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Grays Best

Gray's Best 2013 Print E-mail

by Miles Nolte

ImagePatagonia Rock Grip Wading Boots and River Crampons

For years, felt was the undisputed king of riverine traction. Then it was identified as a prime vector of aquatic nuisances. Two years ago, felt soles appeared to have gone the way of neoprene waders. Rallying behind the cause, I even cleared my garage of all felt. The problem was, there was no suitable substitute. No matter how “sticky” the rubber, rubber soles don’t grip slick rock all that well, and they wear out very quickly. Thanks to rubber, I’ve done more log roller imitations and taken more plunges in the past two years than in all my stream-fishing life. Carbide studs help, but they’re inconvenient to insert and remove, and they destroy the floors of most fishing boats. This year Patagonia introduced a truly innovative solution: aluminum. It should have been obvious, because anyone who ever rowed an aluminum boat on a bony river knows how aluminum grips greasy boulders. The soles of Patagonia’s Rock Grip Wading Boots ($239) have aluminum bars that provide plenty of friction without the need for a porous material like felt. And the soft metal makes them safe to wear in any boat. Their one drawback: they’re not too comfortable on long hikes. If you walk deep into the wilderness before fishing, you’ll be better off with the Patagonia River Crampons ($199), and strap the aluminum bars directly over your existing boots when you arrive.



ImageL.L. Bean Pocket Water Fly Rod

Most of us get caught up in the high-tech hype of modern rod design, the latest and greatest post-space-age composites guaranteed to extend your reach and pinpoint your accuracy and deplete your checking account. I enjoy playing with the new magic wands, though I rarely see much improvement in my casting. This year, however, the rod I’ve been waving most is the Pocket Water ($195) from L.L. Bean. Rather than rocket into the future with high-modulus lightning, the Pocket Water drifts quietly into nostalgia. It reminds me of the old fiberglass rods I cast as a kid, with a deep, satisfying flex but without the bounce and recoil of fiberglass. Impractical, you say? I’ve cast my 7½-foot 4-weight all over Southwest Montana. At first I confined the Pocket Water to local hill creeks filled with small brookies and cutthroat. Then I began stashing it in my boat, and it slowly became my go-to dry fly rod. I fished it all through the Mother’s Day caddis hatch on the Yellowstone, and fished delicate presentations on picky Big Horn and Missouri sippers, giggling as it bent into the cork. I felt it glow on the spring creeks of Paradise Valley. Despite its size, this rod can handle some big, strong fish while preserving delicate tippet. It may lack the high-tech pedigree of other modern rods, but it feels good. If dry flies on light tippet are your game, this rod excels.



ImageChota Hippies Convertible Wading Socks

As a fishing guide, I spend a lot of time in my driftboat. For much of our peak season, the air is warm while the water is bone-chilling. This presents a difficult choice: Waders or not? If I wear waders, I’ll be sweltering by midday as I pull on the oars. If I don’t wear waders, I’ll dread every time I have to jump out of the boat to net a fish or retrieve a fly. This year, Chota gave me another option: Hippies. Despite the name, these breathable hip boots don’t involve peace signs or patchouli; they’re extremely well designed and functional wading tools. Unlike traditional rubber hip boots, Hippies ($130) are comfortable. They are, essentially, legs cut from your favorite breathable stockingfoot waders. When standing on shore, or in my case rowing a boat, you can roll Hippies down into themselves at the ankles, keeping your legs from stewing in their own juices. When wading, you can clinch Hippies at your hips or anywhere along your leg, protecting your lower extremities from the teeth of frigid water. One piece of advice: when you leap over the gunwale to net that really big brown, don’t forget to first pull up your Hippies.



