Gray's Best 2012

ANGLING

by James R. Babb and Miles Nolte

ImageRedington Pursuit Fly Rods

We didn’t actually fight over it. But if you managed to snag the Redington Pursuit from among the other Far Bank (Sage, RIO, Redington) fly rods us fish-writers had been assembled to admire, and you set it down to peruse your fly box or unhook a fish or empty your bladder, it had a way of turning into a completely different rod. And then you had to sleuth around looking for a fish-writer with too much smile on his felonious face and burgle it back. Not that new-stick-envy is unusual. The Pursuit casts smoothly and effortlessly from inside 10 feet out to around 70, it tracks accurately, and it handles almost any mission, from a crisp zing to a daisy-chain lob. It feels right, it’s nice looking—witness marks on the ferrules, decent cork, a classic uplocking reel seat with wood insert. But in these days of $1,200 graphite rods, the Pursuit comes with one less zero.  At $120 in four-piece (7½-foot 3-weight to 9-foot 9-weight, including a 10-foot 7-weight and my favorite: a transcendental 8-foot 4-weight) or $100 for two-piece, it’s the kind of rod you’d buy for guests, emergencies, or under-the-truck-seat impulse angling. But given its versatility and purely pleasurable performance, the Redington Pursuit may become the fly rod you grab by default. www.redington.com JRB

 

Abel Nippers

ImageLike most old men, young women, and ageless politicians, I manufacture my own facts, logic, and mathematics. Recently, I earned $432 on a tractor-mounted snowblower by pitting Green Paint against rival next-door neighbor Orange Paint. Newly enriched, I skipped the $5 McBurger on the way home and luxuriated instead with a platter of Pemaquid oysters and wild boar pâté. Still $372 ahead, I had plenty left for Abel Reels’ utterly unnecessary leader nipper. There’s nothing so pleasurable as a tool-toy made better than necessary. After years of cutting leaders with my teeth (free, but with expensive future maintenance), toenail clippers ($1, with no future), and nonreflective toenail clippers imprinted with fish ($15, also no future), the elegant Abel Nippers feel as luxurious as the charcuterie board at Primo, breezing through 7X trout tippet and 70-pound fluorocarbon—even microbraid. The precision-machined aluminum body should last forever, and the knife-grade stainless jaws are guaranteed for two years, after which Abel will happily replace them for $6 postage and handling. Sure, you can notch your teeth or snip leaders with something from the bargain bin. But life grows grim without senseless indulgence. The Abel Nippers quiet these yearnings for a mere $50 in 11 colors, or your choice of hand-painted fish species for $100. Integrated for free: the best hook-eye cleaner I’ve ever seen. www.abelreels.comJRB

 

ImageEcho 3 Fly Rods

If you haven’t yet cast an Echo rod, you’re missing some of the most creative and interesting new designs in fly-fishing. I’ve fished Echos for a number of years and have long appreciated the performance of these workhorse rods at reasonable prices. Echo was one of the first companies to push production singled-handed rods past the nine-foot barrier, and these longer tapers can easily lift lots of line and can stack mends like Lincoln Logs. And, of course, they’re spectacular for single-handed Spey casts. Inducting some Spey style into your smaller stream fishing will give you a whole new perspective on roll casting. My two qualms with past Echo models: They were a bit sluggish in flex and far too heavy. The Echo 3s cut back the weight significantly with a crisper flex and improved feel. The 10-foot 5-weight is a perfect stick for nymphing, either with a high-floating indicator or ticking bottom on a tight line. The 9-foot 6-weight has become my favorite hopper rod, and the 9 for 5 is a well-balanced, versatile trout rod. The larger rods have plenty of backbone without feeling like iron lances. Their price makes them affordable for cost-conscious consumers, but it’s their performance that puts them atop my list for new rods in 2012. www.rajeffsports.comMN

 

