WILSONVILLE, Ore. – (March 2, 2017) – The specter of an enemy sniper targeting U.S. troops in Afghanistan is literally a world away from a hog-eradication hunt in Texas, but the solution to both problems relies on the same technology: Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) thermal imaging.
The military and law enforcement communities have relied on thermal imaging for the detection of bad guys for years now, but as these electronics evolve to become smaller, lighter and less expensive, the formerly classified technology has opened up a world of other applications.
Hunting is one field where FLIR is rapidly changing the landscape, and former NFL quarterback and hunting enthusiast, Mike Pawlawski, is a both a proponent and an early-adopter of this technology to enrich his experiences while afield. Host of the popular Gridiron Outdoors TV show on Outdoor Channel, Pawlawski is also a pro staff member for FLIR Systems Inc., the worldwide leader in their namesake technology.
Pawlawski says FLIR optics became a key part of his hunting gear, even before he officially partnered with FLIR’s OTS (Outdoor and Tactical Systems) division. “Thermal imaging is opening up an entirely new phase of hunting,” Pawlawski says. “Now, not only can you scout and hunt night and day, you can also use the technology to remain safer and more responsible. It’s a complete game changer.”
Thermal imaging works by detecting minute differences in the temperatures of both live and inert objects, amplifying these differences and projecting it onto a small screen inside a handheld device or weapon sight. It is often incorrectly lumped into the category of “Night Vision Devices” (NVD), but the difference in the two distinct technologies is significant.
While highly effective when used in the proper applications, NVDs simply amplify visible light. They don’t work in extremely dark conditions and are useless in daylight. And if a target is stationary, camouflaged or hidden to any degree, an NVD simply becomes an expensive spotting scope. Thermal imaging equipment, on the other hand, works in these cases, because the heat differences between animals and their surroundings causes them to glow like a neon sign at midnight.
Before looking at some of the ways today’s hunters are using thermal imaging devices, a nod to legalities is important, because the laws regarding hunting with thermal imaging devices remain a confusing patchwork and vary by state. Some type of legal consensus will undoubtedly be reached in the future as thermal devices become more common. But for now, a prudent hunter will double-check and make sure their intended uses comply with local regulations and state game laws.
Locating game is one area where thermal imaging devices literally shine. Even the least-expensive thermal imaging scopes or handhelds allow a hunter to scan their surroundings and instantly see virtually every warm-blooded animal in their proximity – regardless of lighting conditions, bad weather, or even in dust, fog or smoke.
“When hunters look through normal glass,” Pawlawski says, “they’re looking for ears, eyes, horns, movement, shapes and those sorts of things. When they’re looking with the FLIR, they’re looking for hotspots, so it really changes things in terms of how one can see… in any light.
“It’s unique,” Pawlawski continues, “in the fact that where deer or other game might be perfectly camouflaged (to the naked eye), standing still, in their beds or hiding in a thicket, they are not camouflaged to thermal. We’ve seen deer and other animals during our nighttime pig hunts that we never would have seen with standard optics.”
Pawlawski also uses thermal viewing to prevent bumping game during his pre-dawn treks to the stand, as well as during his return to the truck after dark. “I don’t want to go walking in there and mess up the field for the entire day or even longer,” he says. “Being able to see into that dark field and say I’m good to go or let’s hold up for 10 minutes or let’s take another route is great. It changes the way you approach your stand or blind, and ultimately makes a more effective hunter.”
As stated earlier, check your local game laws before venturing into the field with a thermal-imaging device while also possessing a bow or firearm. Unfortunately, that’s still a no-no at certain times of the year in certain states. In most locations, FLIR thermal-imaging devices can, however, be used at any time while scouting game when no bow or firearm is possessed.
Nobody ever wants to wound game, but, sooner or later, it happens to even the best of hunters. A thermal-imaging device makes finding lost game much more likely and, as such, represents an incredible tool for conservation.
“I think it makes you a more ethical hunter,” Pawlawski says. “When you think about those shots where the game doesn’t drop instantly – and everyone has had those shots – having access to FLIR technology can dramatically increase the chances of recovering that animal.”
Pawlawski recounts a recent successful recovery effort on a Texas hog using FLIR’s affordable, pocket-sized Scout TK Thermal Vision Monocular: “The pig ran off, we couldn’t find any blood and it got dark on us,” Pawlawski explains. It’s a situation just about every hunter has experienced. “Continuing to search with flashlights would have been tough. So I simply scanned through the Scout in the direction the pig had fled and immediately saw a hot spot under a bush, which turned out to be nearly 100 yards away. I don’t believe we would have found that pig without thermal,” he says. Sausage and BBQ ribs ensued.
An additional and potentially life-saving use of FLIR devices involves following up dangerous game. One can imagine that if Peter Capstick, Ernest Hemmingway or Teddy Roosevelt had possessed thermal-imaging technology during their storied African safaris, their tales of tracking wounded leopards, lions and cape buffalo would have been significantly less riveting: I flipped off the safety of the Evans .470 Nitro when we reached the pitch-black edge of the dark mopane scrub. Raising my FLIR Helios bi-ocular to my parched eyes, the glowing heat signature of the wounded maneater appeared clearly, perched 15 feet above the trail in a lone baobab exactly 60 yards away. The big Nitro thundered as the cat’s plans of ambush plummeted with his corpse to the hard pan below.
With thermal imaging, our modern version of the story is more than probable; it’s likely. Back in North America, thermal imaging offers a significant advantage in spotting bears or mountain lions waiting in ambush for hunting parties following a blood trail. “When hunting in grizzly country, it’s also really nice to scan a hillside or riverbank and know you’re not going to walk into a mama and her cubs,” Pawlawski adds.
Thermal-imaging technology certainly isn’t a cure-all or magic bullet that solves every hunting problem or challenge. When properly used, it is, however, one of the most wide-ranging and beneficial advancements available to hunters since the invention of the telescopic sight. So far, we’ve discussed how thermal-imaging optics deliver significant benefits and advantages when lawfully employed during scouting and game recovery applications, and, next month, we’ll explore additional ways that thermal technology can be used to keep hunters safer while afield.