by John Barsness
MOST BIG-GAME HUNTERS are binocular-illiterate. This may seem odd, when more and more hunting magazines run optics articles and even regular optics columns. But most of these essays deal with rifle scopes, because that’s what hunters dream and argue about. Many of these stories claim that today’s super-elusive bucks come mostly at long range, or in light so dim the owls are bouncing off the oaks. So every 7mm-08 must wear, at a minimum, a 4-12x variable with a 50mm objective lens.
From what I’ve seen in the deer woods, a lot of hunters buy this line. And many others spend their lunch hour worrying about how to scratch together $500 or $1000 to buy such scopes. Maybe a tenth that number worry about adequate binoculars. This, to put it bluntly, is exactly bassackwards from the way our world should be.
Over the past 30 years I have managed to put big game from three continents firmly on the ground. Among these have been a number of big mule and whitetailed deer. Just last fall I found an old 3×3 muley in Colorado with the heaviest beams of any mule deer I’ve ever killed. Back home in Montana I killed a whitetail that brought visitors from all over the county.
Were they killed by the judicious use of 14x magnification and target adjustment knobs? The muley was killed at 300 yards across an aspen draw, and the whitetail in the first five minutes of legal light, under a very dark sky. Both deer fell to 6x magnification, and neither scope had an objective over 40mm. As a matter of fact, in looking over my hunting notes for the past three decades, I have never shot a head of big game with a scope set on more than 6x, even though I’ve used a number of variables in the 3-9x and 4-12x range.
But good binoculars helped find both bucks–a big part of the reason neither knew I was anywhere near. This seems to be a foreign concept to most hunters. I’d guess 75% carry some tiny compact they bought on sale down at Wal-Mart for less than 50 bucks. Those who carry full-size binoculars tend to use them as extremely inefficient neck-warmers, never lifting their 8×40’s unless they’ve already seen something move. “Gosh, there’s a brown, four-legged animal running away. Wonder if it’s a deer!”
The trick in using binoculars is to find game before the game finds you. Good glass helps, but technique is just as important. Of the few hunters with really good binoculars, a surprising percentage don’t really know how to use them. The spending of $800 does not mean you will see every deer by sweeping the landscape with a Bausch & Lomb broom.
Too many hunters believe that binoculars allow them to cover country more quickly. They climb a ridge, glass the valley below, then run on to the next high place.
Instead, binoculars help you cover each piece of country more thoroughly. This works even in the woods. One day in southwestern North Dakota a friend and I literally crawled on our hands and knees to the edge of a ponderosa draw, then lay on our bellies in the pine needles and glassed every square foot that we could see. This was not much, since the opposite slope was only 200 yards away. But within 20 minutes we found five bedded deer, scattered throughout the draw, both whitetails and muleys. Two were bucks, but since neither was what we were looking for, we eased back out the way we came, leaving the does as bait for bigger antlers.
Even if we’d still-hunted carefully through the trees along the edge of the draw, at least one of those deer would have seen us, and probably spooked the whole bunch. So proper glassing also means getting into position without being seen. This may mean crawling in thick woods, or not skylining yourself on a badlands ridge.
Most hunting magazines run photos of hunters standing up and glassing, often holding their binocular in one hand. I have taken many of these myself, because they look good and magazine editors like good-looking photos. Since editors pay my rent, I try to keep them happy.
But except during the very last stages of a stalk, offhand glassing is almost as dumb as offhand shooting. You may think you’re seeing the country, but the wobbles of casual offhand “glassing” prevent you from seeing detail. And detail is exactly what a binocular is for: antlers sticking from behind a downed log, the dirty-white rump patch of a mule deer in the shadows of a deep draw, a burned stump that oddly enough has a pair of ears. You will not see such things when every heartbeat is being transmitted to your Zeisses. You may think you’re seeing detail–there’s no reticle in binoculars to show you just how much you’re shaking–but you aren’t.
