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You are here: Home > Published Articles > Selecting a Spotting Scope I

We were parked at our usual lookout spot for the basins that we hoped would again hold over a hundred elk.  We had been here many times over the years and on other days just like this, a day or two before elk season opened, had glassed the herds we hoped would be there.  If we found them again this time, we would begin the “Death March” around 3:00 a.m. in order to be there by first light.  Sam had again invited me to his parents’ home near Durango, Colorado for the hunt and now all we had to do was confirm that the elk were there, and the bulls were with them.


Before long, faint brown spots appeared in one of the basins, then more, and more still.  “Any bulls?”  At that distance, it was almost impossible to tell even with 10x binoculars.  Not only were we glassing game three miles away, but if we opted for the hike, it was seven miles around to the remote location – and at around 12,000 ft. elevation!  We really wanted to confirm that the bulls were there before we committed to the hike.  Good thing we had our spotting scopes, but even at that distance, all we could make out was if there were antlers or not, never mind point count.  But that was all we needed to know.


We saw what we needed to see, returned home and prepared our gear, and ourselves, for tomorrow morning’s Death March.


A good spotting scope can be a real life (and leg) saver on hunts like this for elk, goats, sheep, pronghorn – or even at the shooting range.  On deer leases having point, spread, or age restrictions, a spotting scope can keep you out of trouble with the land owner or game warden.  And during those countless hours in a deer stand when no deer are moving, a spotting scope can be very entertaining viewing birds, bobcats, pigs, lizards and such, or even your buddy in the tripod stand 800 yards away.  If you’ve used a spotting scope in any of these situations, you know how handy they are.  If you haven’t, make a point the next time you have the opportunity, to use one – you’ll be convinced.


Just like other optics (binoculars and riflescopes) get the right tool for your needs.  Spotting scopes come in all sizes and price ranges.  Many mountain hunters carry light, compact, straight 20x scopes for the weight reduction.  A 12-36x or 15-45x scope is a good general purpose glass, while if you need to cover really long distances a 20-60x scope can be just the tool.   A couple other considerations are 1) a straight or angled eyepiece and 2) objective lens size.


For most hunting situations, the straight eyepiece is the way to go.  It’s just like looking through your riflescope – you can look just over the top of it to line it up, then drop down behind it to look through it and be pretty much on target.  An angled eyepiece is like trying to look around a corner by holding a mirror.  It’s much more difficult, and slower, to get on target.  The angled eyepiece has its home mainly with target shooters.  They can set up the scope so the eyepiece is near their eye while in shooting position and just turn their head slightly to see where their shot went, never having to break form.


There are hunting applications for the angled eyepiece, though.  I have a friend that has over a million acres in his hunting concession in British Columbia.  He hunts lots of goats along with black and grizzly bears and moose.  He called me up early last year saying he needed to get some new optics.  He wanted a 20-60x80 angled eyepiece scope, a 15-45x60 straight eyepiece scope and a binocular.  I asked him about the angled eyepiece and told him he probably really wanted the straight one.  “No, I plan to use it spotting goats high up in the mountains from the low roads.  At 6 ft. 8 inches tall, I either need an eight foot tall tripod or have to get on my knees to use a straight eyepiece.  When I go up after them, I’ll carry the 15-45x with the straight eyepiece in my pack.”  Made a ton of sense to me.


Objective lens size determines how much light the scope can gather and transmit to your eye.  The bigger the lens, the brighter the image.  Remember Lon’s First Law of Optics – There is No Free Lunch.  In the small and medium sized scopes, objective lens size is not much of an issue, but with the big guys it is.  A 20-60x scope with an 80 mm objective lens may weigh almost twice as much and be several inches longer than with a 60 mm lens.  If you have to tote this scope up and down mountains all day long, you may realize you don’t need the few more minutes of viewing time the bigger lens will afford.  If you’re glassing for big bucks out of a blind, however, weight isn’t much of an issue and the big lens will give you a better view, especially at first and last light.


Next issue, we’ll talk about how much you need to spend for a good spotting scope (not a lot!) and some very useful tips on their use.