August 02, 2023
Hunting big country out west is never without its ups and downs, and this morning was no different. Massive snowstorms hit the foothills near my Arizona home, and the roads leading to my honey holes were blocked off or covered in knee-high snow. I had to improvise.
I took inventory of a set of ridges coming off a busy highway area but leading straight into prime hunting ground. Moments later, I quickly banked my truck and grabbed my glassing gear for a quick look-see. Before I knew it, I was set up and glancing down into a deep, gnarly canyon that “just looked right.”
My eyes, now glued to a Swarovski 15x56 binocular atop a neck-high tripod, immediately shifted to various patches of terrain. There was no system to my initial glassing method, only my gut instinct moving the optic ever-so-slowly from place to place. Suddenly, I noticed an odd shape in a patch of scrub. I sharpened the binocular’s focus and paused intently, wondering if this unique form would eventually move. Just as I was about to forget about it, the shape moved! A small Coues doe materialized, probably a mile away. A few minutes later, another odd shape appeared, then another — all does creeping out from the foliage. Eventually, a Coues buck popped into view as well. I couldn’t believe it. A five-minute walk from my truck, and a busy highway, and this place was coming alive!
Unfortunately, I never got a shot at that buck, but I came close. I managed to stalk within 45 yards of the deer, but after taking one wrong step, he boogered off. But what a lesson I learned that day.
This scenario took place just last season, and it served as yet another reminder that productive glassing never follows a basic formula. Sure, being patient and using high-quality optics are critical, but just following these two conditions won’t ensure success. Every hunting area is unique, and you must know “how” and “where” to look, and be willing to improvise and adjust your tactics when it’s needed, just as I did on that day.
After more than two decades of glassing the rugged mountains of the West, here’s what I’ve learned through trial and error and by watching and listening to some of the best glassers I know. If you heed this advice, I have no doubt you’ll double your chances at seeing more game.
Choose The Right Optic
Describing in detail what makes a great optic is beyond the scope of this article, but I will say that topnotch optics provide two things: High-quality, rugged glass that is bright in lowlight conditions, and magnification that is appropriate for the environment.
We will cover spotting scopes another time, but in terms of binoculars, there are two types: general-use and long-range.
General-Use Binoculars: For quick glassing while hiking or still-hunting, binoculars in the 7X to 10X range are ideal, with 10x42s being my choice for serious Western hunting. I’ve found 7X to 8.5X binoculars are fine, and all things being equal (i.e., same optical quality), they are brighter in low light and easier to hold still. But sooner or later, particularly when glassing vast hillsides, the 10X glass offers an edge for discerning distant animals in hard-to-see places.
Some hunters prefer 12X binoculars for all-around use, but based on my years of experience, I believe 12X magnification may be a tad too much for basic handholding applications.
Remember, the higher the magnification, the larger the objective lens must be to maintain a good exit pupil size. Exit pupil is important, because as light increases, your pupils will dilate to no more than 5mm, meaning the best binoculars for low-light viewing will have an exit-pupil size close to 5mm. With a 10x42 binocular, the exit pupil is 4.2mm (42 divided by 10). To maintain this same exit pupil with 12X binoculars, the objective lens must be 50mm (50 divided by 12 = 4.16). This means a heavier and bulkier binocular that’s not ideal for carrying all day, particularly when stalking.
Long-Range Binoculars: When hunting super-vast terrain, extra magnification can make all the difference in the world. I define “super vast” as terrain that requires glassing beyond two miles. In this type of country, 15x56 binoculars are standard. But such optics require a solid tripod. This equipment is an investment, and it’s bulky and heavy to pack. However, without this type of setup, you’ll struggle with spotting game, especially Coues deer, javelina, and even mule deer and bighorn sheep. All these animals are like chameleons in the thick, undulating, desert scrub habitat of the Southwest. From a distance, this country looks wide-open, but this is an optical illusion. There are countless washes, ravines, and swells in this type of habitat, so don’t be fooled.
