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The Best North American Black Bear Destinations

There are a lot of great opportunities to hunt black bears — if you know where to look.

The Best North American Black Bear Destinations

Jason Loftus | Untamed Images 

When North America was settled, the ranges of many large mammals shrank dramatically. Elk, bison, wolves and grizzly bears were all driven out of many areas where they were once common, and today these large game animals occupy just a fraction of their former range.

The black bear, Ursus americanus, has fared far better across most of the country than these other animals, though. Today there are at least 250,000 bears (and likely many more) located in 40 states and most Canadian provinces. Black bears survive in snowy mountains and near-desert conditions at elevations from sea level to 10,000 feet. They’ve also learned to adapt well to life around humans. Today the black bear is the second most popular and widespread native North American big-game animal behind the whitetail deer. You can chase bears in many areas of the continent, but there are some locations that stand out. Here’s a look at the five best bear hunting destinations in North America.

Alaska

  • Why Hunt here: Large bear population, great DIY opportunity, perfect place for cast-and-blast, every hunt is an adventure.
  • Seasons: Spring and Fall
  • Bear Population: 100,000
Bear hunting in Alaska
Alaska might offer the ultimate adventure for bear hunters.

Alaska has the largest black bear population of any state by a wide margin and it’s one of the best places to tag a big bruin. The largest black bears (like the largest brown bears) live in the southern portion of the state where winters are milder and food is more available, so you can begin by concentrating your efforts around Homer, Kenai and Valdez. The forests along the coast have the highest density of bears in the state, and you can expect to see them feeding in grassy flats near large bodies of water which makes spot-and-stalk hunts a great option, but baiting is also legal.

To my mind there’s simply no better option than an Alaskan unguided, boat-based bear hunt because you’ll have an opportunity to view stunning coastlines with towering snow-capped mountains and a wide array of wildlife including seals, whales, eagles, moose, mountain goats, grizzlies and more. On an unguided hunt your captain will usually drop you off on shore and you’ll hunt on your own, concentrating primarily on the wide beaches where bears like to feed on grasses and marine life. Last year I hunted the southern coast of the Kenai Peninsula and bears were in abundance, though stalking them on the relatively open beaches was quite a challenge. We also spotted bears in clear cuts at higher elevations, though chasing these mountain bears meant a long climb and lots of time spent navigating a maze of deadfall. When the hunt was over, we returned to the relative warmth and comfort of the boat and spent time catching rockfish and halibut, which made this trip even more enjoyable. Be prepared to cross paths with grizzlies while you’re in Alaska, but odds are you’ll lose more blood to mosquitoes than bears.

Idaho

  • Why Hunt Here: High percentage of color phase, ample public land, bait, hound and spot-and-stalk options.
  • Seasons: Fall and Spring
  • Bear Population: 20,000-30,000

I love hunting bears in Idaho, whether with hounds, over bait or spotting and stalking. The Gem State offers loads of public land and much of it is home to bears. You’ll also have a very good opportunity to shoot a color-phase bear in Idaho, and while the state isn’t known for producing enormous bears like coastal North Carolina, you can certainly expect to find bears in the 400 pound-plus category on occasion.

Idaho is one of the states that allows hound hunting for bears. Hunting with hounds gets a bad rap (mostly from people who have never done it), but it’s an exciting way to pursue bears so long as you’re physically capable of following a pack of dogs into steep and rugged country. If you prefer a hunting method that’s less taxing you can shoot a bear over bait, but Idaho is perhaps best-known as a spot-and-stalk destination. Nonresidents with experience in the wilderness have a good chance of success if they set up along clearcuts and glass open hillsides. Be aware, though, that parts of Idaho are home to grizzlies, so make absolutely certain which bear species you’re looking at before you press the trigger.

There’s great black bear hunting across the state, but the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is a choice place to concentrate your efforts. Further to the west lies Hells Canyon, a gorge that follows the Snake River along the Oregon/Idaho border. The canyon is steep and very rugged, but there are lots of bears there if you’re willing to put in the effort.

Maine

  • Why Hunt Here: High bear population, use of hounds and baiting both legal, lots of public land
  • Seasons: Fall (Limited Spring)
  • Bear Population: 35,000
Bear hunting with dogs
There are few thrills akin to chasing a pack of hounds through the woods for bears.

Maine has about a third as many bears as Alaska, but those numbers are deceptive. Maine is roughly one-eighteenth the size of Alaska and so the Pine State has a much higher density. Maine is 90% forest, and much of that land holds bears. If you’re planning to hunt east of the Mississippi and want a shot at a public-land bear, then Maine is your best bet.

With so much public land and such high population densities it’s possible to score on a DIY bear hunt in Maine, but there are also lots of outfitters and guides that simplify the process for you. Most Maine bear hunts are over bait, so you can expect to sit and wait for a bruin to emerge from thick pine forests. Pursuing bears with hounds in Maine is also legal, and most of these involve checking trail cameras at baits early in the day to see if any large bears have fed the previous night and then dropping hounds on the scent. Occasionally bears are seen crossing the road, and some hunters use “rigging” boxes where dogs are secured on an elevated platform while driving logging roads. When the dogs bark on bear scent (known as “striking” in hound hunting circles) it’s off to the races.

Maine doesn’t grow bears that are as large as the giants found in coastal North Carolina, but you can reasonably expect to encounter a 400-pound bear in Maine. One thing that you will not see a lot of is color phase bears: if you want a cinnamon, blonde or chocolate bear head to Idaho, Alberta or New Mexico. There are a few spring bear hunts conducted on tribal lands, but most Maine bear hunting occurs in the fall.

