Whitetail deer may be America’s most popular native big game animal, but black bears run a close second. Black bears inhabit 40 of the 50 U.S. states and these highly adaptable animals can survive almost anywhere there is suitable habitat from Mexico north through Canada to Alaska. They’ve even learned to live alongside humans, thriving in suburbia just as they do in remote wilderness areas.
That means that there are lots of opportunities to hunt black bears, but where should you go if you want to find a record-book bear? Big black bears seem to turn up in almost every corner of the country. We’ve taken a look at record-book entries as well as bear populations, access to remote areas and other factors to determine where you are likely to encounter a really big bruin this year.
1. North Carolina: Bears are entered in the Boone & Crockett record book based on their skull measurement, with 21 inches being the minimum for the All-Time records, and North Carolina consistently produces book bears. In 2016, Edward Barr harvested a massive bear in Surry County, N.C., with a skull that measured 23 5/16 inches, which is currently tied for the fourth largest black bear of all time. But if record-book entries were based on the weight of the bear alone, the Tar Heel State would likely own the top spot. Coastal North Carolina’s bears are absolute giants, and places like Hyde County consistently produce black bears over 500 pounds, equal in size to an interior Alaskan grizzly. Bears over 600 pounds aren’t unheard of, and there have been a handful of North Carolina bears that legitimately weighed north of 700 pounds. Good genetics, a long growing season, lots of cover and ample, nutrient-rich food combine to make Carolina bears some of the biggest on the continent.
2. Wisconsin: The Badger State is one of the best places to connect with a record-book bear in the Lower 48. A fourth of the top 20 Boone & Crockett bears killed in the United States have come from Wisconsin, and many of those bears, including Robert Gilbertson’s 23 1/16-inch Barron County bear from 2018, were harvested in the last decade. That’s a good indication that Wisconsin is continuing to produce very large black bears and will into the future. There are lots of credible bear guides in Wisconsin, and hunts there are usually quite inexpensive. While not everyone who hunts in Wisconsin brings home a book bear, it’s exciting to know that a giant could emerge from the surrounding forest at any moment.
3. California: Even though California sports a bear on their state flag (a grizzly), it is one of the most underrated bear-hunting states in the nation. There have been several record-book bears killed in California over the years, including a 21 7/16-inch brute harvested in Mendocino County in 2018. Mendocino, Ventura, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Counties have produced the state’s biggest bears, and while regulations on bear hunting in California are stricter than in other states (both hound hunting and lead ammunition are banned), there are good opportunities to kill a book bruin there.
4. Idaho: Idaho doesn’t produce as many book bears as other states on this list, but the Gem State offers unequalled access to millions of acres of wilderness areas where bears can reach a ripe old age. Bear tags are affordable and easy to obtain in Idaho, and you can hunt them by glassing and stalking hillsides, running with hounds or baiting. Even though Idaho doesn’t have a bunch of bears in the Boone & Crockett top 20 doesn’t mean that there aren’t giant bruins in the state, and there have been lots of big bears killed there in recent years, including Scott Lynas’ 21 11/16-inch Latah County giant in 2016. I hunted Idaho in the Spring of 2018 with Twisted Horn Outfitters and saw more big bears there than on any previous bear hunt anywhere. Browning’s Rafe Nielsen harvested a 400-plus-pound giant on that hunt that would rival bears in top-producing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
5. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania has produced five of the top 20 Boone & Crockett bears in the U.S., which places the Keystone State in a tie with Wisconsin for the most top 20 entries. But Pennsylvania has produced the No. 2 and No. 3 black bears in the world; it truly is the land of giants. Black bear hunting is a part of Pennsylvania history, and many family-owned bear camps have been operating for years. The biggest bears have come from Monroe, Fayette and Lycoming Counties, but there’s a good chance to find a big bear in just about every corner of the state.
6. New Mexico: New Mexico has produced a lot of bears that scored over Boone & Crockett’s 21-inch All-Time minimum, including a 23 1/16-inch giant in 2016, and New Mexico probably has the best odds of shooting a record-book color-phase bear of any state. For the best odds of getting a book bear, look to Catron County and the Gila National Forest. Five of the top 10 B&C bears harvested in New Mexico were harvested in Catron County, and Gila National Forest is one of the most magnificent wilderness areas in the entire country. Chasing bears with hounds on horseback and glassing feeding areas are both viable options there, and Steve Jones of Backcountry Hunts specializes in calling bears in New Mexico, which is an up close and personal way to tag your record book bruin.
7. Alaska: When most hunters think of big Alaskan bears, they imagine coastal brown bears, but the Last Frontier is a fantastic place to harvest a really big black bear. Record-book black bears can pop up just about anywhere, but there are certain areas of Alaska where the odds of getting a book bear are much higher. The coastal rainforests of Prince of Wales Island in the southeastern corner of the state has produced seven of the top 10 black bears in Alaska, including a 21 6/16-inch bruin in 2018. Hunts there aren’t cheap, but the landscape is impressive and there’s a good chance of finding a really big bear feeding in the local salmon streams.
8. New Jersey: There’s no doubt that New Jersey produces some really massive bears, including a new state-record B&C black bear in 2019. What is in question, however, is whether or not New Jersey will allow bear hunting in 2021. Governor Phil Murphy ended bear hunts on state-owned lands and has promised to end all bear hunting in the Garden State following the 2020 season. Groups like Safari Club International and Sportsmen’s Alliance are trying to intercede on behalf of hunters and prevent emotion from derailing otherwise sound bear management practices, but whether hunters will be allowed to harvest bears in N.J. in the future remains in question. Nevertheless, the state is home to plenty of big bears.