As hunters, we spend a lot of time looking for game. With growing experience in the field, we see more game and our hunting success increases. For newcomers to hunting the challenge is converting looking into seeing. When I first began hunting I was constantly disappointed by the amount of game that I only spotted as it sprinted away from me. The goal of every hunter is to see the game before it moves, ideally before it is aware of the hunter’s presence. As my game spotting progressed, I tried to analyse what it was that had led to my improvement. I determined that I had endeavoured to detect what I call the key lines.
A large part of seeing game is learning to identify the key lines that distinguish the animal you seek. In the field, the hunter rarely sees the whole animal. Most often, it is partly, or largely obscured by terrain or vegetation. If in the open, most times it will be hunkered down and blending nicely into the background. However, the light generally highlights the line of its back and often its ears. This is how experienced hunters spy game before it has been alerted or alarmed. It is all about making out the key lines of your prey.
Native peoples, who still hunt actively for their food, are masters of this because they have to be to survive. The art of native people often demonstrates how well they understand the key lines of their quarry. I have a few pieces of Inuit artwork that show this perfectly. With practised eye, the Inuit craftspeople seek out small stones that have the intrinsic key lines of the animals they hunt. By scratching a few simple lines on the rock to enhance the image, the result is clearly a seal, bear, or whatever, to even the most inexperienced observer.
Our ancient ancestors knew this too. The Palaeolithic cave art of Lascaux in France is stunning in its capture of the various animals with a few sweeping strokes of charcoal. The cave sketches are more caricatures than portraits, but the essence of the animal leaps out. This is another graphic demonstration of how the key lines define an animal. No artists in the 20,000 years since those cave images were done have better captured the spirit and essence of wild game animals. While we are not hunting the bears and bison of that era, the same principles apply to the deer, rabbits and other animals that we hunt today.
Another thing to be aware of is the nature of human eye focus. Our eyes behave just like modern auto-focus cameras. That is, eye focus is an automatic response that most people have no control over. Your eye automatically determines what it will focus on and that is what you see. This is particularly so in a bush setting, rather than more open and familiar urban surrounds. Typically, your eye will focus on the nearest surface of any screen of vegetation. Only the most experienced and skilled hunter will detect the deer standing still a further 10m into the scrub.
This is where stalking binoculars are essential to hunters. By looking into the bush and varying the binoculars’ focus in and out, you can scan layer by layer into the undergrowth. That deer standing still, deep in the shadows, will then just pop into your sight. A lot of folks think binoculars are only useful for spotting game at great distance. My stalking binoculars gain most of their use within 100m, often as close as 5m or 10m. Once you can use the binoculars to slice through the intervening layers you are ready to look for the key lines of your prey.
The other big advantage in learning to see game is working on your peripheral vision and awareness of small movements. Quite often during my hunting treks, it is the ear flick of an otherwise statue-like animal that has caught my attention. The flick of an ear stands out from other natural movements in the bush, once you nurture an awareness of that. As a keen, lifelong bird-watcher, I have developed the ability to instinctively differentiate the slight movements of small creatures from those caused by the breeze or a falling twig. I also have wide peripheral vision which I cultivate in any setting, turning my head to confirm whatever has caught the very edge of my eye. Anyone can improve their visual awareness. It just takes persistence and patience.
Being sensitive to such small clues will draw your attention to the right area. The use of your stalking binoculars to control the focus will then let you look for ‑ and see ‑ those elusive key lines. Whether seeking to take a shot or just a photo, your success rate will escalate with practice and your enjoyment of stalking game will become increasingly satisfying.