Mike Stroff grew up on the coast of North Carolina, home to some of the biggest black bears in North America, and spent college breaks working at his father’s bear lodge in Maine. Now, he hosts “Savage Outdoors TV” and runs hunting operations in Texas and South Dakota. Stroff hasn’t kept track of the number of black bears he’s killed, but estimates it at more than 30 between Alaska, Canada and the Lower 48. Lucky for you, this globe-trotting expert shares his top tips for shooting your biggest bruin ever.
The first step is visually distinguishing between a giant bear and a smaller one during an encounter that might only last seconds. As Stroff has seen firsthand, black bear sizes vary tremendously by region.
“On the North Carolina coast, it is not unusual to shoot bears weighing 500 to 600 pounds,” he says. “They hardly hibernate at all. They just go in for a couple weeks, and with all that crop ground and mild coastal climate they keep growing.”
On the other hand, a 300-pound bear is considered big in Maine or New Brunswick. “They have hard winters, and it’s big woods,” he says. “There’s not a lot of agricultural land, so they’re living off berries and nuts. A big bear, like a 21-inch record-book one, might weigh only 275 pounds, where in North Carolina a bear with an 18-inch skull might weigh 600 pounds.”
To sort through this huge variation and focus in on the biggest bears in any given population, Stroff checks out the animal’s head, belly and legs.
“A rule of thumb is big ears, small bear. On a big bear with a big head the ears will look like buttons,” he said.
On the other hand, if the ears look big, it’s probably a small bear, as are those that look tall and lanky, with a flat belly high above the ground. “If it looks like it has long legs, he’s not grown enough to fill out,” he says. “That’s one you probably want to pass.”
But if a bear has small ears, a wide skull with far-set eyes far, a belly sagging close to the ground, and a waddling gait, get ready.
“Typically, when they have that swagger to them, they’re pretty big,” he says.
Making The Shot Stroff has killed enough big bears to know what it takes to bring them down quickly, opting to aim forward to break the shoulder. To help ensure the shot has the desired effect, he advocates bringing enough gun.
“I’m big on taking the right caliber out for bears,” he says. “A lot of guys take their whitetail rifles and that’s good enough in some places, but I don’t like to track wounded bears so I like to take my .338.”
And when Stroff says .338, he’s talking 338 Federal and 338 Winchester Magnum, his two favorite bear calibers. His ammunition of choice for the 338 Win. Mag. is a 225-grain Fusion; for his 338 Federal rifle he goes with a 210-grain Nosler Partition or 200-grain Fusion.
“I like having that bigger, heavier bullet and I like to shoot them in the shoulders and break them down,” he said. “They can’t move much after that. Those bigger, heavier bullets deliver a lot of shock.”
His favorite rifle is his Savage 116 Alaskan Brush Rifle, with a short 20-inch barrel and open sights that make for fast handling and easy maneuvering in brushy bear country. A lot of his shots are at short ranges, maybe 40 to 50 yards, and he wants a quick-handling rifle in case he has to go after a wounded bear. “If I get in tight brush, especially if I’m tracking a bear, I can throw this rifle up quickly, find the front sight and shoot,” he said.