By Bernie Barringer
I’ve always been fascinated by bears, particularly black bears. I was around bears at an impressionable age. From the time I was nine years old until age 14, I lived in the Methow Valley of Washington state, at the foot of the Cascade Mountains. I spent a lot of time in those mountains, mostly with guys from our church. A couple of men from the church were leaders of the boys group that was called the Boy’s Brigade, and because those two men were active outdoorsmen, we did a lot of boy’s outings that involved camping and fishing. It was on one of these outings that I had my first experience with a black bear.
We headed up into the mountains after school on a Friday and found a campsite where we cooked a quick meal and at dark, laid our sleeping bags out on the ground. The following day we would be hiking into a high mountain lake for some trout fishing. We told jokes and acted goofy for a while as the campfire died down and we eventually drifted off the sleep. I was waken at some point during the night by a chorus of boy’s voices shouting, “Bernie, Bernie, there’s a bear!” As I shook off the sleep, I looked around and every sleeping bag around me was empty.
Soon I realized that the rest of the boys, all dozen of them, were in the back of a nearby pickup looking out from under the door on the topper. “Get in here!” they were shouting. I made it into the back of the topper in record time. Randy Bame looked at me, wide-eyed, and told me the bear had sniffed me and stepped right over my head while the rest of the boys watched in terror. They all thought I was about to get eaten.
Clearly that was a really bold black bear, but more curious than threatening. That was the first of several encounters I had with bears that fed my fascination with them. So when my family moved to Iowa when I was 14, I took up bowhunting for whitetails and my interest in bears was relegated to reading books about them. But it never went away.
Fast forward to age 40, I was an outdoor writer and I had been successful at hunting deer with a bow, but the urge to hunt bears steadily grew stronger. I wanted to kill a bear with a bow, get my bear rug and check that off my list of cool things I had done. So I booked a bear hunt in northern Minnesota. I killed a bear on that hunt, a chocolate color-phase bear, which would further play into my future as a bear hunter. The urge to hunt bears was a small coal that was fanned to a flame on that hunt. I sold an article about the hunt to Bear Hunting Magazine, which was brand new at the time.
The following year I moved to Minnesota and started baiting bears for myself. The rest is history. Now I have been bear hunting all over North America, killed the four major color phases, and reached several milestones in bear hunting. I’ve experienced several different kinds of bear hunts including hound hunts and spot & stalk hunts.
Deer hunters have things to reach for, goals to attain. A 150-inch buck, a 200-pound buck, a record-book buck, you get the idea. The goals mostly have to do with measuring points on antlers. You probably have noticed, bears do not have antlers.
But there are lots of goals bear hunters can shoot for and sometimes we need something to aim at to keep looking forward. Hunters, by nature, are collectors and achievement-oriented. So I don’t think I’m alone when I have an interest in checking more things off my list. Let’s talk through the options for bear hunters who want to check some things off their list.
The first and most obvious are the Pope & Young and Boone & Crockett record books, which keep records of the biggest specimens of all big game critters. P&Y entries are limited to archery equipment, B&C records are animals bagged by any legal weapon. For bears of all species, these organizations keep records of the measurements of bear skulls. The width is added to the length in sixteenths of an inch and that’s your score.
Minimums for a black bear to be entered into the all-time P&Y record book is 18 inches, and minimum for all time record book entry into B&C is 21 inches. The archery milestone is very attainable for bear hunters who are patient and hunt the right areas. The B&C number of 21 inches is elusive even in areas that have a lot of big bears. But hunters who stay with it and are willing to go to areas that have big bears can have a realistic shot at putting their names in the book alongside other hunters who have killed giant black bears.
It seems like every serious bear hunter wants to kill a really big one. (Caution: killing a really big one can lead to a desire to kill more big ones and even bigger ones.) In most areas, a bear weighing 400 pounds is uncommon, and would be considered a real trophy. That’s a milestone to shoot for. But there are 500-pound bears out there; and that’s the next milestone. People talk about 500-pounders all the time, but a true quarter-ton black bear weighed on a scale is a lot rarer than most people realize. It truly is a remarkable trophy.
Of course, to shoot a bear that size requires just about everyone to travel to where those bears live. There are pockets of big bears where all the genetics, food availability and habitat lead to greater numbers of huge bears. To achieve this goal, you’ll need to up your odds by going to places that consistently produce these giant bears.
You may find it interesting that I have shot a couple bears over 400 pounds and one over 500. The largest skull, a B&C bear, was one of the 400-pounders. The 500-pounder didn’t make the 21-inch minimum. These were bow-killed bears.
It’s no secret that I have always been fascinated by color bears. In fact I have specifically targeted them in my quest to shoot the Grand Slam of the four major colors. I’ve chronicled that quest in this magazine so I won’t go into detail here. But for those of you who have an interest in shooting a black bear that ain’t black, let me tell you from personal experience that getting one isn’t that hard in the right geographical location. But getting one of each can take over your life.
The four major colors in which black bears occur are cinnamon or red, chocolate, blonde and of course black. There are colors of black bears that can squeeze in between those categories, but in the interest of simplicity, most people consider these four the main ones. Once again you need to go where the color phase bears live in order to shoot one, and that means the western half of the US and Canada.
This is another list of things you can start checking off. The three main ways we pursue black bears are baiting, spot & stalk and hounds. To a lesser degree, some bears are shot each year by hunting over food sources, and in some locations, drives with huge groups of people pushing patches of woods are common practice.
Some hunters are more experience-oriented than “numbers” oriented, so to speak. So shooting a bear of a certain number of inches doesn’t have as much appeal as trying new things in new areas. If you agree, this category may be for you.
Keep in mind that there are many variations on each of these. I have hunted with hounds in Idaho and Maine, and these two hunts, while both hound hunts, were very different. As another example, spotting and stalking bears in Montana is a lot different than it is in North Carolina. This category could keep you busy for a while!
Species of Bears
Of course bear hunting has another Grand Slam that is elite and elusive. There are four species of bears in North America, black bears, polar bears, grizzlies and coastal brown bears. If you have friends or family in the right places, or $100,000 lying around to pay the outfitters necessary to pull this off, shooting these four bears could be a goal. It’s out of my reach, but wouldn’t it be cool?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and see your successes on these goals and milestones.
Feel free to email me at email@example.com.