Finding your quarry at long range in a mountainous landscape can be a real challenge. Even when your guide says, “Look, over there!” it can take a while to zoom in on exactly the spot they mean. But quarry location is a vital skill if you wish to avoid a fruitless day on the hill or mountainside.
Pretty much every hunter will have experienced that strange moment where you bring your binoculars up to your eyes and focus straight in on an animal, even at a long range. It is no coincidence – your eyes may well have picked up on something out of the ordinary, a different colour, texture or some movement. Learning how to relax your eyes and allow them to do the work for you is an important part of spotting, says sporting agent Tomo Svetic, director of Artemis Hunting. It’s one of the reasons that you should alternate between your naked eye and whatever optics you have to hand. The other, of course, is fatigue of the eyes: “You miss things easily if your eyes get tired,” he explains. “So it’s best to use your binoculars wisely – one minute on, two minutes off. It’s amazing how much you do spot with the naked eye.”
The backdrop can make a huge difference, too, according to Tomo: “Take your time to allow your eyes to get accustomed to the landscape you are hunting in. If it is a rocky area, your method of finding animals may well be different to in, for example, high meadows. I tend to use a zig-zagging pattern to observe a rocky mountainside, starting from the top down and using an angle of around 60 degrees, working my way over the area. When I’m trying to spot animals on a greener area, I don’t use as rigid a pattern and it is more of a grid formation.” All of this is done with the binoculars, but, says Tomo, “It’s often when you aren’t trying to find something that you spot an animal.”
In sunny weather, antlers can be a real boon. “They glint in the sunlight and that is something that you will find easy to spot – all you need to do is wait to see if it moves. But the downside of sunlight is that your optics may well produce a reflective glare or glint that the animals spot and that alerts them to your presence, so it’s worth having a sun shade of some sort to fit over your spotting scope. We’ve caught a few poachers in Croatia who were given away by the reflective glare of their optics.” To counter glare on binoculars or a riflescope, Tomo sometimes makes his own sun shade, using wind ties and a see-through piece of plastic, while some spotting scopes have a proprietary attachment to prevent glare.
International pro hunter Savanna Koebisch may be studying in the UK, but heads back to her native Alberta as often as possible to hunt. She, like Tomo, says a major factor of spotting quarry, and being able to assess quarry, is ensuring your eyes stay fresh and unfatigued. “I always scan an area with my naked eye before bringing in the binoculars. You want to scan an area relatively fast at first, rather than spending too much time looking at one specific spot. I have spotted most animals during that first quick glance, or significantly later when combing through the slopes in great detail. In that second step of the process it is important to allow your eyes to relax so they don’t fatigue and still maintain their natural ability to pick up on things that seem ‘out of place’.”
Spot the difference
So you’ve spotted your animal – but that is just the beginning. Before you rush off to stalk it, there are one or two considerations… is it the right age, size and sex? Even once you’ve ticked those boxes, you need to think about whether the stalk is achievable, and, should you succeed, whether you’ll be able to extract the carcase safely.
First off, however, is identifying whether the animal is shootable. Savanna and Tomo use spotting scopes for this, and believe an angled spotting scope will give you the best results. “They won’t require you to contort yourself into uncomfortable positions to see through them,” says Savanna, who, as a chiropractic student, should know. “The problem with forcing yourself into an uncomfortable position is that it is never going to be stable, as your body will be fighting against it.”
Once you’ve spotted one animal, you may well find that there are more in the same area, so take your time to scan in the vicinity. “Not only might you find one that is easier to get to, but for assessment purposes, it will give you a point of reference if there are more about,” Savanna advises.
A spotting scope can get you so far, but to really see the detail, both Savanna and Tomo add the use of a camera. “I like to use video as well as stills, taken through the spotting scope,” says Savanna. “It really helps to get a few different angles on the animal in question and can make a big difference when trying to discover whether you’ve got a shootable specimen in your sights.” Tomo uses a camera with a 40x zoom, and then, once he’s got a good sharp image, zooms in on the screen. “Even a good iPhone image taken through the spotting scope will help, though. You can zoom in on the screen and it gives you the time to really see what you are looking at, as well as being less tiring on the eyes. The spotting scope attachments for spotting scopes are fantastic for that. The only thing to beware of is if the image is too pixelated, which can lead to mistakes.”
So, having decided whether the animal is of the right sex, size and age, what next? “You need to consider whether you will be able to make the stalk – do you have time, is it safe and feasible to get into position and will you bump other wildlife on your route?” The other question is whether the animal will be able to be retrieved – if it is likely to topple off a cliff or you won’t be able to get to it, then don’t set off on a long stalk.
Tips for a guided mountain hunt
Few hunters from the UK will be setting off in the wilds of Kyrgyzstan or the Austrian Alps, or even the Rockies in Canada or the US without a guide who knows the terrain and the animals well. Even with a guide, however, the hunter should do a bit of homework on the species. As Tomo says, “Even a guide won’t be right 100 per cent of the time, and if you are not certain, you should always question your guide as to the quality of the animal you are shooting. Most importantly however, if you aren’t confident, don’t take the shot.
Scotland-based photojournalist Simon Barr has hunted all over the world, and has a particular passion for mountain hunting. He says there are a few lessons he’s learned over his decade of travelling to some of the world’s highest peaks: “Chances are, if you are hunting somewhere far flung, there may be a language barrier, so it’s worth talking to the guide before you set off, when there may be someone who can translate for you. You also need to work out an effective method of communicating before the shot. If you are shooting one animal out of a group, there can be some confusion as to which it is, so work out a good way of agreeing on which animal. Is it broadside, does it have unusual markings, is it third from right, or is it the third antlered animal from the right.
“When it comes to the crucial moment, you may be excited, tired, anxious and emotional – and you may not have much time to take the shot – so agree on a way of establishing which animal to shoot before you set off. The consequences of shooting the wrong animal can be serious, from a larger bill than you were expecting to a serious fine.”