By Mike Eastman
There are numerous articles that recommend optical equipment for glassing big game. The standard theory down in the southwestern states is to carry big, heavy 18×50-plus binoculars, so you can watch a deer wiggle his ear in the heavy brush two miles away. However, when you’re backpacking in the northwestern backcountry, everything is on your back, and weight is crucial. Personally, I feel these huge binoculars aren’t necessary for finding mule deer.
In my experience, a pair of 10x40s along with a good spotting scope is ideal for glassing. My advice for picking out a pair of binoculars is to purchase the best you can afford. If you’re sitting for days on a lookout glassing, you need good glass. At first with cheap glass, you won’t have any issues, but as you glass continually for days, you will get eye fatigue. Headaches will set in and your eyes will start to burn from strain.
It is important that you buy the best optics that you can afford. Saying this, there is one point I need to bring up. Some hunters compensate for poor glassing techniques by purchasing expensive binoculars. While guiding, I’ve seen hunters show up at camp with high-dollar binoculars who couldn’t glass their way out of a wet paper bag! I can pick out game with a pair of medium-priced glasses just as well as I can with a high-end pair, although the high-end pair will relieve eye strain during long hours of glassing. The high-end pair will also enable you to pick out game in very low light, such as just before dark and in the early morning. These are the two major reasons to purchase the best optics your budget will allow.
When on a lookout, my spotting scope is more valuable than binoculars for spotting game at long distances. There are many brands and models of scopes to choose from and most can fit in the side pocket of either my daypack, or my large backcountry pack. The compact spotting scope is another option I carry when I’m hunting in the backcountry.
For the first 20 years of my marriage, while raising three children and guiding, I couldn’t afford high-end glass. It’s times like that when looking for a single scope is all about the trade off between weight and price. Buy the light weight, highest quality scope you can afford.
Most complaints I hear about glassing with a spotting scope center on eye fatigue. Looking with one eye open while squinting the other can make your eyes and your brain hurt. I learned a trick years ago. Keep both of your eyes open, then concentrate and focus with your master eye looking through your eyepiece. This will drastically reduce eye fatigue. At first, both eyes will want to focus together, but with practice you will be able to focus clearly using only the eye looking through your scope. If you have trouble, try alternating between keeping one eye open and both eyes open. Using this technique, I can spend many hours glassing faraway country through a spotting scope.
Glassing With the Grain Of The Terrain
Even from the highest point, there may be areas you are unable to see well, such as a slide partially obscured by the tree line, or sets of basins where you can only see one side, or just small portions of them. You feel you don’t have a clear view of some of the best habitat that you know holds bucks. If these problems sound familiar, you may be glassing against the grain of the terrain.
Western terrain is made up of small creek drainages that have their beginnings in a snowbank, or a high basin spring. From there, they run down into another creek and eventually into a river at the valley floor. When you get to the head of one of these drainages, spend most of your time glassing the high pockets, slides and knife ridges that run up to the peaks.
Glassing with the grain of the terrain allows you to clearly see across drainages to small openings, around ribbon cliffs, into strips of timber, snow slides and small pockets. That is when you can make the most of your glassing time and improve your chances of picking up a trophy buck. Put simply, you are located at the best angle to clearly see into all the folds and slopes in the country.
You may not always want to glass across and down the drainage. Instead it’s often more advantageous to be farther down-country, looking across and up the creek drainage. Sometimes just moving your glassing spot a few yards either way makes the difference between being in a place where you can see into pockets, or having your view obstructed.
In a new area, the best thing is to simply climb the highest ridge that is perpendicular to the creek drainage. From the top, move up and down the ridge until you find the best visual panoramic view of the other side of the creek drainage. From that vantage point, you should be able to also glass into other creek drainages miles away.