ImageSmithFly El Poquito Tool Pouch

I appreciate simple but innovative products that allow me to accomplish what I already do, only more efficiently. It doesn’t get much simpler than the El Poquito ($25) from SmithFly Products, a compact, versatile accessory for keeping necessary nippers and forceps close at hand. It’s particularly useful for those of us who’ve abandoned the hallowed fishing vest. Built from heavy-duty Cordura, this little tool holster (7 inches long by 3 inches wide, and protruding less than 1 inch) tucks away your pliers in a svelte pouch while keeping your nippers on a stout zinger. Being so compact, it doesn’t mess with your fly line when casting. Though I appreciate the minimalist design, it’s the versatility of placement that makes the El Poquito so uniquely useful. Held in place with a nylon strap and two very strong magnets, it can be clipped into a pocket, in between shirt buttons, around the strap of a fishing pack—virtually anywhere, and it can be just as quickly repositioned, which allows you to change the placement of your tools throughout the day. If it gets hot and you shed a fleece, or it gets cold and you don one, you can easily bring your essential tools along. Though the El Poquito isn’t the shiniest new product I tested this year, it’s the one I use most often.


by Terry Wieland

ImagePerazzi MX28B

Perazzi is the top name in competition shotguns, having burst out at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and never looked back. For Perazzi, a 28-gauge game gun is a departure, but they have done it with their usual skill and attention to detail. The MX28B, a 28-gauge over-and-under designed to appeal to dove and quail hunters, will satisfy the most demanding, nit-picking wingshooter. The B stands for “basic,” and the gun comes in two grades (one at $13,550, the other $19,723). The plainer grade is a model of understated elegance both in appearance and handling. Although Perazzi guns are largely manufactured on CNC machinery, this gun gives the impression of having been finished by a skilled gunmaker. Every single function is silky and effortless, from the safety catch to the top lever to the dropping of the barrels and the precise ejectors. A particularly nice touch is the shape of the stock, which is pure game gun, a copy of the Purdey-pattern stock that has been the world standard for more than a century. Stock dimensions are custom, as part of the price, as are barrel lengths; the safety can be made automatic at extra cost. All this adds up to an extremely nice 28-gauge O/U for wingshooters who like their game guns with under-appearance and over-performance.


ImageH. Gerstner & Sons 12G Shooter’s Chest

Dayton, Ohio, is a city with a long industrial history, and one of its oldest companies still in operation is H. Gerstner & Sons. Pronounced “Gershner,” the company became famous early in the 20th century for making fine machinists’ chests, the solid wooden cabinets with multiple small drawers in which machinists keep their tools and instruments. Harold Gerstner began his company in 1906. The “& Sons” was added in hopes that he would eventually have some, but instead he had three daughters, from whom the current owners and managers descend. The company still occupies its original building near the river, complete with its own archives, museum, showroom, much of the original equipment, and a work force of skilled craftsmen and -women the likes of which one seldom finds today. As the demand for machinists’ chests has declined, Gerstner has expanded into such disparate fields as chests for fly tiers, watch collectors, jewelers, and, for their Gray’s Best, shooters. The Gerstner shooting box ($350–$380) is made from solid wood—in this case, hickory, that most American of woods—but can be had in oak, rosewood, or walnut. The hinges and corners are nickel plated, as is the latch and lock; the handle is leather in the old English style, and the drawers are lined with felt. If you are one of those for whom all aspects of shooting should be a pleasure, including gun cleaning, this is an heirloom-in-waiting you shouldn’t be without.


ImageLeica Trinovid 8 x 42

For decades, the Leitz Trinovid was one of the greatest names in binoculars, used by hunters and explorers in the wildest places, on the highest peaks. The Trinovid evolved through several iterations until, in 2006, it was replaced completely by a new design called the Ultravid. Now, Leica has revived the Trinovid name in a binocular meant to provide less expensive technology while retaining Leica quality. The new Trinovid is billed as the “return of a classic,” with a reputation stretching back 50 years. The old flagship Trinovid was the 8 x 32, a rugged binocular with ribbed rubber armor and scintillating optics; the new Trinovid is coated in velvety rubber that fits like a glove, and employs 42 mm lenses for brighter viewing in low light. While they are also available in 10X, the 8X ($1,450) gets the nod for Gray’s Best, not because of nostalgia but because a glittering 8X is generally more useful to a hunter, while a 10X is preferable for birding. There isn’t much to say about the new Trinovid, the old one having been praised to the skies by every authority of the past half century, except that it is a bit better in just about every way. It’s not just a product reintroduction; it’s a revival with improvements made possible by advances in technology. The only surprise about the new Trinovid is that Leica not only could improve the old one, but could do so at an affordable price.


