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Superior Glassing Tactics & Techniques for Hunting the West

Pair these tactics and glassing techniques with quality optics to ensure success on your next hunting adventure.

Superior Glassing Tactics & Techniques for Hunting the West
(Tara Oster photo)

This article is featured in the 2024 issue of Precision Hunter. Pick up a copy of the issue here.

Glassing and communicating target locations is a critical skill set for those wanting to hunt the western Rocky Mountains. From Mexico to Alaska, glassing is king and a hunter's ability to view and assess his surroundings is ultimately the difference between a punched tag and tag soup. Growing up in Arizona and beginning my guiding career at an early age, I was introduced to the art of glassing with tripod-mounted binoculars utilizing crudely machined adapters made from aluminum strips and riveted Velcro straps to secure 10X42 binoculars to an old Manfrotto camera tripod. Companies like the Outdoorsman’s in Arizona were at the forefront of revolutionizing tripods and binocular adapters built specifically for hunters. I bought my first tripod and binocular adapter from them more than 20 years ago and glassing has never been the same.

Equipment for glassing is often the most expensive gear I recommend for clients and new hunters. I strictly follow the “buy once/cry once” philosophy. When you're sitting on a ridge for 8-16 hours a day with a limited entry tag in your pocket, glassing every shadow, nook and cranny, you want the best glass money can buy. Eye fatigue is a real deal-breaker with lesser quality binoculars and if you're not looking, you certainly are not going to see much. Swarovski’s 15x56 SLC binoculars are the gold standard when it comes to glassing the vast expanses of the West using a tripod. From 100 to 2,000 yards, a set of “fifteens,” as they are so often called, make all day glassing not only comfortable but highly successful. If I could only have one set of binoculars, it would be Swarovski 15s, no question.

Spotting scope on a tripod
(Tara Oster photo)

Optics

Edge-to-edge clarity is one of the primary glass qualities that separates the top dogs in the optics game from their competition. Many lower quality binoculars are clear in the center where your eye naturally views, but as you direct your eye to the edges of the ocular lens, you’ll see the image become distorted and less clear the farther from the center you get. When you handhold binoculars, this is harder to detect, but when mounted to a tripod, it becomes readily apparent. This is why expensive glass is just that, expensive. Sourcing the highest quality glass to make lenses is where a lot of the money goes. With quality glass comes clear, vivid and bright images that open a new world to the prospective hunter.

Vast desert landscape
Carefully glass the close topography first before moving on to grid search distant faces and ridges. (Tara Oster photo)

I consider binoculars and spotting scopes “mission essential” equipment for anyone wanting to hunt the West. Binoculars and spotting scopes do vary drastically in price, depending on quality. When it comes to purchasing these two essential optics, my advice is this: figure out your budget for the best optics you can afford and then double it. You cannot compromise on glass quality.

European optic manufacturers tend to lead the industry with the brightest and clearest optics. Keep in mind most of these companies first and foremost manufacture glass for microscopes, camera lenses and birding. Birding is a considerably larger market for optic manufacturers than hunting and supports a large portion of revenue for the top optic contenders. This demand for quality glass is the driving force in advancements in lens coatings and design. Focus your attention on glass quality and don’t base your purchase on a “Lifetime Warranty”. Quality optics rarely need it.

hunter glassing with binoculars
Glassing from a tripod dramatically increases the amount of game seen in the field. (Tara Oster photo)

Tripods and Heads

When it comes to glassing, a quality tripod and fluid head are mandatory. First, the tripod supports the binocular, allowing the hunter to sit or stand comfortably while glassing and not have to hand-hold the binocular. This allows for a more stable view and eliminates shaking or movement aside from the hunter input (up, down, left, right). The less the binocular moves, the clearer the image will be and the easier it will become to spot animals. Hand holding even 10x binoculars can be tiring after an hour or so, let alone 4-5 hours of continuous glassing from a single vantage point. Last and most important, the use of a tripod allows for a systematic, overlapping grid pattern to be used so you can cover every inch of the hillside or canyon and know confidently you didn’t miss anything that was in view. The added stability also increases your ability to glass into the shadows or focus through brush to find bedded or obscured animals that you would have a hard time locating hand-holding a binocular.

Gridding and Glassing Tactics

The best glassing practice starts with your approach. Figuring out where you want to glass from and establishing the best route to that point is vital to success. Plan your approach to avoid walking through feeding and bedding areas during optimum times. This sounds like common sense, but I have watched countless hunters walk aimlessly through prime bedding and feeding areas, trying to get to a glassing knob, only to spook all the game they intended to glass before they ever get in position.

