Somewhere out there in all the trees and tall grass is a buck. You have to believe that right down into your hunter DNA. You have to believe it long enough to dissect every shadow, every square foot you can peek into with your optics. That’s the game. If you don’t spot the buck you should leave feeling a little defeated, though only temporarily, as you must elevate your expectations all over again at the next vantage.
I’ve learned that lesson the hard way too many times. I was reminded of it again last winter in Sonora, northern Mexico. I’d already taken a monster mule deer after four days of staring through optics into a patchwork of desert flora. Maybe I was burned out from all of that intense glassing, as at the end of each day I felt like my eyes had been dilated. But on day five, when we went to glass for Coues deer, I gave up too easily.
We’d climbed a ridge before dawn. In front of us, and 500 feet below, was a draw wooded with cacti and short trees. Beyond it was a series of red hills smothered in sharp volcanic rock and chollas, junipers and all manner of other desert vegetation. By hour three I had all but given up when one of the guides with M/X Hunting Company said, “Veo un ciervo grande.”
I peered into his spotting scope and saw the silhouette of a beautiful buck bedded in the shade of a mesquite tree 1,000 yards away and above us. As we planned the stalk I kept thinking, I looked over that hill so closely. The buck had avoided being spotted by four of us for three hours. Coues deer, being a tiny whitetail subspecies, are like that. In comparison to what it took to find that buck, the stalk and shot were easy.
Much like Coues deer, mature mule deer and blacktail bucks also vanish into the terrain and vegetation when they bed. Pressured elk learn to hide in the landscape as well. Good optics and a patient, deliberate approach save a lot of time and can keep you from spooking game you likely don’t even know is there. To spot more game you have to take glassing as seriously as sitting in a stand for whitetails. Follow these rules.
Rule 1: Your gear determines your limitations. The first time I saw a binocular on a tripod I shrugged and thought that I knew how to keep my bino steady by sitting with my elbows locked into my knees. I considered the tripod superfluous—necessary for a spotting scope, of course, but not for a binocular. What a fool I was.
Granted, you don’t need a tripod when sitting in a treestand or still-hunting thick areas. You’ll only use the binocular to check things your eyes catch, or to scan the forest as you move or sit. But if you’re hunting antelope, mule deer or elk—or whitetails in open country—where a binocular will reveal distant things your naked eyes cannot see, a tripod is a necessity. A tripod steadies the optic and makes it easier to focus on glassing into terrain and vegetation. The stationary nature of a tripod also forces you to slow down, encouraging you to methodically search the landscape, one shadow at a time. The trick is to move your eyes into each part of the binocular’s field of view before you shift the optic slightly to search another segment of cover.
The binocular you choose should be the best you can afford and offer a level of magnification suited to the terrain. Generally, 8X is standard for treestand hunting. For glassing in the West, 10X is the minimum. Steadied on a tripod, a 15x56mm bino is ideal for big country where you’ll be glassing beyond 1,000 yards. A quality spotting scope that offers a high range of magnification like 15X-45X or 20X-60X is next on your list.
Rule 2: Get high. You’ll spot a lot more game if you can see down into the vegetation. When possible, get a line of sight above the terrain you’re glassing. Before you climb, consider where the sun will be while you glass. With the sun at your back, lighting up the slopes, you can spot game miles away.
Rule 3: Make a plan to search the terrain. It is usually best to quickly scan for the obvious before transitioning to a glassing plan. Glassing wisely is rarely as simple as searching the terrain by checking each segment of an imaginary grid. Depending on the landscape, the time of day and the game, there are areas that need more attention than others. After the initial scan, make a plan on how to systematically dissect the landscape and then focus on each specific area likely to hold game.
Rule 4: Think of glassing as stand hunting. Often an animal will be out of sight when you first begin to glass, but will pop into an opening as it feeds or moves to a bedding location. For this reason glassing is like hunting from a stand. You are watching for game to show itself. Just because you glassed an area already doesn’t mean you should permanently check it off the list. You need to continually scan and recheck likely areas.
By thinking of your vantage as a stand, you will be careful not to silhouette yourself by using rocks and vegetation to break up your outline. This mindset will also make you remember to whisper, not talk, to your hunting companions. Any hunter who has heard hikers passing through has learned just how far the human voice carries.
Rule 5: Look near and far. The first time I hunted with a guide in the West I was impressed by all the game he was seeing that I wasn’t. Partly this was because he’d trained his eyes to know what to look for, but I also soon realized he was glassing country farther away than where I was looking. As an Easterner I kept looking at the terrain within 500 yards. His eyes were there, too, but he was also scanning way beyond that.
Glass the terrain that’s within rifle range, but don’t be afraid to glass to 2,000 yards or even farther. Too many hunters only use their spotting scopes to size up game that’s already been spotted. Spotting scopes can help you find game in the first place, especially at greater distances. Each year when I hunt mule deer in the Colorado Rockies I glass basins that are 2–3 miles away. I likely won’t hunt the bucks I see at those distances until at least the following day, but finding them way out there gives me options.
Rule 6: Glassing takes practice. Spotting game is a skill, and it requires practice. You have to program your mind to be patient in order to see pieces of a deer or elk. You also need to know how to shift from a binocular to a spotting scope quickly without losing the animal. If possible, take a trip to scout the area you’re planning to hunt. This will help you find vantages that overlook the best areas. Bring your binocular and spotting scope, and put them to use. The more you practice glassing in the off-season, the better prepared you will be for spotting game during your hunt.