Bionic Eyes

Many hunters feel binoculars are an essential tool in the deer woods. Here’s how two successful hunters make the most of their optics.

Why carry around binoculars when you have equal or greater magnification capabilities attached to the top of your rifle?That had always been my philosophy until a couple of hunts last year.

The first was on some International Paper land near Mansfield in Northwest Louisiana. The deer in the area should have been rutting like newlyweds, but a rare November warm spell had settled on the woods, the moist blanket having the same effect on the deer that a nude picture of Rosie O’Donnell would on the average male.

Still, I was confident I’d get a shot. My favorite spot in that section of woods is a small food plot in a natural funnel that is adjacent to a thicket. Past hunts have demonstrated to me that deer love to come out of that thicket to feed in the evening, and stop back in the plot in the morning for a few quick bites before turning in for several hours’ sleep.

There wouldn’t be many deer moving that day, but I knew if they moved anywhere, they’d come visit my honeyhole.

After being dropped off in the early afternoon by my host for the hunt, IP biologist Tommy Smith, I walked through the familiar woods under the shroud of the pine-needled canopy. I had a knapsack on one shoulder and my .270 rifle on the other, but even with such a light load, droplets of sweat collected into beads and ran in intermittent streams down my forehead, chest and back.

It was hot. It would have had to have cooled down to be considered warm. November isn’t supposed to be like this.

After only a 200-yard walk, I arrived at my stand, a ladder, lock-on type, and began the climb.

I was soon settled in, and attempted to look out across the plot, but the sun was hanging high above the trees directly in my field of view. It wasn’t until this moment I realized how relatively cool it had been in the shadow of the canopy.

Here in the glare of the afternoon sun, the heat was torturous. I sweated like a prison escapee seeking shelter from bloodhounds in an oven.

Even in my perfect spot, I knew killing a deer on this day would be a major triumph.

The next hour seemed to take 275 minutes rather than the standard 60, but finally, the sun fell below the trees on the distant edge of the plot, and the air became substantially more comfortable.

With a glance, I checked one of the several trails that leads from the thicket into the plot, and as if on cue, a button buck walked out. My heart began to race like Marion Jones, just as it always does when I see any deer of any type from a deer stand.

Ten seconds later, a larger buck followed, and then my ribs could barely contain the pounding in my chest. This clearly wasn’t a trophy, but it was a deer with horns, and it was in easy range, only 40 yards from my stand.

The land we were hunting has a 6-point-or-better restriction, so I had to make sure this was a legal buck before I shot it. It was obvious with the naked eye that the buck had forked horns, but I couldn’t tell whether it had brow tines.

I pulled my rifle up while the two deer fed mercilessly on the ryegrass in the plot. Holding the rifle free-hand, I eased my eye toward the scope, but couldn’t find the deer. I did, however, get a marvelously up-close view of the blades of grass in the plot.

I had apparently left the scope on 9-power from my previous hunt. As near as the deer was, it would have looked like a mastodon if I had picked it up with the scope.

I eased the rifle down slightly, and was just about to pull up a hand to adjust the scope setting when I looked out at the plot. Both deer were staring at me like I was in a lineup.

I held as still as I could, but before long the rifle began to feel like it had sandbags hanging from the end of it.

The deer snorted and stomped, trying to get this strange-looking appendage in the tree to move, but I held as long as I could.

Finally, lactic acid filled my biceps, and they began to give out. I eased the rifle down, but apparently even that little bit of movement alerted the deer to the fact that I wasn’t a natural part of their environment.

They bounded back into the thicket a little bit older and a whole lot wiser. To this day, I still don’t know if the buck had brow tines.

I was a little bit luckier on a later hunt in the season, but the importance of binoculars was yet again reinforced.

I was a guest of Capt. Ross Barkhurst on some marshy swampland he leases near Larose. The terrain looked as though it would have been great for ducks, but it was unlike anything I’ve ever hunted for deer.

Barkhurst eschews the woods on his property in favor of hunting the wide-open flotant marsh prairie. Views extend 1,000 yards or more, and so, consequently, do shots.

“Bring your binoculars,” Barkhurst had told me the day before. “You’ll need them.”

I shrugged off the suggestion, again thinking my scope would do the job.

Then I arrived on the stand, and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The brown marsh grass was thick and chest-high — nearly head-high on a deer. Finding Bambi or Bullwinkle in this stuff, it was immediately obvious, was going to be like locating a bumblebee on a black and yellow wall.

For a while, I scanned the marsh with my scope, but that soon became arduous, so I put the rifle down, and attempted to do it with my naked eye.

I eventually all but gave up, fully confident there could be a herd of deer feeding within 100 yards of my stand, and I wouldn’t be able to see a one of them.

I still continued to glance around, more out of boredom than anything, and hours later noticed something 200 yards away that could have been a deer head or could have been a bush or could have been a levitating clump of mud.

I raised my scope to check it out, and lo and behold, it was an actual deer — a doe. Only its head was visible, and I didn’t feel comfortable with a head shot from that distance, so I waited and watched the small deer.