When on a high vantage point, this country also lends itself to glassing at extreme distances — such as beyond the three-mile mark. In these scenarios, extra-large, extended-distance binoculars provide an edge. Examples of this include the Kowa Highlander 32x82 binoculars and the Swarovski BTX Spotting Scope System with the variable 30X or 35X eyepiece and 65, 85, 95, or 115mm objective lens. Both optics provide edge-to-edge clarity at extreme glassing distances.
While hunting mule deer in “The Strip” area of northern Arizona, I watched my guide use his massive Kowa binoculars to pick out a single deer leg from a maze of pinyon-juniper from more than a mile away. What made it impressive to me was that I had glassed the same area over and over with my 15X binoculars and couldn’t see a thing. A bigger optic can sometimes give you the upper hand.
Look For Odd Shapes
A deer standing in an open patch of grass or meadow is sometimes hard to see, depending on the distance and how well it blends into the environment. However, take this same deer and put it behind a tree, patch of brush, or rock, and it becomes almost impossible to make out. Mature, elusive trophies don’t traipse around in the open all day, so don’t expect to see the entire animal. Look for an ear, leg, rump, or antler tine protruding above vegetation.
Areas that receive a lot of hunting pressure require extra attention and patience. In one of my Coues spots, I noticed the majority of the bucks I see are in big canyons with thick tree cover. At dusk and dawn, you can find them feeding in small patches of semi-open terrain, but once hunters arrive, they retreat quickly into the thick cover.
The more you glass, looking intently for parts of an animal, the better you’ll get at spotting game. In time, it will become completely natural.
Years ago, the grid-system of glassing was big. A lot of Western hunters talked about it and how well it works. However, I believe glassing technique varies based on hunting area and a hunter’s personality, so I prefer not to get too fixated on picking apart a hillside in a certain way. I simply pick it apart and seldom use a specific pre-arranged system.
When using the grid-system, you place each part of a hillside into box-like sections. You move the optic’s field of view to one box and glass it intently from one edge to the other, then move to the next box, and so on. Your eyes focus intently across the sight picture, without moving the optic.
Personally, I like to glass like I still-hunt: I hone-in on areas I think are best (e.g., vegetation edges and saddles), conducting a very slow, methodical stop-and-inch-along method. When I see an odd shape, I bear down on it, amping my focus. I do this repeatedly and I can cover a lot of ground. More than anything, I enjoy glassing this way — and that’s very important. Spending a lot of time behind the optic and finding pleasure in the process is what builds success.
Despite all this, I will use the grid-system, but only after I’ve already scoured a hillside using my hybrid method. In this case, my mind is convinced there’s something there and I’m ready for a more methodical tactic.
Stand Don’t Sit
So far, I haven’t talked about where you should glass from. A high vantage point is the obvious. However, in the rolling, plateau country of the Southwest, a big hill doesn’t always exist. In this case, glassing from a sitting position may be limited so standing up works much better.
I used to glass with my 15X binos from a sitting position, but seven years ago I switched to a taller tripod and began glassing while standing up. It has been a game-changer for me. I find myself setting up faster, acquiring a better view of the terrain, and spotting way more game. I can also pivot around 360 degrees with ease, without having to find a spot to reposition my body and butt pad.
When using a general-use binocular, glassing from a standing position isn’t the best, unless you mount the optic to a tripod or are just taking quick inventory of a hillside for game. If I must glass a little longer than a quick view, I often support my binoculars by bracing my bow’s limb or cam up against it. This adds additional support for a steadier picture.
Glassing for big game in the rugged mountains of the West is sometimes difficult and frustrating. But it can be fun and effective if you use the right tactics. I have no doubt these glassing strategies will improve your ability to spot more game and provide additional stalking and shooting opportunity.
The author lives and works in Prescott, Arizona.