Glassing for Game
by Bill Blankenship
The main reason for our success is a lot of scouting, and the key ingredient of successful scouting is effective glassing.
My family has had a deer and elk camp in the same area of western Washington for over 50 years. It’s on public land and the terrain is steep with lots of cover for game. Over the years we have glassed a lot of clearcuts and walked through a lot of timber. We have come to find that effectively glassing for game makes all the difference between a successful hunt and an unsuccessful one.
Here’s what we’ve learned over the years. First, buy the highest-quality binoculars you can afford. The binoculars we carry include Swarovski, Zeiss, Steiner, Leupold and other brands of fine optics. They’re not cheap, but they provide clear, crisp images across a broad spectrum of light conditions from dawn to dusk, plus a good field of view. In the misty, foggy days of western Washington, binoculars that are bright and gather a lot of light are essential.
We don’t buy high-priced riflescopes, just scopes that hold their settings and have reasonable clarity Whatever you do, don’t use your riflescope as a substitute for a good pair of binoculars. Every year we see hunters who spent their money on a riflescope instead of a good set of binoculars, and they “glass” the area looking through their riflescope. Not only is this dangerous for other hunters, it’s also not very effective. You don’t have any depth of view with one eye looking through a scope. You don’t have a broad enough field of view to cover much ground either. Also, holding a rifle up to glass is a lot heavier and harder to do than looking through a set of lighter binoculars.
Once you get a fine pair of binoculars with you in the field, put them down. Eyeball the area before you glass. Sometimes an animal is already moving or standing where it’s easy to see with the naked eye. Your natural field of view is a lot bigger than with binoculars and you will notice movement even at long distances. If you notice something unusual, then you can glass it after you have looked with your eyes, concentrate your glassing on areas within the shooting range of your rifle. I see hunters looking at clearcuts a mile or more away when there’s a lot of area to glass intensively right at their feet. You can’t shoot an elk or a deer a mile away with any rifle you’re going to carry hunting. So don’t waste your time initially looking where you can’t shoot.
Within our camp, there are some differences in the approach each hunter uses to glass an area, but they are consistent in doing it the same way time after time. Our most experienced hunter, my brother Buck, glasses the area closest to him and works his way toward the more distant areas of the clearcut. His theory is: “Don’t let a close shot become a long shot.” While you’re glassing in the distance, animals close to you frequently hear, smell, or see you and take off. You let a 100- yard standing shot turn into a running 200-, 300- or 400-yard shot. Buck’s approach has earned him more deer and elk than anyone in camp over his 72 years, and it’s hard to argue with his success.
The rest of the camp takes a different approach. They first glass the corners and distant parts of an area to make sure an animal is not getting out of range. They look at the edge of the clearcut, including looking into the edge of the timber or the smaller trees. Many times I have seen deer or elk with my binoculars standing inside the dark timber or in small second- or third-growth trees when I couldn’t see them with my naked eye.
Also, use the skyline. If there’s a skyline at the edge of your shooting distance, glass it intensively. Animals silhouetted against the sky are easier to see. They go away from you and over the hill most of the time. Look the skyline over from one end to the other, along with the area just in front of the skyline. Many times you can spot a piece of the animal, like its antlers when the rest of the animal is hidden or shadowed.
After you’ve glassed the close and distant areas, work your way across the rest of the area in a consistent pattern. There are two approaches. One way is to move your binoculars to a spot, look at the entire field of view, and then move to a new area, repeating the same procedure over and over again. The other approach is to slowly move the binoculars across the area, focusing on the main part of the field of view until the entire area is glassed. Mentally, you can separate an area into a grid and methodically cover every sector. Again the point is to glass the area consistently, every time. I favor the slow, continuous movement, but both work.
Also consider changing the glassing pattern based on the terrain. If you’re looking at a clearcut or hillside that is relatively even, with few draws or smaller canyons, you can sweep the area from one side to the other. If you’re looking at a hillside with a number of draws or canyons, go up and down the draw or canyon with your glassing and work from one side of the area to the other. It’s easier to spot animals searching the area up and down the canyon than back and forth across it. You lose your reference point on a canyon when you go back and forth.
Finally, look for parts of the animal rather than the whole body. You need to be looking for antlers, ears, heads legs, swatches of color. That’s what stands out with binoculars but doesn’t with the naked eye. This year one of our hunters spotted a branched bull’s antlers at 400 yards in a third-growth tree plantation before he saw the elk. He waited for the elk to appear in a small opening and he shot it.
Just before you leave a spot, eyeball the entire area again. A number of times I have finished with glassing, didn’t see anything, been ready to leave and decided to look the area over with my naked eye one more time. It’s a great opportunity to see an animal getting up or stepping out of the brush.
As for spotting scopes, our rule is eyeball first, binoculars second, spotting scope last. Spotting scopes take time to set up and they can’t penetrate screens of brush and tree limbs as well as binoculars. At their higher powers, they also don’t have much field of view or gather a lot of light. There are two reasons I drag my spotting scope out: to count points or to glass an area that’s not in rifle range but could be with some work. I find holding the scope in one spot and looking the entire area over within the scope works better than trying to continuously move the scope.
A weight-saving alternative to the spotting scope for some binocular manufacturers, like Swarovski, is a “doubler” that screws on to one eyepiece and doubles the magnification of binoculars.
Whatever your preferred method of glassing might be, remember it’s not a race. Take your time to glass. Look closely. Who knows what might be lurking just beyond reach of your naked eye.
Bill Blankenship is a retired vice-president for Weyerhaeuser. His longtime elk hunting buddies Buck and Denny Blankenship, John and Sean Hadaller, Jeff, Gary and "Fred" Jones all contributed to this article.