|May - June 2002
Volume 34, Number
The D'Arcy Echols Legend rifle is built on a Winchester Model 70 bolt action. A Leupold scope is secured in custom rings and mounts. Rifle photo by Gerald Hudson. Dall sheep photo by Mike Barlow.
Even out here in the wide-open West,
half the hunters dont carry binoculars. Of those who do, at least three-fourths
carry low-price compacts, often stuffed inside coat pockets. So only about 12 percent
actually wear optics around their necks - and of those, perhaps half actually use them to
find game, instead of merely looking at antelope, deer or elk theyve already seen.
Add all those numbers up, and maybe one in 20 hunters actually gains much from binoculars.
The truly handicapped are, of
course, the hunters who think binoculars were made obsolete with the invention of the 3-9x
riflescope. Instead of carrying clunky field glasses around their necks to see
if the object across the canyon is a stump or a deer, they crank their scopes up to 9x.
This is wrong on every level possible -
though the practice was suggested in several hunting magazines back in the 1960s, when
variables first started taking over the scope market.
Most obviously, scope-glassing
breaks the primary safety rule: Dont point any firearm at any object you cant
afford to blow a hole through. This includes another hunter, who may grow irritated when
you point a 7mm Magnum in his direction.
Also, even the finest 3-9x
riflescope doesnt help you see as well as any decent, full-sized 8x binocular. Why?
Binocular means two-eyed, and the stereoscopic effect of good binoculars gives
a depth to the world a one-eyed telescope cannot. Consequently, most people can see detail
better out of 10x binoculars than a 15x telescope. Plus, its a lot easier to glass
with a 2-pound binocular than an 8-pound rifle, and looking through two eyes produces much
less eyestrain than squinting through one.
Even many hunters who actually carry
binoculars make the mistake of wandering the wilds with their prized glass safely inside a
daypack or case. This ensures theyll only glass game thats already seen them,
and very little of that.
A few Novembers ago, I sat with my
back resting against a limestone boulder in the Beaverhead country of southwestern
Montana, glassing across a canyon. The afternoon sun lay only a hands width above
the horizon, signaling that magical hour when game begins to wander.
Pretty soon some mule deer appeared.
Through my 10x Bausch & Lombs, they appeared to be a big doe, two fawns and a small
4x4 buck, probably a 2 1/2 year old. The young buck was sniffing the doe in hope of
getting lucky. A doe in estrus is the finest buck-bait in the world, so I sat back and
kept glassing, hoping for a bigger buck.
Soon two hunters appeared on the
same hillside, a half-mile from the deer, hiking hard as if competing for an Olympic
medal. The doe saw them almost immediately and trotted uphill to the edge of the timber,
where the rest of the deer soon followed. They watched as the two guys closed the distance
to 200 yards, whereupon the old doe thumped into the trees, followed closely by the young
The hunters heard the thumping, so
stopped and looked up, seeing only the fawns. One of the hunters put a hand inside his
jacket, retrieving a small black object, from which he eventually wrestled a compact
binocular. He aimed this at the fawns for awhile, then shrugged to his partner, and their
forced march continued.
Over my years of glassing public
lands, Ive seen variations on the same scene repeated over and over. Sometimes
somebody gets a shot off, though not usually effectively, but the basic pattern repeats
itself like any unlearned history lesson. All these hunters carry optics of one sort or
another, yet none of them ever use the darn things (even their riflescopes) before they
see game, thereby violating Rule #1 of glassing: Look carefully at any empty
landscape, because it may hold game.
Human eyes are quite good at perceiving
detail, partly because most of us can discern color. Our sharpest vision occurs in a very
small area in the back of our eyeballs called the macula lutea. Images that fall outside
the macula lutea, in our peripheral vision, arent perceived with nearly as much
detail, though peripheral vision picks up motion very well. The detailed vision of our
macula lutea works best when our heads still, the reason hunters who merely hike
through the countryside (like the two guys in that canyon) rarely see deer before deer see
Magnification effectively shrinks
the macula lutea. At 10x, the most popular binocular power, the macula lutea perceives
only 1/100 of its normal field of view. Why? The macula luteas essentially a circle,
and 10x shrinks this circle to 1/10 its normal diameter - which covers 1/100
of the area of the unaided macula lutea.
Go ahead. Pick up a pocket
calculator and do the math, using the formula youve forgotten since junior high: the
area of a circle equals its radius squared, times pi (3.142). A circle 10 inches in
diameter, for instance, has an area of 78.55 square inches (5x5xpi). A circle one inch in
diameter has an area of .7855 square inch (.5x.5xpi)
Even our unaided eyes cant
perceive much detail if we dont stand still and look hard, but they see even less
when we sweep the landscape with 10x binoculars. Theyll miss the white
throat of a buck bedded in the shadows of a Douglas fir but will see the deer bounding
away, because our motion-sensitive peripheral vision still works even through 10x glass -
the reason many hunters only see alarmed deer.
Consistently successful hunters dont
hike around the woods, blasting away at running deer. Instead they sit still, or take just
a few steps before standing and looking for a long time. Being still helps us see deer,
even if theyre bedded down, because bedded deer often twitch ears, scratch ribs or
chew cuds. Seeing deer first allows these careful hunters to stalk closer, or ease into a
steady shooting position, making the shot certain.
