A reliance on quality optics is a somewhat foreign concept to hunters from the Midwest and the East. Nearly everyone hunting in those regions carries binoculars to their deer stand and may even employ a spotting scope for a summer scouting session or two.
However, to find real devotion to quality glass, head west — south and west to be specific.
It's not that elk and mule deer hunters in the Rocky Mountains don't rely on good glass, because they do. There is also a near-religious devotion to shedding ounces any way possible in that crowd as backpack hunts are so much the norm, so the goal with optics tends to involve "good enough and lightweight enough"for the job.
Hunters peering into pinion-choked canyons in New Mexico for muleys, or squinting down miles of senderos in Texas for wily whitetails need something different. They need seriously high-quality binoculars and spotting scopes. Locating a mouse-colored Coues buck bedded in a the shadow of Arizona's Mogollon Rim is no joke, and is one of the ultimate tests for both optics and hunter alike.
Southwestern hunters should approach optics shopping with a mindset of buying the best optics for the money. They should also prepare to do a little research because a heart-stopping price tag doesn't necessarily equate to ease-in-spotting in the desert.
What Makes Good Glass?
To break down what places binoculars or spotting scopes on a higher plane of quality, I reached out to Joel Harris, who heads up the Sports Optics Marketing Department at Zeiss.
Zeiss has been around for a long, long time and has grown into a leader in the optics industry, which stretches well outside of the hunting industry.
In fact, if you scout elk or whitetails with Google Earth you're benefiting from Zeiss' lenses and technology used in satellite imaging.
The first thing I asked Harris was what hunters should look for in good optics, and his answer surprised me.
"Quality glass is important," he began. "But what that glass is coated with makes all of the difference for truly picking apart shadows and spotting game animals. That's one of the reasons why we developed our FL-concept, which greatly reduces chromatic aberrations (color fringes)."
Light Transmission Is A Key Factor
How lenses are coated not only helps hunters pick apart shadows and spot details that might otherwise be overlooked, but they can also aid in light transmission.
This topic, which seems simple enough, is fairly complicated. It's necessary to dig into not only how much light transmission a certain product offers, but what exactly the light transmission claims refer to. Seem complicated? I thought so, so I asked Harris to break it down for me.
"Everyone promises some level of light transmission, but it's important to decipher whether they are talking about the light that gets through a single lens, or through the whole optical system. To hunters, the light that gets through the entire binoculars or spotting scope is all that matters.
"We promise up to 95-percent through our entire systems in our Victory line, which sets the industry standard for light transmission because we know how important clarity is during the first five minutes of shooting light and the last. That's really what matters because almost all optics will perform fairly well at midday when light is readily available."
Harris then went on to explain that no matter what optics you're interested in, you'd better give them a test run outside.
Putting expensive binos to your eyes at the counter of your nearest sporting good's store won't tell you much, but using those same binoculars outside at last light will.
How Are You Hunting?
The choice of good optics should also take into account your chosen hunting methods. The hunter who has a deer lease in South Texas may not think he needs great optics, but then he might struggle to judge trophy quality at last light when a wide-racked whitetail makes his way toward a feeder.
It's obvious that Coues deer hunters need the best glass they can get, and that anyone looking to truly gauge an antelope's potential from a mile and a half away, or a bull elk's rack from a distant basin should have quality optics with them.
However, there is always the decision to be made between carrying a tripod and spotting scope, or both. Spotting scopes will almost always provide better magnification than binoculars, but they are bulky, heavy and worthless without a tripod. Again, if weight is a factor in the kind of deer hunting you do, then you have some decisions to make.
Many hunters, especially devotees to Coues whitetails that live in the desert in sparse numbers, opt for tripod-mounted binoculars. This system can be much easier on the eyes over hours of glassing, but it also requires carrying more weight around.
The upshot of this is that if you have the means and the willingness, pick up the highest quality binoculars and spotting scope you can, and carry them as often as it is feasible.
Hunting with a partner can be a good idea for optics-intensive hunts, simply to divide the burden of carrying great glass.
It's more work to carry better optics, and you'll have to pay more, but the payoff is that you'll spot more animals and be able to more efficiently plan stalks. You'll also have a good idea of trophy status long before covering the ground to get close.