Eye-level Bru­ins

Per­fect­ing the art of field-judg­ing big bru­ins on a spring spot-and-stalk hunt in Bri­tish Columbia

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - BY WILL BRANTLEY

Black bears are tough to field-judge, es­pe­cially on a spot-and-stalk hunt, where sec­onds count. A Bri­tish Columbia guide shares his best ad­vice.

A good-size mound of bear poop lay on the shoul­der of the log­ging road, and Chad Miller swerved his truck to mash it. “That’s a master guide’s trick right there,” he said. “Any pile with a tire track through it is old.” He took a long pull from an en­ergy drink. It was al­most 8 p.m., with a few hours of shoot­ing light left in Bri­tish Columbia. We’d been driv­ing and glass­ing log­ging roads since 11 that morn­ing, and a sur­pris­ing amount of our down­time was spent seek­ing out, run­ning over, and dis­cussing bear drop­pings.

Some roads didn’t have much fresh sign, but those that did war­ranted spe­cial at­ten­tion. We’d fre­quently stop on these and sneak into green mead­ows and clearcuts to glass for feed­ing bears.

“Man, that one there was a big old pile,” Miller con­tin­ued, tight­en­ing his grip on the steer­ing wheel. “Prob­a­bly from a real turd-kicker.”

SIZING UP

Miller owns Miller’s North Out­fit­ting in Al­berta, which is mostly a white­tail out­fit. But he also guides bear hunters every spring for Mil­li­gan Out­fit­ting in B.C. With 18 years of guid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, he has de­vised a size-clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem all his own for black bears. The tur­d­kick­ers are the gi­ant boars for which B.C. is known. They are not to be con­fused with the smaller boars and sows, which get a pass.

B.C. has one of the high­est den­si­ties of black bears in the world, and they’re as dif­fi­cult to field-judge here as any­where. Bait­ing is il­le­gal in B.C., so you don’t have the lux­ury of a 55-gal­lon drum full of dough­nuts for a size ref­er­ence. And B.C.’S hunt­ing reg­u­la­tions cite ju­ve­nile bears younger than two years old, plus sows with cubs, as off lim­its. Be­yond that, most hunters who travel to B.C. want to kill a large, ma­ture bear, not just a le­gal one. So, be­ing able to size up a bear based on body char­ac­ter­is­tics is es­pe­cially im­por­tant here—but tips from a guy like Miller are use­ful to black bear hunters ev­ery­where.

HE’S GOT A PAIR

Not every step of field-judg­ing a bear is a mys­te­ri­ous art. “There are some big sows out there,” Miller says. “So when we spot a bear, one of the first things I try to look for is, well, a set of nuts. Usu­ally, you can tell a sow apart by their other body char­ac­ter­is­tics too—but not al­ways. If I’m glass­ing a bear that’s calm and feed­ing, I like to get a view of its rear end. Then you can be 100 per­cent cer­tain whether you’re look­ing at a boar or not.”

SQUARED OFF

You can dis­cern the most about a bear’s size with a broad­side view. Smaller boars and sows will have a thin­ner look in a few key ar­eas. “You want the en­tire body to have sort of a square ap­pear­ance. Big boars usu­ally have a sag­ging belly, and their front shoul­ders will seem to be a lit­tle more el­e­vated than their rear end,” Miller says. “Sows will have more of a ta­pered ap­pear­ance, with lower front shoul­ders, and they’ll of­ten look larger on the rear end.”

If a bear is walk­ing, Miller also pays close at­ten­tion to the legs and an­kles. “Sows and small boars will usu­ally have legs that ta­per into a thin wrist at the pads,” he says. “Big boars look like they have can­kles; their legs will be just thick and straight, all the way to their feet.”

PUMPKIN HEADS

A big bear’s head will have a wedge­like ap­pear­ance with a squared-off nose. And since a bear is scored by the size of its skull, many hunters like to use a bear’s head as a yard­stick for its over­all size. But Miller says to be care­ful of that, be­cause a bear that looks to have a big head can be de­ceiv­ing.

“If the bear seems to have a large body and the head is pro­por­tioned to it, it’s usu­ally not a great big boar,” he says. “The big­gest ones seem to have a head that ac­tu­ally looks small on the body. And al­ways look at the ears. If the ears seem small for the head and are stick­ing off to the side rather than stick­ing up, it’s a pretty good sign.”

BAD AT­TI­TUDE

“Big bears are the op­po­site of big white­tails, which just get warier as they get older,” Miller says. “When bears are young, they’re scared of ev­ery­thing. They’ll usu­ally take off as soon as they see a truck. But big boars get cocky as they get older. Once they reach a cer­tain size, they know not much is go­ing to mess with them. A lot of the time, you can drive right past a big bear, get a good look at him, and he’ll barely even look up from feed­ing. That’s a good sit­u­a­tion for a stalk. You can get past him, get the wind right, and then sneak right in on top of him. It’s pretty ex­cit­ing. We guide a lot of suc­cess­ful archery hunters that way.”

NO DOUBTS

Even with Miller’s check­list, no two big boars look ex­actly alike. Dur­ing the week, we put eyes on nu­mer­ous an­i­mals that had us on the fence—and be­ing on the fence is one of the big­gest cues of all. “Don’t sec­ond-guess,” Miller says. “If you’re hunt­ing for a truly big bear but are look­ing one over and try­ing to talk your­self into shoot­ing, it’s prob­a­bly not the an­i­mal you’re af­ter.”

With that in mind, about an hour be­fore dark, we were cruis­ing down a stretch of muddy log­ging road that par­al­leled a fresh clear-cut full of new growth. We spot­ted a lum­ber­ing black form just off the shoul­der. By the time I fo­cused my binoc­u­lars and no­ticed a sag­ging gut, Miller was al­ready hiss­ing, “He’s a gi­ant. Grab your ri­fle!”

I eased down the edge of the log­ging road for a per­fectly clear view of the boar and set up for a 100-yard shot. The bear looked my way but didn’t seem to care that I was around. I hit him right on the point of the shoul­der and dropped him where he stood.

He was in­deed a beast of a bear with a thick coat. (And for a spring bear, he was fat too, which helped when I made a batch of bar­be­cue slid­ers out of him the next week.) He was just the cal­iber of an­i­mal you dream of en­coun­ter­ing in B.C. Look­ing him over and re­liv­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence, we all trem­bled a bit with left­over adren­a­line. A bear that leaves no doubts will do that to you.

SPRING 2019 A big, ma­ture boar for­ages for spring­time good­ies.

Much of a B.C. hunt is spent glass­ing for feed­ing bears in green mead­ows and clear-cuts.

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