Elk NetworkMaking the Most of Your Eyes

Hunting | July 9, 2018

If you had a nose like an elk’s, and could hear like a bat, your eyes wouldn’t be so important.

The Take Away

  1. Look close first, then farther away
  2. Seeing elk is easier if you know what elk look like. Mostly, elk appear in pieces.
  3. Looking can be hard work. When you tire of it, take a break.
  4. A binocular is of benefit only when you look through it. If you don’t enjoy looking through them, the finest lenses might as well be a bear-claw necklace.
  5. Using both eyes to aim makes sense because you look at just about everything with both eyes.

From 340 yards, the ridge-top cedars divulged nothing. Neither binocular nor riflescope could penetrate the vegetation hiding the elk. A sharp-eyed pal had glimpsed the bull as we glassed from a hill nearly a mile off: winks of flank and antler entering cover. Now, an hour and a long hike later, I’d crawled ahead into a thicket opposite the bull. A thinly timbered valley sprawled between us.

I scuffed a flat spot, broke small limbs and pulled grass until I had a clear shot alley from prone. If the elk appeared, I could kill it.

The elk didn’t appear. It had bedded or left. I kept glassing. Suddenly, movement! As quickly, the elk was gone. But this time I’d seen it drop. The good news: It was bedded. The bad news: It was bedded. On this final afternoon there was no “tomorrow” option. Wait or sneak.

Marking the site from the horizon to the hill in front, I slipped ahead on hands and knees into the valley. Then, on wet duff in a crosswind, I tip-toed up the opposite slope. Step. Look. Look again.

The color came through a cedar-slit the size of a small chili-pepper. I spun the bino’s focus wheel from 30 yards to 15 and stared. It was a tine tip, a small patch of hair. The bull was facing me, head down.

Two minutes later and two steps closer, I shot him.

Sure, luck was with me that day. Getting near enough to an elk to lob a cantaloupe into its bed is, at best, a rare event. But like downing a bull at distance, it’s possible if you make good use of your eyes.

Your optometrist will tell you the human eye is, indeed, a marvelous organ. Its ability to discern shape, movement and color, to adjust for changing light conditions, to focus from inches to infinity and to clean and heal itself—well, it’s plum miraculous!

Optical assists like binoculars and riflescopes make your eyes even more effective. Still, having finished many seasons with a clean tag because elk escaped my notice or my bullet, I’ve learned that good glass does not fill freezers. I’m well versed in how not to look for elk. And how not to aim at them.

Looking and aiming are much the same, you know. To do either, your eye manipulates a series of lenses that conduct light rays to your retina. A circular ciliary muscle changes the shape of the cornea up front, flattening it to sharpen your view of distant objects and making it nearly spherical to bring close objects into crisp relief. An aperture, your pupil, changes size with light conditions, courtesy muscles that expand the pupil at dawn and dusk and shrink it in bright light. This adjustment can change the intensity of light at the retina by a factor of 16. Whatever the aperture, spindle-shaped cells on the retina’s periphery help you see in dim conditions. These rod cells are roughly 1,000 times more sensitive to light than are three types of cone cells, more centrally clumped. But the cones register color.

Hunting elk, you probably don’t ponder eye function. You think about elk. Still, your brain has a lot to do with how well your eyes work. It determines where you look and for how long, and what you’re looking for. It also tells you what you see.

Of course, unless otherwise compelled, you’ll hunt with the sun to your back. Light on your face impairs your vision and denies you neon images of front-lit elk. Hunt into the sun, and elk that have better planned their day see you front-lit!

Knowing where to direct your eyes isn’t easy, even if you have help. Once, still-hunting along a wooded slope, I heard my pal, just above, snap his fingers. Stop. Look. I did and saw nothing. As Danny had no rifle or tag, I slipped uphill a few steps. He was staring ahead. “There!” he hissed. I looked hard but in vain. “Right there!” I’d often endured his frustration, trying to show someone a bull. Time, I knew, was short. If this elk had been at ease, Danny would have beckoned me closer. The elk had him pinned.

Finally, like an image popping from a puzzle, the six-point appeared, ivoried tines stark against black timber. Plain as a horse in a pasture but 300 yards off. I had been scouring cover and meadow’s edge nearby, looking hard in the right direction, but in the right place. My inspection stopped short of the bull. He vanished before I could fire.

You’re smart, however, to look close first. Distance reduces the odds you’ll be discovered or, if you are, that elk will take immediate alarm. Once, cresting a ridge, I looked across to a logging cut. Many seconds later, my peripheral vision caught movement. Practically underfoot, a bull walked into cover and was gone. He’d stood in the open, watching me look a quarter mile beyond him.

