The infamous ‘ground shrinkage’ of black bears

By Bill Wiesner

When estimating size and weight, black bears are the most misjudged big game animal in the woods. Bears simply look much bigger than they are, especially to hunters who have not seen several of them under the self-imposed stress condition of viewing one at close range with the intention of putting a tag on that bear.

Therefore, the huge bear before the shot frequently becomes a much smaller bear when the hunter walks up to it.  Sometimes the difference is so great the pre-shot giant looks like a post-shot sack of potatoes. That can put a damper on your spring, or fall, bear hunting success.

A black bear with a front paw width of five inches is a good bear. (Photo courtesy of Target Communications)

Contrary to popular belief, all bears are not 500 pounds. As a matter of fact, a 500-pound bear is exceptional. Hair up to four inches long, often standing erect when the bear approaches the bait, adds considerably to the visible circumference of the animal. That, plus a bit of fear and general unfamiliarity with the animal, create large weight and size misjudgments.

Over the years I have taken many first-time bear hunters to the north woods. Until that time, the only bear they had ever seen was at a zoo or in a picture.  Not only did they tell me they wanted a 500-pound (or better) bear, when they shot a 200-pound bear they thought they had killed a 500-pounder.

In an Ontario camp one year, a father and his two sons were on their first bear hunt. I took a decent 200-pounder the first night out and after that contented myself fishing and visiting with the outfitter and his family. About six o’clock on the third evening an RCMP officer pulled into the lodge’s driveway. One of the sons was so excited he had started to walk back to camp. The officer had picked him up on the highway.

The young hunter had a smile a mile wide and proceeded to explain his hunt.  He said he shot a MONSTER bear climbing his tree. The outfitter asked “Where did you hit it?” “I don’t know,” the young man said, “but it died 50 feet from where I shot it.“

I asked how big it was.  “At least as big as your bear,” he replied.

There was plenty of time to retrieve the bear before dark, so we headed out. On the drive to his stand, the young man explained how committed he was to bowhunting … thousands of hours of practice just for this hunt, etc., etc.

Parking the truck, we grabbed the cot to carry out the bear. The outfitter took his rifle, just in case. From the stand, we walked over to the young man’s bear. The “monster” bear was a yearling, about 70 pounds. The young man’s smile lit up the place. He was sure his bear was a trophy, and for him it was!

Later that evening in the lodge, he got into some Canadian whiskey and his mouth started spilling big stories that, after a while, were a bit irritating. Finally, he looked at me and asked, “What would you do with ole’ big boy?“

“Tan its hide and make a wallet,“ I said. I probably should have apologized, but I didn’t.

One year I tagged a 200-pound Michigan bear. A young lady at the gas station/convenience store came outside to register it, took one astonished look and said “Oh my gosh!  That bear has to be 400 pounds!”

“Nope, sorry. It isn’t more than 200 pounds.”

“Nossir. It has to be 400 pounds.”

“Why do you think so?”

“A guy registered a bear here 20 minutes ago. He said it weighed 250 pounds, and your bear is almost twice its size.”

Accurately field-judging black bears: factors to look for

  • Adult males have a big head with a crease down the middle of the forehead (some females do, too); smaller cookie-sized ears in relation to head size; ears appear on side or ‘corner’ of head; thick, heavy front legs; body mass full and chest and stomach close to ground, and they walk with a rolling gait or a waddle. All big bears walk with a rolling gait.
  • Big bears move more slowly, check their surroundings more often and more cautiously.
  • If the muzzle appears wide and short, that’s a big bear.
  • Triangulation — width between ears, ears to nose. If all three sides are the same length, you’re looking at a big bear.  The smaller the bear, the shorter the line between ears in relation to lines from ears to nose.
  • Differences between male and female: Males have large heads in comparison to females; a large female will have a head that looks small on its larger body; females have smaller front feet than males, seemingly out of proportion to body mass; females have shorter body length, almost seem as tall as long. Their overall body appearance is somewhat round. Males are longer-bodied.

A measuring stick at bait

  • Light colored stick (white birch sapling, other light-toned stick, dowel rod) seven feet long, marked at five-foot and six-foot lengths with black tape, stick laid on ground near bait.
  • Small pole tied horizontally at 30 inches or 36 inches near bait to judge height of bear standing on all four feet.
  • Logs covering bait, five, six or seven feet long.
  • Bait barrel, 55 gallons. Eight-inch hole in the side between the two projecting rings. If the bear can’t get its head in the hole, it’s a shooter. On four feet, a bear with its back level with top of the barrel is a trophy; three-quarters up the side of the barrel is a good one, and a back halfway up the barrel is an average bear.

Bill Wiesner has hunted black bears for 40 years, tagged 57, hunting them over most of North America using every permissible hunting arm. This article is from How-To Chapter 8 – The Shot (before, during, after) – of The Bear Hunting Obsession of a Driven Man. Reprinted courtesy of Target Communications. Learn more at targetcommbooks.com.

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