Gray's Best 2011

Angling
by James R. Babb

Loon Outdoors Shark Tooth
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The Loon Outdoors Shark Tooth Tippet Control System is a very big name for a very small device: an elastic leader retainer with a tippet eyelet passing through a shielded stainless steel razor. This little gizmo sounds a lot less useful than it actually is, especially if you’re the sort of absentminded fumble-fingers who misses half the evening hatch while trying to rebuild a long and delicate leader. Operation is simplicity itself: just slip the elastic band around your leader spool, poke the tippet through the Shark Tooth’s guide hole, and leave just enough tippet exposed to grab. When it’s leader-repair time, strip out the appropriate length, fold it back under the “shark’s” tooth, and pull: a perfect clean cut every time, with just the right amount of leader exposed to grab with wet fingers. You’ll still need nippers to trim the tag ends of knots, but it’s surprising how much effort you save not having to fumble for those nippers every time you need a piece of tippet. I stack my leader spools in groups of three (4X, 5X, 6X, and 1X, 2X, 3X), and one Shark Tooth works for each group—though, of course, one for each spool would work even better, if you feel like spending five dollars per spool. The nipper cuts leaders of any reasonable diameter, and comes in sizes to fit larger spools (Rio, Maxima) and smaller ones (Orvis, Climax).
www.loonoutdoors.com/sharktooth.html

 

Airflo Speydicator Fly Line
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A canemeister from fly-fishing’s golden age studying modern fly rod tapers would find few surprises—though the near-weightlessness of space-age composite construction would certainly drop his jaw. But show him some modern fly lines, and it isn’t the high-tech materials that would loft his eyebrows but the tapers—thanks, mostly, to a handful of Pacific Northwest steelhead alchemists who reimagined conventional double-taper and weight-forward lines into tools for rifling crazy-heavy flies way, way out there, sinking them quickly in deep, heavy water while economizing effort and minimizing backcasts. The most interesting new fly line last year—the short-headed Royal Wulff Ambush—came from this school, and so does this year’s: the Speydicator from Airflo. As implied by its name, the Speydicator is a two-handed line meant to cast a long leader with a couple of heavy nymphs and an indicator. It does this effortlessly, and its long rear taper and integrated handling line efficiently mend that rig far beyond usual range. Using a 6-weight 11-footer, I fished stretches of river I’ve never been able to fish without a drift boat, using both big nymphs and big drys. These long-taper lines (6-weight through 9, roughly 25 percent head, 50 percent belly, and 25 percent rear taper) handle mending more deftly than any line I’ve used, with dramatically enhanced distance capacity and Airflo’s extremely durable polyurethane construction to boot. And by stripping the black taper indicator inside the guides, they work just as well for overhead casting as they do for Spey casts.
www.rajeffsports.com/spey.php

 

Simms Hardbite Star Cleats
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As we all know by now, anglers and our felt soles are the planet’s new Typhoid Marys, spreading everything from whirling disease to rock snot. And so our old reliable felt soles are out and rubber soles are in. Or, as two years of testing has shown, up—as in facing up, on my back, feet flapping like a vandalized turtle. In nonchallenging wading conditions, rubber soles are mostly okay, but in big water with unforgiving current and smooth rocks pomaded with algae, rubber soles are just plain dangerous. Unless you add studs. But not just any studs. Most studs stand too proud of the soles, taking the carefully contoured rubber out of the traction equation and leaving your future to the studs. On smooth hard rock, it’s turtle time. Only one combination of stud and sole worked for me in every situation: the Simms HardBite Star Cleats ($39.95) for its new StreamTread Vibram soles. The HardBites are tiny rockpiles of carbide chips that screw in place between, and nearly flush with, the Vibram lugs. They bite into everything, stick to everything—at least the equal of studded felt and in most cases their superior. StreamTreads are available on most Simms wading boots, from the $130 Freestones to the $220 Guide Boot G4s. In a few months, they’ll be available on the RiverTek Boa-Lace boots ($170), which tighten with a wire-covered cable and a knob, thus eliminating the second great absorber of evil aquatic hitchhikers: fabric shoelaces.
www.simmsflyfishing.com

 

