How To Use Optics To Hunt Open Deer Country in The Southwest
A former guide shares his tips for finding deer in the open country of the Southwest
For the first decade of my hunting career I relied on physically covering more country than other hunters to find game, wearing cheap, shirt-pocket binoculars only to confirm suspicions or size up game already discovered with my naked eye.
In my early 20s, as an aspiring big-game guide, I was lucky enough to hunt with a cadre of seasoned hunters who taught me the importance of quality optics and how to use them effectively.
These men spent more hours sitting behind glass than hiking, and showed me more bucks than I’d ever realized existed in habitats I’d been hunting for years.
Those early lessons changed the way I would approach hunting forever.
All Southwestern glassing begins with a quality 10x42mm binocular. More powerful binos are available (which we’ll examine momentarily), but 10x is as much magnification as most hunters can hand-hold steadily for long hours.
As a big-game guide, spending 200-plus days afield, I once advised hunters to spend as much money as possible on new binoculars. The obvious choices were German or Austrian glass from Zeiss, Leica or Swarovski, or exceptions like Bushnell’s Elite or Vortex’s Viper lines. They’re gin clear and hold up to constant abuse over the long haul.
Understandably, shelling out $1,250 to $2,500 for binos you use only occasionally isn’t financially feasible for most hunters. Luckily, there are plenty of binoculars in the $450 to $550 class that’ll get the job done.
All own similar qualities: They’re “fully multi-coated” for enhanced light transmission and scratch resistance, rubber armored to absorb bumps and knocks, and all have some heft.
Quality glass and rubber protection adds mass, but that mass is actually a boon, helping binoculars sit steadier when you hold them to reduce eye fatigue/nausea after long hours of use.
Hunting Coues whitetails taught me the importance of big, tripod-mounted binoculars. Some Southwestern terrain is simply so vast, finding a single vantage and covering your surroundings—even if some ridges and hillsides are miles away—makes the most sense.
Ultra-high-power, tripod-mounted binoculars allow you to glass longer distances, probe brushy terrain thoroughly, and make finding tightly-bedded game feasible.
When Coues whitetail hunting, in particular, we start with 10x42s, but when nothing is immediately apparent, we deploy the big guns.
My big binos have long been Zeiss’ 15×60’s. I’m not even sure they’re still made, but they are illustrative of the benchmark you’re seeking. They’re big and heavy for added steadiness, super-sharp and powerful to allow distant probing, with an objective lens large enough to penetrate heavy shadow or minimize the effects of midday heat shimmer.
Modern options include Swarovki’s SLC HD 15x56mm, Vortex’s Vulture HD 15x56mm or Kaibab 15x56mm and 20x56mm, Nikon’s Monarch-5 16x56mm or Cabela’s Instinct Euro HD 15×56, as examples.
I once believed I could live without a spotting scope. They’re decidedly heavy and consume a lot of daypack space. With time, however, I learned to deal with the added burden, as they ultimately saved more energy than they consumed.
Trophy hunting well aside, a spotting scope simply saves your legs, carrying you effortlessly across wide canyons or up steep mountainsides to confirm suspicious objects or decide whether an animal warrants more effort.
Is that rounded lump a bedded buck, or just a rock? Is that deer a buck or a doe? Obviously, when trophy hunting, spotters provide detail you’d never be able to achieve without them.
You can move in for a closer look—an expenditure of valuable time and energy—or you can set up the spotter and dial it in to be sure, spending prime time seeking more interesting targets should a suspicion turn out to be nothing, or a distant animal of no interest.
I’m not extremely fussy about spotting scopes. I spend less time looking through them, and I’m not a sheep guide judging trophy quality from miles away. Top-shelf spotting scopes are astronomically expensive, and quite heavy/bulky.
I want something with decent resolution, but also something I won’t be inclined to leave behind if backpacking into wilderness or investing in quick reconnaissance runs.
Compact, variable-power spotters from Nikon, Leupold, Bushnell and Vortex have all served me well over the years, normally something in the 15-45x60mm class and running from $250 to $350 fills the bill.
The most productive glassing typically involves an organized glassing “system,” as opposed to scattergun glimpses. I normally read terrain like a book, top to bottom, left to right. That’s just me.
Top to bottom, right to left is fine, so long as you develop a system that ensures you cover every square foot of the terrain visible from your selected vantage.
I use landmarks, such as rock outcrops, snags or open patches of ground to mark the edges of my field of view, giving me a precise starting point when I run out of ground across the top line before moving down to the next, or after I’ve scoured a complete field of view.
While employing my systemized approach I don’t just pan optics across the landscape, hoping something jumps out at me. Instead I work in individual panels, moving binoculars to a fresh field of view and holding them still while moving only my eyes within that window of terrain.
Only when I’m sure nothing is within the current field of view do I move on to the next. This simply assures I miss fewer animals. Once I have run out of terrain, I’ll normally return to those patches of ground that appeared especially intriguing and give them another look.
Of course, some common sense is needed. No use glassing sunny-hot patches of ground when the weather is hot.
Conversely, when it’s especially cold, sometimes probing patches of sunshine is the way to go.
Use your head, use your optics to their full potential, and you’re nearly assured of finding more game every time you hit the field—no matter what the quarry is.