The methods: Spot-And-Stalk Hunting (P1)
The methods: Spot-And-Stalk Hunting
Spot-and-stalk hunting is easily the most rigorous and demanding form of big game hunting. The method is well suited to open or semi-open spaces, where a hunter can locate his prey at a distance before stalking into effective killing distance without alarming the animal. The spot-and-stalk method is as applicable to a Da11 sheep hunter who’s looking at a ram on the top of a mountain that’s 3 miles away as it is for a Florida hog hunter who needs to crawl across 100 yards of open pasture in order to get within bow range of a boar.
Beyond the unadulterated excitement that comes from stalking big game, the spot-and-stalk method gives you a number of tactical advan-tages over the less disciplined approach of just wandering around with a gun in hope of kicking something up. For starters, spot-and-stalk hunting lets you cover ground with your eyes instead of your feet—sometimes more ground in a glance than you’d be able to cover in a lifetime of tree stand hunting in thick timber. By perching yourself on prominent lookout points, you can cover all manner of habitat types and travel corridors without having to commit to a particular location until after you’ve found your quarry.
This hunter, Matt Moisan, is pointing to the location of a black bear he’s watching. By studying the bear from afar, he was able to determine that the bear was a reasonable-sized animal that did not have cubs.
After a long and careful stalk, he killed the animal from about 30 yards away.
Another benefit of spot-and-stalk hunting is that it gives you a chance to accurately judge animals from a distance before you’re absolutely obligated to make a decision about shooting. When most hunters hear the term field judging, they immediately think of trophy hunters trying to gauge the record-book quality of a particular animal before they kill it. But trophy status is hardly the only piece of information that comes from field judging. Many states have rules and restrictions that govern which animals of a species can be taken, and these are based on man-agement strategies meant to ensure healthy and stable populations of game. In California, for instance, the harvest of spikehorn deer is illegal, even if you hold a tag that’s valid for antlered deer. In much of Alaska, you cannot kill a moose unless the animal has at least four brow tines on one antler or a minimum antler spread of 50 inches. When hunting bears, it’s strictly illegal to kill a sow with cubs. All of these distinctions can be difficult to make, especially when you’re looking at a half-spooked animal through a veil of thick brush and you’ve only got a second or two to determine its legality before it bounds away. In short, making snap decisions when hunting can lead to serious ethical and legal trouble. Spot-and-stalk hunting helps alleviate the risk.
The act of looking for animals from a spot-and-stalk position is usually referred to as “glassing,” since you’re almost always using binoculars or spotting scopes. Success as a glasser begins with the ability to pick out the right places to do your glassing from. The criteria for a good glassing position vary according to location, but generally you’re looking for an area that gives you a relatively unobstructed view of the surround-ing country. Often, but not always, such positions are located in areas that rise above the surrounding topography, providing a vantage point. But of course there’s more to picking an observation point than just looking for a high spot.
This hunter has positioned himself below the skyline to avoid being silhouetted. He has unobstructed views in several directions and a comfortable seat for a prolonged glassing session.
Besides having good visibility, you should select a fairly comfortable position or you’ll have a hard time staying put for any appreciable amount of time. Depending on the circumstances, you might need a spot that offers either a windbreak or a touch of breeze, or perhaps shade or direct sunlight—though you never want to set up where you’re looking directly into a rising or setting sun. Experienced glassers will have spots that they prefer in the morning and others for the evening depending on where the animals have been seen before and where the sun is in relation to where they are looking. Glassing knobs with 360-degree views are great, of course, but so is that little shelf of rock that lets you peek down into a narrow wedge of a valley floor that includes a couple of prime game trails—especially if that little shelf of rock is close to a few other good vantage points. It sucks to put all your eggs in one basket by climbing to some lonely high point and then not having anywhere convenient to move to when it doesn’t produce. In other words, it’s a lot better to work a string of high spots that are connected by a continuous ridgeline than it is to scale an isolated peak.
Wind direction matters. It matters less and less as you get higher and farther from your target area, but it’s of vital importance when you’re sitting close to where you expect to see animals. If you’re glassing a few meadows that are only 200 yards away and you have the wind at your back, you’re running the risk of spooking all the game out of there. You also want to consider your visual presence. It’s best to select areas where you can maintain a low profile. Having a backdrop of brush or rock is helpful, because it keeps you from skylining yourself. Getting into the shadows is better than being in direct light, unless you’re freezing cold and need the sun. And if you are in the sun, take care to hide or shade shiny objects such as watches, rifle barrels, and tripod legs. Nothing screams “I’m up here!” to an animal quite like a flashing beacon of reflected light that’s bouncing off the lens of your spotting scope.