Orvis Mirage Fly Reel
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During the 2010 SHOT Show, members of Gray's staff visited with companies that won Gray's Best awards and presented plaques in recognition of the honor. Here Jim LePage (left) of Orvis accepts the award from Mike Floyd, Gray's director of ad sales.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Homeland Security rounding up hard-core fly-fishers, given how we babble about wanting something that will stop a tank. Why we want to stop tanks is a question for psychologists, but once we get beyond trout and bass and into the likes of tarpon and sailfish, we definitely want a reel that not only will stop a tank but is also built like a tank. What we don’t want is the weight, start-up inertia, or the price tag of a tank. And so Orvis set out to produce a bulletproof big-game fly reel light enough to balance with the hyperlight new rods with a price tag substantially lower than the Usual Suspects. With the Mirage, the company has hit the sweet spot. The multi-plate carbon-and-stainless-sandwich drag (borrowed from fighter jet brakes, not tanks) is silky smooth from 6X territory right through to Stun, with a pleasant outgoing sound (like an XK-E with a new muffler) and a welcome imperviousness to salt and sand and accidental plummets to the hard. My test Mirages—a III and a V—endured torture by logging winch (three-ton capacity at five feet per second) followed by a long, trouble-free season in both salt water and fresh.  From the dainty LA II (4.3 ounces, 3- to 5-weight, $375) to the brutish LA VII (11.5 ounces, 13- to 15-weight, $495), the Orvis Mirage is an excellent choice, and a relative bargain, in tank-tough, mission-critical fly reels.
www.orvis.com

 

Shooting
by Terry Wieland

B&P Competition One Shotshells
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Kari McCormick of Kaltron Outdoors (B&P's parent company) accepts Gray's Best recognition from Gray's account executive Amos Crowley.

Baschieri & Pellagri (B&P) is an Italian company that has been producing top-quality shotshells for 125 years, one prominent feature of which is the “Gordon system” compressible base wad that reduces felt recoil. This year, B&P has broken new ground with a great concept: families of cartridges that share one name, hull design, and velocity, but are available in different charge weights.  Our Gray’s Best is Competition One, the new “family” that offers a choice of 7/8 ounce, 1 ounce, and 11/8 ounce, all at 1,160 fps. In each weight, you have a choice of pellet sizes (7½  or 8 for 7/8 and 11/8, and 7.5, 8, and 9 for ounce) Prices range from $79.95 to $88.95 per flat, These are wonderful not only for competition shooters but also for hunters of doves, quail, and other upland birds. They allow you to tailor the shot charge to your requirements and choose what level of recoil you want to tolerate. The 7/8-ounce and 1-ounce loads are indistinguishably light in terms of recoil, while the 11/8-ounce has a little more push. These are absolutely top-quality shotshells, and when you place your shot correctly, they’re all deadly, whether on clay or with feathers. Think of it: 7/8 ounce of #8s, at 1,160 fps, in a 6½-pound gun. What could be more pleasant? And watching the clays turn to dust (or the doves bite the dust) is pleasant, too. 
www.bandpusa.com

 

Blaser R8 Bolt Rifle
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For 15 years, Blaser’s straight-pull bolt rifle was the R93, a design that established a fine reputation among hunters who delight in Euro-Modern. During that time, however, the designers at Blaser thought about possible improvements, and laid their plans for a next-generation rifle that was totally different. The result is the R8 (for 2008, the year they began the redesign), and while it retains a superficial resemblance to the R93, the R8 is a much different rifle in design, function, and feel. Like most Blasers, the R8 thrives on interchangeability. You can have one rifle with several barrels, breechblocks, and scopes mounted. It can be a long-range target rifle one minute, a quick running-boar rifle the next, and ready to face a charging Cape buffalo a minute after that. And, naturally, it comes in a wide variety of grades and models ranging in price from about $4,000 up. The most important changes are internal—some obvious to the eye, some not. For example, the magazine is integral with the trigger group, and they are instantly removable together. This is not just a valuable safety feature; it also allows the rifle to be about three inches shorter than a standard bolt rifle in a comparable caliber. The R8 barrels are all hammer-forged with an integral chamber, ensuring exact concentricity for the best accuracy. I’ve barely touched on the major points of interest, but if any rifle can convert Americans to Euro-Modern, it is the Blaser R8.
www.blaser-usa.com

 

Zeiss Victory Photoscope 85 T* FL
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Erik Schumacher, president of Zeiss, receives a Gray's Best plaque from Mike Floyd.

