How to Utilize Optics for Whitetail Scouting
June 21, 2016
Just over four centuries ago, Galileo first peered into the heavens through glass lenses. When he did, his inquisitive eyes began to pick out features never before seen by man: details of lunar craters, as well as Jupiter's moons and even sunspots.
Suddenly, an earthbound man could explore distant worlds without physically moving an inch.
Today, we deer hunters can "travel" in much the same way. We can train high-powered optics on a distant field edge or clearcut and see detail otherwise far out of reach — and do it with zero disturbance. The result of this magnified vision is far greater knowledge of the game we seek.
What's called "scouting" has changed a lot over the years. When North American Whitetail was founded in 1982, the term was pretty broad. It usually meant nothing more specific than walking the land before the season, looking for deer sign and using it to pick a prime hunting spot.
Then came the real game changer: the unmanned scouting camera. In early models, electronic triggers keyed by infrared heat and/or subject motion activated weather-resistant 35mm film cameras.
At some point, the operator would retrieve the film and have it processed; the images revealed at least some of what had passed (fairly slowly) in front of the camera, day or night. The time/date stamp yielded unprecedented detail about activity patterns.
This ability to "observe" deer 24/7 of course opened up a new world. Big bucks previously viewable only during the rut or crossing the road in vehicle headlights now could be documented any time they were willing to pose for a photo, even at night. And as camera technology leapt forward, to not just digital still photos but also clear digital video on ever-cheaper storage media, it became easier to let these devices do nearly all of the work.
There's zero reason to turn our backs on such products. Along with helping us find and figure out certain bucks, they enhance land security and give us key information for managing deer and other wildlife. Combining these positives leads to greater year-round enjoyment of the land, which of course is a great thing.
But letting trail cameras do all of our pre-season scouting has limitations as well. Rare is the big buck that reveals his entire travel pattern on camera. Indeed, quite a few somehow manage to reveal none of it that way.
This is where good optics and field time can help. While we're typically limited to daylight hours, through the looking glass we can monitor a relatively large area. Good binoculars and/or spotting scopes can reveal key information otherwise difficult to gather. That's why I believe the ultimate pre-season approach is to use scouting cameras and optics.
Scan With a Plan
There's way more to off-season glassing than just keeping a pair of binoculars within reach in your vehicle. To get the most from glassing takes thought, time and effort.
The idea of serious scouting is to find the right deer as efficiently as possible, then learn what you can about their habits without spooking them. But in truth, much out-of-season glassing is fairly random. While driving we see a distant deer, then pull off the road to take a closer look. Often this happens in late afternoon, as the deer is feeding.
In farming country, good summer glassing locations often are soybean or alfalfa fields, or perhaps clover pastures. In timbered regions, they tend to be young cutovers, food plots or powerline right of ways. In mid- to late summer untold miles are driven in search of deer, especially bachelor groups of velvet bucks.
While it's fun just to drive around and glass any deer you see on a hot summer day, you need to take it a long step farther if you want to turn this information into a hunting plan.
Especially where opening day come really early, as it does in some states and provinces, summer glassing can help you actually pick the spot in which to hunt the deer. So you need to figure out not just where he feds but also how he approaches or departs the area.
How can glassing help? By not just allowing us to find and pattern a shooter but do so by staying a safe distance from him. Early-season success is all about knowing where deer bed, feed and sometimes even water.
When those places are compressed, as is often the case, snooping around on foot can alert whitetails to your presence. Even hanging or checking a camera on the field edge might bump deer that are bedded under 100 yards away. In such cases, glassing from afar makes total sense.
A logical first move is to aim a time-lapse camera at a suspected feeding area. Check it a few days later to see if glassing is in order. You want the camera close enough to record activity but not so close as to spook deer when you check it. Once you see some deer are using the location at a certain time of day, then slip back in to glass — again, from the maximum practical range.
It's amazing how far in the distance you can study deer through good glass. A few years ago in Texas, I was scrambling to make something happen on the last day of a rifle hunt on the QB Ranch. Desperate to find a good buck, in late morning cameraman Mike Clerkin and I walked to the top of a rocky ridge. Then I pulled out my Nikon spotting scope.
Sure enough, within a few minutes we'd spotted some whitetails — in a small food plot roughly 2,000 yards away. Even at that range I could see one was a mature buck. And that's all we needed to know. We scurried to the downwind side of the plot...and barely got there before the buck did. I shot the 10-pointer at 30 yards as he headed back to his bed.
While this wasn't an off-season scouting foray, it illustrates one point that matters at any time: The farther you can be from deer and tell enough about them and their activity patterns to make a good hunting plan, the better. Of course, not that many whitetail situations offer as much visibility as West Texas does — but the exact distance matters far less than doing what you can to maximize your visual edge.
In most places, it's hard to see deer much beyond a quarter-mile away. But no matter the range, always minimize disturbance while glassing. Play the wind and use the sun to your advantage. Sneak into a hidden vantage point before the deer start feeding. And wear camo. Remember: You might not be shooting a bow or gun, but you're definitely hunting.
Guys who strictly scout from the driver's seat of a vehicle of course are able to cover far more ground than can the person sitting in one place. But while mobility is an advantage in one sense (assuming the scout has, or can get, access to the spot in which he sees the right deer), you'll most often benefit from a more focused approach.
