Preseason tips for Guidefitter Guides from the hunting editor of outdoor life
THIS IS THE 14TH YEAR THAT I’VE CAPTAINED THE OUTDOOR LIFE OPTICS TEST. OVER THOSE LONG AND SQUINTY YEARS, I’VE EVALUATED THE MERITS OF HUNDREDS OF OPTICS. SOME ARE SO PLEASANT TO LOOK THROUGH THAT THE IMAGE LEAPS TO MY EYES. OTHERS MAKE ME REACH FOR THE IBUPROFEN.
Our testing involves, among lots of other things, measuring optical resolution, field of view and assessing edge distortion and color rendition. But it also involves a low-light test in which all the optics are aimed downrange at a black-and-white target at twilight, and my team of testers measures how long each can see the target’s details as dark falls.
This is the surprising conclusion after testing all those optics over all those years: Not one has failed to deliver details at least 30 minutes after legal shooting light. Even the cheapest and dimmest of the bunch is still far better than your naked eye when it comes to resolving low-light detail.
I mention this because while most of us reach for our trusty binoculars even before we reach for a rifle or a bow during hunting season, we don’t use them nearly enough in the off-season.
Pre-season scouting with good optics can reveal more insights into game patterns, hunting strategies, and even terrain features than you get once the season opens. And if you have a client at your elbow, then the pressure of taking an animal gives you that same screw-eyed headache you might get from crappy glass.
The first attribute optics provide is efficiency. You already know this from your in-season glassing. Intensive viewing of distant country can save you miles of hiking, because powerful optics allow you to write off big swaths of vacant landscape and let you focus your attention on a few drainages or ridges that have the most promise and deserve closer scrutiny.
The same goes for scouting. One of my favorite elk spots is a series of north-facing timbered bowls that drop off a dominant ridge in the Missouri River Breaks of eastern Montana. I have a couple of lookout spots where I can set up at either sunrise or sunset with a spotting scope and glass elk moving in and out of cover from about 3 miles away. Without that remote knowledge, I would probably write off those areas, because they appear to be too small and exposed to hold elk. But my pre-season glassing gives me enough confidence that elk use those parcels of cover that I’ll hike into a blind once the season opens. I’ve killed a couple of good bulls based on what I call “distance learning” with the help of a good spotting scope.
Sometimes the key information your optics deliver isn’t seeing actual animals. Instead, it can be something subtler. One of my most productive open country mule deer spots is a CRP field surrounded by chokecherry and buffaloberry coulees. Deer bed in the cover by day and then feed in the CRP at night. The whole arrangement is so open that it’s hard to approach it without being busted by deer.
But by glassing the routes that deer take between cover and feed, I noticed that the top wire on a perimeter fence is low between three posts. I watched that spot for a few days, realizing that it represented the path of least resistance for deer. Sure enough, they crossed over that singular spot. Before season, I set up a ground blind along the fence. A week into the season, my buddy arrowed a great mule deer heading to feed one calm September evening. Chalk it up to effective preseason work with good optics. It’s not just magnified optics that have their place in pre-season scouting. A few years ago, I fell under the sway of Zeiss’s RF 10x42 rangefinding binocular. It has excellent glass, and I could range animals at the same time as I watched their behavior and call shots to my hunting partner. That bino is now an essential part of my hunting kit. But there’s abundant pre-season utility to a rangefinder, too, whether it’s a handheld laser rangefinder or one that’s built into the frame of a binocular.
I use rangefinders to pinpoint the spots where I can position a hunter. Remember that Missouri Breaks elk hidey-hole? There’s a secondary ridge that’s 485 yards downwind of it. I know that only because my rangefinder told me so, using a crude sort of trigonometry to figure the distance of known landmarks. In a pre-season scouting expedition, I ranged all the promontories around the elk cover. Closer knobs were upwind of the prevailing breeze, and therefore out of consideration. But this particular knob, with an overhang of sandstone rimrock to hide a shooter and guide, and an approach that keeps me out of sight of elk on the next ridge, is distant enough that I don’t spook elk but close enough that I can make a killing shot nearly every time.
For buddies who hunt with me (you guides call them your clients), knowing that distance enables me to work with them to get their rifles dialed in for 450 to 515 yards. It’s a long poke, but with enough pre-season practice, entirely doable. If I didn’t know the range, I wouldn’t have the confidence to take that shot, or have my buddies attempt it.
While I almost always have a spotting scope at hand, that’s not the optic I reach for first when I’m actually trying to find animals. Spotters are great for counting points or studying a distant patch of cover, but to glass efficiently, there’s no substitute for a good binocular.