ImageLeupold VX-2 2–7 x 33 Riflescope

In one sense, Leupold’s VX-2 2–7 x 33 isn’t new. A 2–7 variable has been a mainstay of the Leupold & Stevens line for about 50 years. But during those 50 years, Leupold has periodically updated this model—through the Vari-X II line, then the VX II, and now the VX-2 ($375). Each time, the scope has improved while retaining the qualities that made it great. The first mass-market variables, back in the 1960s, were the 3–9s, followed a few years later by the 2–7s. A 2X is a valuable improvement over 3X, and for all practical purposes 7X is every bit as good as 9X, and in a more compact package. For these reasons we have long felt that 2–7 is about as close as it’s possible to come to the ideal variable range for a hunting rifle, and Leupold’s 2–7 has been the industry standard. For just as many years, we’ve dreaded the day that Leupold would discontinue this scope, but instead they keep improving it, and knowledgeable hunters keep buying it. The VX-2 further improves an already great scope by incorporating such features as finger-click adjustments, a fast-focusing eyepiece, and finer lens coatings that give 94 percent light transmission. None of these changes, welcome as they are, affects the VX-2’s supreme virtue: it is a wonderfully usable riflescope for hunters who do it the hard way. As always, it is rugged, compact, waterproof, and unconditionally guaranteed.


by Steve Walburn

ImageSitka Duck Oven Waterfowl Jacket

With today’s mind-boggling array of hunting apparel and camo patterns, it’s rare that a single manufacturer truly advances the field. A new jacket here, better knee articulation there, a come-lately camo pattern unlikely to dent the Realtree/Mossy Oak market domination. In its seven-year history, however, Sitka Gear has moved the needle twice—first with its mountaineering-inspired layering system for big game hunters, and now with its new waterfowl lineup. Between launches, Sitka was acquired by Gore-Tex, which used Sitka’s cutting-edge apparel design as the platform for its state-of-the-art camo pattern. However you feel about digital camo, no company has put more thought into fabricating a complete modular system for the kinds of weather where a sportsman’s life depends on his gear. With more than two dozen pieces in the Sitka Waterfowl line, you’ll find the right combination whether you are breaking ice toward a South Dakota pothole to decoy greenheads or shooting woodies in a misty Mississippi bayou. The Duck Oven ($249) is a solid base for your complete Sitka waterfowling system, combining the thermal properties of Primaloft in the upper torso with a soft-shell abdomen for easily tucking into waders. A layer of Windstopper fends off wind chill, and thumb loops keep sleeves in place during your swing. Only the ducks can say whether the Optifade Waterfowl Concealment pattern hides you better, but to the human eye it’s a great breakup for anything from corn stubble to flooded timber.


ImageCrispi Hunter GTX

If the hardest feat in sports is putting a round bat on a round ball, then the most difficult feat in the sporting world is putting good boots on bad feet—flaring like a spatula, aching with plantar fasciitis, their tibias maintaining whimsical relationships with their talus bones. For me, wearing a properly fitted boot in the backcountry is more than a comfort issue. It’s a matter of personal safety. So it might seem odd that my first impression of the Crispi Hunter GTX ($479) was that it was too much boot. With a high-rise nubuck upper that comes almost to my calf, I worried that the extra bulk would become wearisome. But after a six-day elk hunt this past fall, which included up to seven miles of hiking per day in snow, through creeks, across side hills, and over blowdowns, they felt molded to my feet. One day I didn’t even take them off between the morning and afternoon hunts. My only caveat: after the second 20-degree night in camp, I noted a slight delamination in the rubber toe tips. But on further examination I concluded I’d simply been sitting too close to the fire. Later, while fishing the edges of the Little Blackfoot River, they didn’t leak even with the toe-melt. They were so exceptionally comfortable and stable that I’m giving the manufacturer the benefit of the doubt. This is a top-notch Italian boot, widely praised abroad and essentially new to American sportsmen.


