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Grays Best

Gray's Best 2009 Print E-mail

by Jim Babb

ImageSage Bass Rods
Of the many adjectives angling writers deploy to describe a flexible stick propelling a weighted line and weight-limited lure—crisp, smooth, authoritative, lively, transcendental—the one deployed least often, and the one that best describes Sage’s new sunfish-specific fly rods, is Fun. Available in Largemouth, Smallmouth, and Bluegill flavors (10-weight, 8-weight, and 6-weight respectively), these 7-foot-11-inch four-piecers are meant to perform one very specific task: toss an aerodynamically incorrect bug accurately, easily, and repeatedly while sliding under the professional-bass circuit’s 8-foot length-limit.
And they do this admirably. With their matched Sage/RIO grain-weight short-head lines, the little rods hog a bug off the water and fling it right back out with brutal authority and nary a false cast. With their stiff backbones and short lever arms, they sink a hook and yank a bass from his entangling environment with equal brutality.
But the surprise comes when you load up a standard weight-forward line and watch a brilliant tight loop unfold. And then you notice the rod’s tiny size, its ultraportable rod-and-reel case, and think how you wish you’d had a rod like this tucked under the foredeck the last time your 9-footer turned unwieldy in the mangroves after snook and tarpon and bonefish. For $350 complete with the grain-weight matched line, there’s no reason not to take one along. You may find your 9-footer never leaving its tube.






ImageOrvis Helios Fly Rod
Remember how much you hated that quarterback in high school who got the girl and the grades and the Ivy League scholarship? And how when he ran for student president and homecoming king and, 20 years later, senator, you voted for him anyway because you knew that, as gifted and glamorous and glossy as he was, he’d do the job better
and more honorably than anyone else despite having a Porsche 911T and all those teeth?
That’s kind of how I feel about the new Orvis Helios series. At $755 for freshwater trim (2- through 6-weight) and $775 for saltwater (6- through 12-weight), these are nosebleed-pricey plastic rods. And with previous GRAY’S BEST awards for their T3 and Zero-G series, Orvis has certainly won its share. But after nearly a year of fishing a Helios everywhere from neighborhood trout streams to distant bonefish flats, from the Miramichi to Cape Cod, I can’t help it: These are the best pure fishing fly rods I’ve used to date. They’re lighter than anything else, easier and more relaxing to cast long or short than anything else, and thanks to a proprietary layup of graphite and thermoplastic resin poached at great expense from the hush-hush fighter-jet fringes of the aerospace industry, they’re stronger and tougher than anything else. And if you’re troubled that deep-o’-pockets Orvis is unfairly outspending the competition on its march to fly-rod supremacy, console yourself by remembering that they also quietly contribute more to conservation than everyone else combined. Those bastards.





ImageScientific Anglers Sharkskin Fly Line
Fly line manufacturers have long sought ever more distance by reducing guide-to-line friction with ever slicker, ever smoother coatings. Two exceptions—one molded with parallel ridges, and one with a pebbly stippled finish—reduced friction by decreasing effective diameter: only the ridges, or the tops of the pebbles, actually contact the guides. While both shot more line with less effort than even the slickest smooth-surface fly line (which stays slick and clean for about 15 minutes of actual fishing), both also had problems with durability, flexibility, and cleanability.
And so Scientific Anglers sought a different approach with its new Sharkskin lines. Using a process called microreplication, lifted from within the alchemical bowels of the company that brought you Scotch tape and Post-it Notes, 3M’s fly-fishing wizards have produced a line that, seen through the microscope, resembles a Chinese finger puzzle. Or a mosquito’s foot. This radical profile has many advantages besides reducing friction, including a lower surface disturbance on pickup, less light reflection in the air, and an inherent floating ability not dependent on dressings. Fishing both fresh- and saltwater versions all last year, I found Sharkskins not only live up to their billing but also go one better: they tangle less than any fly line I’ve ever used. Are they worth $100? Well, after a long day of fishing I can shoot 20 feet more Sharkskin on the same rod compared with the slickest competitor. And I never lost a fish all year because my line knitted itself into nightmarish coils. That’s worth the $50 premium to me.