I’ll bet every reader of this piece has his own way of dissecting the landscape with a binocular, but I’ll give you mine. The first thing I do is get comfortable, sitting on a pad or nestled against a stout tree. If I expect to be in a single spot for more than 15 minutes, being seated, stable, and comfortable allows me to patiently “grid” an area. When I’m unstable and uncomfortable, I give up on places after a few minutes, not because I haven’t sighted game but because I am eager to move to a more comfortable spot.
Secondly, I look over the terrain with my naked eye, and pay close attention to the ground within rifle shot. There’s nothing like movement to attract a hunter’s eye, and often I’ll see an animal move at mid-range that I would have missed if I was looking through binoculars at longer distances.
Third, I study the skyline with my optic. No animal is as visible as when it’s silhouetted, and those are often the going-away animals that, had I not spotted them right away, would have quickly been out of sight.
Next, I work my binocular from left to right or up and down, though the particular pattern depends on the terrain. If I’m stationed in an area where ridges and canyons extend away from me, I’ll work each one in turn from bottom to top. If I’m glassing more horizontal terrain — think edges of fir or the base of a cliff — I’ll generally glass from side to side. In both cases, though, I pay special attention to shaded areas like dark spots just inside timber or the shadows of cliffs at the beginning or the end of daylight. It’s easy to spot critters in broad daylight, but if you know anything about deer and elk activity, you know that they often hold in cover until the light fades, and by concentrating on those shady spots, you can find animals that most glassers would miss.
One note about intentional glassing: take your time. I know you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. So many of us want to sit down, hurriedly look over terrain, and then move on to the next spot. That run-and-gun mindset makes you hurry, and hurrying misses animals. Instead, when you sit down, tell yourself that you will spot a shooter animal in that glassing session. That slow-down mentality forces you to concentrate, investigate, and immerse yourself in the landscape, and that geared-down pace often has its rewards. By slowing down you really do see more, whether it’s the flick of an ear or the glint of an antler or the flank of an animal that reveals itself to be worth a closer look.
Glassing with intensity reveals more than just critters. By intently studying the landscape with optics in the preseason, you will also gain knowledge about how unseen animals use the terrain. Look for game trails and other evidence of how animals cross the ground. If you’re scouting close to the season opener, look for scrapes and rubs or routes into hidden wallows, and then use your optics to assess the patterns of prevailing winds. That intelligence can help you setup on an ambush zone.
SPOTTING SCOPE PREFS
I started my optics career as a devotee of straight-eyepiece spotters. These are the models that have the eyepiece in line with the body, like a particularly bulbous riflescope.
But over the years, I’ve gravitated to angled eyepieces, generally 45-degree slants between the main body and the eyepiece.
Angled scopes give me a couple of advantages over straight models. For one, using them is more ergonomic. When set up with the scope on a tripod between my knees, the angled eyepiece means I’m looking down into the image, and I can keep that pose for many more minutes and hours than if I’m holding my neck up to look through a straight eyepiece. But the main utility of an angled eyepiece is when I’m with a buddy. Once I get an animal in the field of view, sharing the optic with my buddy is as simple as turning the barrel and rotating the eyepiece to his or her side. The barrel of the scope doesn’t change, but the eyepiece can rotate 180 degrees.
You have undoubtedly struggled between getting a 65mm spotter or a big 80 or even 85mm spotting scope. If you intend to be doing a lot of truck spotting in very low light at extreme distances, the big models are gold. But if you’re packing into a spot, plus you want to double the reach of your binocular, then premium-grade 65mm scopes should be just fine.
One of the take-aways of two decades of Outdoor Life optics tests is that 65mm spotters from premium brands have just as much optical resolution and low-light detail as 80mm spotters from sub-premium brands.
So, you’re better off spending a little more money for those medium-format spotters from brands like Maven, Zeiss, Leica and Vortex’s HD models than you are on the larger, darker 80mm models from other brands.
One of the dirty little secrets of the optics world is that more than half the models on the market were manufactured in the same two or three Asian factories.
The optics industry relies on OEM, or original equipment manufacturer, practices.
That means that many optics brands, even from well-known manufacturers, simply contract with Asian factories to produce their products.
This practice reveals why so many products appear to be relative clones of each other. They are. But there’s one attribute of optics that’s hard to replicate: lens coatings.
Manufacturers spend lots of money and technology to develop proprietary coatings that differentiate their products from those of their competitors, and those coatings can reveal big differences in the field.
Look for brands that have distinctive, patent-protected coatings. That’s an indication that they’ve invested heavily in lens technology, and aren’t simply buying generic anti-reflective, smudge- and moisture-resisting coatings from their OEM partners.
The best coatings do more than protect optical glass.
They also accentuate certain wavelengths of light, making details pop at low light, or they resist scratching and smudging. And, at a minimum, ensure that any optic you buy says “fully multi-coated lenses” somewhere on the box.