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The Best Handheld Thermal For Hunting

By bmatheus  

With nearly two hours before daybreak, I headed down a trail lined on both sides by 10-foot-tall bloodweeds. The problem with a trail like this, especially in a dark environment, is two-fold—first, you automatically assume there are beasts capable of ruining your day within feet of the trail but you can’t see them and second, they actually are there and occasionally come out and threaten to do just that. A stand-off with a 250-lb. boar in the dark just 20-ft. away is enough to stand the hair up on anybody’s neck.

On this particular morning, the air was crisp. As the boar faced-off, the heat from my breath chopped into the air like a smoke sputtering from an exhaust pipe. It wasn’t the cool air, it was him. If anything, I was hot, especially behind my ears and down the back of my neck. Cold had nothing to do with my situation, danger did. As in previous stand-offs, my pending action could only be determined by his. Armed with only my bow, at 20 feet, I would not get a shot off if he came at me and I suspected charging or going away were equally waited chances—either I was going to get hurt… or hunt.

Feral hogs are notoriously unpredictable. Sure, they are apt to run but they are seemingly just as prone to charge and such thoughts, especially the latter, are crystal clear when something with noticeable cutters is just feet away and barking, groaning and popping its jaws at you. My level of comfort has never improved, in those moments; in fact, I’m older, fatter and my knees are worse so, if anything, I’m potentially in more danger.

As luck would have it, freezing mid-stride during our face-off worked. While he warned me, I had remained frozen while awaiting his next move. Finally, he drifted into the darkness to keep tabs on me from cover. Realizing he may still be just as close but no longer having an advantage of him telegraphing a move, did little to make me feel better; however, I pressed forward now while he groaned and barked his disapproval of my presence for at least another 50 yards. Finally, the darkness quieted and after another quarter mile or so, I happily ascended the tree to a stand some 20-feet up.

It’s worth noting that most of my feral hog stand-off experiences, over the past 15 years or so of hunting them, have occurred while the world is cloaked in darkness, either early morning or after sunset; in fact, the vast majority of my bowhunting is at nighttime, specifically in pursuit of hogs. Of course, I also deer hunt and have been caught by blow-hard does more than I care to count—it can be maddening.

All said, navigating and hunting in the dark can be troublesome… and even a bit unnerving when you know what’s out there and what it’s capable of doing to you. So, I have also upped my game with a healthy dose of thermal imaging—yes, even while bowhunting. The moment I used a thermal monocular while on a bow hunt, my stick-and-string world changed for the better.

Nowadays, I carry a thermal imaging monocular in my pack for all of my local bowhunting. In the past, slipping into my hunting spots undetected was a crapshoot and if I was running a little late, the odds stacked up against me. The ability to walk a little, scan hundreds of yards out in complete darkness, walk a little more and glass again until I reached my blind or stand was a game-changer to be sure. Since employing a thermal monocular I have never been busted again—not once. Even better, I have used the monocular in the dead of night to stalk to within shooting range of hogs rooting crops in open fields as well as feeding in heavy thickets. The first step in any hunting adventure, especially in the dark, is finding them. Thermal makes it easy.

Of course, the same can be said for daytime pursuits—especially in spot and stalk situations where movement is par for the course. Thermal is not night vision—thermal is thermal and night vision is night vision—the technology and, frankly, imaging are completely different. Thermal can and is used 24/7. Whether day or night, a thermal imager’s only concern is variances in temperature. With Pulsar’s latest, we’re talking a variance of just .4 degrees. The image you see is simply a map of these temperature variations throughout the field of view. Heat signatures literally glow on the display and imaging is crisp, leaving no questions unanswered with respect to location, movement and most importantly, identification—again, this is true day or night.

Thermal monoculars come in a variety of shapes and sizes with a robust array of feature and imaging options. For a year or more, I carried a Pulsar Quantum thermal monocular but like all things high-tech, technology improved and I moved into a Pulsar Helion—good thing since the Quantum is no longer available anyway. Today’s advanced, high-resolution thermal imagers come standard with 320-, 384- and 640-microbolometer resolution sensors and generally 12-micron pixel pitch for improved imaging, even in less than desirable weather conditions—the lower the number the better the pixel pitch.

Thermals like Pulsar’s Helion and Axion also boast 8-color display palettes, high-resolution AMOLED or LCOS displays, variable magnification, digital continuous and step-zoom, onboard video recording and Wi-Fi connectivity to your tablet or smartphone for remote control, streaming, firmware upgrades and more (Axion Key models do not include video recording or Wi-Fi.) Some devices even include picture-in-picture, using 10-percent of your field of view at top-dead-center to 2x-magnify the central focal point. Considering easier, lighter carrying, Helion thermal monoculars are smaller and lighter than older Quantum models and the new Pulsar Axion lineup is quite a bit more compact and lighter than any Helion offering; in fact, the Axion’s size and weight is akin to a pocket-sized rangefinder. For Helions and now Axion’s attaching them to lanyards makes them even more readily accessible while bowhunting.

Whether hunting with a bow or rifle, thermal imaging provides another invaluable benefit—game recovery. Advanced thermal monoculars and riflescopes like Pulsar’s complete lineup feature contrasted imaging for temperature variances clear down to 0.4 degrees. This means easy blood tracking at least until the temperature of the blood reaches the ambient air temperature. Still, blood tracking is often not needed since the animal’s body glows for hours after the shot. The last feral hog I shot with a bow was found in less than 15 seconds and before I even climbed down from my treestand. I simply stood up in my stand and began scanning the wooded ground below me as I turned. Before making a single full rotation, I found my hog lying motionless and glowing just 30 yards away—no tracking needed.

Consider how valuable a thermal imager could have been the last time you struggled to locate a game animal you shot. While some states may not allow tracking with dogs, they may permit tracking with thermal. Food for thought…

Heck, rifles and bows aside, thermal imagers can even heat up your duck hunting. On a duck hunt last season, I learned quickly just how easy it was to locate them as they headed in—a topic for another day. The list of thermal imaging benefits continues to grow! 

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