In your final approach to the point, ridge or hilltop you intend to glass from, stay low, avoid skylining yourself and use available cover to slip into your glassing point undetected. Mule deer, antelope and Coues deer are extremely alert and often spot careless hunters walking ridge lines from extreme distances.

Hunter carrying gear in the snow
The approach to your glassing point is equally important as your time spent there. Stay low and avoid skylines. (Tara Oster photo)

Establishing a grid pattern is an essential key to success for many of the top guides in western states. Working left to right, or vice versa, and bumping your binoculars up or down one-half your field of view ensures quality coverage of the area you are glassing. Find what works best for you and don’t stray from it. I start by glassing “danger close” areas first. These are spots close to my proximity that an animal can detect my presence if the wind shifts or I move at the wrong time. Next, I do a quick glance of the distant skylines where an animal could be ready to walk out of my life forever.

Once I cover the danger areas and skylines, I typically start gridding from left to right and from low to high. I will scan from left to right, then bump up half of the field-of-view in my glass and scan back to the far left, bump up and scan to the far right. Repeating this pattern until I have covered the area in front of me. If I am going to be glassing this area for several hours, I will reverse the order once at the endpoint and scan back down to the original starting point. It is not uncommon to locate animals that walked out from cover or stood up from their secluded bed after my initial scan. Having a quality pistol grip or pan head on your tripod will help dramatically when gridding, allowing you to move the binoculars in a fluid pattern with ease.

spotting scope, binoculars, and tripod laying on the ground
The author runs ARCA plates on all of his field optics enabling him to quickly swap from one optic to another. (Tara Oster photo)

Keep in mind, your binoculars are only as good as your tripod setup will allow. You can have the best binocular money can buy mounted on a cheap tripod and head and you’ll still struggle to cover the country adequately. Cheaper tripod heads often fail to stay in line and tend to drop forward or backward slightly when you let go of the optic or tripod head. A quality tripod and head should allow you to move the optic smoothly with the gentle touch of your hand or in some cases, just your head pushing the binocular side to side.

Recommended


Adapters and Plates

I run ARCA plates on each optic so I can swap them quickly in the field. When you're at home setting up your optic system, be sure to find an object at 800-1,000 yards and set each plate to make sure the object is as close to centered in the optic without moving the tripod head. This way, when you go to clip in your spotting scope to see the antlers on the buck you just glassed with the 15x binoculars, the buck will be in the spotting scope’s field-of-view. If you simply tighten the adapters on and go, you may never find the buck again in the spotter as he fed into the cedars in the time it took you to relocate where he was standing. I learned this lesson the hard way years ago and am now meticulous about the plate setup on each optic.

gear splayed out on ground
Quality glass, such as these optics from Swarovski, can make or break the outcome of your hunt. (Tara Oster photo)

My Personal Glass Arsenal

My personal arsenal includes Swarovski's 10x42 EL Range binocular for close glassing and ranging and their 15x56 SLC HD binocular and ATX spotting scope with the BTX eyepiece for glassing extreme distances. This system allows me to comfortably glass everything from 100 yards to 2 miles, ensuring no stone is left unturned. I often carry the 15s and 65mm spotter in the backcountry and leave the BTX and 80mm lens in the truck for glassing large expansive country within a short walk of the road. Regardless of light conditions or weather, these optics have repeatedly proven themselves to be a winning combination for me in the field.

I run the Outdoorsman’s Tall Tripod in both the aluminum and carbon-fiber Gen 2 models. These tripods are lightweight, extremely durable and are purpose-built to withstand use and abuse in the backcountry while accommodating all different types of glass. While cameras and modern shooting tripods work, they are often overly heavy and complex for the hunter's needs.

The use of a quality tripod is necessary, but the head attached to it is the most important piece of the puzzle for proper glassing and shouldn’t be overlooked. My go-to head for buttery smooth panning and control is Outdoorsman’s Pan Head Gen 2. I can also clip a rifle into the pan head for a solid shooting platform when getting prone is not an option.

hunter and youth walking into woods
Sturdy tripods can be cumbersome, but the author never heads afield without his in tow. (Tara Oster photo)

I treat each draw hunt as if it's my last hunt, knowing it may be 10-20 years before I can hunt the area again. When preparing for your next Western hunt, be sure to up your glass and tripod game prior to your hunt. The ability to adequately glass country is the single biggest advantage you can give yourself over the quarry you intend to hunt and the other hunters looking for the same game. Don’t leave anything to chance.




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