Lamson Konic Fly Reel
After a sobering season of worldwide financial meltdown, not to mention must-own $775 plastic fly rods and $100 fly lines, it’s refreshing to find a fly reel that does everything the high-priced spread does and doesn’t compromise while doing it.
 Waterworks’ ULA Force was among the first true large-arbor fly reels, and its sealed-bearing, nesting-cone drag system remains among the best, and certainly the most maintenance-free. As I wrote in 2001 in my review of Waterworks/Lamson’s GRAY’S BEST–winning Litespeed, the unique drag and clutch used throughout the Waterworks/Lamson line “is perfectly smooth, has no perceptible start-up inertia, and has most of its adjustment range weighted toward the low end of the scale, where it belongs for most trout fishing.” The $300 Litespeed was a simplified, and to my eye more aesthetically pleasing version of the $400 Force, and getting those same precision-machined innards in a downpriced package made it a best buy. And this year we have the Lamson Konic, with the same high-precision guts now housed in a high-pressure cast aluminum housing—one piece for the frame, one piece for the spool, and as slick a package as a reel can be. From the Konic 1.5 (WF4, $119) to the Konic 4 (WF10, $149), these are for my pocketbook the default choice in everyday wear from the trout stream to the bonefish flat.





by Terry Wieland
ImageKimber Model 8400 Caprivi
Kimber is one of the few remaining production gunmakers that recognizes the close relationship between aesthetics and usability, workmanship and reliability.
In its Caprivi, Kimber applies those principles to a dangerous-game rifle, a throwback to the days when fine bolt-actions came from English gunshops fitted with lovely walnut stocks and beautiful metal finish.
First introduced in the .375 H&H, the Caprivi is now available in .458 Lott as well. Built on Kimber’s own action, a hybrid of the Mauser 98 and the pre-’64 Model 70, it has controlled-round feed, three-position wing safety, and a one-piece floorplate with Oberndorf-style release, along with a hooded front sight, an island rear sight with two folding leaves, and a barrel-band sling swivel.
The stock could best be termed “American classic express rifle.” The forend has generous (and well done) wraparound checkering; there are two crossbolts to absorb recoil, and a very tasteful cheekpiece, all executed on a piece of English walnut you will see nowhere this side of a very expensive custom rifle. The Caprivi was a pet project of Kimber V-P Dwight van Brunt, a serious big-game hunter, and his experience shows, from the rifle’s overall concept to the detail of its execution. All this for $3,000 makes the Caprivi a steal—and a GRAY’S BEST.






ImageLeica Ultravid Hd 8 x 32 Binocular with AquaDura
Two years ago in this space we called the revered Leica Trinovid’s then-new replacement, the Leica Ultravid, a “binocular of—and for—a lifetime.” We spoke too soon.
Now, Leica’s designers and optical engineers have again outdone themselves. Barely was the Ultravid on the market than they replaced the already superb lenses with even more astounding glass, and gave it an optical treatment called AquaDura.
AquaDura makes the glass hydrophobic. Whether pouring rain, thick mist, or the aftermath of an overturned canoe, the glass sheds water like exorcized evil spirits. No cloth or tissue required: just put the binocular to your eye and keep on glassing as if you were in sunny Spain. The AquaDura treatment also makes the glass more abrasion resistant and easier to clean of fingerprints and grime.
Given the significance of AquaDura, the improvements in light transmission, reduced dispersion, and color neutrality resulting from the new HD fluoride lenses and improved lens coatings seem almost an afterthought. Leica also replaced the conventional greased mechanisms in the focusing system with high-performance synthetics that ensure ease of focusing in conditions from very cold to very hot.
Naturally, Leica makes the Ultravid with AquaDura in several Ultravid sizes, from the 32 series to the 50s. But since we feel the 8 x 32 ($2,195) is the finest hunting binocular known to man, we choose that model as GRAY’S BEST.



ImageSuper Scope from John Rigby
John Rigby & Co. is the oldest gunmaker in the English-speaking world. Founded in 1735 as a maker of duelling pistols, Rigby has survived 274 years, through depressions, the Blitz, and the demise of the miniskirt, by innovating—and not just in guns and ammunition but in such various gun-trade peripherals as optics as well.
While all the great optics companies vie with one another to make ever-better spotting scopes, Rigby’s Geoff Miller took an old idea and gave it a new and beautifully executed life: It is well known that a good spotting scope can be made 10 times better simply by using a person’s binocular vision. Miller persuaded one of China’s best optics companies to make him a top-quality spotting scope with a dual eyepiece.
The first time you use the Super Scope is a revelation: like looking through a rock-steady, ultrahigh-power binocular. House numbers a mile away are clearly readable. Tiny holes in targets jump out at 600 yards. The four moons of Jupiter line up and sing. This is by no means a backpacker’s spotting scope, but a serious optical instrument for game viewing, target shooting, and distant observation, and it sells for considerably less ($1,579) than one would expect.