The full name of this magnificent beast is the Zeiss Victory PhotoScope 85 T* FL 7MP Digital Camera Spotting Scope, but it is known within Zeiss simply as “the photoscope.” They can refer to it that way because there is nothing else like it on the market. The photoscope is a conventional-looking 15–45x X 85 mm spotting scope with an angled eyepiece, and is fully usable as such. Mount it on a tripod, look through the eyepiece, focus, and you have the full impact of renowned Zeiss optics. And if you see something you want to keep? Then you open a small viewing screen on the side, press a button to turn on the camera, frame your picture, and hit the “record” button on the small remote control. Voila! You have a 7 mp digital image, stored on a standard card.At about $6,500, the photoscope is not inexpensive, but when you compare that to the total price of assembling a top-quality digital camera with a comparable long lens (the photo equivalent is a 600–1800 mm lens), or a camera and all the adaptive paraphernalia, which may work but is almost invariably awkward, the benefits of the photoscope become obvious. The use of infrared controls, and a beam splitter rather than the conventional mirror, eliminate to a great degree problems of camera shake at high magnification and low shutter speeds. Compared with any previous system, the photoscope is so simple to use, and produces such wonderful results, that it defies description. 
www.zeiss.com/sports

 

Schmidt & Bender Summit 2.5–10 x 40
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Mark Cromwell (left) of Schmidt & Bender accepts Gray's Best recognition from Scott Buchmayr, Gray's account exectuive.

Schmidt & Bender is a small but ultra-high-quality German optics maker whose forte is the 30 mm scope. In fact, riflescopes are its only product, and connoisseurs have, for years, placed Schmidt & Bender at the very top of the list. Unlike other European optics companies, however, Schmidt & Bender remained devoted to the 30 mm tube and steadfastly refused to make anything smaller. Such large, heavy scopes are great for some things but not for others, and devotees of light mountain rifles, or backpacking rifles, who needed lighter scopes with 1-inch tubes, were out of luck. Until now, that is.Schmidt & Bender has introduced its first-ever 1-inch scope, known here as the Summit 2.5–10 x 40 (the full European name is much longer), and it is a gem. Although not exactly either lightweight or compact, it is still considerably more so in both respects than the 30 mm Schmidt & Benders, yet it yields nothing in optical quality measurable by anyone but an optical engineer. The Summit weighs 16 ounces and is 13 inches long with 4-inch eye relief, which is usable on almost any rifle. Three reticles are available, including a duplex-style, all in the second focal plane, which means the reticle stays the same size regardless of magnification. It is almost as if Schmidt & Bender set out to determine the knowledgeable American hunter’s favorite scope, and combine it with the legendary (and they are legendary) Schmidt & Bender optics. And all for $1,500. 
www.schmidtbender.com

 

Apparel
by Steve Walburn

Stormy Kromer Bunkhouse Trouser
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Bob Jacquart (right), CEO of Stormy Kromer, and Mike Floyd discuss the winter weather in Wisconsin where Kromer is located.

The first best pair of hunting pants I ever owned came from an Army-Navy store in the Last Best Place. They were U.S. military wool cargo pants from some long-quiet front that had found their way to the bottom rack of a Montana military-surplus store. I wore them every season for 10 years—from the Flathead Range to the Blue Ridge mountains—until I lost my own battle of the bulge, stowed them in a box, and held on to them as a memorial to my gloriously leaner youth. Now, I finally have a worthy replacement in the Stormy Kromer Bunkhouse Trouser ($140). This plain-front, no-frills pant is made from the same premium wool–nylon blend as the company’s famous caps, now entering their 108th year of customer satisfaction. The trousers are soft enough to wear next to your skin, but layer them over a pair of silk or microfiber long johns, and you can sit in a Wyoming snow bank or an Alabama tree stand as long as it takes to make meat. Spacious front pockets accept cold hands plunged well past the wrist. I’ve washed mine several times without shrinking, but there’s an adjustable waist strap to provide a bit of wiggle room—just in case.
www.stormykromer.com

 

First Lite Red Desert Boxer Short
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Scott Robinson (right), co-owner of First Lite, and Fatima Young, Gray's account executive, celebrate the young company's first Gray's Best award.

