzle is going to appear short as compared to the head. Some mature boars have a roman nose (an arched nose). His neck will be thick and almost absent in some bears. If it looks like his cheekbones touch his shoulders, he’s big, however, some big bears have longer necks (see photo). The ears will usually be more on the side of his head, and they’ll look small compared to his head. However, I have killed big bears with large ears positioned on top of their heads. The top of the bear’s head will be flat (envision eating a plate lunch off the top of his head.) An older-age bear’s eyes can look sunken. A mature male bear may have some scaring on his muzzle or notches on ears from years of fighting for dominance. A female’s head is going to be narrower and her nose will be more slender. The general features of her head, face, and muzzle will be more feminine.
Legs and paws
One of the biggest indicators of a male bear is his paws and legs. To state it simply, they will be thicker and bigger. Once in Alberta I had a large sow at the bait and a similar-sized bear approached. At first glance, I knew it was a boar simply by his feet. The sow had daintier ankles, and smaller feet. The boar had thicker legs, thicker ankles, and wider pads. Often, one of the most impressive things about a large male is his front legs. I once killed a 432-pound boar in Ontario in the fall. As I saw him coming through the timber I remember thinking he looked like gorilla walking on his knuckles. His front legs were huge! Every bear is going to be shaped a little bit different, but a large male bear is going to have big legs and feet. These aren’t the only features to describe an older male, but these are the ones I key in on in the field.
Trail Camera Misjudging Pitfalls
Trail Camera too close to the bait:
A friend once checked my trail camera for me and reported back multiple huge bears on camera. He exclaimed, “These bears fill up the whole picture, it almost doesn’t look real!” I was excited until I looked at the pictures myself. They didn’t look real. The size of the bears was extremely exaggerated because of how close I placed the camera to the bait site and how inexperienced the friend was at interpreting bear pictures. When a trail camera is inside of 10 feet, the bears look bigger than they actually are. They will trip the trigger of the camera when they walk between the barrel and the camera and fill up a good portion of the frame. At first glance it looks like Bigfoot is living at your bait, when it actually might just be an average bear. Depending upon the flash and sensor range of your camera, usually between 15 and 25 feet back from the bait is a good distance. You want to be able to see the size of the bear compared to the barrel, stump, or some object of known size.
Placing a Trail Camera Too Low:
Many times we are looking for ways to keep our camera concealed from bears. Even with bear boxes, they can still knock a camera out of position for good photos. Several times I’ve placed my camera low on a tree. Sometimes I’ve done it simply out of necessity. I quickly noticed that if the camera is below the mid-point of the bear, it could exaggerate their size. Imagine lying on your back and looking at an approaching person. Even a child could look big. For accurate, face-value pictures, you’ll want the midpoint of your picture to be on the midpoint or top of the back of your bear. It’s a simple concept that is easy to mess up when placing a camera. Personally, hanging the camera is usually the last thing I do at a new bait and is sometimes rushed. Don’t hang it too low.
Placing a Camera Too High:
In attempt to hide your camera from bears or people, some hunters place their cameras 8 to 10 feet up in the tree. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it harder to accurately judge the size of a bear. Knowing the height of a bear’s shoulders, and the distance from his belly to the ground are the most important parts of judging a bear on trail camera. A high position steals that information from you. The main quality you’ll have to go by from this angle is the body mass of the bear, and perhaps length. You’ll be getting a good look at the topside of him, but will not be able to fully judge his weight.
Dealing With Uneven Ground:
I am constantly using the height of my bait barrel as a reference point when judging bears. If the ground is sloped, it is easy to misjudge height. With ground sloping up from the barrel, even slightly, it can make the rump of the bear appear to stand inches above a 55-gallon drum. If the ground is sloping away from the barrel, a giant bear can appear to be smaller the barrel, disqualifying him as a shooter. There isn’t anything you can do for this other than adjust your perception. Know that ground sloping upward makes a bear look larger. Ground sloping away from the barrel can make the look smaller. Perfectly level ground is easier for judging bear size, but isn’t always available. I’ve seen many pictures where I thought a bear was “taller than the barrel”, but was really just fooling myself. The ground was sloping up and it made him look bigger.
Use these tips to help you judge bears better this fall.