Field Skills: Optics Focused on Western Big Game
October 09, 2019
How to choose and use optics to pick apart vast landscapes and find trophy hunting.
The wide-open West may represent a blank slate of opportunity for dreamers, but it vapor-locks many of us big-game hunters who can’t imagine there’s an animal worth pursuing across endless expanses of same-looking country.
This is one of the struggles of the Western big-game hunter: learning to overlook miles of uninteresting land in order to spend time studying little saddles, creases, valleys and folds for the deer, elk and antelope they hold.
This is where good optics pay for themselves—by giving you the ability to disregard wide swaths of country in favor of studying from afar the most game-rich spots on the map. The proper use of optics will save you time, many empty miles in your boots and will allow you to maximize the amount of time you devote to places with the highest probability of encountering the buck or bull of your dreams.
If you doubt the importance of glass as an essential hunting tool, walk into the showroom of The Outdoorsmans in Fountain Hills, Ariz., just east of Phoenix. Big telescopes are trained at distant mountains. Binoculars the size of celestial-observation instruments adorn shelves. And showcases bristle with scopes that would be at home on a sniper’s rifle.
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The Outdoorsmans specializes in gear for Southwestern big-game hunters and the gear they sell is designed to allow hunters to find and evaluate animals in huge, open landscapes. Many of these optics are made by European brands and cost as much as a fine rifle. But the investment is worth considering. In the right hands, and at the right times, open-country optics are more valuable than any other piece of gear in your kit, and by bringing the images of distant animals closer, can save you many miles and hours of walking.
This story isn’t intended to convince you to drop thousands of dollars on high-end products, because the reality is that optics of more modest price and capability will serve you well as long as you understand that open-country glassing requires a different pace, mindset and horizon (literally) than scanning woodlands and tighter terrain.
If nothing else, this story should convince you your binocular is the single-most important piece of equipment on a Western hunt, more important even than a far-shooting rifle or a game-hauling backpack. That’s because you’ll use your binocular hundreds of times more frequently in the course of a hunt than the other gear, and you won’t get a chance to use your rifle or pack unless you can first find game. If you’re hunting open country correctly, then you’ll be stopping every 50 yards or so and using your binocular to scan the area ahead of you.
Here’s why: the best walkabout binoculars are the 8x40 or 10x42 varieties, small enough to be portable on long hikes but powerful enough to help you conjure animals at middle distances, say anywhere from 100 to 1,000 yards out. I use my binocular any time I question something I see—a tuft of sagebrush that could be the ear of a bedded mule deer or the fork of a pinon pine that might be the antler of a raghorn bull elk.
You’ll want a durable and accessible chest harness for your binocular. I like harnesses that have a lid to protect my optic in the rain or snow or dust, but which can be left open for ready access to the binocular.
This is a key to open-country glassing: always scan the direction you are headed, but take time to also scan your periphery. I have encountered many animals on my flank that I would have missed if I simply kept my toes, and my binocular, pointed forward.
Open-country binoculars are generally grouped in three classes. The first are the short-range 8x24 or 8x32 models. These are great for archery seasons, because they’re light and generally can be used with a single hand (your other hand will be occupied with your bow) and they have wide fields of view, allowing you to take in an expanse of country at a single glance. The downside: these binoculars aren’t as good for long-distance observation.
I like to match the magnification of my riflescope with that of my binocular, so that I see the same-sized image in both optics. So, if I have an 8x40 binocular around my neck, I’ll put my variable-power scope on 8X. Ditto with 10X optics.
Then there are the mega-sized binoculars, models with 12X or 15X magnification and objective lenses in the 50mm and 56mm sizes. These are wonderful for magnifying distant critters and they occupy middle ground between smaller binoculars and spotting scope. But they’re also big and bulky and can be hard to carry around, plus their large magnification can make images appear blurry because of the shakiness of our hands. These are wonderful binoculars for long-distance viewing for extended periods of time, but they’re at their best when attached to a stabilizing tripod.
If you’ll be doing much long-distance observation, say from a mile or more, then a good spotting scope will help you locate and assess distant game far better than a binocular will. But spotting scopes are big and bulky and they generally require a tripod to stabilize them. That means they’re better suited for a pickup or base camp than for deploying in the field.
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Still, most spotting scopes have magnifications triple or even quadruple those of binoculars and allow hunters to vastly extend their vision. If you want to split the difference between a walk-about spotter and one that will allow you to view long distances, consider a 50mm or 65mm version. They may not have all the optical horsepower of an 80mm or 85mm, but they’re easier to carry.
When it comes to picking a spotting scope to buy, most hunters opt for the largest configuration possible, generally a 20-60x80. It’s nice to have that sort of optical reach, but the reality is images get dark and blurry at the highest magnification, especially in the low light of morning and evening. I’d recommend that that you save the money you’d spend on a full-size spotter and invest in a mid-sized unit, say a 15-45x60, which is lighter to carry and will give you most of the magnification that you want.
WIND AND MIRAGE
Two environmental factors that are near-constants in the open country of the West will frustrate your use of high-powered optics. The first is wind. I like to set up my spotting scope’s tripod on a height of land that will allow me maximum vantage of the surrounding landscape. But those promontories are also the windiest places on the range. If you find that the wind is shaking your spotter, introducing blur to the image that frustrates your ability to view distant animals, then you can lower your profile, add weight to your tripod, or you can dial down the magnification on your scope. Or maybe you do all three in order to view during gusseting winds.
The second factor is mirage, or the heat shimmer caused by the sun in the middle of the day. Mirage mainly affects early season antelope hunters, but it can also frustrate hunters any time you are glassing distant targets when the sun is overhead. It can even be a factor during the winter when the sun is reflecting off snow, because the optical magnification compounds the radiation waves on the landscape. The best way to minimize mirage is to lower magnification or glass with the sun at your back.