ImageSimms Headwaters Waistpack

Thanks, perhaps, to residual postadolescent testosterone, it took me a while to get on board with fanny packs for fishing. When I finally tried one on the water a few years ago, the performance didn’t quite eclipse the feeling that I looked like a European tourist at Disneyland. Though I really liked the convenience of having my fishing gear stowed accessibly on my lower back where it wouldn’t grab unfurling loops, the weight sagging off my narrow hips all day became uncomfortable, and the pack itself proved too small to lug all the essentials for a day of fishing. Then I tried the Simms Headwaters Waistpack, and it’s the first I’ve found with all the elements I want. The over-the-shoulder sling strap aids the waist belt and increases comfort without reducing the convenience of the classic butt-bag design. Plus, there’s enough space for a day-load of fishing paraphernalia—all terminal tackle, numerous fly boxes, bottles of water—without being so bulky, you feel like you’re toting a squirming infant on your hip. The main pocket has a strong magnetic closure in addition to the zipper. I appreciate this feature because when the fishing grips my attention I often forget to close zippers. If you’re still worried about spoiling your image as a Serious Angler, the Waistpack comes in camo. www.simmsfishing.comMN

 

SHOOTING

by Terry Wieland

ImageA-10 American Over-and-Under from Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company

Antony Galazan’s Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company, in New Britain, Connecticut, has over the past 20 years become not only America’s finest maker of double-barreled guns, but also one of the world’s most advanced gunmaking facilities. Now, Galazan has introduced a gun of his own design that is new to America: the A-10 American over-and-under shotgun with hand-detachable sidelocks. This low-profile O/U is a configuration familiar to the world’s finest gunmakers, such as Holland & Holland, but never before manufactured here. The A-10 American is available in 12, 20, and 28 gauge, with interchangeable barrels. Dimensions such as barrel length and stock measurements can be had to order, and it is available in a variety of lovely engraving patterns. More important is Galazan’s combination of traditional hand-gunmaking skills with the most precise modern machining methods, along with new processes to both improve quality and reduce costs. Aside from being made in America, what makes the A-10 particularly noteworthy is its price: Initially, it was offered to Galazan clients at less than $5,000, although those incredible introductory discounts have now expired. Even so, the current base retail, $7,995, is still rock-bottom by world standards. And this is a world-class gun, with every one extensively tested and tuned before it leaves the factory. How good is Galazan? The best European companies are sending over gunmakers to study how he does it. www.connecticutshotgun.com

 

ImageSauer 303 Semiautomatic Rifle

Germany’s J. P. Sauer & Sohn is the second-oldest gun company in the world, after Beretta. For most of the 260 years since its founding in 1751, Sauer has been known for both quality and innovation. Since 1945, bolt-action rifles have been Sauer’s mainstay. Now, the company has entered the realm of semiautos, but with a difference. Instead of pursuing a quasi-military style, the new Sauer Model 303 is unapologetically civilian, stylish in appearance with its traditional fine walnut stock, but anything but traditional in operation. The most obvious departure from a standard semiauto is its cocking system. The rifle isn’t cocked by releasing the breechblock to chamber a cartridge; instead, behind the receiver is a large serrated catch that is pushed forward to cock it. If you decide not to fire, you press a release button and uncock it. If you do fire, of course, it is cocked and ready for the next shot. Once you get used to it, the system works extremely well. The Sauer 303 is designed for the European sport of driven boar, but lends itself admirably to both white-tailed deer and feral hogs. It handles more like a shotgun than like a rifle. And the buttstock is removable for easy storage and transportation. The 303 is available in five calibers, including .30-06 and .300 Winchester Magnum, and several configurations ranging in price from the lowest (with a synthetic stock) at $3,352, to $6,340 with highly figured walnut http://jpsauer.us

 