She stood stock-still for several minutes, and finally moved into a small clearing in the marsh, giving me full view of the top two-thirds of her body.

I lowered the crosshairs to the kill zone, the rifle roared, and she vanished. With all of the marsh grass, I wasn’t sure if I had hit or missed. I didn’t see her run away, but how could I in that impenetrable vegetation?

When Barkhurst came to retrieve me, he found her pretty easily right where I had shot her.

I went home with meat for the freezer, but Barkhurst on the same day watched several bucks move about through his binoculars. What might I have seen if I hadn’t been so stubborn?

I resolved then and there to purchase quality binoculars for this hunting season, and I did — a pair of Alpen Apex 8x42s. I haven’t hunted with them yet, but I’ve used them to spy out feeding birds on fishing trips, and have been quite pleased.

The Alpens are waterproof, and the lenses are multi-coated to prevent fogging. Also, the eye relief is a long 20 mm, which should help in that regard.

I’ll put them to the test this season.

Barkhurst opts for a pair of 10x50s because he does so much hunting in the wide-open marsh prairie.

“If you hunt the woods, you don’t need anything more than 7- or 8-power,” he said.

But either way, Barkhurst says binoculars are a vital tool for hunters. He can’t imagine having consistent success without them.

“I’d rather leave my rifle at home than my binoculars,” he said.

Barkhurst estimates he spends 95 percent of the time he’s on the stand looking through his binoculars. He tries to be more methodical than haphazard, scanning defined sections of the grass prairie before moving on to scan the next defined section.

“If it’s calm, I’m looking for grass moving or a bush moving,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m just looking for something that stands out, something that’s a contrast from the rest of the prairie.”

Also, since the grass he hunts grows so consistently vertical, Barkhurst looks for horizontal lines. These, very often, are the backs, bellies or throats of deer.

The glinty racks of bucks often give their locations away.

“In the morning, they’ll be covered with dew, and when the sunlight hits them, the antlers will be shiny,” he said.

Barkhurst has hunted this same lease for two decades, so he’s grown quite familiar with the travel patterns of the deer on it.

Consequently, he spends a lot of time focusing his binoculars on trails leading to and from the bedding areas on the prairie.

“There are certain areas the deer always use,” he said. “You learn to check those more frequently.”

Scott Smith of Delta Guides and Outfitters has been a long-time believer in the importance of binoculars on the deerstand.

“Without a doubt, there’s been a ton of deer I killed after seeing them with my binoculars that I never would have known were there (without the binoculars),” he said. “Deer feed at a very slow pace. They have long necks and a tremendous range of motion. When they’re feeding, they’re not moving a whole lot.”

Smith estimates he keeps the binoculars in front of his eyes 20 percent of the time he’s on a stand.

When he’s hunting woods, he’ll use the optics to scan trails and to peer deeper through thick timber.

“I’m looking for motion,” he said. “It’s much easier to pick out motion with binoculars.”

Once he’s spotted a deer, he’ll use the binoculars to help him determine the sex of the deer and whether or not it’s a buck he wants to pursue.

Since Smith hunts with a bow almost exclusively, he usually has to put forth some effort to get any deer he spies through his binoculars into bow range.

“I don’t want to waste my time calling at it if it’s not a deer I want,” he said.

Smith uses a short series of subtle location calls to attract the attention of distant bucks, except during the rut.

“Those rutting bucks will get pretty obnoxious with their grunting,” he said. “You can be much more aggressive.”

Either way, he’ll watch the reaction of the deer through his binoculars to determine what effect his calling is having. If it looks like the deer is interested, he’ll scale back the calling, but if the buck begins to wander off, he may give it a few extra grunts to pique its curiosity.

When he’s hunting a field, Smith will watch the tree line through his binoculars, and will also scan thickets looking for bedding deer. A trophy buck that’s out of bow range may lead him to get out of the tree and stalk it.

“If I think that’s my only option for getting a shot, I’ll get down and hoof it,” he said.

Since he’s a bowhunter, Smith prefers 8×40 binoculars. They are powerful enough to see everything that’s physically possible from a typical bow stand, and they’re light enough and small enough to stay out of the way.

“That’s a good all-around size,” he said.

Gun hunters, or those bowhunters who frequently hunt fields, might want to opt for 10x50s, the size Barkhurst uses, but anything larger than that is usually too cumbersome, in Smith’s opinion.

“If you’re hunting terrain where you can see forever, a spotting scope is a better bet (than bigger binoculars),” he said.

But in most situations in Louisiana, scopes belong on the top of a rifle, and looking through them is only recommended just before a trigger is pulled.

Scott Smith offers guided hunts in many places across the continent, and also advises landowners on ways to optimize their deer herds. He can be reached at (337) 280-0742; Capt. Ross Barkhurst can be reached at (504) 329-0586.

About Todd Masson 739 Articles
Todd Masson has covered outdoors in Louisiana for a quarter century, and is host of the Marsh Man Masson channel on YouTube.