Seeing elk is easier if you know what elk look like. Mostly, elk appear in pieces, and though you may have a good mental image of a whole elk, you won’t see many bulls if you insist on a calendar view. Elk comprise a spectrum of colors and shapes. Your brain works hard to register every snippet of elk as an elk. A spot of russet in a shaft of sun once got my attention. Snow covered the meadow grass and lay thick on iron-gray limbs lacing the conifer jungles. Red? The sun winked behind a cloud. The color lost its shine. Red became brown, then a patch of hair, then the neck of a bull. I fired offhand.

In oblique light, brown elk can turn ruddy, a bull’s ash-white coat, bright ivory. Legs, which you you’ll spot by peeking under the skirts of conifers, are black. Ditto necks of some mature bulls. But shade and rain stain other hair dark. Antlers range from chalk to chocolate. If your brain registers only the yellow of rumps, most elk you see will be making for an exit. 

The more time you spend in elk country, the better. You can train to recognize tiny slivers of elk. An “eye for game” has less to do with visual acuity than with how you look and how well you recognize what your eye brings to your brain. If you don’t get into the hills between seasons, a refresher course in spotting elk just before the opener can boost your odds of seeing one, even if you’ve hunted elk for years or get practice on other game. Having visited Africa often, I’m still humbled by kudu and other imposing but eerily invisible game. Early in a hunt, even thin thorn can hide big antelope. Soon, however, I re-learn to look for kudu-gray, not elk-brown, and for black horn, not bone-hued antler. I look not only in shade that elk would seek, but in sunny thickets. My eye and brain adjust to the task at hand.

Ever look for your spouse in a mall? You must sift many people of roughly the same height and shape, doing the same thing. You can’t recall that day’s clothes. The best you can hope for is a glimpse; the crowd will block a full image. Then, success! Some manner of movement, a subtlety in hair color or style, an insignificant habit or physical detail you’re at a loss to describe grabs your eye. Your brain has a full image on file, but also a bank of vignettes. So glimpsing one detail is enough. Finding elk is like that—instant recognition of an odd crumb of the larger whole.

Looking can be hard work. When you tire of it, take a break. Better that than stumbling through cover and detonating elk you might later spot first. Long ago, climbing steeply on a bull’s track in snow, I saw a b
ranch sway to a stop. A signal. The elk didn’t want to leave this hill. On the last pitch, I paused to glass into dark firs. Nada. But I was more tired than patient. My next step bounced the bull from cover. He galloped past, then plunged into the timbered abyss from whence we’d climbed. My bullet tore a wad of hair from his hump but, as the track down-canyon proved, caused no mortal damage.

Persistent looking in the right places trumps high-quality optics. In fact, brilliant glass can distract you. A powerful binocular pulls your eye not into thickets where elk hide, but to distant rims where other hunters are probably looking your way. If odds of finding elk out yonder were better than those of finding elk up close, why did you pick this route? While you often see best into hillside cover from hills opposite, looking to the horizon takes your eye from elk cover in rifle range.

My first binocular was a 7×35 Bausch & Lomb Zephyr, a lightweight Porro-prism glass. Superior lenses, prisms and coatings give new binos an optical edge, but 7x magnification and 5mm exit pupils still excel for elk hunting. Oddly, 10x binoculars drive the market. Watching Yukon rams from a rock, they’re hard to beat; but unsupported after a stiff climb or difficult going through shin-tangle, or in frisky wind, the tiny field of a 10x trembles as if the earth were about to split. Reduce power, and you throttle apparent shake. A bigger, brighter field is a bonus.

The 7x binocular, sadly, has fallen on hard times. While the exit pupils of 7x50s help European hunters shoot pigs at night, such glasses are too heavy and bulky for all-around hunting.

Even less common is the 6x, though if you prowl timber for elk, you’ll come to adore a 6×30 like the old B&L. A 6x glass makes a bull 440 yards away appear as big as it would to your naked eye at 73. I can certainly see an elk at 73 steps without the crutch of magnification. I can kill one that far off with iron sights. Though more magnification shows more detail, you’ll seldom overlook game with a 6x that you’d see with an 8x. The broad field of a 6x lets you scan plenty of country without moving the binocular. And you get 5mm of exit pupil with a trim 30mm front end.

Another reason to power down: depth of field. Low magnification enables you to peer deep into the woods without losing focus. Powerful glass imposes a shallow field. You’ll see that in spotting scopes. If, when still-hunting, you must keep refocusing a binocular to get sharp images at distances that vary by a few feet, you won’t sift that cover as quickly or effectively as you would glassing without adjustment.

Three of only four 6x binoculars I found cataloged in a recent search are Porro-prisms (after the 19th-century Italian inventor, Ignazio Porro). The Kowa YF30-6 and Bushnell NatureView, both 6x30s, weigh about 17 ounces. So does the 6.5×32 Vortex Raptor. These deliver fields of 410 to 420 feet at 1,000 yards. Meopta’s MeoPro, a roof-prism 6.5×32, weighs 21 ounces and has a 432-foot field.

While the current range of 7x binoculars with 32mm to 40mm objective lenses is, again, limited, the market is awash with fine roof-prism 8x32s, some that nearly match 6-powers in field of view.

