Western hunting- glass or hike?

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Apr 22, 2003
Alger, OH
Ok, being an Ohioan, where we can't use rifles for deer, I'm sort of new at thinking about hunting open country. Not that we don't have open ground, we've got all sorts of open crop land, it just doesn't do a bow, muzzleloader, or slug gun hunter much good. As such, glassing just hasn't been a tool in my box before now. (Neither has a centerfire rifle, but that's a different story)

Anyhow, my question is, in the big, open Western country, how do you make game? How much time do you spend hiking, to get to a new piece of territory, and how much glassing it? Do you have any strategies for using optics, beyond just looking at the far side of a canyon through them?

My primary interest in this is getting ready for a Colorado elk hunt next year. Of the guys I've talked to around here who've gone after elk, it seems the successful ones are the ones who are more aggressive in covering lots of country, probably because elk herd up, and only live in one little piece of what would otherwise be good habitat at a time.

I'd also be interested to hear your thoughts on other species, too, like mulies and pronghorns. I suspect lots of work with the optics would be more productive with mule deer, if they're anything like white tails. If you find where they've been, they'll probably be back.
We went to pronghorn a couple years ago. Until you've been out there, you have no idea what "big sky country" means. You can literally see for miles, particularly when you're on top of a ridge or mesa. Very good glass is your friend. You can see in a few minutes what would a few days to walk.

After I came back, I got a set of the very best Leupold 10x50 binos. You'll need them. Would be a different deal in heavy timber in the mountains. We were on the eastern side of MT.
You'll do both. You will need to hike quite a ways at times to get into areas that have game. Then spend some time glassing to find specific animals. Then probably walk a long distance to get into range.

You never know what will happen but I wouldn't want to hunt the western states without some decent binoculars. Since there is lots of walking, often in steep terrain I'd keep weight down on rifles, scopes and binoculars. Something in a mid size 6X-8X binocular will work just fine most of the time. If you need or want more magnification a spotting scope on a tripod is what I'd use. But someone else would be carrying it. I'd make do with lighterweight bino's.
When I hunted elk in Wyoming, I messed up the first time because I thought like a whitetail hunter. If you jump an elk, he won't be back tomorrow like a whitetail. They are migratory animals and there is grass in the next valley too.
Achieve a high spot in an area where there is fresh elk sign, sit down and glass .. for quite a while. A quick scan will only insure that you miss many things, even elk.
You can't get used to high altitudes by getting in shape at sea level. Allow an extra 2-3 days to acclimate to the altitude after getting in physical shape at home. If "next year" means this coming season, you should have started running, etc. months ago.
You will need to hike beyond the end of the road if you expect to find elk. They don't put up with ATV or 4WD noise. They can be quite noisy themselves though,which makes them easier to hunt than deer in that respect but if they've been pressed they can disappear like ghosts. One minute the woods might be full of them talking and snapping branches and the next there is NOTHING!
I hunt the primitive seasons in Colorado for deer and elk so I lurk around in the black timber. Binoculars are valuable here for peeking though vegetation to find animal parts: legs, antlers, ears that might otherwise be mistaken for branches or rocks. Once I find an area they are using, I don't cover much ground. Waterholes and wallows can be productive and the transition between forest and tree line is often used as a bedding area.
Pronghorn is a different game altogether and I use a centerfire rifle when I hunt them. I've never gotten closer than 200 yds to take one and glassing is a great help in spotting and planning a stalk. I don't advocate hunting them from a vehicle and it's illegal here but I often spot them from the road and drive to a place down wind and out of sight, even a few miles, to begin a stalk. They don't like to be in places they can't see 360 degrees from horizon to horizon but can sometimes be fooled with a ground blind or by setting up near a windmill or stock tank.

Good luck,
I'll just make a brief mention on binoculars here. You'll be able to see more and further with stabilized glass like the Canon 10x30 IS. The stabilization makes a BIG difference.
If you are hunting the general OTC seasons in CO you will have lots of company. If I were you I'd study the terrain and private crop land adjacent to heavy cover.
If possible allow enough time to catch the tail end of the previous season and spend a ton of time glassing and talking to hunters and checking camps for meat hanging.
Many hunters of different seasons will share more than those you will be competing with directly.
Elk need a lot of food and water and will travel an amazing distance to get it, the hunter needs to be in a good spot to catch them as they travel to and from.