ImageBritish Campaign Gun Rack, from Sporting Wood Creations

Anyone who spends any time camping knows the value of two things: a chair in which to sit, and a place to put your shotgun or rifle where it’s secure yet instantly available. In the 19th century, while busily conquering the known world, the British established standards of safari life that are emulated to this day. The cornerstone of a comfortable camp was the portable furniture that made life bearable after a long day of pursuing Pathans or pachyderms. Because of its military origins, this folding (yet eminently comfortable) equipment became known as “campaign furniture.” It’s still used today, especially in India and parts of Africa, and the American company Sporting Wood Creations has built a business importing such wonderful artifacts from all over the world. Its latest is a superb piece of kit called the British Campaign Gun Rack. Made in South Africa of solid mahogany with leather, brass, and hemp fittings—no synthetics!—this rack will accommodate nine long guns. At 35 pounds, it’s solid and stable, yet is light enough to transport easily and folds into a flat package. Opened, it has hooks for bags and slings, and a long tray to accommodate boxes of ammunition. Everything for dealing with a leonine camp invasion is right there, handy. The gun rack sells for $799 plus shipping. Even if you’re not planning three months in East Africa, it makes a great addition to your gun room. Pith helmet not included. www.africansc.com

 

ImageSwarovski CL Companion 8x30 Binocular

It’s probably overstating to say the world is awash in fine binoculars, but unquestionably there are more high-quality binoculars today than ever before. It’s also unquestionably true that, for most of us, the best European optics are a financial challenge. Elite German and Austrian optics engineers are more concerned with quality than with keeping prices down. Until now. Swarovski Optik of Austria, which over the past quarter-century has become one of the most familiar names in high-end glass in the United States, has designed a binocular for the rest of us called the CL Companion—a roof-prism binocular in the now-familiar Swarovski shape, available in three colors of soft rubber armor (green, black, and sand) and two powers (8x30 and 10x30). In 8x30, the retail price is just $1,032, compared with $2,500 for the comparable top-of-the-line EL model. Swarovski equips each binocular with features we have come to expect, including its patented optical coatings for effortless light transmission, a delightfully ergonomic design, easy focusing, and both durability and waterproof construction. Exactly how Swarovski accomplished this, while keeping its price low, is one of those secrets that competing optics engineers will undoubtedly be agonizing over long into the night. It has long been a tenet of optical faith that a lower-priced binocular can be optically great but won’t stand up to long use. With the Companion, Swarovski is aiming to disprove that rule. Given the company’s track record over the past century, no one is betting against it. www.swarovskioptik.us

 

Apparel

by Steve Walburn

ImageLe Chameau Jameson GTX Zip Boot

French bootmaker Le Chameau has long been the premier manufacturer of stylish, formfitting Wellingtons for the sporting elite, and its Chasseur model, with a vulcanized rubber shell and Italian leather liner, has been the industry benchmark for the past 25 years. This year, Le Chameau’s U.S. distributor began importing a new boot that challenges the Chasseur’s supremacy: the Jameson GTX Zip ($498). Whether you’re shooting driven birds on an English estate or rooting out wild boar from an Alabama cypress swamp, the Jameson will serve you in rugged style. Features include a full-length waterproof and gusseted zipper matched with uppers of full-grain leather, Nubuck, and Gore-Tex. The lugged rubber sole offers firm traction through wet bottomland or across plowed field, and the upper’s tailored profile feels snug on the ankles without being difficult to enter (thanks in part to the zipper). Though not marketed as snake-proof, the leather outer at least offers a greater sense of protection than do rubber wellies. I first field-tested a pair last spring on a Gray’s Sporting Journal staff hunt, during which we chased tom turkeys in the morning and wild boar in the afternoon. Three days of mud and briars knocked the dandified polish right off my new Jamesons, revealing a truly durable pair of sporting boots that get even better looking the harder you work them. www.lechameauusa.com

 