There are couple of exceptions to this. Both Zeiss and Canon make wobble-free binoculars. Canon does it differently than Zeiss, but the method doesn’t matter: Both systems “float” the view, very much like the shocks of your pickup floating you over a gravel road. But these binoculars aren’t for for every hunter. The Zeiss 20×60 weighs four pounds and costs $5000. Canon offers three much lighter models ranging from 10x to 15x, but all have objective lenses too small for serious hunting.
But even with such high-tech help, you should sit down or lie down to glass. Why? Because real glassing takes time, and if you’re standing up you get tired.
The longer I hunt the more content I am to sit and glass, mostly because I’ve killed a hell of a lot of big game that way. But you need the right vantage point. It’s sort of like going to a restaurant. If the whole point is to enjoy a really good meal, you also don’t gobble the shrimp scampi, chug a bottle of wine, then run out the door with a whole raspberry-chocolate torte in your mouth. Instead you sit down and really savor the flavors. If all you want is fuel, you might as well hit a drive-through window at Mickey D’s.
Glassing is a lot like a good meal. You’ve got to sit down and savor it. This means finding the right restaurant in the first place.
When glassing, this means an area game likes. This may seem obvious, but too many hunters glass areas where they can see, not where there might be deer. It’s much more productive to glass one spring-fed coulee than a whole barren mountainside.
You also need full-size binoculars. Many of today’s compacts are very good optically, but they all have small exit pupils, that small circle of light visible when you hold a binocular at arm’s length. In compact binoculars this rarely exceeds 3mm in diameter. What you are looking for is an exit pupil of 4mm or more. This provides two things: better viewing in dim light, and less eyestrain.
Most hunters are familiar with the concept of better light-gathering, mostly because we’ve had the virtues of riflescopes with 50mm objective lenses pounded down our throats for several years. But a larger exit pupil also allows our eye to look from side to side while glassing, instead of being locked straight ahead through a tiny 2-3mm pupil. Believe me, this makes a big difference in long-term glassing. It’s similar to the difference between walking and standing still for 20 minutes. Unless you’re a real couch potato, walking is much easier. The same thing is true in glassing. You can calculate the exit pupil diameter of any binocular by dividing the objective size by the magnification. An 8×40, for instance, has a 5mm exit pupil: 8/40=5.
Small glasses are also harder to hold steady. Put all the factors together–magnification, exit pupil, and steadiness–and it would seem that huge binoculars would be best for glassing. And up to certain point, they are. But above 12x the even the steadiest hands tend to lose some detail, so at 15x and above you should mount conventional binoculars on a tripod.
A lot of hunters do this, especially Coues deer hunters. Most popular are glasses around 15x, ranging from the $200 16×50 Pentax to the $1500 15×60 Zeiss. But some use the huge 30x binocular Swarovski used to make, and a few hunters are even combining two spotting scopes in a frame.
But this is very specialized hunting, where you’re really committed to staying in one place–and often near a vehicle, because the glasses (and a tripod heavy enough to steady them) are so damned hard to pack around. For most open-country hunting, a conventional binocular combined with a spotting scope works fine, and in the woods, one all-purpose binocular does the trick.
Exactly what you choose depends to a certain extent on what you hunt. I am often loaned the best binoculars in the world, and own several myself, but if you can’t afford it, there’s no reason to spend $1000, or even $500. A good 8×40 (or thereabouts) is about the best all-around glass you can buy. I wouldn’t spend less than $200 to $300, but for that you can buy an excellent porro prism model, which will be just about as sharp and bright as any more expensive roof prism glass. The only disadvantages to porro prism are that they’re bulkier, not as easy to waterproof, and usually not as rugged as roof prisms. If you use $250 glasses hard they’ll fall apart in a few years. For really tough use I’d spend a little more money.
Which is why most serious hunters end up investing in a top-grade roof prism glass. While there are exceptions–Nikon’s SuperiorE porro is a tough and optically great glass–the best binoculars in most lines are roof prisms. Just a couple years ago you could count on spending at least $750 for a really good 8×40 roof prism, but lately the price has dropped as more Pacific Rim manufacturers figure out how to phase-correction-coat roof prisms. This used to be an exclusively European process, needed to match the optical sharpness of porro prisms. But lately my favorite all-around hunting binocular is the “p-coated” 8×42 Pentax DCF. At 26.5 ounces, it’s as light as any 8×42 made, waterproof, and the optics are superb. And the real-world price is under $500. The only real fault I can find is not with the binocular itself but the eyepiece cover, made out of stiff plastic that’s as noisy as reindeer on a tin roof.
