When it comes to field judging black bears, look for certain clues.
Spike, that’s who he reminded me of.
You’ll remember Spike if you watched Looney Toons cartoons on Saturday mornings back in the day, or have at least seen them online since. He’s a burly, big-shouldered, tough talking bulldog.
Palled up with Chester, his yippy Terrier friend, he took on Sylvester and other foils, usually none to successfully.
In this situation, though, he seemed formidable enough.
I was hunting deer with a flintlock, posted on the ground at the edge of a field, tucked maybe five feet into the woods.
The trees opened up to a band of ankle-high grass 10 yards across, then morphed into a corn field in full bloom. I was in the corner of an L, so that I could watch for deer entering the corn from either of two directions.
It was near dark. There were maybe 15 minutes of legal shooting light left when I saw corn stalks rustling.
Dang, I thought. The deer are already in there.
The swaying stalks indicated they were heading for one edge of the field, though. With any luck, they’d step into the grass at maybe 40 yards while there was still time to shoot.
I brought my rifle up to port arms, then leveled it against a tree. And then, my thumb poised to cock the hammer, out stepped not a whitetail, but a black bear.
It stood broadside, seemingly lost in thought until it, well, squatted down and took care of business, the way bears do in the woods.
That’s a heck of a way to end the day, I thought. A take-that moment from the wilds to a hunter doomed to a winter of eating vegetables if things didn’t change.
But then I noticed the stalks moving again.
No deer would follow a bear that closely, I thought. And I was right.
What stepped into the open was yet another bear, this one bigger than the first. Significantly bigger, in fact.
What a treat, something to talk about back at home.
Then, that big guy got wind of me. Not enough to know what I was for sure. But enough to want to investigate further.
He turned to face me, his nose up, working the air for scent. He saw me, or more likely a suggested hint of me, I think. I was a bit downhill – the field sloped downward, running from the corn to the treeline – with the now-dark woods at my back.
Unsure, he took a step toward me, then another, and a third. Maybe a fourth, too.
In each case, he swung his legs out to the side before bringing then forward, his shoulders too muscled to move his legs straight, just like Spike.
It was all pretty cool, at least until the bear crept ever nearer, to the point of being uncomfortably close.
Armed with a rifle that offers one shot when it decides to go off, I stepped to the very edge of the trees and yelled “Hey bear!” He responded by taking another muscular step closer.
I too two more steps, completely into the open this time, raised my arms and yelled again, this time louder.
That did it. Both bears turned on a dime and ran back into the corn field. I tracked their path by the crashing, flying stalks that sounded as if they were being mowed down by a pair of high speed locomotives.
A month later, in bear season, another hunter took one very near there that weighed almost 700 pounds.
I don’t know for sure if that was the bear I saw that day in flintlock season. But it may have been. He was just a monster.
Of course, a lot of bears at first glance probably seem that way.
It can be hard to judge the size of many species in the field. All the white-tailed bucks that suffer from ground shrinkage – their antlers smaller when you walk up to it than they seemed when you were pulling the trigger – attest to that.
Bears can be even harder to figure.
But there are some tell-tale signs of a big bear you can look for.
One are their legs. Younger, smaller bears have legs that seem long in relation to their body. Big bears seems almost squatty, with shorter legs. They’re not short-limbed, really. But their deep bodies, even portly stomachs, give their legs that appearance.
A large bear’s legs will have no ankle or wrist either. They’re wide and solid all the way from shoulder to paw.
Another thing to look at is the ears. Smaller bears have what look to be Mickey Mouse ears. They’re big and perched on the top of their heads. The ears of a big bear are the same size as on a smaller one, but they’re set closer to the sides of the bear’s head, which will be much wider, like a dinner plate.
Check out the bear’s shoulders and neck, too. A really large bear, a Spike-like bear, if you will, will seem to have lots of shoulder and no neck. His basketball-sized head will run straight into his body. A smaller bear is more defined.
When in doubt, try to relate the bear to something of known size. If there is more than one bear, it’s easy to tell which is bigger.
But you can’t count on that.
So before a bear ever appears, pick out something nearby – a stump, log, corn stalk or something else – and take note of its size. Then, compare any bear you see to that.
If all else fails, pay attention to the bear’s attitude. A really big bear knows he’s the boss of the woods and he often acts it, exhibiting an easy confidence, a nonchalance, that a younger bear lower in the pecking order won’t.
Of course, you can always wait for him to walk towards you, a mix of curiosity and perhaps hungry malice in his heart.
I can guarantee one thing: it will be memorable.
Black bears by the numbers
Some states, like Maryland, concluded their black bear hunting seasons earlier this fall. Others, like New York, are in the midst of their seasons, while still others, like Pennsylvania wrapped up their archery season and are prepping for firearms bear hunting.
Pennsylvania’s gun bear season, for example, is Nov. 17 and 19-21.
All over, big bears will turn up.
Males are typically heavier than females.
In Maryland, for instance, females generally top out at 150 to 300 pounds, says the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The demands of repeatedly getting pregnant, bearing young and raising them proves too taxing for them to add any more weight.
Males have no such familial responsibilities and so pack on the pounds. In Maryland, they can reach 600 pounds, wildlife officials said.
They have the potential to get bigger than that, though.
The heaviest bear on record in New York weighed 750 pounds, while the largest in New Jersey went 829.
In Pennsylvania, a hunter killed the heaviest bear ever reported in Carbon County in 2010. It weighed 879 pounds.
Some hunter could, conceivably, top that this fall, said Pennsylvania Game Commission bear biologist Mark Ternent.
The state is home right now to about 20,000 black bears, more than any time in a century. Hunters killed two last year exceeding 700 pounds. That makes 32 bears of 700 pounds or more since 1986.
Ternent believes there are even bigger ones out there.
“Pennsylvania bear hunters already have taken a few 800-pounders, and the odds remain good for it to happen again,” Ternent said.
Such bears are rare, though, he added. It takes one about nine years to reach 500 pounds, so to get way beyond that takes time, food and wisdom when it comes to escaping hunters.
But they exist.
The heaviest black bear ever reported taken by a hunter weighed 880 pounds. It was killed in 1998 in North Carolina.
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