Other options are hitting the high country but be warned, elk in general don't like snow any more than us and early snows will push them off quick. My personal observations of area 42, 31, 32, 33 are that over the last 20 yrs the elk seem to be trending to lower elevations in the Pinion, Juniper and even the river bottoms and will stay year around so long as there is water. I have seen snow during archery season push elk off the Bookcliffs never to return during that season and I counted over 60 head of cows and calves in June on our place in 42 at around 5600'.

Walk or glass? A little of both but know the property that you are glassing, it does little good to glass ground that you can't access due to terrain or ownership. Know that a herd of elk can pass in the P&J's and it can be so dense that you won't see them. If you hunt in the quakies come after the leaves drop and you will be able to see much better. Be in shape and prepared to shoot well from 25-500yds.
Don't skimp on optics, if I am accompanying another hunter I often carry a spotting scope on a tripod and a lighter pair of binoculars.
Kind of rambling on but your question doesn't have a quick easy answer.
Make sure you have the best glass you can afford and the best boots already broken in. Having lived in both CO and NV and spent many a day hiking and glassing, your feet and eyes will appreciate both. You really need to do scouting before hand to minimize your hiking. If going after elk, horses really pay off both in ground covering ability and retrieval of meat - a good guide helps in that regard. Also, as mentioned above - you need to be in good shape - start doing stadium stairs with a fully loaded pack - that will give you an idea of what the term "UP" really means.....:D

The more you get away from the roads and other hunters, the better your hunt will be. be prepared for every type of weather you can imagine as well. Preparation is key to success, and patience while glassing is another.

I was pronghorn hunting one time and watched this herd from a mountaintop for three hours as they meandered their way towards a water hole. I then had to slowly get down the mountain and stalk - it was a long day but worth the effort
My bro. in law has been using mountain bikes to hunt elk in Eastern Oregon, it's worked well so far and helped shorten the time between spotting and stalking.
My bro. in law has been using mountain bikes to hunt elk in Eastern Oregon, it's worked well so far and helped shorten the time between spotting and stalking.

Bingo! My two favorite hobbies combined! Now I have an excuse to buy more bike gear as well. It will help me put more meat on the table.
Mule deer can be hunted just like whitetails is some areas. But most of my experience with these amazing animals has been in forested foothills. Early morning you should glass just below the top of a butte or outcropping of rock. In canyon country, find a patch of mountain mahogany to watch in late afternnon.

I've had excellent luck with my 30-30 carbine or .243 rifle.

My binoculars are BUSHNELL H2O with 10X magnification.



Here in Arizona you do both. For elk, I've seen shows where they shoot big bulls out in the open but all of the ones I've taken were in thick cover. Depending on the time of year, water is the big draw for Arizona elk and deer. Look at topo maps, Google Earth and find isolated water away from roads and human pressure. Find a vantage point and glass that area hard. I can't use bino's (right eye is way to weak and non correctible with a prescription) so I use a spotting scope for glassing. I also have a back pack on big enough to haul out meat. Last Elk I shot was 1.5 miles away from the truck and it took 4 trips to haul out the meat.

Like everyone says, its hard to condition yourself for those elevations if you are not there already. I can run 3 miles pretty easy and when I throw on a backpack, rifle, spotting scope, water and food, I wear out quick and have to take breaks often at 7,000+ elevation.
Regarding water holes, make sure you check state regs - in NV, it was illegal to camp or park within 100 yards or more of a water hole or spring............certain violations can lead to some SERIOUS charges, including felonies (loss of gun rights), confiscation of truck, guns, etc..........
Thanks for the help so far, everybody. Regarding optical quality, I was tentatively leaning towards a set of Nikon Monarch 7s, in the 8x size. Would quality of life be improved enough to warrant the step up to Leica, Zeiss, or Swarovski levels?

Also, by next year, I meant fall of 2014.

