You nose detects the black bear before your eyes do. You perk up as you scan the scene, awaiting the fuzzy bruin as he makes his way into range, weight shifting from side to side with every heavy step. You’re perched and ready for the shot. The thrill of adrenaline from taking down an alpha predator at the top of the food chain is a big factor in why so many people love hunting black bears.
For many people, an out-of-state black bear hunt is an item to check off the bucket list. But the question is: Where to go? The good news: Black bears can be found in nearly every corner of the United States. They thrive in a wide area, from the colder, snowy climates of the north all the way down to the scrub brush and wetland forests of the south, and in coastal directions both east and west.
Some states have both booming population pockets and ideal conditions for hunters. An ideal black bear hunting destination consistently produces large bruins and has either an excess of public land or outfitters with exclusive rights to private parcels that help to ensure the bear hunt of a lifetime. These top five picks meet all those requirements, and more.
Wisconsin has earned its place on this list with a proven track record of delivering big black bears. We suspect it flies under the radar for bruin hunting because it’s such a whitetail deer hot spot. In any case, on Pope & Young’s list of the top 10 bruins of all time, the Badger State accounts for four of them. The largest of those four is 22 11/16-inch monster taken by Duane Helland in Chippewa County in 2003.
The downside of Wisconsin is that the secret is out, and the demand to hunt for bruins is growing. Wisconsin doesn’t offer over-the-counter hunting licenses, though: You must apply for the chance. In 2016, only 11,520 people received a permit out of 109,000 applicants, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s website. Yikes! The odds have been similar across the last few years.
So even if you’re planning your trip for years down the line, the time to start applying is now. Wisconsin uses a preference point system. The longer you put in, the greater your odds. You have the option of applying a preference point if you don’t plan to hunt this season, which is a good way to build up points during what will probably be a long wait. As for where to pref, Chippewa County is the best spot to draw a bear tag in Wisconsin, but don’t overlook Jackson or Polk County. Both of those have produced big bears on the Pope & Young top 10 list.
Alaska is home to nearly 100,000 bruins, one of the largest populations in North America. The great thing about the 49th state is that not only are opportunities to draw a permit better than most areas in the Lower 48, but in some spots you can purchase over-the-counter bear tags. At $450, they’re not cheap, but they’re one of the more readily available bear tags in North America.
The downsides? The weather, cost, and logistics. Black bear hunting in Alaska is notoriously tough due to the constantly shifting weather conditions, which can not only change bear behavior but also delay your flight out as you wait for it to be safe for a bush plane to land. Getting to Alaska also isn’t cheap no matter what time of year it is. Finally, the overall vastness of many of the public land areas can make success rates much lower, despite the high population of bruins.
Further, hunters need to be wary in the Last Frontier, as black bears and grizzlies abound in the same areas. A good outfitter can help you identify an animal that’s truly a black bear and help avoid unusual color phase bears of a different species. However, hiring a good guide will make sure you don’t make that mistake.
It may be the tougher trip from a travel and organization aspect, but Alaska also offers the most remote hunting without worrying about competing with others. It also offers the most scenic vistas for the hunt of a lifetime.
3. North Carolina
North Carolina produces some huge black bears, and a whole lot of them. The state’s Hyde County has more black bears per square mile than anywhere in the world, and those coastal bears are also absolute giants. It’s not uncommon for black bears there to weigh in at over 500 pounds or even 600 pounds. That’s equal in size to an interior Alaskan grizzly bear! A few North Carolina black bears on record weighed north of 700 pounds, and a world record heaviest 880-pound black bear came from Craven County, North Carolina, in 1998.
Black bear hunters must purchase a Bear Management E-Stamp before hunting in North Carolina, in addition to a hunting license, big-game privilege license, and nonresident bear license (if applicable) to hunt bear in North Carolina. It’s also mandatory in North Carolina to submit at least one premolar tooth from any harvested bear in the designated envelope from the Game Commission.
Arizona is a great state to target black bears and also one of the easier to get in on the action every bear season. Permits for the spring bear season can often be bought over the counter. Tags are also on the cheaper end of the spectrum: $37 for residents and $160 for nonresidents.
You may be wondering if there’s a catch with Arizona. Why don’t more people talk about bear hunting there? Well, a few reasons: One, it’s tough hunting in rugged country. Two, you’re not allowed to use bait in Arizona. Yep, that’s right: Spot and stalk only, which is not an easy task with any bear. Also, because it’s a more moderate climate much of the year, some experienced bear hunters may find it challenging to learn their behaviors.
Bear hunting in Arizona is different than in many other states, but that’s no reason to cross it off the list.
The bruins grow to ridiculously huge proportions in the Keystone State. All it takes is one look at an animal like Tyler Wilbur’s 704-pounder to realize you’re in the land of the giants. In 2018, Pennsylvania produced bears weighing 679 pounds, 704 pounds, and 780 pounds, respectively, with that last one taken in Forest County.
Licenses are reasonably priced and some are available over the counter in Pennsylvania. You’re looking at just $17 for a resident and $37 for a nonresident, making it one of the cheapest bear hunts out there. In a state rooted deep in deer hunting traditions, bear hunting stands to become more and more popular as time goes on, considering how affordable it is.
Like Arizona, Pennsylvania has a baiting ban in place for all lands, public and private. Which is just fine because the state’s hunters have readily adapted. Most hunt bear like whitetails, out of a treestand after patterning them. However, some hunters organize drives for them like deer. Who’d have thought?
Idaho is the state to go if you want options on the style of your bear hunt. You can spot and stalk, you can use bait and hunt from a treestand, and you can even use dogs if that’s your bag. Black bear tags are available over the counter, and nonresidents are looking at about $232 for a nonresident license. Idaho also offers low-cost mentored hunting licenses for newer hunters and disabled veterans.
On top of all that, this state has a track record of nice-sized bruins. The state record, which scored 22 1/8-inches, was taken in Management Unit 11 in 1991 by Tim Bartlett. Other hot spots for Idaho include Nez Perce County, Bonneville County, and Caribou County. All these places have produced multiple bruins scoring over 20 inches over the years.