ImageEddie Bauer MicroTherm Featherweight Vest

I used to buy a lot of gear from Eddie Bauer—if you consider khakis, dress shirts, and the other accoutrements of office life to be gear. Sure, there was a canoe hanging from the ceiling and a wicker creel adorning an endcap, but my local Eddie Bauer wasn’t a store for serious hunting apparel. Finally, this American sporting icon has diverged from the mall and headed back to the woods. So avid a sportsman was Eddie Bauer that he closed his original Seattle store for five months every Labor Day to hunt, fish, and field-test his products. The upshot of his legacy’s revival is the impressive Eddie Bauer Sport Shop Collection. Ranging from shooting and hunting vests to sweaters, shirts, soft-shell apparel, brush pants, and down hunting jackets for both men and women, the number of items introduced at last year’s Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show was beyond impressive. Bauer made his reputation with quilted down, a theme reintroduced in products such as an updated version of his original Skyliner Jacket and my favorite, the MicroTherm Featherweight Hunting Vest ($140). Derived from Bauer’s mountaineering line, this vest is amazingly warm for so little weight, just right for a wide range of conditions. Narrow, horizontal quilting keeps the 800-fill goose down from bunching, and fine touches include a fleece-lined collar and Cordura shoulder overlays to reduce wear. It’s a piece any hunter or angler will find indispensable, (and sporting gear that also looks good at the office).


ImageSimms Stone Cold Shirt

A quality fishing shirt has many attributes—breathability, sun protection, tailoring—but if I can’t throw it in the wash and then straight into the dryer on the Guy setting without it shrinking, fading, knitting, or  scrunching up like aluminum foil, it won’t last in the rotation. Beyond that, what matters most is this: Do I enjoy wearing it? Simms claims its Stone Cold Shirt ($80) is “refrigerator-engineered” with “Cool Control” technology. In layman’s terms, the fabric uses flat instead of round fibers and has powdered jade stone infused into the weave. Simms claims this unique construction disperses heat and keeps you one degree cooler. I can’t say whether or not that’s true, or whether one degree is noticeable, although the fabric definitely feels cool to the touch. What I can definitively say is that this is a shirt I love wearing, both for fishing and for travel. The fabric has an almost silky feel, and Simms’s COR3 technology’s antimicrobial properties help keep you and the shirt civil between launderings. It offers UPF 30 sun protection, and features under-color buttons for a more refined look, extended cuffs for sun protection on the back of your hands, and chest pockets roomy enough for a small fly box. This shirt is equally at home on a tropical flat, in a drift boat, or at the airline gate. But it feels so darn nice next to the skin, you (almost) don’t care whether or not you’re actually fishing.


