By Clay Newcomb
When I was in high school in the late 90s in western Arkansas, our bear numbers were just starting to become really strong. I’d never killed a bear and the only people we knew who had were legendary in our region. Even seeing a bear track was a big deal. A padded imprint in the dirt with toes and claws held a degree of mystery that has yet to leave me even 20-plus years later. I love bear tracks.
In 1997 my father, Gary Newcomb, found a bear track on a lonely forest service road in the Ouachita Mountains. The track was in some heavy clay, so he took a spade from the truck and dug up track. He brought me home a seven-pound clod of dirt complete with a beautiful bear track right in the center. The dirt clod held together for the better part of a decade on the bench of Dad’s shop. Since that time I’ve learned as much as I could about bear tracks. This article is part two in our series of understanding and interpreting bear sign. In the East, hunting bears in the thick cover is a tough. Honestly, it’s one of the most difficult ways I’ve hunted bears and you need to know as much as possible about every clue that bruins leave. Tracks can be a big part of their story, because they’re leaving tracks everywhere they go. Well, that’s almost true.
If you’re hunting with hounds you’re interested in the scent left by tracks, however, when still-hunting bears scent means nothing. You can gain three things from a bear track; the general size of the bear, how long ago he was here, and the direction he was traveling. That’s all the possible information that can be gathered. The hard part is that 90-plus percent of the Eastern Deciduous Forest is covered in leaf litter making tracks hard to discern. The only places you’ll find clear tracks in the dirt are in areas of bare dirt. These areas might include ditches along roads, mud holes, creek banks, pond banks, near springs or the odd place that’s void of leaves. Honestly, bears don’t leave a lot of visible tracks in this type of country, so when you see one you need to capitalize on all that it tells you.
Estimating the Size of Bear by his Track
The generic statement about bear tracks is this: measure the width of the front pad and add one to it and you’ll have the square of the bear. For example, if a track has a print that’s four inches wide you’re looking at a five-foot square bear. Do you understand “bear square?” You get the square of a bear by measuring a green hide (freshly skinned). You measure the length from the base of the tail to the nose. Secondly, you measure the width of his front legs from front claw to claw. You add these two numbers together and divide by two to get the “square.” From my experience, the “width plus one” of the track gets you in the ballpark, but can fail miserably the bigger the bear gets. For example, the biggest bear I’ve ever killed had a genuine square of 7.5 feet. That bear had a pad that was about 5.5 inches wide. Basically, a front pad that’s over five inches wide is typically a mature boar, and guessing his weight is futile. A big boar can fluctuate several hundred pounds from year to year, but his pad size doesn’t change.
Here is the way I think about pad size and judging bears. A three to four inch track is a juvenile or female. A track five-inches plus is mature male and that’s about as far I can take it. Additionally, bear pad size is different region to region. I’ve found that Canadian bears have much larger pads than our southern bears. Perhaps it has to do with walking in bogs and swamps favors big feet where our mountain bears don’t need. I’ve also heard that North Carolina swamp bears have big feet!
Estimating the Age of Track
The most valuable information you get from a track is its age. You’ll become good at aging a track by deductive reasoning and common sense. When is the last time that it rained? Has the track been rained in? Are the edges of the track sharp and crisp or are they rounded and worn? If I find a track in the mud I will make a boot track near it and compare the sharpness of the edges. When you do this over and over you’ll begin to develop an internal system for evaluating the age of tracks. A great learning tool comes when you begin to evaluate your own tracks when you hunt an area multiple days in a row. You know when you were there so you know all the data about that track, now begin to apply the things you’re observing to bear tracks. It’s not magic; it’s just common sense and observation.
Another piece of information that a track tells you is the direction the bear is traveling. This may or may not be valuable, but it’s good to note. Perhaps there is stand of white oaks he’s traveling towards or maybe a beechnut ridge. Just know that the direction he’s leaving is also important, because he also spent some time back there. You’ll always kill a bear where he’s going, not where he’s been. You may, however, kill him on his way back. Man, this is brain twister! And, you are rarely going to sneak up on a bedded bear, though I’ve done it.
Bear Trails in the Leaves
Bear trails padded out in the leaves is a common thing that you’ll find when hunting the east. I’ve seen two types of bear trails, the first being a worn, distinctive trail about 10 to 14 inches wide. However, the second type can be found in places where the terrain funnels bears into very specific places you may find padded impressions where bears have stepped in the exact place over and over – this is common. It will look like individual bear-sized indentions in the leaves, but since it isn’t bare dirt you just see the impression. You might find this where bears are funneled around a rock outcropping. Typically, these will only be evident in small stretches. Once the terrain opens up the bears walk wherever they want. This doesn’t always indict a great place to hunt it just means when they travel through this area they do the same thing every time.
It’s important to begin to understand what an average bear trail looks like, the first type I described, as compared to a deer trail. A deer trail is typically narrower and can be beat down to some bare dirt because of sharp hooves. Obviously, bears and deer often travel the same trails, so a bear and deer trail can be one in the same. However, a true bear trail will be slightly wider than a deer trail and will looked “padded out.” Most of the time bears travel through general areas, especially when feeding, and you may not see a bear trail. They only make trails when traveling and where the terrain funnels them into walking in certain areas.
Hunting bear trails can be productive if you find an active trail. Bears are nomadic and use different parts of the landscape at different times. You may find a beat out bear trail, but there may not have been a bear there in weeks. What you hope to find is a good trail with some evidence of recent usage, like some fresh bear scat or a bare spot that shows a good track.