Alberta

  • Why Hunt Here: Lots of opportunities, affordable guided hunts, improved trophy quality, two bear limit.
  • Seasons: Spring and Fall
  • Bear Population: 39,000
Bear hunting Alberta hero photo
Alberta bears are some of the biggest, especially recently due to a lack of pressure.

Alberta’s bear population is large and there are lots of outstanding outfitters in the province that will help you tag a big bruin. One benefit of hunting Alberta is that two bears can usually be harvested, and that means you won’t have to choose between the cinnamon bear and the larger black bear that are both hitting your bait. Since COVID and the subsequent bans on international travel the overall size of Alberta bears seems to have increased. I’ve spoken with two outdoor industry professionals who hosted black bear hunts in recent years, and both told me that the bears were bigger than they had ever seen with both camps consistently producing bruins over seven feet. Alberta offers both a spring and a fall season, both of which can be quite good. The province also has a high percentage of color-phase bears, and as with Idaho and Alaska you can purchase a wolf tag here as well.

Alberta guided hunts are quite affordable and with miles and miles of forest habitat there are plenty of opportunities for bears. Flying through Canada with firearms can be quite simple or needlessly complicated, but talk to your outfitter prior to the hunt so that you know the rules and have everything in order. Doing so will smooth out the process. You can drive or fly back into the United States with meat and hides so long as you declare them.

Recommended


Alberta has lots to offer bear hunters but be aware that there are grizzlies in some parts of the province so you’ll need to make certain of species before firing. Also, don’t attempt this hunt without a Thermacell, head net and bug repellant. Better yet, bring all three. If the mosquitoes and biting flies are out when you are in Alberta expect to be swarmed, but having the right gear will keep bugs at bay.

North Carolina

  • Why Hunt Here: Home to the largest black bears anywhere in the world.
  • Seasons: Fall
  • Bear Population: 20,000

Bear hunting has a long, rich history in North Carolina. In the mid seventeenth century 16-year-old German hunter Johannes Plott arrived in the state with five Hanoverian hounds, dogs that would later serve as foundation stock for today’s Plott hounds, a favorite breed of bear hunters across the country and the state dog of North Carolina. Bear hunting is something of a religion in North Carolina, but the state is drawing more attention from nonresidents for one primary reason: the bears are gargantuan. In 2019, the average black bear taken by Dare to Hyde Outfitters weighed more than 600 pounds, roughly the size of a mature interior grizzly. If you want a really big bear, North Carolina is the place to be.

One reason the bears in Dare and Hyde counties and surrounding areas reach such enormous proportions is the long growing season and mild winters in the area. Abundant food is available in the croplands along the coast, and Carolina bears typically do not hibernate. You can expect to hunt these bruins on agricultural fields early in the morning, but as the temperature rises the bears return to the swamp thickets. If you don’t tag your bear in the open during the morning hours, you may follow them into the swamps at midday behind a pack of howling Plott hounds, an experience you won’t soon forget. In addition to the abundance of big bears, North Carolina also offers beautiful weather. There are very few places where you can shoot a record-class bear at sunrise and spend the rest of the day lounging on the beach.

Honorable Mentions

New Mexico (5,000 – 6,000 bears): New Mexico has lots of color-phase bears and you can hunt with hounds there. Perhaps the best hunting area is the Gila National Forest where bears are abundant and there’s the potential to shoot a giant. Calling bears (usually using a fawn bleat or rabbit distress) has proven effective in New Mexico, and it’s an exciting way to fill your tag.

Montana (15,000 bears): Montana doesn’t have as many bears as Idaho or Maine, and Montana’s bears are largely concentrated in the western part of the state. The steep mountains along Route 12 near the Idaho border offer great spot-and-stalk bear hunting, but you’ll need to keep an eye out for grizzlies. Montana recently reopened hound hunting for bears, which is a major victory for hunters.

Wisconsin (24,000 bears): Northern Wisconsin has the genetics to produce some very big bears, and despite heavy hunting pressure the thick timber provides adequate shelter that allows these animals to reach maximum size. Baiting is the primary hunting method here.

Saskatchewan (43,000 bears): Saskatchewan contains vast tracts of Crown land that offer ideal habitat for bears. Digging a mature boar out of the timber can be tough, but this is a beautiful landscape and it’s exciting to know that the next bear that steps out of the timber might be a true giant. There are plenty of guided hunt options and this is a great place to combine your bear hunt with a fishing excursion for a classic cast-and-blast adventure.

Loaded for Bear

Bears have a well-earned reputation for being tough so choose your rifle and bullet for bear hunting appropriately. In Alaska I used Benelli Lupo in .300 Winchester Magnum shooting Hornady’s 200-grain ELD-X Precision Hunter load and did not feel overgunned. The .300 Win Mag is a great choice for spot-and-stalk bears where shots can be rather long and you want to anchor the animal quickly, but based on my experience I believe that the new 7mm PRC is just as effective as the .300 with less recoil. I have always used a .30-caliber for hunting over bait, whether a .308 Winchester, .30-06 or .300 Win. Mag. Smaller cartridges like the 6.5s will work fine, but bears have thick hides, long hair and an underlying layer of fat that lessens blood trails, so I prefer a larger caliber for a larger entry and exit wound. In Maine our hunting party used Winchester XPR rifles chambered in .350 Legend firing 160-grain Power Max bonded bullets and the results were excellent across the board, though I like the added energy and frontal area of Winchester’s new .400 Legend and think it’s even better suited for bear hunting than the .350. Lever gun lovers will be impressed with the performance of their .45-70 and .444 Marlin rifles when hunting bears over bait or with hounds.




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