Of all the wild meats I've eaten, nothing varies in quality as much as black bear. Their flesh, and particularly their body fat, seems to reflect their diet in an almost literal way. Bears that have been eating spawned-out salmon tend to taste and smell like spawned-out salmon; bears that have been eating bloated carrion tend to taste and smell like bloated carrion; and (thankfully) bears that have been eating blueberries tend to taste and smell like blueberries.
Thus, the culinary-minded bear hunter needs to select his quarry with care. For instance, I target coastal black bears only during the first few weeks after their emergence from hibernation -- usually early May. At that point in their annual cycle, they are purged of their salmon-flavored fat reserves from the previous fall and they are eating a primarily grass-based diet. Push it too far into June and they'll be eating Lord knows what, often stuff that died over the winter and washed up on the beach.
By far, the best tasting black bears are those that do not have ready access to fish. The finest bear meat I've ever eaten has come out of the interior alpine regions of south-central Alaska. Bears in these areas will start eating various berries at lower elevations as early as June. Go high into the mountains in October and you'll find them eating berries still. The following clip was taken from a recent black bear hunt in the Chugach Range. The animal yielded many pounds of meat as well as over two gallons of rendered, berry-flavored bear oil. Use it for baking and frying and you'll see that butter has a competitor for all-around tastiest and most useful substance on earth.
Journalist and author Steven Rinella is the host of the Sportsman Channel series, MeatEater.