How to make the most of your time behind your binoculars
I grew up hunting the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. Some of you have likely heard of them or have spent time in them, hunting or hiking. They have developed into quite the destination hunt — known for massive canyons, large expanses of wilderness and a unique variation of rock and vegetation. They are composed of a large, single ridgeback that runs about 40 miles from which canyons head many miles down to the east and west. The canyons were glacially formed and, for the most part, have a distinct “U” shape. From one side to the other, it can be well over a mile and, in some cases, over two miles.
The Ruby Mountains have a robust variation in vegetation and rock structure and offer a lot of “hidey-holes” for animals. It was here that I developed my hunting, or glassing, eyes that have served me now for many years of high (and occasionally) low country hunting. Like many western hunters, I believe I can find deer better than anyone. (I can imagine the eye roll of anyone reading this, but hear me out!) While my statement is likely not true — I’m sure there are others that would best me in a “deer finding” contest — I think that having confidence that you are good at finding deer and believing you will is incredibly important when in the backcountry.
I’ll make a quick comparison: I’m a qualifier for the Xterra National triathlon championships and have since been a committed mountain bike racer, winning several amateur races and even lining up against pros in a race or two. If I’m being honest, at each race — whether triathlon or mountain bike — when racing against pros, I knew I wasn’t going to win, that there were those more fit with more power who would beat me. However, at the start of each race I would fight anyone that said I was going to lose. You must believe in yourself and your abilities if you are going to be successful even if you have to be a bit irrational at times. I am not encouraging anyone to be arrogant, condescending or pompous — nobody likes that guy — but, instead, to internally believe in yourself. It is no different when trying to dig deer (or other animals) up in the backcountry — you got to believe you’re going to find them!
Several years ago while on a mule deer archery hunt, a friend and I were up early, slowly working our way up a ridge. He chose the left side and I chose the right side. We planned to join back up at the top, but understood that our timing would be different as we would spend different amounts of time glassing into the various draws, small bowls and open hillsides. As we started up, it felt like I was going to see deer. There was sign everywhere: tracks and droppings; I got the occasional whiff of buck. You know what I mean. Surprisingly, as we worked up the ridge, I was not seeing much, but, eventually, reached a great vantage point where I was able to see more than I had previously. I had thick vegetation to my left — mostly oak brush with sprinklings of mahogany and pine trees as the elevation increased. It was here that I focused most of my glassing effort.
As I scanned the terrain, my poor luck continued and I simply was not seeing any deer. I doubled down on my effort and, after an hour or so, noticed something about 200 yards below me and slightly to my left. There was a small depression in the hill and guarding it from behind was thick oak brush; however, there was a small break in the brush where I identified something that looked to be different from the surrounding vegetation. I became fixated on this and kept my eye on it for many minutes. Then, it moved. I knew it!
As the buck shifted his head, I was able to see the full back right fork and knew right away that I would be sneaking down the hill. I spent the next hour carefully working my way down to the buck. As I closed the distance to 100 yards, I dropped into a small gap between the thick brush and couldn’t believe my luck. It was sand and I did not even have to walk carefully (though I did) to move quietly! The best I could tell, the sand would lead me to rocky outcrops around 30 yards from where the buck was bedded and the wind was perfect. I carefully made it to the rock outcrop and got on my knees just high enough to have a clear line of site to the buck. I could now see his antlers more fully and the rest of them matched the back right fork. He was definitely a “shooter.” It was now late afternoon and I knew that the buck would be up fairly soon to feed in the evening — at least I hoped he would. After what seemed like an eternity (but was only a few hours) the buck finally began to shift around and I knew it was time to get serious. The buck stood and turned perfectly broadside to stretch; I ended up killing him at only 25 yards. With extra junk around his eye guard, he was a 9x6 that gross scored 193”. I initially mis-scored him at 203”, which I shared with the world via the internet so it’s worth clarifying in case someone read that post. I do not attribute the success of that day to making a good shot or sneaking quietly through the brush or having the patience to wait him out — though they all played a part. I attribute it to being good behind a pair of binoculars and identifying roughly 10” of antler through a small gap in the brush at 200 yards away.
As I mentioned above, I have been hunting for many years — nearly three decades (some as a youngster with my dad and some missed years due to college sports and church service) and have developed a few techniques/processes that have helped me find deer. I would like to share them with you. If you struggle to find deer, perhaps, one of them can help you, too. It is worth mentioning that I will use “deer” as the target of my writing, but you can insert any animal you prefer to hunt in its place.
