Alaskan Lessons in Hunting Optics

Alaskan Lessons in Hunting Optics

A hunting guide in Alaska once told a buddy of mine, “If I had a thousand dollars to spend on a gun, I’d put a hundred dollars into the rifle and the rest into the scope.”

That perspective is certainly extreme, but the old adage about getting what you pay for applies more fittingly to hunting optics—riflescopes, binoculars, spotting scopes or rangefinders than perhaps any other category of hunting gear. The modern hunter spends a lot more time trying to locate game than they do trying to kill it, and you shouldn’t skimp on these tools of the trade.

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t realize the importance of good optics until I was well into my twenties. I just figured, like a lot of guys do, that glass is basically glass and that differences in quality could hardly justify the extra expense of premium brands. But my mind was thoroughly changed one August day when I was hunting caribou with my brothers and some buddies on the North Slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range.

We were butchering caribou meat in our camp when someone noticed a grizzly bear coming up the opposite bank of the river. Our friend Chuck and I both scrambled to set up our spotting scopes so we could all take a closer look. Mine was a Chinese-made cheapo, but Chuck had a Leupold Gold Ring scope, plus a set of Nikon binoculars, that he’d acquired the previous fall while working for a moose guide in southwest Alaska. After a few minutes, everyone was waiting around for a chance to see the bear through Chuck’s scope while I had mine all to myself.

Curious to see the difference, I waited my turn and took a look into Chuck’s viewfinder. I wouldn’t have been any more surprised if I had looked in there and seen a Martian. The bear in Chuck’s scope seemed to be an entirely different animal than the one I’d been looking at, even though we were both using the same magnification and lens sizes. Through my scope I could see that the grizzly had a brown muzzle, but with Chuck’s I could see that its nose was moist like a dog’s and that it had a small scar above its upper lip.

With my scope I’d been able to tell that the bear was basically a sort of blondish color, but with Chuck’s I could see that it was actually tri-tone, as its coat faded from chocolate near the body to blond at the tips of its fur. But what struck me most was the way that the bear’s hair parted in colic-like patterns that roved across the animal’s body with each gust of breeze, a thing of great beauty that had been invisible to me through my scope.

Through the rest of that trip, I didn’t miss an opportunity to do a sort of Pepsi Challenge between Chuck’s optics and mine. Each time I did so, I noticed something different: While images through my spotting scope and binocular were always a bit hazy around the edges, Chuck’s offered crystal clear images out to the edge of the field of view.

While mine had a shallow depth of focus, Chuck’s enabled me to look at objects at varying distances without having to constantly tinker with the focal adjustment. And while my optics were rendered basically useless by intense glare whenever I looked in the vicinity of a rising or setting sun, Chuck’s stuff somehow managed to control that effect and allow me to keep glassing during those early morning and late evening periods when animals tend to be most active.

These attributes didn’t just mean greater enjoyment watching grizzlies, as fine as that is. They also meant that I’d be able to find more game and see it better, which is another way of saying that good optics make you a better hunter.

A hunting guide in Alaska once told a buddy of mine, “If I had a thousand dollars to spend on a gun, I’d put a hundred dollars into the rifle and the rest into the scope.”

That perspective is certainly extreme, but the old adage about getting what you pay for applies more fittingly to hunting optics—riflescopes, binoculars, spotting scopes or rangefinders than perhaps any other category of hunting gear. The modern hunter spends a lot more time trying to locate game than they do trying to kill it, and you shouldn’t skimp on these tools of the trade.

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t realize the importance of good optics until I was well into my twenties. I just figured, like a lot of guys do, that glass is basically glass and that differences in quality could hardly justify the extra expense of premium brands. But my mind was thoroughly changed one August day when I was hunting caribou with my brothers and some buddies on the North Slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range.

We were butchering caribou meat in our camp when someone noticed a grizzly bear coming up the opposite bank of the river. Our friend Chuck and I both scrambled to set up our spotting scopes so we could all take a closer look. Mine was a Chinese-made cheapo, but Chuck had a Leupold Gold Ring scope, plus a set of Nikon binoculars, that he’d acquired the previous fall while working for a moose guide in southwest Alaska. After a few minutes, everyone was waiting around for a chance to see the bear through Chuck’s scope while I had mine all to myself.

Curious to see the difference, I waited my turn and took a look into Chuck’s viewfinder. I wouldn’t have been any more surprised if I had looked in there and seen a Martian. The bear in Chuck’s scope seemed to be an entirely different animal than the one I’d been looking at, even though we were both using the same magnification and lens sizes. Through my scope I could see that the grizzly had a brown muzzle, but with Chuck’s I could see that its nose was moist like a dog’s and that it had a small scar above its upper lip.

With my scope I’d been able to tell that the bear was basically a sort of blondish color, but with Chuck’s I could see that it was actually tri-tone, as its coat faded from chocolate near the body to blond at the tips of its fur. But what struck me most was the way that the bear’s hair parted in colic-like patterns that roved across the animal’s body with each gust of breeze, a thing of great beauty that had been invisible to me through my scope.

Through the rest of that trip, I didn’t miss an opportunity to do a sort of Pepsi Challenge between Chuck’s optics and mine. Each time I did so, I noticed something different: While images through my spotting scope and binocular were always a bit hazy around the edges, Chuck’s offered crystal clear images out to the edge of the field of view.

While mine had a shallow depth of focus, Chuck’s enabled me to look at objects at varying distances without having to constantly tinker with the focal adjustment. And while my optics were rendered basically useless by intense glare whenever I looked in the vicinity of a rising or setting sun, Chuck’s stuff somehow managed to control that effect and allow me to keep glassing during those early morning and late evening periods when animals tend to be most active.

These attributes didn’t just mean greater enjoyment watching grizzlies, as fine as that is. They also meant that I’d be able to find more game and see it better, which is another way of saying that good optics make you a better hunter.