Because most outfitters don't have scales in camp to weigh black bears, hunters typically have to rely on length measurements when discussing bear size. But how big is a 6-foot bear, and how is it measured? That question might seem like an easy one, but don't be so sure.
Depending on where you're hunting, your outfitter or guide will probably ask you to wait for a bear measuring more than some specified minimum length before pulling the trigger. For example, he might say, "Wait for at least a 6-footer."
But here's where things get tricky in the field. To be on the safe side, you decide to ask your guide to place a 6-foot log on the ground at your bait site to use for comparison while you sit in a nearby treestand. A bear arrives later and you can tell the bear—from nose to rump—is almost 1 foot shorter than your reference log. Is it a 5-foot bear? Not really. Let me explain.
Let's say you kill this bear. It's your first one, but instead of being excited, you're worried you've shot a small bear. The guide arrives and he's more excited than you are, and he even gives you a high-five for killing a good bear. You're happy now, but a bit confused. Back in camp, the guide skins your bear and then hangs the hide by its nose over a high wall-tent pole and measures it from nose to tip of tail. He then extends a dirty hand and says, "Nice job. That's a beautiful 6-foot bear."
Later, things get even more confusing.
Upon the outfitter's recommendation, you decide to leave the bear hide with a local taxidermist to have a rug made. Nearly a year later, a box containing your new rug arrives to your home, and you can't wait to unroll the 6-foot hide on the floor.
That's strange . . . the rug seems too small. As you dig for a tape measure, you can't help but think there must have been a mix-up with the taxidermist. After all, your bear was 6 feet long; you watched the guide measure it yourself. Sure enough, the tape tells the story: This bear rug measures 5 feet 6 inches from nose to tip of tail. What's going on?
Montana taxidermist Jim Brandenburg has worked on black bears for more than 40 years and can shed some light on the subject.
"I know quite a few taxidermists across the country, and this topic comes up over and over again," he said. "It's unfortunate because once a hunter convinces himself that he has received the wrong bear from a taxidermist, it can ruin his trip, his memories and what probably was a good relationship with the taxidermist. Adding to the problem is that quite a few taxidermists, especially those who do only a few bears a year, don't fully understand the problem enough to be able to make their clients understand. They just know they made the bear rug as big as they could, and now their client is mad at them."
In the hunting example discussed above, the hunter initially thought he shot a 5-foot bear. What he failed to recognize is the bear's skinned hide measurement would be longer than the eye-balled straight-line length measurement of the live bear when compared to the 6-foot log. When you look at a live broadside bear, its back is curved, its head is curved, and its tail isn't sticking straight out. In fact, if the hunter had seen a bear that was the same length—nose to rump—as the 6-foot log, the skinned hide for such a bear would probably measure close to 7 feet from nose to tip of tail.
So why doesn't a finished bear rug match exactly with a freshly skinned hide? Brandenburg says hunters need to understand that a tanned hide will never be as large as the "green" (skinned) hide.
"The tannery didn't shrink the bear," he said. "Green hides actually ‘let out' bigger than the bear really was, and with tanning, the hide returns to the actual size of the bear. This enables a taxidermist to make a life-sized mount the same size as the bear was on the ‘hoof,' but a tanned hide will never match the larger green hide measurement, and it shouldn't. When a tanned hide is stretched for a rug, it will end up bigger than the actual carcass, but usually won't go as big as the green hide."
So when it comes to talking about bear size, which measurement is correct?
"Use the green hide measurement when comparing notes with hunters and outfitters," Brandenburg said, "but leave it at the door when you visit your taxidermist. A green hide measurement is an abstract figure used for bragging rights and isn't an actual measurement that can help with reproducing a proper likeness of the bear. At best, referencing green hide measurements to your taxidermist won't help him out a bit; at worst, it'll cause needless problems between the two of you."
In summary, Brandenburg offers this advice: "There has always been a lot of confusion about bear hide measurements. All you have to remember is that the green hide will be bigger than the bear was; the tanned hide will be the size of the actual bear; and a stretched rug will be in between those two."
Now you know why the Boone and Crockett Club uses only the width and length of dried bear skulls as scoring criteria.