None of the earthly elements will kill you faster than cold. Throw in some precipitation and wind, and you have a recipe for hypothermia. This is a special concern for early season Western hunters, where you might leave camp in tanning weather and find it subfreezing by nightfall. I experienced this on a Northern Rockies bowhunt last September, when my brother and I were caught in a sudden snowstorm near timberline, lost our backtrack, and spent the night in a lean-to made of sticks and spruce boughs. Other than the space blanket I’d purchased just before leaving town, my sole saving grace was a pair of First Lite Red Desert Boxers ($50 to $55) and matching core top. Made of 17.5-micron superfine merino wool, the boxers were cool enough to wear on the ascent in 70-degree weather, yet offered vital protection when it dipped subfreezing that night. Match that wide thermal range with next-to-skin comfort, odor control, and washability, and you have a half-length base layer so functional it’s a wonder no one has thought of it before. First Lite is an Idaho company with a small but well-conceived lineup of products based on superfine merino wool, all worth a look from performance-oriented sportsmen.
www.firstlite.com

 

Simms No-Fly Zone Apparel
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It’s rare to field-test a piece of gear in optimal conditions with the manufacturer standing right there. More often, the gear arrives in the least opportune season, and then we go in search of conditions to put it to the test. Here in Georgia, that can be a challenge for evaluating, say, a Thinsulate-lined hunting boot. On the other hand, finding bloodsucking ’skeeters here is rarely a challenge. In fact, traveling anglers find them just about anywhere they might find themselves, which in this case was at a boat ramp in the shadow of Sheep Mountain after a full-day float on the Yellowstone River. At the landing, a hematophagous plague descended on our party like fallout, but they remained in a holding pattern around our small armada of media types, unable to find a safe landing zone on the Simms No-Fly Zone apparel. What could have been a marketing director’s worst nightmare became instead the ideal proving ground for this Burlington Labs technology, which binds the insecticide, permethrin, directly and safely into the clothing. No-Fly Zone is odorless, water-based, and biodegradeable—and it works. Available in select Simms garments, the combination of No-Fly Zone with Simms Core 3 technology unites insect repellency with UPF 50 sun protection, odor control, and fast wicking. My favorite is the Flyaway Shirt and matching Zip-Off Pant ($90 each).
www.simmsfishing.com

 

C. C. Filson Wingshooting Jacket
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Amy Terai, marketing manager of Filson, and Gray's general manager Steve Walburn welcome Filson's return to the Gray's Best lineup.

Sure, we’d all rather hunt birds under a Dresden blue sky wearing little more than a shooting shirt and a strap vest. But sometimes hunters must prepare for less than idyllic conditions. That’s why Filson, a longtime manufacturer of premier bird-hunting apparel, created its Wingshooting Jacket ($295). Made of waterproof, breathable nylon twill, this new jacket is one of the company’s recent forays into “technical” wear, yet it retains that classic Filson styling. Yes, we understand that Filson fans have expressed everything from lifted eyebrows to outrage that this “Made in the U.S.A” icon now offshores some of its product line (with the notable exception of its heavy wools and signature waxed cottons). But at the end of the trail, a hunting garment either is great or it isn’t. This one, while imported (and these days you have to ask yourself, What isn’t?), upholds the Filson motto, “Might as Well Have the Best.” Waterproof pit zippers keep you cool in muggy, rainy conditions, and the lined pockets and neck keep you toasty when the north wind pushes that front through. Bellows pockets with brass-snap tab closures are pure Filson, and inside you’ll find a security pocket as well as left and right shoulder pockets to receive an optional recoil pad. For hunting, hiking, or simply running around town, this jacket wears comfortably and does its job in style.
www.filson.com

 

Accessories
by Russ Lumpkin

L.L. Bean Trapper Pack Basket
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Kurt Heisler (left to right), senior designer for LLBean; Mac McKeever, Bean’s senior public relations rep; Scott Buchmayr; and Kevin Murray, hunting/hishing developer for Bean, gather around the Gray’s Best plaque and the award-winning pack.