ImageDarn Tough Vermont Scent-Lok Socks

From the gray old days of scratchy all-wool tubes to the latest formfitting synthetic-and-wool blends, the last three decades have brought outdoorsfolk everywhere a revolution in sock technology. Sadly, during that time we’ve also seen our textile manufacturers move largely overseas. Standing against this offshoring trend is Cabot Hosiery Mills of Northfield, Vermont, which since 1978 has dug heel and toe into its commitment to Made-in-America excellence. Today, Cabot is Vermont’s sole remaining sock mill, providing hosiery products for a variety of major outdoor brands as well as military special forces. But its private-label Darn Tough Vermont sock is the brand all serious outdoorsmen need to know about. The pinnacle of the Darn Tough line for hunters is the Scent-Lok series ($TK), made from a blend of custom shrink-treated merino wool, nylon, and Lycra Spandex. Reinforced heels and toes, built-in arch support, and ring-toe construction for invisible seams make for a sock that fits like a driving glove and wears like a boot. Infused with odor-eliminating Scent-Lok, the line comes in three lengths and four weights, from a lightweight micro crew to an extra-cushion, over-the-calf sock. If the fit and construction don’t convince you of Darn Tough’s commitment to quality, consider Cabot’s unconditional lifetime guarantee that their socks are the best you’ve ever owned, a pledge that is darn tough to beat. www.darntough.com

 

ImagePatagonia Nano Puff Zip-Front Jacket

The older I get, the fewer items and less weight I want to carry afield. In the backcountry, it’s a tarp instead of a tent, an alcohol stove instead of white gas, dehydrated food instead of a quarter hoop of cheddar. On the water, it’s a lanyard or a waist pack instead of a full-bore vest. And for warmth, it’s the Patagonia Nano Puff Zip-Front Jacket ($179). Like much of Patagonia’s line, the Nano Puff evolved from the weight-conscious mountaineering world but quickly found a devoted following among cold-climate fly anglers and backcountry hunters. On a weeklong Montana bowhunt, with temperatures ranging from 35 to 80 degrees, the Nano Puff was my all-weather foundation garment, either in use or tucked in my pack at all times. Its full-length zipper is a decided improvement over the original pullover model, yet the jacket still stuffs into its own pocket to about the size of a grapefruit. The windproof shell is made of 100 percent recycled nylon with a durable water-repellent finish and an elastic waistband and cuffs to trap heat. The 60 grams of PrimaLoft One insulation stays warm when wet, and it dries faster than natural fibers, such as goose down. At just 354 grams, the Nano Puff is so light you’ll almost forget you’re wearing it, but you’ll be truly thankful when you realize you are. www.patagonia.com

 

ImageL.L. Bean Technical Wool Pant

For all the technological advances in synthetic apparel, wool britches are still the default choice of winter hunters. As a barrier against the cold and wet, wool is hard to beat. Its drawbacks are excessive weight and an irritating feel, two areas where synthetics excel. L.L. Bean has taken the best properties of both worlds and cleverly joined them in its Technical Wool Pant ($149). With a layer of soft fleece lining the polyester/wool-blend shell, you get the warmth of wool and the against-the-skin comfort of fleece. You no longer need to wear long johns, which narrow the pant’s suitable temperature range. Wear them on warmer days without a base layer, and on much colder days pair them with silk, polyester, or merino wool long johns. The pant’s technical aspects also extend to its cut, which features mildly articulated knees, a feature lacking on traditional woollies. Zippered cargo pockets are big enough for a small array of possibles, such as a compass, fire steel, or map, but not so large that they encourage stuffing your flanks like a chipmunk, a problem I always had with my old six-pocket army/navy pants. Whether sitting in a snowbank or on a cold metal deer stand, Bean’s Technical Wool garments (a matching jacket with the same features is available for $189) will keep you warm, dry, and itch-free. www.llbean.com

 

ACCESSORIES

by James R. Babb and Miles Nolte

ImageSportDog TEK 1.0

Those of us who own bird dogs know that even our well-mannered hunting partners enjoy the occasional game of hide and seek. While they’re off doing who knows what, we’re left imagining, Is my dog in danger? Running up birds? Chasing deer? What if he’s on point and I correct him unnecessarily? The SportDog TEK 1.0 removes virtually all guesswork from the equation. We now have a tool that not only allows us to remain in constant contact with our hunting companions but also gives us the ability to correct them without apprehension. The result is a more enjoyable day afield and a better dog. The TEK 1.0 is the first collar in the industry to incorporate both GPS tracking capabilities and an e-collar into the same unit. The collar itself is sleek and much less cumbersome than one might expect. The handheld unit is also reasonably sized and well designed. Once programmed, you can keep track of up to 12 dogs on the same screen. Each dog’s direction, distance, and status (moving, on point, etc.) are updated every 2.5 seconds. It’s also a snap to switch from dog to dog if a correction is needed. For bird dog people, this product is a game changer. www.sportdog.com — CM