Unless we use binoculars to search
for unseen deer, even the finest 10x50s in the world are mere neck-weights. When glassing
much beyond 100 yards, we should try to be as steady as when shooting, so our eyes can do
Lets refine Rule #1:
Stop and really look. Dont pan the hillside like a TV camera in a baseball park
following The Wave. Instead, hold the binocular steady on one piece of landscape, and look
around inside its circular field.
Get as steady as you can. Sit down,
preferably with your back against an oak or sagebrush. When hunting I often wear a
baseball-style cap, partly because grabbing the bill along with my binocular steadies the
view considerably. Or use a pair of cross sticks as a rest, or stand your rifle up (bolt
open) and use the barrel to steady the binocular.
Rule #2: Glass
inconspicuously. A few years ago I informally guided a friend whod drawn an
antlerless mule deer tag in the Missouri Breaks. We mostly hunted chunks of public Bureau
of Land Management ground that could be reached by county roads. These often hold deer,
especially if you hike over any ridge, away from the road.
Wed driven about 10 miles to a
single square mile of BLM land at the head of a dry crick, as theyre
called in Montana. These headlands usually have plenty of mule deer cover: erosional cuts
that splay like fingers from the main crick with patches of juniper at the heads of the
draws. I parked the pickup beside a low ridge and hiked up, my friend behind me. Near the
top I got down on knees and elbows and wormed over, Swarovskis ready.
Rule #3: is to
first look nearby with bare-naked eyes, just in case somethings right there. In this
case some mule deer lay along a cutbank 250 yards below us. Through my glasses they turned
into two does and a 3x3 buck.
About this time my friend walked
right up to the top of the ridge and stood there, glassing the uphill reaches of the
crick, half a mile away, where a few patches of juniper clung to a bluff. Nothing
here, he said, as if conversing in a noisy restaurant. The deer didnt much
care for all this, so eased to their feet and started to walk away.
You want to shoot a mule deer?
Well, yeah, my friend
You could shoot one of those,
I said, pointing downhill.
Upon seeing the deer he jerked his slung rifle
off his shoulder, then floundered into a sitting position as if racing a falling tree. The
deer, previously only mildly disturbed, now bounced away in that beautiful mule deer
stott, then stopped to look back at about 300 yards, whereupon my friend shot
over the bigger does back (right where hed aimed, it turned out, since hed
decided a .30-06 needed a little help at that range, even when sighted 3
inches high at 100 yards).
Rule #4 involves
patience. Despite the marvels of modern optics, it’s hard to see game sitting
perfectly still a half-mile away. While I’ve found many deer by spotting their throat
patch, ears or antlers, more often we see something move. The movement can be extremely
obvious, as when black bears ramble around an avalanche slide on a bright May afternoon,
but it can also be exquisitely subtle.
Early one September in the Alaskan
interior, three of us sat glassing for caribou and moose. It was huge country, mountains
and willowed river bottoms rolling on without fence or road or any other human object for
20-odd miles. We sat on the end of a grassy ridge overlooking the valley, and each took a
direction. I had the left flank, and eventually started glassing a birch-covered north
slope almost a mile away. After 45 minutes something white appeared on the edge of a small
clearing I’d already glassed six times.
Putting down my 10x binocular, I
leaned over and grabbed our communal spotting scope, already on a tripod. Turning it down
to 15x, I found the white spot and was cranking the magnification up when the spot
disappeared. At 30x, I could see that dark red had replaced the white.
Then the moose turned his head
again, and the white reappeared.
It happens just like that. For a
long time the landscape lies peacefully slumbering, and then one detail crystallizes.
Attached to that detail a large mammal appears, as if materializing from the shimmering
In this case a bull moose lay bedded
in the shade along the clearing’s edge, one antler visible - an antler so freshly
cleaned of velvet that the bottom surface was still dark red with clotting blood, while
the upper surface had been washed white by rain. Each time he turned his head the color
For such long-range glassing, many
hunters choose 10x or more. I do this often myself, but for most glassing 8x works better.
Why? Our macula lutea doesn’t shrink as much, allowing us to find pieces of game more
easily. For typical woods ranges, I’m tempted to suggest going to 7x or even 6x -
except you can’t buy many 7x or 6x binoculars anymore.
Why not? Because we won’t buy
them. In the typical American approach to everything, we believe bigger is always better.
We buy far more 10x binoculars than any other magnification, even in pocket models with
such tiny objective lenses that they go blank well before shooting light ends. I own a
dozen binoculars from 7x to 12x, but if I had to settle on a single model, it would be one
of the 8x40s. Eight-power is much more versatile than anything else, doing remarkably well
when finding game, even at long range. This is the most important job of binoculars, not
evaluating antlers 1,000 yards away. For that you need at least a 20x spotting scope.
Which brings us to Rule #5: Never
hunt without glass around your neck. Many woods hunters believe binoculars are worthless
at close range, but when still-hunting or even stand-hunting, they’re much more
effective than our eyes, especially when looking at deer screened by branches and (once
again!) much less conspicuous in use than any riflescope. Less conspicuous is always good
when glassing, especially at 75 yards.