Right out of the box, the Trapper Pack Basket ($99) looks to have been around a long time, reminiscent of your grandfather’s knapsack or an antique decoration in an upscale sporting goods store. Even the materials—waxed cotton, leather—speak of times when durability trumped design. True to its appearance, this pack has long life and character built in. Heavy stitching helps contain heavy loads, and the few mostly hidden seams add to the pack’s handsome appearance. The more you use this pack—through the woods, in a canoe, or on vacation—the better it looks. And you will use it, because it holds a lot of stuff. The belly, strengthened by vertical leather strips, is wider than the bag’s mouth and base, and is hungry for binoculars, field guides, fly boxes, extra shells, clothes for layering, even a few decoys; whatever you want, there’s room for it. And because it stands upright, the pack loads easily. A few modern materials add comfort and utility—a little padding in the back, a nylon covering that can be cinched shut. But these modern touches fail to diminish the timelessly rugged appeal of a pack that grows in character with each abrasion and will survive to be admired by a future generation.
www.llbean.com

 

Chris Reeves Knives Nyala
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Chris Reeve (right) and Russ Lumpkin, Gray's managing editor, are all smiles during the award presentation.

The cutting edge of the Nyala ($230) from Chris Reeve is made of CPM S35VN steel, which resists wear and retains an edge better than an average skinning knife made of traditional 440 stainless. Although the blade is tough and cuts like a razor, it’s the knife’s overall design that earns its Gray’s Best. Lay the handle of Nyala across your fingers, and the entire knife sits upright, like a size 12 Humpy riding a riffle. The handle is immediately comfortable—rounder than those on most hunting and skinning knives, with no real flat edges—made, in short, to fit curled fingers. Grooves in the handle run both parallel and diagonal to the blade, and these contrasting angles provide a grip that resists slipping. The handle end also holds most of the Nyala’s 6.2 ounces, and coupled with a slight drop point, the blade tends to go exactly where you want it to go—an important feature when you’re opening an animal. The Nyala is pleasing to use, hold, and admire, and its handsome water-resistant sheath fits and wears comfortably. All told, a ruggedly simple and useful appeal pervades every aspect of the Nyala knife. www.chrisreeve.com

 

Galco Field Grade Gun Slip
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Scott Feck, Galco's vice president of operations, accepts a Gray's Best plaque from Fatima Young, Gray's account executive.

Any decent shotgun demands a nice gun slip or case designed to (1) keep the gun dry, (2) protect it from outside interference, and (3) look sharp while performing functions one and two. In leather goods, Galco’s reputation for quality is hard to top. In fact, back in Expeditions and Guides 2005, Terry Wieland wrote, “Any leather product from Galco is as good as it gets.” While Galco’s new Field Grade gun slip ($98) isn’t all leather, it does provide all of Galco’s excellence in taste, quality, and styling at a really great price. It’s constructed of water-resistant yet breathable heavy canvas duck, which prevents moisture from collecting inside and shields your gun from scrapes. On the inside, acrylic sheepskin pads your firearm against drops and bumps on the go. The deep leather and all-brass hardware provide durable handsome accents and a sure means of adjustment for years to come. A side strap doubles as a gun sling. On the whole, the Galco Field Grade’s traditional good looks go well in the field, protect your gun in storage, and withstand abuse when on the move.
www.usgalco.com

 

Dawg-Tired K9 Kloud Premium Dog Bed
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Resisting the urge to anthropomorphize can be difficult for dog owners. As I found out when I gave my two German shorthairs the assignment of field-testing a new K9 Kloud dog bed by Dawg Tired. Upon opening the box, I could tell this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill dog bed. It felt more like a mattress I’d buy for myself and less like the large flat pillow I’ve been content for them to sleep on for years. But after giving the mattress a brief test run and admiring its rustic styling, I left it for my dogs, and if they could have talked, they would have let out a big Thank you. The K9’s construction is a three-layer sandwich of downlike channeled siliconized cluster-fiber surrounding a zippered compartment that houses a foam insert. This layering means that the K9 Kloud doesn’t compress down to a flat nothing like most dog beds, and the dogs don’t wind up lying on their joints. Especially good for large dog breeds, the Kloud ($229) is designed, sewn, and manufactured entirely in the USA.  —by Chad McClure
www.dawg-tired.com