Sporting Wood Creation’s African Shooting Sticks
Elisabeth and Jim Morando’s Sporting Wood Creations makes a variety of items using exotic woods and animal hides and parts. For some years they’ve produced a variation on the age-old “African shooting sticks” so familiar to safari veterans.
Without question, African shooting sticks are the best aid to accurate shooting ever devised by man. In Africa they’re made from three six-foot lengths of stiff but light wood, with one end bound in a Gordian knot of tire-tube strips. Total cost: $0.00. Emulating them here is a problem, because no American wood is both light enough and sufficiently stiff, and available in a uniform diameters for six feet. Anyone who has returned from Africa and tried to make a set from three lumberyard dowels knows the problem.
Jim has experimented with various woods, improving the design with each generation until now he is close enough to perfect to rate a GRAY’S BEST. The newest iteration is collapsible—essentially a set of short sticks with three screw-on leg extensions—but the short set can be used alone from a sitting position. The tops are encased in Cape buffalo hide to protect your stock and dampen sound. The shafts are bloodwood, a red, straight-grained, solid (but relatively light) and stiff (even at about 5/8-inch diameter) wood from South America. It would be nice if they came equipped with a tracker to carry them, but at $349 you can’t have everything.



by Steve Walburn
ImageThe Sitka System
Of the many sporting-apparel manufacturers aspiring to serve the hunter’s every need, few have done so more thoroughly than newcomer Sitka Gear. Founded in 2005, Sitka has redefined clothing for those who hunt hard, on foot, in variable conditions over demanding terrain. If you’re looking for the most versatile Sitka garments that very nearly do it all, consider the 90 Percent Jacket and Pant ($249 and $229). But it isn’t a specific garment that deserves our attention: it’s Sitka’s comprehensive approach to outfitting hunters. From base layers to backpacks, each Sitka product blends mountaineering ruggedness with sophisticated tailoring and a layering philosophy that goes far beyond other off-the-rack options. Combine this with Sitka’s moisture-wicking, wind- and water-resistant stretch fabrics and you have a new breed of clothing that fits like a layer of skin.
The folks at Sitka are traditional bow-hunters who focus on details that elude the competition. Silent fabrics, flat pockets, scent control, non-binding cuts, and some of the best camouflage patterns on the market help you make like a tree or think like a mountain anywhere from the northern Rockies to the southern hardwoods. With an all-redesigned line for 2009 and a new partnership with Gore-Tex, Sitka Gear is ready to stake its claim as the serious ground-hunter’s garb of choice.





Smith Optics Interlock
Years ago I learned the dual roles of sunglasses the hard way one early morning in the Florida surf. The light was too low for shades, and as the action heated up on acrobatic ladyfish I yanked my lead jig from a cresting wave and caught the rim of my left eye socket, about a quarter inch from full piratehood.
Since then I’ve sworn off lead jigs and sworn in eye protection everywhere I fish. Problem is, no single lens tint will handle all conditions. Many eyewear companies have approached that problem with interchangeable lenses, but no one nails the concept quite like Smith Optics and its Interlock series ($159). Many traditional interchangeable lenses slide dubiously into the frame. On the Interlock, a small rotating joint at the temple actually opens the frame to receive a new lens, then closes completely around the lens to secure it. The result is a sturdy, easy-to-change system that features five frame styles and 14 Carbonic lens options, including prescription, Polarchromic, and bifocal. I’ve found Interlocks particularly useful fly fishing from the confined quarters of my canoe, where I travel as light as possible. Interlock cases come with a slotted liner for carrying up to three extra lenses, enough to keep you safe and sighted from dawn until dusk.

ImagePatagonia Guidewater Jacket
Great outerwear designed specifically for fly fishers comes from a small handful of manufacturers. Every year, Patagonia stands out among those few. Its new Guidewater Jacket ($400) is the company’s latest translation of state-of-the-art textiles from the alpine and skiing industries to the fly fisher’s needs. With roomy pockets, gadget loops, rod holder, net ring, and back cargo pocket, the Guidewater features all the appointments you’d find on a vest. Combine this with Patagonia’s waterproof, breathable, comfort-stretch fabrics, and you have a garment to be worn all day in the worst conditions
Cut several inches longer than its cousin the Deep Wading Jacket, the Guidewater is especially suited to boating anglers. Whether you’re punching a center console through an inlet or taking ice water over a driftboat’s gunwales, the Guidewater’s waterproof zippers and cuffs, drain-pierced hem, and fleece-lined collar will keep you fishing when other anglers head for the landing.
The first time I wore mine, a thunderstorm drove me out of the boat and onto the riverbank for two hours. I later lent it to my brother-in-law for his first trip to Alaska, and he claimed it “saved his life” on a halibut boat in Resurrection Bay. The Guidewater jacket now stays neatly packed in its own hood in my boat bag, ever ready for the wind to shift.

