Night Moves

    Thermal-imaging technology is the new frontier of predator hunting.

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    By James O’Neill

    The phrase “you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face” was an accurate representation of just how dark it really was. To complicate things even more, the snow crunching under our feet was as painful as fingernails grinding across a chalkboard. In the darkness we slowly made our way through the dark as quietly as possible, sometimes even dragging our feet through the snow to avoid the dreaded crunching sounds.

    A half-mile later we finally reached the stack yard in the middle of our bull pasture, and we quickly scaled to the top of the big round bales piled two tiers high. Even though it was pitch black, by gaining elevation we were able to level the playing field and utilize handheld and helmet-mounted thermal scanners to detect incoming targets.

    With temperatures at 15 below, not factoring in the windchill, everything looked good on paper, and we made our set thinking that any coyotes in the neighborhood would be awful hungry. A few raspy sequences from the old open-reed Tally-Ho call, and there they were a quarter-mile away, bobbing and weaving through an old tree grove to the northwest of our location. It was obvious the coyote pair had one thing on their mind — the rabbit-distress calls coming from stack-yard setup.

    There was no hiding from the thermal optic I was using, and it allowed me to watch their every move. Knowing they were committed to the call and in an attempt to seal the deal on the first double of the night, I let out an aggressive bark, and the pair stopped in their tracks only 50 yards away. Two muffled shots hissed from my rifle, which was topped off with a suppressor, and we had successfully pulled our first double of the night.

    Thermal vs. Night Vision

    Thermal imaging should not be confused with night vision, which amplifies the already available ambient light (stars, moon, etc.) to create a brighter image inside an optical tube that gives you the ability to see at night to a certain degree. Night vision should not be used during the day.

    Thermal optics use a sophisticated lens made of Germanium crystals in conjunction with an infrared detector and core processor to pick up heat energy and transfer it to an image on a digital screen. Thermals can be used during day or night, and predator hunters can reap the rewards they offer.

    Most night hunters desire a full moon with plenty of snow cover to amplify the ambient lighting so they can effectively see predators that commit to the call. However, thermal optics are the new frontier in predator hunting, as they afford hunters the ability to detect and identify a coyote in pitch black from over a mile away.

    In addition, they also allow hunters to see land features and other inert objects more clearly. This is not only important for safety, but it also helps hunters determine the best route to take toward potential targets.

    Return on Investment

    In the beginning, we here at O’Neill Ops started out using the cheapest thermal equipment money could buy in order to understand the capabilities basic units had to offer. We started with one thermal weapon sight, but we rapidly graduated from the low end of the thermal-gear spectrum to the high end, and through the process we could easily and distinctly see the benefits provided by spending more money on select thermal equipment.

    It also didn’t take long for us to learn just how beneficial a thermal scanning unit could be when used in conjunction with a thermal weapon sight. Mounting a thermal scanner to a helmet allows you to easily navigate on foot in total darkness, scan 360 degrees with ease and rapidly make the fluent transition to your rifle when the time comes to engage your target.

    You’ve also heard the phrase, “you get what you pay for.” In my experience, having the availability and opportunity to use and kill with numerous makes and models from different manufacturers has given me a very good idea on what is the best thermal weapon sight or scanner available for your specified application and budget.

    Keep in mind, however, that like anything else the ends have to justify the means. For example, I’m a dealer for the largest distributor of night-vision and thermal equipment in the nation, and I have a customer in North Dakota who kills over 400 coyotes each year on foot, sometimes making over $1,000 dollars a night with the high-quality, high-demand fur that coyotes possess up north. In his case, it’s easy for him to justify a five-figure investment in thermal equipment to kill predators.

    I’m also a rancher, and when calf prices are north of $1,200 per head, it doesn’t take but a few losses due to predation to justify the cost of a high-end thermal unit.

    For predator hunters looking to use thermal equipment at the beginner level or as a hobby, there are very good options that can be purchased in the $4,500 to $5,000 range. For those interested in getting their feet wet, there are even ways to rent units for a few hundred dollars a night.

    The Trijicon Electro Optics line includes models such as the IR Hunter MKIII 60mm, REAP IR, Patrol M250, M300W, and M250XR. These are currently among the best thermal optics available in our arsenal. However, they do carry a hefty price tag, and rightfully so, because there have been many nights when we have been able to see and identify coyotes in complete darkness from over a mile away.

    We have also used many different models manufactured by Armasight, ATN, EOTech, FLIR and Pulsar, just to name a few.

    To highlight the capabilities of these tools we have documented HD video footage of field mice bouncing around while we watch coyotes approach from hundreds of yards away. In fact, in a still shot from one of our videos you can see a small black dot, which is a mouse, just above and to the right of the coyote. In the actual video, this little guy can clearly be seen running around while the coyote walks right by it.