Regarding fitness, I'm not where I'd like to be yet, but I'm not a complete couch potato. I run about 15-20 miles a week, and some basic bodyweight stuff for strength. Elevation is still something I need to tackle, though. Last time I was in Denver, I went running, and could definitely see the difference. I could (barely) keep my usual pace, but only with my heart rate shooting through the roof. Climbing, too needs work. The fellow who mentioned stadium stairs had a good idea.

Any more advice people wish to dispense would be welcome. Keep it coming!

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FWIW: I was but 32 the first time I went to really-high country. Drove all night to get to Colorado Springs. Guided tour to the top of Pike's Peak, and was "sicky". Camped out that night at the pit area for the hill climb race. 9,000 feet. The next morning, all was well and we went to the top for breakfast. Felt fine.

IMO, allow a day or so of light activity for at least a little bit of acclimatization and recovering from travel fatigue.
Good optics and a good pair of well worn comfortable boots are important pieces of equipment in western hunting. I spend on average 4 hours a day glassing and 6 to 8 hours hiking on an average western elk or mule deer hunt.
Thanks for the help so far, everybody. Regarding optical quality, I was tentatively leaning towards a set of Nikon Monarch 7s, in the 8x size. Would quality of life be improved enough to warrant the step up to Leica, Zeiss, or Swarovski levels?
I would personally opt for one of the latter, I bought a pair of 10x50 Swarovski over 25 yrs ago and they are still in use. Leupold spotting scopes and a smaller pair of Burris 10x42 that I'm retiring for a new pair of Viper HD's.
What ever glass you get you need to understand that you will be looking through them for extended periods, when I sit and glass with people that have skimped one of the first comments signs is a headache.
A good range finder is also useful, if for nothing else but to tell you that you are to far away.
Binos are a trade off. Weight versus size. Last trip I had some really good Pentax compacts. If you get light weights, they jump and shake too much. You get eye fatigue in a hurry. They were barely useable.

The ones I got for this trip are the best Leupold's, Mojave-3's in 10x50. Bigger and heavier, but much steadier. The glass is excellent, and about 1/3rd of the cost of Swarovski. I can see individual blades of grass across our lake, which is about 400 yards. Swarovski's are great, but I felt the Leupolds were very close in optical quality, not enough difference (if any that I could see) to justify the difference in cost for me.

Also, I'd REALLY suggest getting a good bino harness. I got one from Cabelas. If you don't, they're not protected and the weight banging against you gets real old in a hurry.

As the post above, you also need a range finder. I have mine hooked on my bino harness.
I often use my gun as a mono pod, with the butt on the ground and my left hand around the vertical barrel I can rest my binos on my left hand with the lenses on either side of the barrel and stabilize it all with my right hand holding the glasses.
One thing to bring in your pack will be moleskin. Hopefully you will have help getting a downed animal out - even quartered and boned, it's a lot of meat. If you can't do stadium stairs, try wearing your gear at the gym and use a treadmill set on the highest grade - typically 15% grade and wear your pack loaded down, coat, etc. trying to replicate what you will get in the mountains. Building endurance takes time, and a year should do it......
One mulie hunt I wasn't in the best of shape, but I knew my area. Going from 4500'where I lived at to over 9000 had me climbing up a steep shale slope taking 4-5 steps and stopping for 30 seconds. Going up taxes your quads and lungs; coming down taxes your knees and ankles -getting hurt in the middle of nowhere is not something you want to happen
Anyhow, my question is, in the big, open Western country, how do you make game? How much time do you spend hiking, to get to a new piece of territory, and how much glassing it? Do you have any strategies for using optics, beyond just looking at the far side of a canyon through them?
100% Hiking 0% glassing (I don't use binoculars)
100% Hiking 0% glassing (I don't use binoculars)

So are you just passing up a bunch of game or are you using your rifle scope for glassing?
I like the Steiner 8x30 series for Elk hunting here in Colorado. Just about the right size for balancing optical power, FOV, and weight.

If your previous hunting experience is driving your 2WD dually truck to your hunting spot and walking 300 yds to your tree stand, picking the right binoculars for Colorado hunting is the least of your worries.

Excellent physical fitness IS A MUST!!!!!!

I live at 6000', and hunting season still kicks my butt every year. The drills suggested above are a good starting point.
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