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Marlin Tutorial


Using Binos


There's one unavoidable fact when you fish for marlin in Southern California: This might be the birthplace of the sport, but by no means is it a fertile billfishing ground. If you want to catch marlin in any quantity, you can't wait for them to find you - you have to find them. Your best tool? A good pair of binoculars and a solid knowledge of how to use them.

Binoculars 101

Most of us have used binoculars before, but do you know how they work?

Binos are basically a pair of small telescopes bolted together as a set. Each "telescope" consists of a tube with lenses at each end and prisms inside. Light enters the tube through the largest lens, called the objective. It then bounces off a series of prisms, which maintain the correct orientation of the image. Finally, the image passed through the last lens (the eyepiece) and is viewed by your eye. The concept is the same for all binoculars, regardless of price or style. The only thing that changes is the quality of the components and, therefore, the quality of the image you see.

Pick A Pair

The first thing you'll learn when you set out to buy a pair of binoculars is that the prices vary wildly. You can get a pair for under $150, or you can pay $1,500 or more - all for a set of binos that would seem to do the same basic thing as any other pair. Fortunately, binoculars are one of those rare commodities where you tend to get what you pay for - the more you invest in a pair of binos, the better quality product you'll get.

There are a couple of characteristics that separate the good from the bad ...

Magnification - The first number in any description of binoculars (ie - "7x50") is the magnification or "power". This is how many times the image is enlarged, or how many times closer the objects you see will appear. A magnification factor of 7 is the standard for most binoculars.

Objective Lens Diameter - The second number in the classic description, it is the diameter (in millimeters) of the objective lens. The larger the number, the more light can get into the binoculars. However, the objective lens is where most of the weight of the binoculars comes from, and a larger lens adds significantly to the overall weight of the unit. A 50-mm objective lens is the most common.

Field of View - Usually described as either an angle (in terms of degrees) or a distance (number of feet at 1000 yards), this is the width of the view you see when looking through the binoculars. No matter which method is used to describe the field of view, bigger is better. A wide field of view allows you to take in objects by moving your eyes within the field, rather than moving the binos themselves. Over a long period of glassing, this can be very important.

Coatings - There are several different coatings that can be applied to the optics in a pair of binoculars, and the better the binos, the better the coatings. Most of the coatings are to improve the percent of light that is transmitted through the lens (reducing the amount reflected); in addition, some pairs will have special UV-resistant coatings to protect your eyes.

Materials - Inexpensive binos will cut corners wherever possible in materials; this is not necessarily bad, provided the corners cut are not essential ones. Replacing metal cases with resin parts can reduce weight (and therefore, fatigue) with little decrease in effectiveness or life span. However, avoid any binos that use plastic in any of the optics.

There are a lot of decent binoculars out there, but the best of the bunch are the Zeiss 7x50's. They're seven-power, with as large an objective lens as you'll find. Their short, wide design gives them a balance that makes them very comfortable to hold for long periods of time. They have great low-light visibility, and they're well armored. This design hasn't changed in my lifetime, and these are the binoculars you'll find in the hands of those who make their living on the water.

We have a pair of Zeiss on HOOKER, and I love them. I particularly like the feeling of "roominess" you get when looking through them. With any pair of binos, since each eye is looking through its own optics, you get the classic "double bubble" field of vision. In some binoculars, you get the sense of looking out from within a tunnel, and the feeling is very claustrophobic. Not with these. I'm not sure if it's the relatively large exit pupil or what, but I always feel like I'm in a room looking out a picture window when I use them. This is the kind of stuff that makes or breaks a pair of binos when you're going to be looking through them for a couple of hours. And as we all know, the most expensive binoculars in the world are useless if you aren't looking through them ...

