Planning a bear hunt this year? It’s important that you have the right tools for the job. According to most estimates, North America is home to almost one million bears, and with more states opening seasons for bruins there’s never been a better time in recent memory to book or plan a bear hunt. For the most part, selecting a bear rifle is relatively simple—but that’s not always the case, and one key to picking the right gun is knowing where and how you’ll hunt.
Bears are more variable in size than most big game animals, and while 150-pound bruins are the average in many areas, there’s always the possibility of running into a real giant. Some black bears, particularly those found around agricultural areas in the southeastern United States, reach gargantuan proportions. This is due to a long growing season and plenty of food, but big bears are found in the far north, too. Even in colder climes where food sources are more limited a quarter-ton bear is not out of the question.
In addition to their range of size, bears are extraordinarily tough. With heavy muscle, thick hide and dense bone, bears can absorb a tremendous wallop and continue moving, so sometimes even the right cartridge in the right place will still result in a blood trailing job. Compounding the problem, their thick skin, body fat and long hair (in some climates) limits blood trails and can make follow-ups difficult. Black bears can be extremely dangerous when wounded, and even a relatively small bear can inflict serious injury. The best option by far is to put the bear down quickly and efficiently with the first shot, both out of respect for the animal and for the safety of the hunter.
Size and Method Matter
There are three primary methods by which most bear are harvested—over bait, using hounds or by spot-and-stalk methods. Bait hunting is probably the most common, and it can certainly be very exciting. You’ll often have multiple bears feeding very close to you, and in some areas, particularly in the more remote regions of Canada, bears have a proclivity for climbing into stands—sometimes while the hunter is present! One great advantage that bait hunting offers is time to look at and evaluate the bear.
Because many of us (myself included) aren’t experienced in judging the size of a bear, we need special help when deciding whether the animal we are looking at is a trophy or not. As bears feed around bait, you can look at their head size, the space between the ears and, more simply, their size relative to the bait can and competing bears.
If they’re really big there’s usually little debate, but borderline bears can require more time to judge when deciding whether or not to shoot. In addition, baiting offers a chance to make sure that you’re not looking at a sow with cubs. Spot-and-stalk hunting is often physically challenging and generally offers less time to shoot at a bear that is farther away. The general tactic is to set up on a high point in bear country to glass for animals that look large enough, and once a specific bear is targeted the trick becomes moving into position for a shot. This can be a relatively easy process or more challenging because of steep terrain. Above all, you must trust your ability to judge that the bear is mature, and you must also know your range limitations. That being said, spot-and-stalk hunts are exciting, and although they tend to be physically challenging, they offer a great sense of accomplishment.
Hound hunting gets a bad rap, mostly from people who mistakenly believe that it’s easy. If you’re booking a hound hunt for bears because you believe you’ll simply saunter up to the tree, I have some bad news for you: you’re going to be sorely disappointed because there’s no formula regarding where (or if) the bruin will take to the treetops, and wherever the bear decides to go you must follow. This sometimes means a long walk through rough country, and it’s been my experience that a hound hunt for bears, while not as challenging as a spot-and-stalk hunt on average, can quickly turn into a marathon that tests your will.
The Best Cartridges for Each Hunt
With bear over baits, long-range trajectory and retained downrange energy are not as important as stopping power, maneuverability and the ability to deliver fast follow-ups. Most shots on baited bears are less than 50 yards, so bullet drop is rarely an issue. But you’ll probably be maneuvering in a tree, and that means shorter rifles are best.
For me, there are several great options depending on the platform you intend to use. Bait hunting is perfect for lever-action rifles, which generally have a short overall length and functional iron sights, though scopes will work better in low light conditions. Lever guns also offer very fast follow-ups. If you make a good first shot then follow-ups aren’t necessary, but, as I said, bears are tough, and I like to take every opportunity to put them down as quickly as possible. If you shoot just behind the shoulder (as you should) bears often wheel around and bite. This gives you an opportunity to work the lever and place an insurance shot, which should make the blood trail easier to follow. I believe that the classic .30-30 is a superb choice for bait hunting, but it’s far from the only lever gun option. In fact, the .40s like the .444 Marlin, .45-70 and the most impressive .475 Turnbull are all better choices if you can handle the recoil. The big .40s leave a large hole, and they provide tremendous shock.
With bolt-actions, your favorite deer cartridge will do fine, although I’d leave long-barreled magnums behind. Short carbines are best, guns like the Remington Model 7 and Model 673, the Winchester Featherweight, Savage’s Bear Hunter, Ruger’s outstanding new Guide Gun and Mossberg’s Scout rifle. Calibers between .270 Winchester and .375 Ruger are effective, and the .308 and .30-06 offer plenty of load options, good bullets, plenty of power and they extend your range to several hundred yards. All scoped bait guns should have low-power variables, something like 1-4 or 2-7x being best.
When it comes to spot-and-stalk hunts, magnums are more useful. Remember, bears are tough and they can be big, so use a cartridge that is not only powerful but retains that energy over a long distance. I believe that bear cartridges start at the 6.5s and .270s as a minimum and move up to the .375s, and the middle-of-the road 7mms, .30s, and .338s are the best option—if you can handle the recoil. This means your .270, .30-06, or 7mm deer rifle falls right in line—and that’s true.
Those are three great bear cartridges, but if you’re hunting big, open country you really need to think about a flat-shooting round. The ones listed above, particularly the 7mm Remington Magnum, will do just fine, but you should also consider other flat-shooting cartridges like the new 26 and 28 Nosler, the Weatherby Magnums from .270-.300, and the .300 Winchester Magnum. These cartridges certainly offer plenty of knockdown power and energy, and with a high-powered scope you can really reach out. Hound hunting is a special consideration. Aside from the fact that the rifle needs to be chambered in a caliber powerful enough to stop a bear—and you’ll be in close and they’ll likely be agitated, so this is a special consideration—you’ll probably want a bear rifle that’s light.
While hound hunting might not require much walking at all, you might be traveling miles, and at the end of a steep climb you’ll have to make a shot. I don’t want a heavy gun with a long pipe in that situation. Instead, give me a light, short, handy rifle that will stop the bear quickly and effectively. The lever guns work very well, and the .30-30 and .35 Remington do just fine. Even handgun-caliber lever guns like Rossi’s Model 92 in .454 Casull are great, and my buddy Aaron Carter’s Thompson/Center in .500 S&W is another great option. Light bolt guns like Kimber’s Adirondack will also work. Optics are nice but certainly aren’t necessary, so I’d stick with low or no magnification models. Red dots from Aimpoint and Leupold are great choices.
Bears are tough, and you need a very tough bullet to bring them down. Because of their robust build, light bullets simply won’t do the job of getting through all that hide and muscle, so you must rely on a bullet that will do the job every time. For this reason, stick with bullets that have a reputation for reliability. Usually this means a heavy copper jacket that is fused to a lead core or an all-copper projectile. Nosler’s Partition is a great choice, as is the Swift A-Frame and even Remington’s time-tested Core-Lokt. There are a number of copper alloy bullets that will get the job done, too, and there is no chance of core separation with these rounds. Barnes TSX and TTSX and Hornady’s GMX are excellent choices, and they’re going to hold up well. Bullets with light jackets will separate, especially if you hit bone, and you’ll lose an injured bear. Solids will penetrate, and while they are fatal if they strike the right spot, they don’t create massive wound channels nor easy-to-follow blood trails.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2016 print issue of Gun World Magazine.