Any mirror worth its silver lining need not reflect upon the answer for long. Hands down, the toughest big game animal, for the muzzleloader hunter to field judge, is the black bear. Believe me, I know; even though I've personally guided 200 clients to their bears, I still suffer stage fright in that critical moment when it's time to put up or shut up. Big bear? Little bear? Sow? Shoot? Don't shoot?
And suffer so I should, there is no panacea for judging black bears. Any black bear hunter or guide, who doesn't agonize over the call, simply hasn't hunted for the confounding critters long enough. Add to this the fact that there isn't a hunter alive who would tell you that what they'd really like to shoot is a "small bear", and the problem of judging black bears becomes even more critical.
I've got a "memory bank" full of stories with a "how difficult it is to judge black bears" theme, but I always tell new clients the same one. It happened while I was guiding my good friend Lou Rupp and his buddy George Orphan. It began when I spotted a bear on a grassy slope beneath an old logging road. "He's a hog!" I stated confidently after glaring at the bear through the spotting scope. "Let's go get him!"
We worked our way to a point directly above the bear, about 30 yards away when my confidence began to quiver and quake.
"He's a rat!" My second-guessed my first impression. "Might be a sow. (We don't let our hunters kill sows) Might not be either. Might be a small boar. Ya! That's what it is! Won't go 18 inches in the skull, maybe 17 and will weigh 200 pounds. But maybe not! Might go 19 plus and weigh 400 pounds! Ya that's it! He's big. NO! Wait! He's a she. Wait! Yes shoot! NO! Don't shoot!"
Lou and George looked at me like I was suffering from dementia.
"Jim?" It was Lou's shot. "Want to leave him and go find another bear?"
"Ya. Leave the bear. Go find another." I stared at the bear through an autistic fog, a shattered half-man incapable of making the call for my client. "Ya. Leave the bear. Go find another. Ya. Leave the bear. Go find another."
Within ten minutes, we were onto two more bears...one of which was a big bear, I assured Lou. "Take him!"
Lou made a perfect shot and the boar died. I died shortly afterwards as I walked up to the "ground shrunken" beast. It wasn't a small bear exactly, it was a 17-inch, 200 or so pound boar that would have been a nice bear in most bear camps, but it wasn't a boar that would have made the 18-inch minimum skull measurement to qualify for the Longhunter Society record book. Thankfully, Lou was a true sportsman and was thrilled to get the bear in spite of my wrong call. Even more thankfully he had a second tag in his pocket and would get another chance to kill a big bear. However, Lou's chance would have to wait, it was George's shot now.
"George, let's go back and look at the first bear again." I said.
And that's what we did. The bear was still feeding on the same patch of grass, but this time, George informed me to cover my ears and fired. The bear, that could have been Lou's, if I could have made the call, ended up being a monster scoring 19 5\16 Boone and Crockett points, squaring over seven feet and weighing well over 400 pounds!
Why Are They The Toughest To Judge?
The black bear doesn't grow anything on its head that the hunter can use to help them judge the size of the bear, and nor is there any obvious morphological differences between males and females. So that leaves only relative scale. The difficulty begins when the bear is either farther away or closer than the hunter thinks. A "farther away" bear will usually be bigger than the hunter thinks while a bear that is closer than the hunter thinks, will generally be smaller.
Surprisingly, the problems don't cross over into judging grizzlies or brown bears. The difference between a monster bear, and a medium bear in these species, speaking in terms of hide squaring, is a couple feet. In black bears, the difference is a few inches! A giant black bear will only stand three or so inches taller and be a few inches longer than a medium bear black bear.
Don't only judge black bears by their relative body size, use their behaviour and physical traits to help determine both the sex and size of the bear. Big old boars will act like bullies; they'll be fearless and swaggering. They'll be on the very best food sources at the best times of the day. Big old boars will have thick forearms, like Arnold, as opposed to sows, which will have dainty wrists. Big old boars will have deep, wide snouts and a greater distance between their ears. Often they'll have a clef between the muscles on the top of their head. If you have good optics, you can often sex the bear definitively before the stalk begins. A smaller bear's chest will appear to slope upwards to the bear's armpits and their step will be quicker and lighter.
Last but by no means least, get closer. We muzzleloader hunters are fortunate in that we have to get closer to the animals we tag up on, this makes judging black bears far easier. The closer you are to a black bear, the more sure you will be about the call. That said, whenever black bears are involved, there is such a thing as too close!