Don’t expose yourself on ridgelines!
Stop and I mean stop barreling over the top of hills/ridges to get to a suitable vantage point for glassing. I simply cannot stress this enough. I have done it myself and every single person I have ever hunted with has done the same. To further that point, every hunting show I have ever watched has personalities making the same mistake. Do we really think those seasoned, mature bucks are not watching the hill tops or that we are somehow immune to sticking out like a sore thumb when we are sky-lined on the ridge? Try coming over the top concealed by something — anything that keeps you from being sky lined: a bush, a tree, a rock — it all works. If the hillside is bare, consider a different route. If there is not another way, try moving slowly and only exposing 20 to 30 yards of the adjacent hill at a time. Clear the hill and then move again, exposing only another 20 to 30 yards. Repeat this until you are into position. It will greatly decrease the chances of spooking a buck and him seeing you before you see him. If that does not make sense feel free to message me.
Start glassing spots you have the least amount of time to find a buck
Once you are into position, start by first glassing those spots where you have the least amount of time to find a buck. What I mean by that is look first at the hilltops where a buck may just be dipping out of site into the next canyon or draw. Look along the tree, brush or rock lines where one more step might conceal the buck. Look along edges where you will lose sight of the buck if he moves any further. Once you have cleared all of these spots, then look to areas that offer you more time. Open flats or hillsides, broken vegetation or spotty trees, less dense brush or draws that are not deep enough to hide the buck. Consider time as both your enemy and your friend. If the buck is in any of the later mentioned locations, you have time and time is your friend. If the buck is in any of the aforementioned locations, time is not your friend and you may have a very limited time window to spot him before he is out of sight.
Use binoculars mounted to a tripod
Many people are turning to tripods when glassing with binoculars. This is an excellent technique and very beneficial if it is a calm day. I have found, however, that I’m rarely at a vantage point without at least a small breeze that impacts the stability of the binoculars as they are in some way atop of a reverse pendulum and even a light wind can resonate through the tripod affecting visibility. If it is too windy for you or you do not prefer to use a tripod, try the following: I use them on every single hunting trip; every single glassing session. Consider that your own heartbeat is more strong in the palm of your hand than it is at your fingertips. Depending on which is your dominant hand, keep one hand on the binocular’s focus wheel, but keep the other such that the binocular is propped up on your fingertips. It is three fingers for me as I have a destroyed pinky from college football, but it may very well be four fingers for you. Then, use your thumb as a brace point along your jaw so that stability is increased by leveraging the weight of your head and neck. Weight is your friend when trying to stabilize your binoculars. Your elbow will also be able to rest against your rib cage, eliminating some of the shake associated with holding your binoculars up. Second, I know very few people who do not hunt with a hat on. If that is you, then disregard, but if you do hunt with a hat on, use the bill of your hat as your friend! I reach up and position my hat so that it is a convenient reach for my right index and middle finger. Reach far enough back that you can feel tension as you pinch the bill of your hat and pull your hand down to your binoculars. Again, leverage the weight of your head and neck to help stabilize your binoculars.
Use your backpack to your advantage
If you do not use a pack, cool. If you do, try laying your pack down so that you can lay across it and use it to brace one arm/elbow and then brace the other side against your thigh, offering a base that is nearly immovable. If you do this coupled with the above techniques, you will find that you wiggle a whole lot less and will hopefully find more deer.
Use the deer to help you find other deer
Countless times, I have noted the direction the deer are looking to help me find other deer. I think most of us will agree that bigger bucks can use does and smaller bucks to establish the security of an area. If you are only seeing small bucks and does, pay close attention to the direction they are looking, when they are looking and then draw a straight line along what you perceive to be their line of sight and follow that line. You will be surprised how often it will help you find additional deer. I’ll share a future story of how this directly affected me during a hunt.
Stop trying so hard to find deer
Lastly, stop trying so dang hard to find deer and start allowing your eyes to see oddities in the landscape. I mean, pretty much anyone is going to find deer that are out in the open, full body and feeding, but it is those harder to find deer that will set you apart from your hunting friends. What I mean by oddities is something that is not quite right: a “rock” that is abnormally white, a “log” that has an unusual sheen, a “branch” that is far too uniform, a “dark spot” that is too faint, a “rock edge” that is too perfect or a “root” that appears to move. Investigate the oddities. Your eyes are not lying to you. If you do, you are going to find far more deer and open up your chances of finding the big one.