 

ImageFox Knives Range Elite

It’s relatively simple to find a better-than-average cutting tool that you can fold and carry in your pocket, but it’s not so simple to find one that also possesses an aesthetic worthy of Gray’s Best. Enter the Elite Range ($102) from Italian knife-maker Fox Knives. With its clean lines and rugged bolsters of tulip poplar, this gentleman’s knife was for me love at first sight. Even when open and ready for business, this little knife maintains a handsome sleekness that belies its ability to handle such workmanlike sporting tasks as skinning a squirrel, gutting a bluegill, or breasting a wild turkey. It also handles more elegant tasks such as slicing fresh cucumbers so thin, you can read through them. And no knife I’ve used cuts tomatoes cleaner. The blade, forged of N690CO stainless steel, is easy to maintain; a few licks on an Arkansas stone or other low-grit honer will return it to factory sharpness. The Elite Range features a liner lock that replaces the tension spring common on most pocketknives, making for a knife that’s light in your pocket and locks securely so you can apply pressure without worry of slicing your knuckles. What greater testimony to a pocketknife can there be than to say it’s been in my possession for more than six months, and its whereabouts has never been in question. www.foxknivesusa.com — RL

 

ImageFishpond Lodgepole Satchel

Though shaped something like an old-fashioned creel, the Lodgepole Satchel ($90) is built to carry flies and reels and sunglasses and such instead of trout. Several easy-access pockets accommodate fly boxes big and small, and zippered pockets keep tippets, spools, nippers, sunscreen, and the like. In short, this bag organizes most everything you’d need for a day on the stream or flats and does so with more comfort than a vest and more style than anything this side of a wicker creel. But this bag earns its Gray’s Best for its versatility. For example, on several hunts where photography was a must, I used the satchel as a camera bag. In three days of covering ground and occasionally busting brush in the dusty scrub cedar of Western terrain, the Lodgepole Satchel held up well and provided exactly what I needed: a camera bag that rode my hip and opened quickly. A conventional backpack with zippers wouldn’t have allowed me to hunt or shoot photos very effectively. The main compartment in the waxed canvas shell is big enough to accommodate a camera body with lens attached, and two of the four open pockets on the inside hold lenses as large as 135 mm. The bag’s best feature, however, is a narrow vertical pocket that is perfect for storing reading glasses, which many of us need these days for small tippets or perusing a field manual. www.fishpondusa.com — RL

 

ImageFilson Passage Rolling Garment Bag

A couple years ago, Gray’s sales manager Mike Floyd and I were talking with Filson’s Amy Terai. She was showing us new additions to Filson’s line of luggage, and Mike mentioned in passing that the venerable company ought to make a rolling garment bag. Amy must have taken the idea back to Seattle, because Filson’s designers created a garment bag that features two-thirds of the company’s signature design elements: durability and handsomeness. But Filson eschewed its famous waxed canvas, opting instead for nylon twill, which is lighter than canvas and less likely to exceed airline weight limits. And at 23x14x9 inches, the Passage Rolling Garment Bag meets the carry-on requirements for several (though not all) major airlines. The bag has two compartments. The top opens to a trifold garment carrier that will hold a few suits and dress shirts. The bottom is roomy enough for a couple pairs of shoes, shaving kit, and other traveling necessities. There are two zippered pockets on the outside, including a shallow one designed for easy access to plane tickets, passports, or other documents without having to dig around for them. This is the perfect bag for even the dowdiest businessman who likes to travel with the look of the sporting life. www.filson.com — RL