Are you more likely to shoot a black bear over bait from a treestand hung halfway up a giant old ponderosa, a bear trundling across a far ridge in search of berries, or a steam-snorting bear you’ve just called to within spitting distance with a predator call?
More to the point of this article: Is your bear rifle up to the task, given all the vastly different scenarios in which black bears are commonly shot?
Black bears (their black-tie name is Ursus americanus) are found from Mexico to Alaska, from Maine to Southern California. Only a few unlucky states can’t boast a population of at least a few bears. It’s said that black bears are second only to whitetail deer in big-game popularity in the Lower 48 states (wild hogs are not considered big game in most areas).
The admirable adaptability of black bears means that they can be found—and often hunted—in vastly varying habitat types. Hunting methods vary as widely as any other type of big game. Black bears can be baited in most areas, successfully spotted and stalked in appropriate terrain, hunted with hounds where legal, and effectively lured in with predator calls.
Dedicated bear hunters, who travel and hunt differing bear demographics in varying types of terrain and habitat, often own two or more firearms to meet the demands of the different areas. And for some of us, owning and shooting different hunting tools is half the fun. But some guys would rather have one trusty rifle perfectly suited for all types of bear hunting—and yes, such a setup is possible, though it may cost a bit to put it together.
It’s not that necessary for this gun to be pinpoint accurate for hunting over bait or for bears treed by hounds. However, it’s of prime value when spot-and-stalk hunting wide-open canyons and berry-rich slopes.
Let’s take a look at the characteristics (other than the obvious MOA accuracy thresholds) that make for an all-around bear-hunting rifle.
At first blush, it would seem that maneuverability and accuracy are somewhat at odds—the very quick-handling, responsive rifles so effective for bait hunting, hound hunting, and such are often a bit too light and short for precision accuracy. However, the gap can be spanned. Most bolt actions with 22- or even 20-inch barrels balance beautifully and—granted good quality—can be very accurate. Add to that an ergonomic stock design that handles like an extension of the hunter, and you’ve just bridged the gap.
This is all about the cartridge, and unfortunately, it leaves out much-loved close-range bear medicine, such as the legendary .45-70 Gov’t. I know, it’s one of my favorites, too. But such cartridges just doesn’t have the flat trajectory and projectile aerodynamics necessary for consistent across-canyon shooting you’re likely to encounter while spot-and-stalk hunting.
Better choices are the fast 7mm, .30, and .338 calibers—anything that throws a heavy-for-caliber bullet at around 2,700 fps or more. The modern crop of short magnums excel.
Black bears are not particularly hard to kill, but due to their hairy coat and unusual shape, they can be hard to shoot properly through the vitals. Plus, that heavy fur soaks up blood, and the loose-skinned nature of the animal’s hide often allows the skin to shift and cover bullet holes, in essence plugging them and making for difficult blood trailing.
I much prefer deep-penetrating bullet designs in a cartridge big enough to punch them clear through a bear, making two holes that bleed. As we all know, tracking a bear through rolling hills or rough brush country can be particularly frustrating if you’re working with instinct alone.
It goes without saying that you’ll need a dependable optic capable of zooming way in for long shots while spot-and-stalk hunting and zooming way out for close over-bait shots and the fast action often encountered while predator-calling bears. The classic, common 3-9X variable magnification range works very well, as does anything in 2-7X or 2.5-8X. A simple duplex reticle works well—you don’t want too much cluttering up your view on close, fast opportunities—but a simple ballistic reticle is OK, too.
I like a scope with a tiny illuminated spot in the center. Why? Because reticles are black, and black bears are, well, black, too, for the most part. Throw in late-evening conditions and thick timber, such as bait hunters encounter so often, and having a glowing spot to plaster over a bear’s vitals is a real help. Several different makers build scopes that work, but my favorite for the job—and the one you’ll see chosen here—is Trijicon’s AccuPoint. It’s battery free, it’s as durable as a chunk of petrified wood, and it’s nice and clear.
Call me old-fashioned, but my favorite bear guns will always wear iron sights, and my scope will be mounted in quick-detach rings—good ones that return to zero when the scope is removed and then replaced. Sure, for shooting even at 20 yards a scope set on 3X works just fine. But what about wading into a willow-choked creek bottom with a wounded bear laying up somewhere ahead?
You might get a moving shot at 20 feet—and for that, iron sights are superior to anything but a non-magnified optic. It’s no skin off your back to pop the levers on a set of good QD rings and pocket the scope while you go in and recover your bear—hopefully already dead—and then reattach that good glass when finished.