by Russ Lumpkin and Chad McClure

ImageGränsfors Bruks Outdoor Axe

Gränsfors Bruks claims there’s a craftsman behind every axe. This isn’t a mere marketing ploy. Each axe head is forged by hand, and each handle is hand-fitted to accommodate each head’s idiosyncrasies. The smiths for the small Swedish company are given the time and freedom needed to produce axes that meet their high standards and the standards of long, repeated use. Some axe manufacturers mask blemishes with grinding, paint, or epoxy; the only adornments on a Gränsfors Bruks axe head are the smith’s initials. Indeed, there’s an almost rough-hewn look about these axes, until you unsheathe the head to expose the burnished edge that, straight from the factory, will easily shave the hairs off your arm. The company’s newest model, the Outdoor Axe ($174), is perfect for anglers or hunters on extended excursions beyond the comforts of modern amenities. Though less than 15 inches long, the Outdoor Axe has enough heft to fell small trees, and makes efficient work of limbing and cutting smaller wood for a bed of coals. The axe’s balance and weight combined with its sharp, hand-honed edge also make easy work of splitting kindling. The craftsmen of Gränsfors Bruks put a lot of care into their axes, and have even thought about users who might not be so meticulous: They’ve added a stainless steel collar to protect the handle from inexpert whacks.


ImageSaddleback Leather Co. Dry Bag

The dry bags from the Saddleback Leather Co. are crafted from a single piece of thick full-grain leather. And if you look at the seams, you’ll see that the tanning runs through the entire depth of the material, not just on the surface. At first glance, you’d expect the very thick leather to need some breaking in. But when you fold down and cinch the enclosure, you’ll find it as supple as moleskin. Saddleback tumbles its leathers for 20 hours, a process that allows the colors, oils, and preservatives to seep all the way through, creating a soft, durable product that repels water. The leather is so thick—thicker than that used on cowboy boots—that it has some insulative properties that protect the contents from extreme heat, cold, or dust. A pigskin-covered insert helps the dry bag retain its shape and provides substantial resistance to pressure, should the bag wind up beneath a pile of luggage or gear. These dry bags can withstand a good rain, a few hours in the bottom of a canoe, or a dusty day in the field. The bag pictured ($310) is 10 x 8 x 18¾ inches, and it will comfortably carry a camera, some food and water, extra clothes, an extra reel, fly boxes, or shot shells. The leather’s rich aroma, along with the solid brass hardware, is icing on the cake.


ImageFilson Rugged Twill Utility Bag

I haven’t always been a well-prepared minimalist. In the not-too-distant past, I was That Guy wearing the grossly overstuffed hunting vest: extra shells, gloves, hats, dog leads, first aid kits, water bottles, whistles, glasses, on and on. While it’s necessary to carry some of these items all of the time, it isn’t necessary to carry all of them all of the time. Enter Filson’s Rugged Twill Utility Bag ($245), with which I can organize and store all the gear I may need and my dogs might require for a day in the field. And with time these days being at a premium, it’s great to be able to grab the bag and go without the fear of leaving an important item behind. This leaves me free to pick and choose what to carry in my vest. The bag also has helped keep the peace at home, as the necessities of my day’s hunt no longer end up piled on the breakfast table. Constructed of 100 percent oil-finished cotton twill, the bag is 15 x 8 x 6½ inches and has pockets on the inside and out that run its length and width. The inner panels can be arranged to your liking, and the bridle-leather straps and brass fittings add to its ruggedly handsome appearance. If I weren’t a hunter, I could easily devote this bag to tools or gardening supplies.


ImageYeti Roadie 20

For several years, Yeti Coolers have been a steady presence at various sporting industry shows, looking very impressive with their nonskid feet, slots for tie-down straps, and gasketed lids. Several flats guides have spoken highly of them, but the models at the trade shows seemed more suited for large groups, a back-of-beyond expedition, or a permanent boat-deck fixture, and not so much for guys who live to hunt and fish but who make their livings elsewhere than on the water or in the woods. The Roadie 20 ($200), however, downsizes the world’s best cooler into a genuinely portable option perfect for a canoe, truck bed, or family sedan. Like its bigger cousins, the Roadie features one-piece seamless construction, and thick walls that hold more insulation than any commonly available cooler. The stainless steel handle locks upright and holds the cooler steady while you tote it. The end result is an incredibly durable, mobile cooler that will keep your stuff cold longer than any competitor. The Roadie 20 holds 5.2 gallons, and is perfect for drinks, a family picnic, or hauling whitetail sausage and backstraps home from the butcher.


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