You can get a pair of Zeiss 7x50's for around $1000, less if you can find a used pair from a reputable source. Other manufacturers that make quality binoculars include Fujinon, Steiner and Bushnell. Whatever you do, stay away from the ones with the silly compass reticle. Even the marlin will laugh at you ... :-)

Stan's Tip

No matter what kind of binos you buy, make sure to get a eye shield for them. Some binoculars come with them, but you'll likely have to buy it separate. The shield forms a light seal between your face and the binos, blocking out any light from the side, and keeps the binos from creasing your grill in choppy water.

Imagine sitting in a darkened theater watching a film, then having the usher shine a light in your eyes just as you get to the good part. That's how the shield works - it blocks out nuisance light, and lets your eyes adjust to the low light level. They make it a lot easier on your eyes if you intend to be "in the glasses" for a long time.

I've seen them in neoprene (black) or silicone (red or brown). The black ones might look better on your binos, but I'd go with the silicone - the neoprene has a nasty habit of leaving black marks on everything it touches - including your face ...

Gyro Binos

The biggest innovation in binoculars in recent years has been the introduction of image-stabilized binoculars for the consumer market. Nicknamed "gyro binos" for the gyroscopic stabilizing mechanism present in early models (and still used in high-end products), image-stabilized binos have the ability to dampen out the movement of the binoculars, resulting in a jitter-free (for the most part) image.

Gyros have been around since the days of the Cold War, and the technology was originally developed for military use. In fact, the earliest pair that were available commercially were Russian surplus, made available after the fall of the Berlin Wall. These models were big and clunky and prone to failure. It was immediately apparent, however, that even these early models could revolutionize billfish spotting.

There are two kinds of image-stabilized binoculars. True "gyro binos" use a gyroscope to maintain the stability of the optics that are mechanically isolated from the case of the binoculars and, therefore, the movement of your hands. Because of the complexity of the mechanism, these tend to be both heavy and expensive - they can run anywhere from $3,000 to over $10,000. If you have the money and want the best, however, this is what you buy. Among the leading models of gyroscopically isolated binoculars are Fujinon's Stabi-scope and Fraser-Volpe's STEDI-EYE (at right). The Fraser-Volpe's are basically their MIL-SPEC model as provided to the Navy, and the Stabi-scopes are carried on the space shuttle, so either way you'll get a well-tested product.

For those of who cringe at the thought of taking out a second mortgage for a pair of gyro binos, technology has provided a second option. As camcorders became more popular in the '90's, technology was needed to take the jitters out of all those videos being shot by soccer moms of the next Mia Hamm. Before long, this same technology was being applied to the challenge of image-stabilized binoculars, and for far less money than the traditional gyroscopic solution. Using solid-state accelerometers and microprocessors, the optics are adjusted internally to counteract the unwanted movement. Quite a few manufacturers make these electronically stabilized models, with the Nikon StabilEyes, Canon Image Stabilization, and Fujinon Technostabi (at left) among the most popular. Most will cost from $500 to $1,200.

I've used a set of Technostabis on HOOKER, and I can tell you first-hand that the image-stabilization technology is fantastic. While it's great to be able to see things jitter-free, the real advantage is in the additional magnification that can be achieved because of the stable image. The Technostabis I use, for example are 14 power - that's twice the magnification of a pair of standard 7x50's. Suddenly, you're seeing things clearly twice as far away as you could with your traditional binos - with a smooth image.

Stan's Tip

No matter the internal design, all gyro binos require batteries - lots of batteries. Plan on needing a fresh set of batteries every 2 to 6 hours, depending on the model and usage.

Like standard binoculars, you tend to get what you pay for. While a $750 pair of gyros may have the same electronics as a $1,500 pair, you'll get inferior optics. My advice is to get the best set you can reasonably afford. If I had to make a choice between better stabilization or better optics, I'd opt for the optics.

Using Them

The best binoculars in the world are useless if you don't a), use them and b), use them right. Drive past any serious battlewagon, and you'll see all hands on the bridge "in the glasses". Catch up with one of these guys on the beach, and they'll have raccoon eyes from the eye shield. Bottom line is that there's no substitute for time spent glassing the water.

