Game Eyes

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The ability to distinguish shape and form, light and dark, color and texture is man's most valuable attribute. We amass and dispense knowledge, we record and communicate thoughts, we entertain and are entertained through the miracle of sight. It's true that we can exist without ever beholding the world about us, yet we are what and who we are because we, as a species, see.

Nevertheless, not everyone fully appreciates the blessing of sight to the same degree. Those deprived of their eyesight through accident or disease yearn to once again see the smile on a friend's face or the droplets of morning dew trapped on a spider's web. Then there are those who, graced with almost perfect sight, use their eyes for little more than to keep from bumping into things.

Granted, that's perhaps the primordial purpose why most of earth's creatures may have developed the sense of sight and, for those whose other senses outstripped their visual acuity, it may have remained the only reason. But man sacrificed the ability to discern the brush of soft fur against a twig, the ability to catch on the errant breezes the scent of of prey and foe. We've sacrificed all that for the ability to see with eyes rivaled only by those of the hunting hawk.

The same eyes that can appreciate the surrealist brush strokes of an artist can also penetrate the shadows to pick out the black, shiny eye of a concealed grouse, the tip of a whitetail's antler as it lies bedded on a brush-tangled hillside and the patch of fur in the alder thicket behind which a moose has taken refuge. The same eyes that decipher the patterns of black on white on this page as being letters and words by which thoughts and knowledge are communicated can also see the world and the creatures that are in it.

It's primarily a matter of curiosity rather than visual acuity. Even though blessed with 20/20 vision some hunters are unable to see a bull moose standing out in some grassy meadow; others with less perfect eyesight seem to be plugged into some ultra sensitive detection apparatus. The difference is that one has not learned to look while the other has; one is simply awake and the other curious.

The first step in developing game eyes is to know what the animals look like. At first that might appear a simplistic statement, after all any hunter who does not know what a whitetail, a moose or some farmer's heifer looks like should stay out of the woods and far, far away from firearms. However, a hunter is rarely confronted with a picture-perfect tableau of his prey standing broadside, head raised and silhouetted out in the open field unless he happens to be in pursuit of barrenland caribou. Far more often, a screen of brush conceals all but a few small patches of the animal feeding among forest edge shrubbery.

To the untrained eye, the deer in this thicket can be difficult to discern,
but with a bit of practice, subtle nuances of textures, shapes and hues jump right out.

Learning what animals look like means being able to almost feel the texture of their fur, being able to recognize not just the whole shape of the animal, but also small segments. It's bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle in your mind. It takes practice and the only way to get that practice is to watch the animals as often as possible. In the case of big game animals like moose and deer, game farms and zoos provide ideal opportunities, especially in the new generation of zoos which provide their wards with habitats as natural as possible.

Spend time at these compounds, the more time the better. Watch the animals meander in and out of the cover, especially when they are screened by heavy brush. You know they're there, you've seen them saunter in behind the scrub, now find them. Look for the patch of texture that does not match the surroundings, the line that has a curious angle to it, the momentary glint off a wet muzzle or eye, the pattern of muted shades that almost, but not entirely blend with the pattern of tree bark and shadows. These are all visual clues to the possible presence of the animal. Use them as visual clues to find other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.

Another exercise that quickly trains the eye is to look away once you've located an animal in heavy brush. Don't just look off to the side for fear of losing sight of that anchor point; turn completely around, stare off into the distance and count to five before you look back again. You may have to search long and hard to locate that small patch of fur or the antler tine again, but chances are you'll find it and, every time you go through this ritual, you'll notice that it becomes easier and easier to pick out the spot.

The benefit of this exercise is to create images in the subconscious which act as templates that the mind uses to recognize visual clues encountered in a forest environment. Once these templates are in place, your eyes can literally scan the surrounding confusion of the forest and pick out forms, angles, textures and colors that warrant closer inspection. Therein lies the solution to the problem some hunters have -- they search diligently for sign of game to the point of eye strain and then, tired and lacking confidence, they stop looking. Instead, the eyes should scan the forest in a relaxed manner, focusing intently only when some out-of-place item arouses their curiosity.