There is nothing more helpful in locating a mature buck than becoming familiar with the country. Knowing how to glass with the grain is usually the reason one hunter can go into an area and spot game, while another guy doesn’t see much at all. The tactic of walking along and glassing, now and then, isn’t one I find productive. The movement alone will alert bucks to your presence. Remember, the more you move around the unit, the greater the chance a smart old buck will spot you and become nocturnal. Even if there are other hunters in the area, the key is to make sure the buck doesn’t know you are stalking him. While walking, you will miss seeing bucks that just get up to stretch and lie back down.
Remember to set up so the setting sun is at your back, or to the left or right, never in your face. That way you can glass until dark without the setting sun interfering. If at all possible, I will never glass into the sun in the evening.
I use a system of glassing taught to me by my father Gordon Eastman when I began hunting more than 57 years ago. First, I begin glassing with my binoculars at the top of the terrain, even if there’s nothing but granite for cover. I quickly work across and down, checking for any animal that may be out in the open. When you are glassing for mule deer, the first pass with your binoculars is the most important, because a buck moves while he eats and I can quickly find him before he drifts out of my view.
If on the first pass I don’t see anything, I’ll start over from the top of the far ridge. This time I concentrate more around the small pockets, underneath pines, and through patches of timber. I’m looking for any shape that might be a mule deer body. I also take a serious look at the edge of benches and ribbon cliffs. I concentrate on openings close to cover where they will most likely come out to feed. Mature bucks like to lie under a small conifer on the edge of granite outcroppings with their back against a large rock or ribbon cliff for protection of their backside. I find these areas can be the most productive for finding bucks.
If I don’t pick up anything on the second round, I’ll start again, this time looking deep into the small patches of timber and brush for a feeding or bedded buck.
When glassing the bedding areas, I first use my binoculars, but I also have my spotting scope set up. I use it to look at potential bedding areas in the middle of scrub pine pockets, trying to pick out an antler, or partial body form. I also use it to glass the far off country that I can’t see with my binoculars. As you can see, from one location I can cover many miles of mule deer country without moving much at all.
After the third scan, repeat the entire process again. By this time, a buck could be up and feeding right out in the open. As the sun moves, the light and shadows change. A buck that was once invisible lying under a tree is now in plain sight because the light has changed. As you repeatedly look at an area, you begin to develop a mental picture of every bush, rock and tree. In other words, you are memorizing the terrain.
To really become proficient at glassing, you must learn how to memorize the terrain on the first two passes. Most hunters fail to master this important aspect of glassing. Teach yourself to memorize every object that isn’t a deer. Then as you go back over the terrain and an object shows up, you know it doesn’t belong. Bingo, it’s a deer!
Here’s what I’m doing with this process. I first look at the most likely mule deer terrain, then go to the next likely spot, and finally to the most unlikely areas.
After you spend several seasons in your unit, you have the benefit of knowing the terrain where the bucks are most likely to hang out. You’ll know to go right to the high probability areas where you have spotted bucks in the past. Glassing from the same lookout fall after fall will help you memorize all the terrain details, and when a buck shows up, you will nail him in just seconds.
After you find a buck, it becomes a waiting game. If he isn’t in a position for a good stalk, you must sit tight until he moves. This waiting game can take several days.
When you spot mule deer feeding, it is to your advantage to pay close attention to their body language. Many times I’ve watched as they continually look back towards a possible bedding area. Sure enough, just at dark a big, mature trophy buck will step out into the open to feed with only a few moments of light left. An old buck will usually hang back until he feels everything is safe, and then make his move out into the open.
In these days of heavy hunting pressure, mature bucks have a tendency to feed close to their bedding areas and not venture far from their safe cover zone. In sage country, most small bucks will get up and feed for a while near their bedding area waiting for dark-thirty to come on. Then, under the cover of darkness, they will slowly move down into the hay fields many miles away to feed. Late in the evening, a short distance from the main group, chances are you will spot a bigger buck getting up to feed close to his cover. This is the reason I make it a habit to stay out on the lookout glassing well past dark.