The methods: Spot-And-Stalk Hunting(P2)
The methods: Spot-And-Stalk Hunting(P2)
There’s game out there, somewhere. Finding it requires a well-honed game eye.
When glassing big country, mentally divide the terrain into several pieces based on geographic features. Then work each piece individually with your binoculars. When covering larger pieces of ground, scan them using back-and-forth or up-and-down gridding patterns to ensure that you’re not missing anything.
Glassing strategies such as divide-and-conquer and gridding are hugely helpful, but when using these techniques it’s only natural that you’re going to focus the bulk of your energy on those areas where you most expect to see game. Identifying such areas is a learned skill that comes from a lifetime of hunting and observing animals. But there are some shortcuts to mastering this discipline. At all times, keep in mind the three basic things that critters need—shelter, food, and water—and look for the places that provide these necessities. For big game, shelter is typically synonymous with bedding areas, which are usually located in proximity to good avenues of escape. Some species, such as whitetail deer, prefer to bed in thick vegetation, where they are hidden from view. Others, such as mountain goats, bed out in the open, where they can see predators from a long way off and where they have steep cliffs to their back so that they can climb to safety when pursued. Food is most often found in open or semi-open areas where there’s adequate sunlight to foster the growth of preferred low-lying big game grub such as grasses, forbs, and shrubs. Such openings might be found amid sparse stands of aspen, in creekside clearings or grazing pastures, at the edges of beaver ponds or the bottoms of avalanche slides, and in agricultural fields, orchards, or areas cleared by forest and brush fires. Water sources differ according to location as well. It could be a high-country seep in the Rockies, a man-made water catchment in the desert Southwest, a mud puddle along a dirt road in California, a bubbling brook in Maine, or a vast swamp in the Southeast. Learn how the animals in your chosen hunting area are using the habitat to get what they need, and you’ll quickly become a better hunter.
Recognizing patterns is as important as, or perhaps even more important than, recognizing habitat features. What this means is that when you see an animal you’re able to figure out why it’s hanging out where it is. You can then take that bit of knowledge and use it to your advantage by searching out other spots that offer the same sets of circumstances—and maybe animals as well. As an example, let’s say that you’re watching a big pasture. There could be many things about one corner that make it special: it’s lower or higher than the rest of the pasture, wetter or drier, shadier or sunnier, breezier or calmer, closer to or farther away from a cattail marsh. Whatever the deciding factor might be, it’s the smart hunter’s responsibility to figure it out and then extend that piece of knowledge to the next patch of pasture that he happens to hunt.
Another thing you should strive to understand is how a particular animal looks in a particular setting. Hunters often find that it takes them a while to spot the first deer of the day, but as soon as they find one, they start spotting deer all over the place. Often, this happens because the hunter has suddenly figured out what a deer looks like in the context of a particular backdrop of vegetation and quality of light. In other words, finding a mule deer in dry grass (look for the white rump) is nothing like finding a mule deer in the snow (look for the brown body), which itself is nothing like the maddeningly frustrating task of finding a mule deer against a patchwork of snow and dry grass. But once you see an animal in a certain type of setting, something in your head clicks and you suddenly know what you’re looking for. Achieving that moment of clarity is one of the many joys of spot-and-stalk hunting.
When you’re sitting up on a glassing position for an hour or so without seeing anything, you’ll inevitably start wondering how long you should wait before moving on. There is no simple answer to this question, as it really comes down to what animal you’re hunting and what kind of terrain you’re hunting in. If you’re glassing an alpine basin for Dall sheep in Alaska, for instance, you’ll pretty quickly determine whether or not there’s a pure white animal standing against a backdrop of black shale and green grass. Conversely, if you’re hunting the brushy mountains of Sonora, Mexico, for Coues deer (otherwise known as gray ghosts), you might spend two or three days in one spot before you pick out the deer that you knew all along must be there. In that sort of terrain, you’re not just glancing around for something white. Instead, your eyes are prying into every little nook and shadow in search of a leg, an ear, or an antler tine. In those situations, confidence plays a huge role. Sometimes you must force yourself to believe in your spot and know that something’s out there even if you don’t actually really believe it.
This is a classic high-country basin where elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats might be found. In this instance the glasser is looking for elk and deer. Red icons: These are big openings that are void of cover and should be glassed first. Animals here should be easy to fmd. Blue icons: Medium-sized openings with scattered cover should be glassed on the second pass. Finding game in these areas might take a little extra time. Green icons: Save smaller and more distant openings for later passes, after you’ve ruled out the presence of animals in more obvious locations. Look for bedded animals in these areas. A spotting scope might be helpful when studying the faraway areas. Black icons: These spots are not generally going to hold elk or deer, but you still might give them a careful examination in order to stave off boredom during a long glassing session. Who knows, you might find a sheep or goat to give you some much-needed entertain-ment.