Speaking of field, beware so-called “wide-angle” binoculars, by common definition those with an apparent field of at least 65 degrees. To calculate apparent field, you multiply the field, in degrees, by the power. A 7x bino with 9-degree field has an apparent field of 63 degrees. As one degree equals 52.36 feet at 1,000 yards, this glass would show a slice of country 9×52.36 or 471 feet wide. (The long eye relief of riflescopes dictates a different “wide-angle” standard. A fixed-power riflescope qualifies with an apparent field of 26 degrees, a variable with one of 23 degrees.) You won’t find the best images in wide-angle optics. Most show lower resolution, more aberration and image curvature. Field has nothing to do with light transmission.

A binocular is of benefit only when you look through it. If you don’t enjoy looking through them, the finest lenses might as well be a bear-claw necklace. A heavy, bulky binocular can impede your hunt, as it contributes to fatigue or keeps you from poking into cover or crawling to stay hidden. I prefer models that weigh no more than 22 ounces—my limit for daylong carry on a single strap. A harness better distributes the tug of heavy glass, but as that elastic stretches, the binocular bumps against your belly, and along the ground as you sneak on all fours. When you don or shed clothing, you must un-harness.

A small optic on a short strap is easily tucked in your jacket and won’t drag or bounce. One caveat: That short strap can put your breath close to the ocular lenses. Binos and riflescopes are charged with nitrogen or argon to prevent internal fogging. But external clouding has the same effect. Fog builds on lenses when you breathe on them or when lens temperature and humidity cross the dew point, below which airborne water vapor condenses on the lens. Such fogging affects eyeglasses and shooting goggles, too. Fogging yields to air flow that moves moisture away from the lens. So the best goggles (by Smith Optics, for example) feature anti-fog coatings, plus vents for passive flow. Some even have a tiny fan.

Anyone who reads this column knows I prefer small, fixed-power riflescopes. A scope is not an automobile transmission, to manipulate at every turn. Last fall I was compelled to carry variable scopes. With them I took six big game animals, at ranges of 14 to 252 yards. None of those scopes left a 4x setting. A fixed 4x, lighter and less costly, would have had a shorter ocular assembly, sparing me at least one bump on the brow. My therapist tells me changing magnification on variables can be as addictive as channel surfing, and advised taping the dial at one setting. If you do that, choose 4x. It’s unlikely you’ll need more power.

Hunters routinely muff shots because they dial up too much power. Slow to find their target in the small field, they must then battle the magnified bounce of the reticle. That bounce doesn’t diminish. As seconds tick by and your muscles tire, it can increase. Time is seldom kind to the tardy. When you’re pressed to fire, the urge to jerk the trigger becomes irresistible—and a miss almost certain.

Whatever the magnification, you’ll speed a shot by looking through the scope. I’ve seen hunters peer into it, as if elk resided in the tube. Your eyes belong on target, the reticle sliding into view as you shoulder the rifle. You needn’t look at the reticle to see it. Your target, of course, is not the elk. Rather, it’s a spot on the elk where you want your bullet to strike. That’s your focal point. Keep your eyes there. Crush the last ounce from the trigger when the reticle kisses that spot.

Whether you’re throwing a baseball, launching an arrow or sending sixes toward a rising rooster, you’ll most likely hit where you look. Using both eyes to aim makes sense because you look at just about everything with both eyes. Why limit the view by closing one? With one eye closed and dilating, and the other open and throttling daylight, you strain both. You impair depth perception, too.

Using both eyes behind iron sights can take practice; but a scope’s reticle, in the same apparent plane as the target and nothing else to align, makes two-eyed aim easy. That’s assuming you’re not cross-dominant (right-handed with a left dominant eye or vice versa).

At the shot, keep your eyes on the elk! Cycle the action without looking at it. If your eyes drop to the rifle, you can lose the target and your chance for a follow-up shot. Ready with another bullet, stay in position. Watch for movement. Give a downed elk at least one minute. If it moves and another shot to the vitals is possible, you’re smart to fire again. Approaching, keep your focus on where you last saw the elk.

Not long ago, after dropping a bull, I waited as my companion cam
e up behind me, binocular to his brow. “He’s down.” The animal had collapsed in aspen deadfall that hid him from my view, prone. A couple of minutes passed. I kept the reticle on a tree above where the elk had stood. “He’s a goner. Hasn’t moved,” insisted my pal. He was probably right, but I recalled elk that had come to life when approached too soon or carelessly. Remember, your eyes aren’t finished working when your rifle recoils.                                          

Wayne van Zwoll has published 16 books and nearly 3,000 articles on rifles and shooting. Two recent books, Shooter’s Bible Guide to Rifle Ballistics and Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifles, are chock full of information. So too Mastering the Art of Long-Range Shooting. But Wayne thinks elk hunting is best up close. His last elk died at 14 steps.