There are, of course, many fine roof prism binoculars on the the market. Swarovski’s 7×30 and Leica’s 8×32 make great woods binoculars, even lighter than the Pentaxes. They give up a little light-gathering to 8×42’s, but at closer distances that doesn’t matter much. The Bausch & Lomb Elite 8×42 is a fine all-around glass, and thanks to the “ergonomic” design, among the most comfortable around. Nikon’s new Venture line is as bright as anything made, and the Zeiss Night Owls are of course great, but even their smallest model, the 7×45, is too damned heavy, at least for me. I wish they’d make them lighter.
But for more specialized open-country glassing I like more magnification. I’ve used a bunch of good 10x glasses, but last fall found my ideal in the Leica 12×50’s. At a little over 40 ounces, these are a lot to carry around your neck all day, but they’re still compact enough enough to slip into a daypack. Last fall in Colorado I was hunting with my friends Melvin Forbes, Mel’s son John and daughter-in-law Sarah. We field-tested a pile of good binoculars: 8×40 Simmons Presidential, 8×42 Pentax DCF, 8×42 Bausch & Lomb Elite, 10×40 Nikon Venture, 10×50 Pentax PIF Marine, and the 12×50 Leicas. I cannot remember how many times somebody saw a deer in the smaller glasses that turned into a stump in the 12x’s. We could also see antlers much more clearly, even at over a mile.
I suspect that 12x will become more popular for big-country glassing in the near future. It’s as much as most people can hand-hold, while providing a distinct advantage over 10x. Simmons has a 12×50 in their Presidential line, Pentax makes a 12×50, and Nikon has just introduced a 12×50. It is much easier to make good optics at higher powers, and even the least expensive of these–the Simmons and Pentax–are very good optically, if not quite in the class of the Nikon and Leica. For really serious glassing you might consider two spotting scopes as well. Conventional spotters use 50mm or 60mm objective lenses. These work fine for most hunting, and can be slipped into most daypacks. My everyday scope is the Leupold 12-40x, their boxy, mirror model. It’s bright, lightweight, waterproof and rugged.
But for dim-light viewing, when big bucks are most active, one of the “super-spotters” with a 75mm to 85mm objective lens provides a real advantage. My own is a Bausch & Lomb Elite with a 77m objective and 20-60x eyepiece. At 20x this big scope provides an almost 4mm exit pupil. Before sunrise this really makes a difference. Nikon, Swarovski, Leica, Optolyth and others also make great super-spotters. Of course, they are pricey and too big to haul very far into the back country. But for vehicle or stand use they can really make a difference.
Ideally, you use these optics to spot game and then make a stalk, or figure out where you need to be that evening or the next morning. Sometimes it even works. Let me tell the stories of my two bucks from last fall, since they’re good illustrations of open-country and woods hunting.
The Colorado mule deer came through a landowner permit in the northwestern corner of the state, arranged by my outfitter friend Tom Tietz (3517 Green Mtn. Circle, Parker, CO 80138, 303-805-8804). Tom guides for very big pronghorn and elk up there, but this hunt would be “self-guided,” that strange term. The heart of the hunting country consisted of a long, level mountain broken by aspen draws. The routine was to get up before dawn and drive to a high spot on a gravel road across the valley from the mountain, and glass until the deer bedded down. Then we’d either make a stalk or, if we hadn’t seen an interesting buck, walk out the draws.
After two days we’d seen some good bucks, but in the pre-rut they weren’t staying put, instead cruising all over, looking for a doe coming into heat. But while glassing we were also patterning the other hunters in the area. Most never left their pickups, and those that did rode ATV’s along the easier ridges.
On the morning of the second day I spotted a buck heading for three big draws at the west end of the mountain. These draws couldn’t be reached by vehicle, and this was the biggest buck I’d seen. His antlers weren’t particularly wide, but they did appear high and heavy, so that evening John and I walked the longest draw.