Another reason to hold tight is that bedded animals will eventually get up and move around, and you need to be watching when they do. Many hunters are good enough to find bedded game on occasion, but only the best of the best can do it consistently. When an animal is on its feet, however, the movement will usually catch your eye long before the actual shape of the animal does. What’s more, animals that are up on their feet aren’t necessarily in view. Big game usually move slowly as they feed, often just taking one step every few minutes. You could easily be watching a hillside of oaks for wild pigs and not see a lone boar simply because he’s spending an hour in a narrow out-of-view draw that hap-pened to collect a bunch of acorns that rolled down the slope after falling from their trees. Suddenly that boar steps out from the draw and there he is, seemingly emerging from thin air.
Another thing to consider is the shifting light. As the sun moves across the sky, shadows change and either lighten or darken an animal enough for you to see it. And the shifting rays of sun can reveal things as well. You could be staring at a huge patch of willows and not see a single thing, and then suddenly the sun bursts through the clouds and you see the palm of a moose antler as clearly as if it were a firefly lighting up in the pitch of night.
Speaking of light, many species of big game are crepuscular, or active primarily during the twilight periods of dawn and dusk. If you had two hours a day to glass for animals, you’d be wise to pick the first and last hours of the day. That’s when you’re going to spot 75 percent of the game you see. In general, it’s very hard to rule out an area until you’ve had the chance to study it during those magical moments of rising and falling light.
BINOCULARS VS. BEST SPOTTING SCOPES
There aren’t many serious glassers who spend hour upon hour staring through a spotting scope. Not only can spotting scopes give you eye fatigue in short order, but the field of view on a spotting scope is typically much smaller than that of binoculars. Instead, do most of your glassing through a set of binos, preferably on a tripod. Use the spotting scope primarily as a specialty tool for investigating suspi-cious-looking (i.e., gamy) shapes and objects, and also for judging the size and/or legality of distant animals that you initially found through your binoculars. Now and then, of course, you’ll use your scope to scan faraway country that’s simply out of reach for a pair of binoculars, but give your eyes a break as you soon as you start to feel any discomfort. You’ll want your eyes to feel fresh and ready when you finally get a chance to look through your rifle scope and make your shot.
Once you’ve found your quarry, it’s time to start thinking about whether you should attempt to make a stalk. Sometimes the answer is perfectly clear. If you spot an antelope feeding casually out in a sage patch in an upwind direction and you’ve only got to make a 50-yard crawl to get to a good shooting position, you should probably start crawling immediately. But at other times, particularly when there’s a lot of distance to cover, the answer might not be so clear. Considering the distance between the animal and you, will the animal still be there—or somewhere where you can find it—when you arrive at its location? This isn’t the sort of question that can be answered with certainty, as animals are unpredictable in their movements and there are many unseen factors at play. For instance, you might be stalking a group of antelope that have been milling around in the same place all day, and then another hunter spooks them while you’re closing the final part of your stalk on your hands and knees. There’s just no way for you to control that sort of thing.
But you can make fairly accurate predictions about what an animal is going to do—and where it’s going to be—if you take the time to observe both the animal and its surroundings. While there’s no way to account for every scenario that a spot-and-stalk hunter will encounter in the field, there are a number of general guidelines that will prove helpful as you try to gauge whether to make an attempt on a distant animal.
During the breeding season, or rut, mating activity is one of the best things you can see. If you glass a male who’s harassing or defending a group of females, chances are strong that he’s going to stay in that area unless the females move. Conversely, it’s generally a bad idea to take off in pursuit of spooked animals. If you hear a few rifle shots and then see a herd of elk disappear over a ridge, don’t assume that they’re going to be standing on the other side of that ridge when you get over there. Even if a nervous or spooked animal is standing in plain sight, it’s still a good idea to hold off on your stalk until the animal calms down and goes back to feeding or resting. But not all fast-moving animals have neces-sarily been spooked. They might be cruising for mates during breeding season; moving between feeding, watering, and bedding areas; or traveling in search of new food sources. Regardless, try to determine where the animal is headed—and let it get there, preferably—before you take off in pursuit. This is especially true if the animal is moving away from you, as it’s extremely difficult to overtake traveling animals without alerting them to your presence. That said, keep in mind that getting out in front of a traveling animal is an excellent strategy. If the animal’s line of travel is predictable and you can head it off, go for it. Feeding is another good sign, as it means the animals are generally content and not at immediate risk of moving away too quickly. How ever, they will move somewhat. If a group of animals is grazing, pay attention to which direction they are facing. (They will usually face into the wind.) Plan on them moving at least somewhat in that direction. Also consider the time of day when you’re looking at feeding animals. In the evening, there’s a strong likelihood that they’ll stay in the same general area until dark. In the late morning, however, their feeding period might soon come to an end as they head to their bedding locations.