Many hunting areas, such as this alpine bowl, are best viewed from below rather than above.
Not all good glassing spots are up high, either. There are certain types of country more suited to glassing from the bottom up. Such locations include cliffy areas, where climbing up high requires a serious investment of time and energy; open basins or hanging valleys; and semi-open hillsides that would be impossible to glass from above.
When you’re selecting a glassing position, remember that your goal is to find an animal and then go after it. If you’re up on a rock spire towering 2,000 feet above the valley floor, it’s going to take you a long time to climb down when you do see something. Always consider the position of the sun and then be realistic about how much time you have to reach an area that you’re looking at. If you’ve got an hour of daylight left on the last day of the hunting season, it won’t do you much good to be glassing a bunch of locations that are a mile away. Not only will you not be able to reach those areas today, tomorrow isn’t even an option. If you’re hunting in the morning, on the other hand, you have a much longer window of time in which to reach any animals that you happen to locate. And if you’ve got several days before the season ends, you can even change position on subsequent hunts in order to get closer to really far-out animals that you might have located. You might then need to find a new and closer glassing location in order to locate those animals again once you get into effective stalking range, but that’s all part of the fun.
When hunting new areas, you can find some great glassing positions just by consulting topographic maps. Not only can you identify prime habitat features such as water and natural travel corridors, but you can pinpoint locations that will give you a commanding view of those areas. When actual scouting is out of the question, map reading is often the next best way to really familiarize yourself with an area prior to a spot-and-stalk hunt. (Or, for that matter, any kind of hunt.)
Once you’ve selected a good glassing location and taken your position, it’s time to actually start looking for animals. Now you’re relying on your game eye, a term that refers to one’s ability to spot animals in their natural habitats. It’s nearly impossible to train someone to have a good game eye, as it can only be achieved through time and practice—and even then, some people will just never become good at spotting game. (It seems to have little to do with the natural quality of your eyesight. There are plenty of guys with 20/20 vision who can’t spot squat, just as there are a lot of guys with bottle-bottom glasses who see animals that would escape the notice of 95 percent of other hunters.) That said, though, there are some tips and tricks that can help you do a better job of locating game.
Most experienced glassers use a divide-and-conquer strategy when confronted with a vast amount of turf that needs to be picked apart for animals. Basically, they break the landscape into manageable chunks and then scour those individual areas with the help of binoculars and/or a spotting scope. When doing this, start with the easy pickings. For instance, imagine a large hillside that’s covered in vegetation types ranging from grassy openings to thick brush to scattered stands of mature timber. Cover those large openings with your binoculars first, simply because it’s easy to quickly scan them and rule out the presence of any game that might be standing in plain sight. Next, check the smaller openings. If you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, it may be time to put your binoculars on a tripod or stabilize them against your knees and start doing some detail work. Go back to those openings and scour the edges, and give a careful look at any brushy patches out in the middle of the openings. Then start picking apart those large expanses of brush, looking for any holes or thinly canopied areas that you can see into. Use your binoculars to pry your way into every possible nook and cranny that might be holding an animal: shadows cast by trees and brush, sheltered areas beneath overhanging rocks, the areas along or near game trails.
As you look into tougher and tougher locations, make sure to slow down more and more. No successful glasser would take just a quick glance at a promising hillside and then call it quits. Check everything multiple times, and make a mental list of any intriguing shapes or shadows that you can’t see clearly. You can come back to examine these spots with a spotting scope once you’ve completed your initial few passes with a set of binoculars. All the while, remember that you’re looking not just for animals but also for parts of animals: a bit of antler glistening in the sun, a twitching ear, a shadow cast by an animal’s leg.
Another way to break down a large area is to glass it using a grid pattern. This works especially well in areas with a more homogenous so appearance that aren’t conducive to the divide-and-conquer method. (It can also be used in conjunction with divide-and-conquer; see illustration above.) To grid, you divide the overall view into manageable pieces and cover those pieces with your binoculars in the same sort of back-and-forth pattern that a typewriter uses to cover a page. Simply pan your binos from one end of the area to the other, then tilt them up or down a slight bit and pan across the next strip of cover. For the sake of mixing it up, you can grid top to bottom if you like. Be sure to allow for plenty of overlap on each pass so that you don’t miss anything. When looking at a small hillside, one or two passes might be enough to rule out the presence of game. But in seriously vertical country, or when you’re looking from a very high vantage point, it might take nine or ten passes to fully cover a patch of terrain.