Learn to recognize what fits into the pattern of the forest and what does not; then train yourself to become curious about those things which do not fit. Make a point of becoming familiar with the four basic clues -- form, angle, texture and color. Learn to recognize the profile of an ear, the crook of a leg, the outline of an eye and the contour of the muzzle. Study the animals when they are feeding; deer tend to take the shape of rounded boulders. Many a time while still hunting, I've come across feeding whitetail bucks that I first mistook for large stones only to realize my mistake on second glance.

It's easy to spot a game animal standing out in the middle of a field, but in
heavy brush the key is to look for objects that look out of place rather than whole animals.

Angles provide another important clue; there's a pattern to the apparent confusion of tree trunks, branches, underbrush, dead lumber and broken twigs. Anything out of skew in this pattern demands a second look. More often than not, the irregularity has a forthright explanation, but every now and then that odd angle can provide the first clue to the presence of game.

Texture is more difficult to describe and in order to analyze this property you need to listen to the intuition of your mind's eye. Simply put, the texture of fur creates a visual impression of softness which does not match the visual impression created by the rough bark of a tree nor the ragged outline of a clump of vegetation.

In terms of color, to one degree or another, most game animals have developed a camouflaging strategy -- excellent in some cases and passable in others, but never perfect. Rudimentary camouflage may fool the untrained eye of a casual observer, but a good hunter should be able to see even the best camouflage, more often than not. It's simply a matter of knowing what to look for; it's true that a snowshoe hare turns white in winter and may be difficult to see against the snow, but not invisible. For instance, a snowshoe's fur has a bluish gray hue that almost, but not quite blends into the surroundings. A moose almost, but not quite blends into the dark shadows of the forest. The colors of a whitetail's fur help the animal blend into the surroundings, but the experienced hunter who knows these patterns uses them to his advantage.

The final and probably most important clue provided by game is movement. Watch a deer or elk closely in the game farm environment; while it may seem to stand stock still, the ears regularly twitch this way and that. In the case of whitetails, the tail also twitches regularly, giving away the animal's presence even in the heaviest cover. If your eye catches a movement -- any movement -- study the area carefully until you've been able to determine the cause. Often a songbird, a squirrel or a chipmunk might have been the source of the movement, but every now and then, the animal you're hunting may have been the cause. Dismiss that movement too quickly and you may never realize that you've just passed up the opportunity to take the trophy of a lifetime.

A single visit to a game farm is not nearly sufficient to train your eyes to an acceptable level of proficiency. It takes a minimum of a half dozen trips to engrave in the mind the templates the eye needs in order to be able to pick out game in even the heaviest cover. You'll need to visit the farm under different lighting and weather conditions, in different conditions of vegetation densities and at different times of year because there are subtle changes between seasons in the color of the fur and, in the case of antlered game, it helps to engrave images in your mind of antlers out of velvet.

With this new found ability to spot game comes a responsibility as well -- detecting the twitch of a tail or the glint of sunlight off an antler, spotting a patch of brown fur or the black of a muzzle is a starting point to seeing game. It's one piece of a jigsaw puzzle and you'll need to look long and hard to put the whole picture together. No responsible hunter will take a single sighting as a cue to shoot; a movement, a patch of fur, a bit of color or a shape can too easily be misinterpreted by a mind that is intent on finding game. Identify the whole animal and evaluate its trophy potential before you even consider aiming your weapon. I carry and constantly use a pair of binoculars for all big game hunting; binoculars make it possible to identify items or things that pique the curiosity without having to actually move closer for a better view. But more importantly, they allow me to positively identify these things as being game or nongame and the risks of a hunting accident are eliminated.

A pair of quality binoculars, the best you can afford, are essential since
they allow you to positively identify things that might look out of place.

And one final point, if you're still-hunting for either upland small game or big game, try to set your pace according to your ability to see game. At first you may have to move at a snail's pace, but as you become more and more adept at spotting animals before they spot you, you'll be able to cover more ground in the same amount of time. Plan out your footfalls for several paces and then concentrate on scanning your surroundings for game; if you spend all your time looking down at the trail, you'll not see the game that stands off to the side.

Remember that no hunter is endowed at birth with a faculty known as game eyes, it's a talent that, at some point, was diligently developed. But anyone can learn to see game simply by looking at game on a regular basis, by studying its shapes, colors textures and angles with the same intensity as an artist about to set the scene down on canvas. After a while, you'll wonder why others can't see animals as well as you can.

You'll have developed game eyes.

George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.