How to determine a good-sized specimen?
In collaboration with Michel Therrien, professional guide
As a seasoned hunting guide, I have noted the existence of a certain folklore concerning the size of bears observed in the forest.
From one discussion in the woods to the next, when a bear is spotted, it’s often perceived as being much bigger than it actually is. Indeed, when I mention to hunters that there’s a medium-sized and a large bear on their territory, it’s not uncommon for the medium-sized bear to be confused with the bigger one. Hence, the latter, so coveted by hunters, has a better chance of peacefully continuing its life in the forest.
But why is it so difficult to properly assess the size of a bear? On one hand, the absence of a visual reference such as antlers adds a challenge for the typical moose and deer hunter, used to evaluating the size of a potential candidate by estimating the width of the antlers or by counting its points. On the other hand, nervousness and agitation may come into play when estimating the animal’s size … especially when faced with the creature itself! But fortunately, there are tips to help you out.
What constitutes a good-sized bear?
The weight of the bear varies with the seasons. During spring, after the hibernation period, most bears have lost 20% to 30% of their body mass when they leave their den. (During this rest period, their metabolism works in slow motion. For example, their heart rate drops from 40 to only 10 beats per minute.) So there’s a big difference in size between a bear spotted during spring and another during fall.
As a general rule, adult male bears in Quebec weigh between 200 and 600 pounds. The females, for their part, are a whole lot smaller, so much smaller that we speak of sexual dimorphism in black bears because of their big physical differences.
In my view, an adult female weighing 175 pounds or more during spring represents a superb harvest. The same applies for a male springtime bear weighing more than 250 pounds.
One of the biggest bears ever harvested on the North American continent was a native of New Brunswick. In November 1976, Joseph Allan nabbed a 902-pound black bear which had just fatally wounded his German shepherd dog. The bear in question was 7 feet 11 inches tall! Moreover, a 740-pound bear was fatally struck by an 18-wheel truck in Ontario. In both cases, we’re practically talking about gigantism compared to the average size of a relatively old and well-fed adult black bear… But such giants do exist.
What indicators should be observed to properly assess the size of a bear?
Length and height
The first indicator is the complete length of the bear. In fact, a bear’s physique is not unlike a human’s. If you encounter a bear five feet long or under, from nose to tail, you’re in the presence of an adult female or a young male. Otherwise, if the bear is over five and a half feet long , then you have a rather remarkable adult male within your reach.
The height of the animal must also be considered. If it exceeds three feet, you’re looking at a very interesting specimen indeed.
To help hunters properly determine these measurements, I always leave near the bait a big white birch branch about five feet long, as well as a three-foot stake driven into the ground. These two items serve as visual references for hunters to help them gauge the size of their prospect. By using a white birch and a light-coloured stake, we guarantee that these points of reference contrast sharply with the bear's dark fur, thus allowing us to better check the creature out.
Other than its length, the width of the bear and its chest circumference can give us an idea of its size. As is the case with humans, some bears are genetically longer and others are wider and stronger. I personally harvested a pair of bears weighing more than 300 pounds each, one of which was very long and relatively thin, while the other was shorter, but stocky and muscular.
Head, ears… and demeanour
The shape of the creature’s head and the width of its ears are also good clues. An adult male will have a rather large head, possibly adorned with scars and various cuts. A broad and furrowed forehead, with a small cavity in its centre, is also the marker of a memorable bear.
On the other hand, a bear cub will have a narrow head and a thinner body. If your reflex is to compare the bear in front of you to a big black Labrador dog, it's because the animal isn’t all that big!
Similarly, a heavy and lumbering demeanour — or, on the other hand, a lighter step — will tell you a lot about the physiognomy of the bear.
Finally, ground-level clues will help you track down the beast of your dreams. If you see footprints on the ground, don’t forget that a good-sized adult bear footprint is about five inches wide, measured in relation to its paws. For example, I measured the paws of a 375-pound male during spring and they turned out to be 5.5 inches wide.
Attitude and behavior
Lastly, the on-site attitude and behaviour of the animal are indicative of its social rank in its group, known as its sleuth. The lower the hierarchical rank of a bear, the more its behaviour will be precipitous, anxious, and on high alert when feeding. For example, a male bear cub will carefully scrutinize the arrival of an adult male bear, as opposed to a female interested in reproduction. On the other hand, a bear that arrives with a confident and domineering demeanour is very likely to be the dominant male of the sector. During the rutting period, an adult male may also vocalize to announce its presence, which makes the experience even more memorable.
You're now ready and equipped to track down the animal of your dreams and nab your hunting trophy! Above all, don't forget to be patient. Take all the time you need to properly assess the bear community on your territory. Bring binoculars to make your job easier and to avoid disappointments. Your bear-spotting experience will be the better for it! Finally, if you want to learn more, check out the blog post on my best tips and maximize your experience!
Best of luck!
About Michel Therrien
A true Quebec hunting icon, Michel Therrien grew up surrounded by hunting, fishing, and trapping guides. Over the years, following in the footsteps of various seasoned guides has helped nurture his passion and acknowledged expertise. For over 20 years, Michel, who is also an author and columnist, has shared his knowledge about animal life and sport hunting, and has offered moose- and deer-hunting instruction. A renowned speaker, Michel founded the Chasse Québec team and enjoys making educational videos and vignettes.