How to Field Judge Bears

How to Field Judge Bears

Hunting a giant brown bear like this one Brian Hamm took on the Alaska Peninsula with Arctic North Guides requires patience and lots of glassing.

Finessing the focus wheel on my Leupold spotting scope, I peered through the curtain of rain hanging across the valley. A coastal brown bear had materialized from the surrounding brush. Heavy bodied, broad skulled. But was it the bear we were looking for?

Behind it, an almost-black form moved ponderously into view. It was over twice the size of the first bear, which I now realized was a big sow.

Even a medium-size bear can appear deceptively massive. For just about every possible reason, bears are very difficult to accurately field judge.

With experience and lots of time spent observing bears, a hunter can learn to appraise a bear at a glance. For the rest of us, some time is required.

Accurately sizing up a live bear requires careful examination and checking off a series of boxes. Using the steps outlined next, gender and size can be determined with relative precision.


Like humans, young bears have disproportionately big heads. A sub-adult bear can appear to have a gargantuan skull — impressive to the neophyte bear hunter. More than once I’ve heard someone exclaim, “Look at the head on that bear!” when viewing a fairly small bear.

While the skull does continue to grow as the bear ages — and in fact never entirely stops growing—it does so at a lesser rate than the body. So as a bear—particularly a boar—reaches prime old age, his head begins to appear small in relation to his body. I’ve seen monster Alaskan coastal brown bears that appeared to have bodies like a Mack truck topped by a tiny peanut head. That, my friends, indicates a very large bear indeed.

One of the best ways to quickly determine a male black bear is by looking for a crease in the forehead. Sow black bears almost never have a crease. Be aware, however, that a big brown or grizzly sow may.

Just as with horses, dogs, and deer, female bears have a more delicate, tapered, slender face than male bears. If the noseappears long and tapered, the ears fairly close, and the skull narrowish, it’s almost surely a sow. Blocky features and a blunt, square muzzle generally indicate a boar.

Ear Size

Young bears appear to have big ears. Of course, big bears have even bigger ears, but they are dwarfed by the size of the head, making them appear small, wide apart, and tight to the skull. Almost unequivocally, small-looking ears mean a big mature bear. This applies to both boars and sows.

trail cam photo of black bear boar walking
Bears don’t always pose in positions that are optimal for estimating their size.Even drawn down by hibernation, this color-phase black bear boar is massive. Note the body length, heavy forearms, and small-appearing head.

One other bit of info can be handy: Females’ ears tend to be on top of the head—even if they are wide apart and appear small—while a big, old male’s ears look as if they’re attached lower, almost down on the sides of the skull.

Attitude & Movement

One of my favorite ways to quickly dismiss a bear as too young, or to immediately recognize a potentially big bear, is by its demeanor and movement.

Young bears usually appear nervous, on edge, and quick moving like a young dog out of its comfort zone. They’ll be watchful and will display quick, startled reactions. Old boars appear deliberate and ponderous in movement and project a top-of-the-food-chain, couldn’t-care-less demeanor. They’ve earned their swagger the hard way. Aside from man, nothing can touch them, and they know it and show it.

If a bear moves slowly, like an old but very powerful overweight man, it’s almost surely both old and big.

Big, old sows also develop powerful, deliberate movement, but will never be as insolent or ponderous as a big male. After all, they know that a big boar could still kill and eat them or their cubs if they don’t remain alert and cautious.


This one is tricky. Views from different angles can give different appearances, particularly depending on whether the shoulder is forward or back. Under scrutiny, a big male’s shoulders will appear significantly wider than his blocky head—often as much as double the width. A female’s shoulders may appear wide from certain angles, but they are fairly narrow, lending a wedge-shaped appearance to her torso. Even on a large, old sow with a big skull, the shoulders will still be about the same width as her head.

Neck Shape & Length

Not only does a big boar’s head appear small in relation to his body, but also it’s on the end of a thick, long neck. In fact, the neck should appear as large in diameter as the head or even larger. Female necks are shorter and appear more compact. Often a sow’s neck and head form a taper shape from the shoulders right out to the end of the nose.


This pertains only to brown and grizzly bears. In many areas (but not all), the darker the bear the more likely it is to be a male. Big, old boars can appear almost black.

Rain—which is common where coastal browns are hunted—can make a bear appear even darker than it really is. Conversely, when dry and lit by the sun, even a dark bear can appear tinted with light colors.


This is an often-overlooked charac-teristic. Some biologists term it the “fluffy factor.” Old males tend to have shorter-appearing, smoother fur, while females and young bears usually have a distinctly fluffy appearance.

Males Appear Lanky

This can be deceptive. Big boars are blocky, with heavy, square shoulders; massive hindquarters; and a blocky head. Unless he’s at full fall weight with a heavy layer of fat, however, a really big bear often also appears lanky. Not thin—his forelegs, neck, shoulders, and hindquarters will still look massive and powerful —just long of limb and body.


This is probably the most fail-safe method of estimating a bear’s size, but taking the opportunity to measure a front paw print likely means you’ve just passed on the opportunity to shoot. Traditional wisdom suggests that a bear will square in feet around one number greater than the width in inches of its track. So a track that measures seven inches wide indicates the bear should square around eight feet.

Recently, I watched a Kodiak brown bear for an hour before concluding that my “Big Bear!” first impression was wrong. Later examination of his tracks showed that the bear, a deceptively, massively fat young boar, would square about 8 feet—20 percent shy of the 10 feet a really big male measures.

The whole package

Evaluating the entire package of size-estimating indicators takes practice. You’ve got to look at a lot of bears before your brain begins to automatically sum up the various factors instantaneously. Videos and pictures do help. If you’re embarking on a DIY hunt but live away from bears, watch as much footage of the species you’re licensed for before heading into the field.

When you see what appears to be a big bear, if possible take lots of time to observe him. Check off the characteristics I’ve detailed. If the bear fits the profile, shoot it. If not, keep watching and learning.

If you have only a brief window to shoot before the bear vanishes, prioritize and look first for a small-appearing head, small-looking ears, and a ponderous, deliberate demeanor. If he has those, it’s a fairly safe bet that it’s a big bear.

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