Not that you can't gather good info from the driver's seat. I was reminded of that last February, when I swung by my farm in northern Missouri. I hadn't been there in a while, and I was eager to look for any evidence of EHD or other deer losses.
It was 3 p.m. when I arrived at the farm gate, and I started to bail out and hit the woods. But then I decided to spend my first couple hours just looking over the place from afar. So I parked atop a high hill at one end of the property (most of which is a brushy wetland) and began to glass with my 10X Zeiss binoculars.
Within a few minutes I'd begun to see deer. By the end of glassing light I'd spotted eight on our place, all feeding in a small area on the edge of the bottom. Plus, on another farm over a mile to the north I'd watched a doe and two fawns run across an open pasture...being trailed minutes later by a pair of coyotes on the hunt.
Had I followed my first instinct and simply gone on a walk through the bottom that afternoon, there's a good chance I wouldn't have seen as many deer. (I walked a good bit of it the following morning and saw none.) And there's zero chance I'd have seen that coyote chase way to the north. By glassing from a prime vantage point I gathered useful info I otherwise would have missed.
Big deer often get spooked by vehicles stopping on roadsides, even outside the season. Regardless, some of the best late-afternoon feeding areas aren't in view of public roads. They're tucked-away food plots or field corners past the crown of a hill, where whitetails can lounge without drawing the attention of passersby. Set up where you can watch one of these places, and you might find bucks are visible for several hours each afternoon.
If possible, hold your position until it's too dark to see at all, then slip out. Even in summer, mature bucks often appear much later than other deer; the scout who packs up early could miss a critical sighting. Getting home from the field at 9:45 p.m. on a July night might mean your dinner plate is room temperature, but finding a great buck is worth it.
Adding a video function to scouting cameras has helped educate us all to whitetail behavior. But some hunters still carry video cameras into the summer woods, hoping to get footage of deer and other wildlife.
While it's tempting to try to slip into position to "capture" that big buck on video, you're usually better off resisting the temptation. If you want more than trail cam pics/video of that buck, consider digiscoping as an alternative to standard video.
Digiscoping involves using a spotting scope or binoculars to magnify and record a scene through the eyepiece with a digital camera. The result can be a still photo or video clip. Many optics manufacturers make attachments for holding a camera or smartphone in the proper position; prices range from quite affordable on up. Even some of the cheaper ones can yield good results.
With a spotting scope, you can get nice images in this way. Of course, the better the glass, the better the results. I've seen fine shots of a big buck bedded on a hill 260 yards away, taken with an iPhone simply held up to the eyepiece of a Kowa spotter. But even low-end optics sometimes provide photos sufficient for identifying certain bucks and estimating their size and age. That's really all we need for scouting purposes.
Laser rangefinders also can be helpful in off-season glassing. Let's say you're watching a long, straight edge, such as a powerline right of way or field border. The terrain is flat enough that it's hard to tell exactly where a deer comes out of or goes into the cover. From your vantage point, without a rangefinder it can be hard to know which of a number of trails the deer even was on.
When deer are toward the back end of a feeding area from where you sit (as you hope they will be, to minimize disturbance), sometimes the easiest way to figure out the trail is by comparing the animals' distance to something other than your own position. This is where a rangefinder can earn its keep in scouting.
Let's say a velvet buck walks out at a confirmed 310 yards from you, on a woods line with no nearby landmarks. Find some landmark much closer to the deer than to you. It can be on the near side or the far side; what mostly matters is that it be in line with the buck, from your vantage point.
In the case above, let's say the rangefinder shows it's 368 yards to a dead tree at the field's end beyond the deer. It's 310 from you to the buck, so he's obviously 58 yards from the tree. Finding the deer's tracks will be much easier from the tree than from where you sit. (In gun season, using this trick also can help you determine where a distant ranged deer was standing when you shot.)
Keep Your Cool
The interior of a locked truck or SUV can get plenty hot in summer. Does it hurt to keep binoculars or a spotting scope inside your vehicle when temperatures soar?
Joel Harris, marketing and public relations manager for the hunting side of Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, has a firm opinion on that.
"Serious damage could occur if you leave your optics in a hot vehicle for extended periods," he warns. "The heat can cause the seals that retain the nitrogen to leak." As nitrogen is used to prevent condensation and corrosion inside optical instruments, keeping the gas inside is critical.
Some deer hunters claim to have kept binoculars in their vehicles for years on end with no problem. But others tell horror stories of broken seals, melted rubber armor and of course theft. To be on the safe side, take precautions — particularly with higher-end optics.
One possible way to avoid heat damage, while minimizing temptation for passing thieves, is to keep optics in a quality cooler in a secure area of your rig. Ideally, you'll be able to get into it quickly, without having to open a vehicle door, when you pull over to glass a distant deer. Use gel-type freezer packs to keep the cooler's internal temperature to a tolerable level without making a mess.
Glassing remains a useful strategy in whitetail scouting, especially when you want to learn a big buck's habits without spooking him. Of course, scouting him and tagging him are two different things. But if you're cautious in watching deer from afar, it can boost your odds — whether you run trail cameras or not.