A tiny glint caught my eye as my hunting partner and I drove out of a huge pasture during a recent mule deer hunt. After the truck stopped, I rolled down my window and glassed the far side of a large coulee. Something wasn't right in the shadows of a patch of cactus and buck-brush almost a half-mile away. I couldn't see any movement through my 10X binoculars, but there was something in the shadows that needed closer inspection.
"Hand me your spotter. I'm not sure what we have out there," I said and Glen, my hunting partner, passed me a Nikon ED Fieldscope. Seconds later, I could see a mule deer's face in the deep shadows. I also spotted parts of the deer's backline, as well as the hips of a second deer hidden in tall grass a few yards farther back. Bottom line: I never would've seen those deer without a topnotch spotting scope.
To make a long story short, Glen killed both deer a little while later with two well-placed shots. I acted as the spotter and called the elevation and windage adjustments for him. Using the spotting scope, I could actually see the bullets sail across the coulee!
The Nikon Fieldscope enabled me to spot the deer and call the hits with deadly accuracy. My binoculars weren't powerful enough to do those tasks, it's as simple as that. Coupled with a window mount and a small tripod, my spotting scope is an essential tool for my long-range hunts.
Find Your Price-Point
You've probably used a spotting scope at the rifle range to check bullet holes while zeroing your riflescope or testing ammo. However, the vast majority of hunters don't bother carrying a spotting scope into the field. I believe that's a mistake. Sure, you don't need one if the longest shot you might encounter is less than 100 yards, but when the terrain is more open, a spotting scope will help you see beyond your binoculars' effective range. In addition, spotting scopes are extremely effective for trophy hunters concerned about estimating the length of points or prongs.
So what are the key decisions to consider before purchasing a spotting scope? Regardless of technical specs and intended use, first decide how much money you can afford or justify. Like binocs and riflescopes, spotting scopes are manufactured to compete in sales price-points. Prices start at approximately $50 and climb through three or four price-points right up to the top-end models that cost $2,000 or more. And as with most things in life, you get what you pay for with spotting scopes, so there's a significant difference between models.
I've used a wide range of spotting scopes at the range and on many hunting trips, and I can tell you from experience that the really inexpensive scopes aren't enjoyable to use after you've had the chance to look through a Swarovski HD or Nikon ED Fieldscope. However, I must also admit I'd rather have a mediocre spotting scope than none at all. I've been on big game hunts where not having a spotting scope made a significant impact in locating game, and I've also been on hunts where a $200 spotter saved the day.
After deciding on a price-point, your next decisions concern objective lens size and ocular (eyepiece) performance. Bigger lenses are usually sharper and likely will allow the passage of more light. However, they're also bulkier and therefore harder to pack. Eyepieces are available in fixed and variable power. Unless you're a lot steadier than me, the most practical field magnification is about 25X. I have fixed lenses in that range and never feel the need for higher magnification.
Why not use more magnification? Because the difficulty of holding steady and the magnification of heat-waves are big headaches when you crank up the power. There are cool autumn days when you can increase the power and maintain sharpness, but this doesn't happen often. Plus, when most eyepieces are cranked up you lose light transmission and field-of-view, which are both essential during a hunt.
In higher-priced spotting scopes you also have to decide between standard and higher-quality lenses. Extra-low dispersion (ED) and high-definition (HD) glass features the highest-quality material, polishing and coatings. But is the extra money worth it? I've used identical models with and without the high-end glass on many occasions, and when the light conditions are the poorest and the definition required is the highest, the high-quality glass is worth every penny. In bright light I usually can't detect a significant difference.
A recent improvement in eyepiece design is worth mentioning here. Some manufacturers are placing the largest possible lenses in the eyepieces. The glass extends right out to the edge of the eyepiece, and this makes for faster focusing and much improved field use of the spotting scope. This might seem like a relatively insignificant feature, but it's definitely worth getting.
Spotting scopes are next to useless without a strong, steady support system. There are three primary methods for field use: tripods, shoulder stocks or window mounts. Don't simply purchase a tripod designed for in-the-home use because it won't cut it in the field. Instead, find one that's strong, steady, lightweight and quick to deploy and adjust. Most lightweight camera tripods do a mediocre job of supporting and enabling fine adjustments. Instead, look for quick-detach mounting systems and ball-heads for fast, infinitely variable adjustment. Of course, high-quality tripods are expensive.
Shoulder mounting systems for spotting scopes are available from several manufacturers. Many of the models I've used through the years have been home-made designs using old wooden rifle-stocks. Shoulder stocks are best when used with a rest—just like when you're shooting a rifle—but they aren't nearly as stable as a tripod.
The final method of securing a spotting scope is a window mount. I usually leave a window mount installed on the scope so quick-detach systems aren't a priority. If you buy a window mount from the spotting scope manufacturer you should be well-served.
Of course, you can't see well through a dirty lens, so I suggest you outfit your scope with a Scope Coat. These stretchy neoprene covers offer superb protection from dings, scratches and rain and snow. You should also carry a micro-fiber cloth and a LensPen, which is a soft brush to remove grit and hard particles. Never try to clean a lens without moistening it first. I carry a small lens cleaning kit that includes a spray bottle of fluid, cloth, LensPen and a package of lens tissues.
Spotting scopes are best transported in a backpack. Some hunting guides use the same pack as a field rest for their spotter, but most prefer a small tripod for added stability.
So which spotting scope is right for you? I can say flattering things about several models of spotters, but only you can decide which one fits your pocketbook and field requirements. At the top-end—$1,000 and up—you can't make a bad choice. All the models I've used above this price point are outstanding. At the next price-point, let's say $500-$1,000, you get fine optics and rugged construction. From $250-$500 you'll have to shop wisely to get a scope that works well, so make it a point to see one in person before buying. There are some useable scopes priced at less than $250, but optical quality and internal construction are obviously reduced.