column By: Lee J. Hoots | March, 20
There are some essential tools every public land hunter needs to be successful, but the newest clothing, most accurate rifle/cartridge, biggest pickup, trick broadheads and fletching or global positing system unit can’t hold a candle to good binoculars. Two recent events served as reminders that a hunter can’t shoot a buck or bull if he can’t find one, and for that, binoculars can be the critical element.
First, and perhaps most significant if not inspiring, was this magazine’s art director Chris Downs finding a bighorn ram just over three miles away while using my Outdoorsmans (outdoorsmans.com) tripod-mounted Swarovski SLC 15x 56mm WB binocular. His father-in-law had a sheep hunting client in camp who hung his tag on that old trophy ram later that same day.
Prior to that, in October my youngest son and I spent a few days on public ground looking for a buck mule deer during a hunt that was abbreviated due to magazine deadlines and the young man’s high school obligations. We saw just a few mule deer does and a couple of young bucks, one of which was spotted napping a quarter of a mile away, using the previously mentioned tripod-mounted binocular. We tried to stalk closer with no luck. That 3x2 buck crept out of its afternoon bed and wandered off to nowhere. Then time ran out with the setting sun.
We were somewhat lucky just to find that deer because we were hunting in an Arizona game management unit that attracts quite a few hunters during different times in the fall, and one rifle hunt had already taken place. Pile onto that the fact that the unit is well-known for decent quail hunting (even dove shooting), and it’s not hard to understand why more pickups and sport utility vehicles than deer were spotted. We may never have seen any bucks without the use of top-quality optics – a lesson learned long ago.
As a teenager, I started intensely hunting deer with a bow in the mountains in California just after purchasing a little five-speed pickup. It didn’t take long to become frustrated with inexpensive binoculars. They fogged up, their hinges quickly became sloppy and diopter adjustments got out of whack for no apparent reason. Fed up, I eventually splurged on something “new” and comparatively expensive after saving for weeks. The guy hawking the binoculars said they were made in Europe by a company called “Sue-vor-ski.”
The first time I used them, I hiked up a long ridge and sat alone in the dark waiting for daylight, and a deer could be heard feeding in the canyon below. At the first hint of light, that 7x 30mm binocular, all several hundred dollars’ worth, was fished out of the daypack and pressed into work. With a slight adjustment of the focus wheel, the dark silhouette of a forked-horn buck came into view.
There are so many high-quality binoculars on the market today, it would be distracting to try to list them all here. However, I have used Nikon, Swarovski, Steiner, Meopta, Bushnell, Burris and Zeiss examples with near equal satisfaction while hunting deer, pronghorn or elk, hogs and the occasional black bear.
Obviously, there are binoculars that are better suited to different tasks. For example, the man or woman who hunts in thick woodlands, where long-distance glassing is rarely necessary, like hunting from a tree stand or ground blind or still-hunting through heavy timber, a 7x or 8x binocular is quite suitable and even desirable. Satisfied for years with that original 7x 30mm unit purchased as a teenager, there seemed to be no reason to use anything else.
In fact, back then it was difficult to find an affordable, quality binocular with more magnification without ordering from a catalog, and there seemed to be little sense in sending a large check without first having handled a binocular. When cost became less of a burden and options increased, upgrading seemed sensible, but a Swarovski 7x 42mm and/or 8x 42mm binocular has always been on hand.
Binoculars of higher magnification, say 10x or even 12x, can be used to do the same, and some hunters prefer them for such hunting because they can see more detail deep in the brush and shadows, and can more easily pick out the tiniest hint of a whitetail’s antler tip or the almost imperceptible blink of a bushbuck’s eyelash. Having tried using 10x and 12x binoculars while creeping through the woods in the Midwest and South, my preference for binoculars with a magnification of 7x or 8x remains steadfast for such hunting.
Having hunted mostly in the wide-open West for more than a decade, Bushnell 8x 42mm Forge, Swarovski SLC 10x 42mm WB and EL Range 8x 42mm binoculars are used most often. The SLC 15x 56mm WB and Outdoorsmans tripod are strapped to the back of my pack at all times. The 8x or 10x binoculars see more use, but if a deer is spotted at long distance (like the buck I tried to get my son on in October), the big 15x 56mm is put to use for obvious reasons. Its big objective lenses gather light like no other comparable binocular or spotting scope I’ve ever used.
If there is a drawback in carrying a big binocular and tripod, it’s heft. The big 15x and tripod together weigh roughly 6.5 pounds (the binocular alone is roughly 3 pounds compared to a good spotting scope in the range of 4 pounds), but there have been times when it has been worth its weight in gold. Like the young buck spotted in its bed, there have been situations where the only deer seen were found by using the big 15x.
About two years after moving to Arizona, a longtime hunting chum had a December rut tag in his pocket and had no interest in using it on “just any buck.” Seeing few deer over several days, I filled my tag with a “freezer buck” my buddy passed up. We struggled to find another deer until, with only two days left, climbing to a saddle revealed a buck lying comfortably in its bed across a wide wash. Lounging in the December sunshine, it was a very good buck, but my chum, using an old binocular, was unsure. The big 15x was set up, and I suggested he take a look.
He stared through the glass for a long minute before turning to me with eyes as large as pancakes. That deer was shot without a second guess. It was and remains the largest buck he’s ever wrapped a tag around.
It doesn’t matter if a hunter prefers a certain brand of binocular or magnification. What does matter is how it’s used, and more importantly, how often it’s used. Poor-quality optics with flimsy hinges or poor light-gathering ability may as well be stashed in the bottom of a daypack. I learned long ago that no other piece of gear is as important and useful as a good binocular.