ImageFilson Mesh Game Bag
It’s easy to show a bias toward products that suit one’s particular climate zone, which in my case often feels closer to the equatorial sun than the hunter’s moon. But it is also hard to ignore when one of the world’s foremost hunting clothiers based in the Pacific Northwest shows a genuine interest in those of us with southern hunting seasons that open as early as August. Whether you are chasing gray squirrels through the hickory canopy or manning a cut millet field on opening day of Georgia’s dove season, Filson’s Mesh Game Bag ($80) serves warm-weather hunters beautifully. This newest vest from Filson combines the durability of its classic oil finish Shelter Cloth with a Polyester mesh back and cotton-webbing straps. The result is a very lightweight yet durable upland vest that wicks moisture off your back and, as a bonus, packs neatly away for any traveling wingshooter concerned with weight limits. Two side mesh pockets carry water bottles, camera, dove decoys or whatever else you might need, and the snap-close
bellows pockets make it easy to forage for shells. Double stitching, heavy-duty bar tacks, and the brass and top-grain leather buckle ensure that this vest will keep you cool in the heat of the hunt for
many seasons to come.




by Russ Lumpkin
ImageSPOT Satellite Messenger
Hunters and anglers who pursue their passions in remote parts of the world shouldn’t be without the SPOT Messenger ($170). This little device can call for help via satellite when there’s no other way to call for help. According to SPOT’s Web site, it works in “virtually all of North America, Europe, and Australia; portions of South America, northern Africa, and northeastern Asia; and hundreds or thousands of miles offshore of these areas.”
The unit can send one of three messages: a note to reassure loved ones, a call to let someone know you need help, or an alert to international 911. The SPOT Messenger also transmits GPS coordinates, allowing the folks back home to track your movements on Google Maps. In dire circumstances, it can direct emergency personnel to your exact location.
The whole system weighs only seven ounces and stows easily in a backpack, fishing vest, or coat pocket. It has only three messaging buttons, so you won’t have to fumble around should you find yourself dazed.
If you’re planning a trip beyond civilization and meeting familial resistance, the SPOT system can provide a worried family with peace of mind.

ImageLeupold MX Flashlight
Flashlights have evolved dramatically over the last few years, as
LED technology has outshone incandescent in both illuminating and energy efficiency. And now America’s foremost manufacturer of sporting optics has created its own flashlight that lives up to the standards of the gold ring.
The Leupold MX ($180 to $280) is a modular system anchored to a small tube holding either two or three CR-123A batteries. The bezel is waterproof and offers four light settings (other bezels are available) ranging from low-intensity to flashing. On the highest setting, the MX cuts evenly through the night in a way old-fashioned incandescents can’t. And unlike LED flashlights from other manufacturers, the MX features variable settings, allowing you to manipulate the light to fit your immediate needs and extend battery power—up to 40 hours of burn time. The dual-action tailswitch also helps conserve power (and is also waterproof)—depress it fully for continuous light or depress it slightly
for a quick glimpse.
You will find uses for all the MX’s settings, whether you’re picking your way through the woods, dealing with power outages, or administering drops to a sleeping baby’s ears.


ImageDrake Waterfowl SUV Bag
Drake Outdoors designed the SUV bag ($150) primarily for duck hunters who don’t drive trucks. Wide and squarish and designed to ride steadily in the back of an SUV, the bag features two big main pockets: one for boots and waders and another for a few decoys or layers of clothing. There are plenty of other pockets for calls, shells, dogstuff, and other accessories. You can step into the bag to shed waders, and a little pull-out mat provides a dry spot for changing into civilian garb.
But the SUV bag is handy for much more than just duck hunting. In the spring, pack your waders and boots and a full fly vest in one big pocket and stow your turkey-hunting gear—boots, clothes, vest, decoys—in the other. The numerous pockets on the side and in the zip-top closure are large enough to hold a wide variety of calls, fly boxes, flashlights, knives, first-aid gear, sunscreen—most anything you think you might need.
The bag can carry everything for an after-work trip to the river or woods, and it’s big enough to hold everything for an extended adventure. Pack it once at the beginning of the season, and you’re ready for sport whenever you find time.


ImageBrunton Solaris 12 Solar Panel
Harness the sun in about two seconds. Literally. Just fold out a Brunton Solaris 12 ($195), insert one end of an adapter into the panel and the other into a rechargeable battery, and let the sun do the rest while you go hunting or fishing.
These portable solar panels are indispensable if you need to haul a touch of modernity into the wilderness. They recharge batteries for cameras, cell phones, lanterns, laptops, or anything else that requires portable rechargeable power—including your automobile. A variety of adapters comes with each Solaris, including one that hooks up to your vehicle’s battery. I keep the solar panel in my car in case I’m down in the woods and find myself needing a jump.
Brunton panels are available in sizes large enough to run a laptop, but for modest needs the Solaris 12 is perfect: it folds up to about the size of a legal envelope, weighs less than a pound, and recharges batteries for cameras or cell phones in a reasonable amount of time. Think of the Solaris 12 as filling basic needs, but it’s really the starting point of an extensive recharging system from Brunton that features a wide variety of solar panels, inverters, and accessories meant to power nearly any situation beyond the grid.


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