    The sensitivity of high-end thermal optics is astounding. In this image, which is a still shot taken from a video using thermal imaging, the black dot that’s circled is actually a field mouse. It may seem like the coyote and mouse are in tight, but in reality they were hundreds of yards away. Photo by O’Neill Ops

    Extenuating Circumstances

    There are certain factors that play into image quality that you see with thermal optics other than the price point. Many atmospheric conditions can greatly reduce the contrast of your picture. What we’ve found is optimal viewing occurs when humidity levels are below 70 percent. In these conditions you get a crisp image between objects and animals.

    When the humidity rises above 70 percent, however, you start to see a loss of contrast. What was once a crisp, clean image turns into more of a faded gray. As a result, the ability to see certain inert objects dramatically decreases or is lost altogether. You can, however, still see an animal’s body heat at certain distances, but you lose the ability to estimate range due to poor image quality.

    Certain options are useful to enhance the quality of image. High-quality thermals enable you to manually adjust brightness, contrast and image sharpness. There is also an ETR (edge target recognition) option that focuses a unit’s processing on your target so you don’t get a washed-out image.

    A really neat feature on some thermal units is polarity, which means you have the ability to switch between white-hot or black-hot options. Basically, this makes heat detection the color of your choice. Objects will appear white if they are hot, or objects will appear black if they are hot.

    What’s more, some of the units we run even have an edge-detect mode, which presents an outline of your target as the image.

    When white-hot polarity is selected (above), heat is shown as a white image. Conversely, when black-hot polarity is selected (below), a thermal unit will register heat signatures as darker images. Photos by O’Neill Ops

    Tools of the Trade

    Many think the use of night vision and thermal optics is cheating and unfair to our quarry. However, I believe it falls in line with all the technological advances that have been made in every aspect of hunting and fishing.

    Just look at traditional optics built for daytime use, for example. Ten years ago people had never heard of a FFP (first focal plane) optic, but now many high-end optics have that as an initial option.

    The same thing can be said for modern-day rifles, handheld computers (PDAs) and portable weather stations for shooting long range. What was a really, really long shot 10 years ago is a walk in the park with today’s advanced equipment.

    When it comes to fishing, today’s new sonar technology allows you to literally map the bottom of the lake in a real-time environment, but I’ve never heard people refer to this as cheating.

    In other words, just because our great grandparents used to get to town with a horse and wagon doesn’t mean we are limited to those same means of transportation.

    I look at hunting at night with proper equipment as a tool. Just as I use AutoTrac in a tractor to become more efficient in the field, I use a thermal to effectively and more efficiently eliminate problem predators around our ranch.

    Brave New World

    As the sport of predator hunting keeps growing, so are the numbers of coyotes that become educated or “uncallable” during the day. However, by expanding your hunting skills into the night, you also expose yourself to some of the best hunting available and open up a brave new world of opportunity.

    Predators are nocturnal by nature, and during the night is when they feel comfortable. It’s their realm, and it’s where they do most of their hunting and killing.

    To see the O’Neill Ops team using thermal equipment in action, click the link below:

    In a sense, when darkness covers the landscape predators become a different kind of animal — more aggressive, but less attentive. There have been nights when we have coyotes walk 10 to 20 yards in front of us without acknowledging our presence. There have been many other nights when we’ve used a thermal scanner to check calving pastures on our ranch, and while doing so we’ve watched coyotes come out of the hills and boldly make their way to the pastures to find an easy meal of afterbirth.

    Thermal technology with the aid of a rifle that’s topped off with a suppressor is a lethal combo when calling at night and hunting around farms. A couple years ago we aided in the passage of Senate Bill 58, which allows a landowner in South Dakota and no more than two guests the capability to hunt predators at night with night-vision and thermal equipment using calibers .225 and under.

    The O’Neill Ops team consists of (from left to right) John O’Neill, Keith Risse and the author, James O’Neill. To see some of their HD videos using thermal equipment and suppressed, custom-built rifles, go to oneillops.com/videos/ or find ONEILLOPS on YouTube. Photo by O’Neill Ops

    Before SB58, landowners were limited to using only rimfire rifles and shotguns equipped with night vision. These limitations made it difficult to effectively and ethically kill coyotes at ranges of 100 yards or more, not to mention that it was a Class 2 misdemeanor for a rancher like me to shoot a coyote in my calving lot at night with my .22-250-caliber rifle while checking my cows. By allowing us now to use what I call “standard” predator-hunting cartridges — .223, .22-250 and .220 Swift, to name a few — we can now ethically kill coyotes on the spot from longer distances, day or night.

    About the Author: James O’Neill is a fourth-generation rancher in western South Dakota. For more information or to see videos of the O’Neill Ops team using thermal equipment, go to oneillops.com.