Stan's Tip

I know what you're thinking ... damn, those things are heavy! How am I supposed to look for more than a couple of minutes. Well, intelligent selection of lightweight binos helps, but you're best bet is posture ... or correctly, the lack thereof.

If you want to tell the pros from the amateurs when it comes to using binoculars, look at their elbows. They're probably calloused from all the time they've been resting on them. Pro fishermen learned this trick long ago, and now I'll share it with you - the only way to spend a lot of time in the glasses is to find somewhere you can prop up your elbows. Once you rest your arms on the instrument panel, bridge combing or other horizontal surface, slouch down until your eyes reach the eyepiece and settle in - you're gonna be here for a while.

Spend enough time staring through binos and you'll find yourself starting to drift a bit. It's a natural thing, and it hits different spotters at different points. You may be tempted to try and bear down and concentrate, but you're a lot better off simply taking 5 minutes to rest your eyes (and the aforementioned elbows).

Time in the glasses is essential, but it's only half the solution - you also need to know how to look. I've talked to a lot of different people over the years and have found that there are nearly as many opinions as eyeballs. Here's my thoughts ... I like to set the horizon about a third of the way from the top of the field of view. That way, I maximize the amount of water I'm looking at (not many fish in the air!), but never lose sight of the horizon and risk disorienting myself. Where you are looking will have an affect on how you look (see spotting positions below), but I like to minimize the amount of movement of the binos as much as possible - especially when using gyros. I tend to focus on a patch of water, and use my eyes to scan it, rather than move the binos. When I'm ready to move, I close my eyes momentarily (a nice "micro-break") and move the binos. Then I open up and do it all again.

What you're looking for, of course, is anything out of the ordinary. We'll cover what you might see elsewhere, but anything that isn't water should be identified and possibly investigated.

Spotting Positions

In a perfect world, marlin always bite, bait is plentiful, everyone can cast the length of a football field, and we all have a half-dozen sets of gyro binos on the bridge - along with the crew to operate them. You wish. Reality doesn't work that way. But just for a moment we'll assume that it does, and describe the best way to search the waters if you have a full bridge of spotters. Obviously, you will need to tailor this to the actualities you face on your own bridge ...

Long Center - This is your "distant early warning" system - the guy who looks in the direction the boat is going, and maybe 30 degrees to port and starboard of the centerline. If you only have one pair of gyro binos, this guy gets them, and he should get the most unobstructed viewing perch as well. Hopefully, he'll see the fish early enough to let the crew leisurely prepare to bait it.

Short Left / Short Right - Sitting to the right and left of the captain, these guys get half the horizon - centerline to 90 degrees abeam the boat. Most often equipped with standard 7x50s, they are looking for anything that the Long Center missed as well as widening the swath of water searched as the boat moves along.

Captain - While the primary responsibility of the captain is the safety of the ship and crew, a good skipper is constantly scanning the water ahead and out about 45 degrees from the centerline. He's looking for those ones that pop up inside the range of all the bino guys; if he's really good, he won't drive over them ... :-)

Aft - If you have enough bodies, having someone watch the lures is a wonderful luxury. Beyond keeping an eye on the jig spread to avoid tangles and the like, they can alert the crew to the presence of marlin in the spread so a dropback bait can be launched. You can discuss with your crew if there is any value to announcing those marlin seen off to the sides, since you've already passed them and it's not likely they'll be there by the time you get back. The aft position is a great place for someone taking a break from the more eye-intensive binocular positions.

Stan's Tip

If you're the guy who spots the fish, do not take your eyes off of it until someone else confirms that they see it as well. This is particularly true if you are using gyro binos, as you will spot things that may take another couple of minutes to get in the range of others. Nothing is more frustrating than finding - and then losing - a marlin ...

No matter how you do it, the purpose is the same - cover the most water with the most eyes using the best tools and the best techniques. The net result will be more marlin seen and, presumably, more marlin caught.


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