Using binoculars or a Spotting Scope is an Art
I have seen many hunters pick up binoculars, take a quick look at a mountainside a half-mile away, and state unequivocally that there was no game on the mountain. The truth is they had no more idea what was on that mountain than I have what’s on the far side of the moon.
It takes patience to properly use binoculars. It also takes knowing how.
Once I was hunting mule deer in the Boise National Forest in Idaho. My brother David and I had hiked into an area where a ridge divided a range of low mountains. On both sides of us were steep canyons. Beyond were grassy mountainsides with scattered pine groves and a few aspens.
I stopped at the crest of the ridge where two trails split. One trail went down into the northern canyon, and the other followed the south side of the ridge. David went on down the ridge another half-mile and found a place to glass.
I sat down in a comfortable place, set up my walking stick so I could rest my binoculars on it, and began to glass. After a half-hour of glassing, I thought I had covered the far mountain pretty thoroughly, and I lay back to rest my eyes.
Sometime later I sat up again, picked up my binoculars and again began to glass the mountainside. After another half-hour my eyes were again getting tired of staring through the glasses. I was just about ready to eat my sandwich when I saw movement in a small grove of pines I had glassed off and on for more than an hour.
With something to hold my attention, I zeroed in on that spot. After a minute, I thought I could see a patch of something through the pines that didn’t look like rock or vegetation.
After another few minutes I suddenly realized I was looking at a cow elk. Really bearing down, I began to see more elk. After a few more minutes I realized that I was looking at an entire herd of the big animals, each as large as a cow pony.
It was approaching midday, and they had gotten up to stretch their legs and nibble some grass. When I finally quit counting, I had found 18 different elk on the mountainside.
A couple of hours earlier, I would have said it didn’t have a rabbit on it. Eighteen full-grown elk are a lot of animals to be overlooked, but I had managed it repeatedly as I sat there in the warm October sun.
Hunting pronghorns in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, my brother had shot a good buck a few days before. I had not managed to fill my tag, and the hunt was coming to an end.
I had only the rest of that day to kill a pronghorn or go home empty-handed. I had stalked a couple of nice bucks, but something had always happened to bugger the deal.
Now, as time was running out, we were situated on a large flat between two low ranges of rocky hills. I was using my binoculars, and David was working a spotting scope. I was ready to give up and go somewhere else when David said “Hey, Steve, look over in that bottom just to the left of that rocky spur on the right. I think I see the head of a buck antelope sticking up above the sage.”
Try as I might I could not see a thing with the 7×35 binoculars, but when I looked through the 20X spotting scope I could see what he was talking about. Sure enough, it was the head and neck of a good buck.
It was lying in the sage on the lee side of a ridge, out of the cold north wind. I looked over the country with my binoculars and found what I thought was a reasonable route for a stalk.
David and our friend and guide, Jerry Cowley, whose family owned the ranch on which we were hunting, drove me several miles back around the buck, until we were on the north side of the hills. Then he dropped me off.
While I started the stalk, David and Jerry returned to where we had first found the buck. There, they could see what happened.
An hour later I was behind the log cabin-sized boulder where I had decided to take my shot. I could see the pickup, parked far out on the grassy plain. They were still watching and making no gestures, so I assumed the buck was still where it had been when we spotted it. I looked around the boulder and saw the buck, still lying in its bed in the sage. I took a rest on another rock and prepared to shoot. Just as I started to put pressure on the trigger, the buck stood up and started to walk away. I put the crosshairs just in front of its brisket, to allow for the brisk north wind and its walking speed, and squeezed the trigger.
The 100-grain Sierra bullet from the little .243 Winchester dropped the buck so fast he just disappeared. As I started down to the buck the cold front that had been hanging over the mountains all morning hit with a roar. I finished field dressing the pronghorn with sleet bouncing off my hat. Without the benefit of a spotting scope, and someone who knew how to use it, I would never have bagged that buck.
Binoculars are useful even when you are hunting in heavy brush. I use my binoculars about as much in brush as I do when hunting in the mountains. With a good binocular you can actually see through brush that would normally block your vision.
When I am still-hunting brush I take a very, very, very, slow step or two, carefully look things over with my eyes, then switch to my binoculars and take the brush apart piece by piece. It is amazing the number of times I have seen an animal with the binocular that I had completely missed with my eyeballs.
I was hunting a wonderful ranch west of Uvalde. Since there were no blinds or feeders on the ranch, and only the family and friends of the family hunted there, we were free to still-hunt. I was moving very slowly through a pasture covered with huajilla, cenizo, granjeno, and other thorn brush that I didn’t and still don’t know the names of. I had seen a few does but no bucks. I would take one or two very slow steps, look things over, and then go to my binocular.
A couple of hours into the hunt I had stopped at the edge of a clearing. I had seen nothing at first glance, and was now picking the brush apart with my 7×35 binocular. I kept coming back to a small patch of granjeno in which something just didn’t look right. About the third time I glassed the patch of brush I suddenly realized that I was staring at an eyeball.
As I stared, the eyeball turned into the head of a deer, then the head grew antlers. I counted eight points on the buck. I slowly took my old .270 off my shoulder, found a hole in the screening brush, centered the buck in the scope, and rolled it over. It never knew I was there. The shot was all of 75 yards.
Without my binocular I would never have seen that buck until he spooked. He would have been gone before I could do anything. You want a binocular with relatively low power for brush hunting, nothing more than eight power. Seven power is better, and if you can find a six-power glass, such as the old Sard military night glasses, you will really have something.
Good glass is essential for any serious hunter, no matter where he hunts. If you are such a hunter, buy the best binocular you can afford and learn how to use it properly.
Many hunters think the more powerful a binocular is, the better it is. I almost never use a binocular of more than 8X, and never of more than 10X. My favorite is an old German Zeiss 8×30 Dialyte B, with individual eye focus.
I have found that if you have a binocular with dual focus, most of your time is spent fiddling with the focus knob. I prefer the individual focus and have never found it to be a disadvantage. However, if you prefer the dual focus type, that’s fine. Just get one with good glass of not more than about eight-power.
Sometimes, if I am hunting a place where the distances are very long, I will take a 10X binocular and use it for glassing from camp or from a vehicle, I will also use a 10X Alpen Apex (the smallest 10×42 bino that I know of) occasionally when hunting from a blind, but if I am out on foot, the one hanging around my neck will not be that powerful. Most glasses that powerful are big and heavy and not much, if any, better at spotting game than a smaller glass.
Stay away from the tiny little pocket binoculars. They are light and handy, but are all but useless at dawn and dusk, when you need them most. They also do not have the definition of the larger types in any light.
Any binocular with an objective smaller than 30 millimeters is not a serious hunting glass. I also, very much, prefer the roof prism binoculars over the porro prism type. I have found them to be more durable and they are more compact in any power.
Good binoculars are just as important to the hunt as a good scope on your rifle. I would never consider going hunting without binoculars. If for some reason I forget them, I feel like I am crippled.
If I am hunting in the mountains there will be a spotting scope in my daypack, or my guide’s pack. This is used for sizing up game that is too far away to be clearly seen with the binoculars. These two items have gotten me trophies that would otherwise have escaped, and they have saved me many dreary miles of hiking.
—story by Steve LaMascus