Near sunset I jumped the buck from some tall sage down toward the bottom, and against all my experience (there is no moving game harder to hit than a “stotting” mule deer) shot at him while he bounced up the ridge. He never slowed, and when I ran to the top of the ridge I could see him crossing the next ridge, 600 yards away.
That night it snowed a few inches, and the glassing was great the next morning–except we couldn’t find anything bigger than a forkhorn. So we decided to walk one of the other long draws where we’d seen the buck disappear. As I ambled slowly along, I kept glassing ahead with my 8×42’s. About a half-mile down I saw three does up and feeding in some scattered aspens on the far slope of the draw. I circled away from the draw, then as I approached again, 200 yards further down, eased just the Pentaxes over the edge. The buck was bedded below the does, looking almost black against the snow. I went to my hands and knees and crawled 100 yards to some sagebrush, rested the rifle on the biggest sage, and shot. The buck jumped to his feet and looked at the does. I shot again and he crumpled; the two bullets had crossed in his chest.
The whitetail came a few days later on the Missouri River bottoms in northeastern Montana, maybe 60 miles south of Saskatchewan. I was hunting with my friend Scott Sundheim (Rt. 1, Box 1495, Fairview, MT 59221, 406-798-3474) who does some guiding for both mule deer and whitetails in that country. We were “test-hunting” a farm to see what kind of bucks lived in and around the two miles of ash and cottonwood timber along the river. The first evening we sat at the edge of a small field at the end of the timber and saw three good 4×4 bucks among a dozen does. The bucks were making scrapes along the edge of the timber, so things looked good for the next few days.
The next morning a snowstorm blew in. We sat on a bluff overlooking another field, glassing both the field and the timber as far as we could see. We saw a few deer moving along the trees, especially around a big opening inside the timber; the storm was evidently keeping most in the thick ash groves. But just at dark a huge buck ran from the bluffs to our left across a sugar-beet field and into the timber.
That’s typical of big whitetails on the prairies. They live in the rough “breaks” above the riverbottom for much of the year, but when the rut starts they head down to the trees, after the does. That evening the wind subsided as the storm wound down. I suggested sitting for the first hour along the edge of the big opening we’d glassed inside the timber. If we didn’t see anything, then we could ease through the timber, rattling occasionally. Scott said that’s exactly what he was thinking.
Long before dawn we were perched in two downed cottonwoods, 40 feet apart, along the edge of the clearing. Ten minutes before legal light a herd of does fed along the edge of the trees, and then a good-sized buck ran across the opening, chasing the does. All were just barely visible through my 10x Nikons, even against the snow, and disappeared before shooting time.
I had just glanced at my watch again, five minutes into legal light, when I looked up to see a deer walking almost directly toward me, 100 yards away. I raised the glasses and saw a buck head-down in that typical scrape-cruising walk, a mass of antlers between his ears. He was approaching so quickly I was afraid he’d spook if he got much closer, so I dropped the glasses and waited until he walked behind a downed cottonwood, then leaned forward against a branch and raised the little Ultra Light .257. Later Scott said that he thought I was just checking the light through the scope, but then he heard the tiny click of the safety. I could see the top half of the buck’s body over the tree, and when then crosshairs touched his shoulder the rifle went off.
The buck disappeared and I ran another round into the chamber. “He’s down,” Scott half-whispered. I could barely see the buck’s red-brown body under the downed tree, and held the rifle ready in case he got up again. He never did. When we walked around the tree I was glad there were only seconds to shoot, because I never expect to kill a bigger whitetail. I can vaguely remember him falling, but what is so firmly etched in my mind is that first look when I raised the glasses, of antlers so heavy the tines were only a vague impression, like the light at the edge of dawn. Sometimes, down there along the river, 100 yards can be a very distant look.
Reprinted from RIFLE magazine with permission from Wolfe Publishing Company, 2625 Stearman Road, Suite a, Prescott, AZ 86301, 1-800-899-7810, www.riflemag.com.
John’s new book Modern Hunting Optics and other great stuff can be ordered online at www.riflesandrecipes.com.