Gray's Best 2010

by Jim Babb

Image Royal Wulff Ambush Triangle Taper Line
The fantasy trout fishers construct—the long fluid casts, the graceful unfurling of a gossamer leader as a semicolon-size dry fly kisses a shimmering spring creek at the edge of a rise ring—fails to meet the reality of most trout fishing, where you haven’t seen a rise all day, and the river is fast and furious and serpentining its way through a backcast-impermeable forested canyon, and you’re heaving a wiggle-legs dry fly the size of your thumb or a big pink bobber suspending a pair of heavy-metal nymphs. Equipping yourself for the trout-fishing fantasy versus trout-fishing reality is an exercise in self-handicapping—not with your reel, a mere line-storage device for most trout fishing; and probably not with your rod, because most modern rods can easily cast way past where the trout mostly are to where they mostly aren’t. But most trout-specific fly lines are meant for fishing fine and far, a perfect example being Lee Wulff’s venerable Triangle Taper lines, which combine the distance capability of a long-range rifle with the delicate presentation of a sushi chef. Just don’t try lobbing a pair of MegaBuggers. Having produced the consummate Plan A line, Royal Wulff is now out with a Plan B. Ambush is the name, and if you define ambush as “a sudden and brutal delivery of a truncheon to the skull,” it’s a good one. The Ambush is a continuous-taper roll-casting line (or, to be trendy, a single-handed Spey line) meant for quickly delivering firepower on target in real-life angling situations—think roll-casting 30 feet and shooting another 30 with an indicator and a triple-tungsten stonefly nymph hauling along a Copper John. You really have to try an Ambush line to appreciate just how it’ll change your real-life fishing. Available in WF5 through WF8 for $67.95.


ImageFishpond Piopod Microtrash Container
In theory, a wearable trash can is a product we enlightened members of the sport-fishing intelligentsia shouldn’t need. But as a stroll along any fishable body of water quickly shows, we certainly need someone to come along behind us, picking up our trail of cigar butts and cast-off flies and gum wrappers and fused split-shot and snips of leader material. (Mono may with time dematerialize beneath the sun, but fluoro is forever.) There’s more than just the obvious aesthetic angle to this. Tangling with plastics, especially persistent plastics like fluorocarbon, is unhealthy at best and often fatal for the fish of the streams and the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. Absent a parent or valet to come tidying up after our irresponsible selves, Fishpond’s new piopod (pack it out, all writ minimally in lowercase) is a good stand-in—an excellent addition to your vest, belt, whatever. It’s neither more nor less than what the evidence says we need: a hard-plastic trash can with a molded-on belt clip and a squeezably soft elastomeric lid. An eyelet clip keeps it secure, and a slit entry provides one-handed disposal of all that jetsam we’ve been either leaving behind or stuffing inside whatever pockets we can find—a composting stew that evidences itself next trip, or next season, in unfortunate ways. You might even consider a pair of $12.95 piopods—one for rubbish and one as a temporary and very secure storage vault for the dejected flies usually parked on your fleece fly-losing patch.


Image Patagonia Guidewater Waders
Were I Omnipotent Ruler of Patagonia, I’d call its new Guidewater waders the Sheepsfoot, because the first thing you notice when you slip them on and hit the water is the grid-cut merino wool lining the neoprene feet. As any sheep or chatty old person will relentlessly tell you, wool is soft, comfortable, breathable, moisture-wicking, warm even when wet but not stifling in the heat, odor-resistant even over long usage, ridiculously long-lived—a list of superlatives space-age synthetics can only dream about. But after a few hours of fishing, scrambling over rocks and up and down the bank and adjusting to the various meteorological, hydrological, and physiological fluctuations of angling, you begin to notice there’s more to the Guidewaters than just those soft sheepy feet. There’s the trim new design, with legs cut for left and right, on the theory that left and right legs are as different as left and right feet. There’s a slick-as-a-cup-of-custard new harness system that reefs from waist-high to nearly neck-high with a quick tug and a couple of sliding urethane snaps. There’s the built-in nonbinding gravel guards that drain quickly and have wear strips in the right places. There is, in short, a level of comfort and design excellence that is just plain satisfying. After wearing a pair all spring and summer and as far into the autumn as deadlines allow, mine still look new even after the dreaded running-of-the-bulls-through-the-raspberries test, so there’s every reason to believe the rest of the Guidewaters will wear as long as those cushy wool feet. In six sizes encompassing the gamut of probable human shapes, for $425.



by Terry Wieland

Blaser F3 Over-and-Under Shotgun
ImageImage During the 2010 SHOT Show, members of Gray's staff visited with companies that won Gray's Best awards and presented plaques to the winning companies in recognition of the honor. Here, Blaser CEO Bernard Knobel (left), receives a plaque from Gray's account executive Amos Crowley.


Blaser of Germany is one of the world’s most innovative firearms companies. Its basic F3 over-and-under isn’t new, but the uses to which it can be put definitely are. Whether you shoot trap, skeet, clays, upland birds, waterfowl, or all of the above, the newest iteration of the F3—with interchangeable buttstocks, barrels, and forends—is a revelation. The F3 mechanism refines a design that first appeared in the Rottweil shotgun. Instead of conventional tumblers and strikers, the F3 uses two square in-line strikers connected by a long dovetail. This allows them to slide independently while remaining resolutely aligned with the striker hole and firing pin. The strikers are powered by springs that apply pressure directly. This simple idea reduces lock time and improves trigger pull, resulting in a shotgun that is crisp and responsive. Blaser has now taken this frame and mechanism and married it to interchangeable parts that allow the owner to turn one gun into a game gun, a trap gun, a sporting gun—almost any role a shotgun might perform. Most high-end O/Us today are made on CNC machinery, and the F3 is no exception. With Blaser’s high-tech manufacturing, the result is a gun with parts that are truly interchangeable but so closely fitted that they look almost handmade.
The F3 feels the way a shotgun should: balanced, dynamic, and responsive. And it can be had with any level of engraving or fine walnut your checkbook will allow, starting at about $6,200.


Nightforce NXS 2.5-10 x 32 Riflescope




Director of sales and marketing for Night Force, Kyle Brown (center), receives Gray's Best recognition from Amos Crowley (left) and Russ Lumpkin, Gray's managing editor.




Nightforce is the best riflescope maker most hunters have never heard of. Based in Idaho, Nightforce sources components from around the world, but the scopes are marked made in U.S.A. Most hunters are unaware of Nightforce because its major scope lines are tactical (sniper) and target (bench rest), and it has a devoted following in those groups. Although it has offered some fine hunting scopes in the past, the new NXS 2.5-10 x 32 breaks fresh ground, not just for Nightforce but for 30 mm tubes generally.
The 30 mm is the new darling of the high-end rifle crowd. Made primarily by European companies, most 30 mm scopes are large, heavy, and cumbersome, intended for rifles shot from stands and carried very little. Not the Nightforce. The company wanted to demonstrate that the benefits of a 30 mm tube could be packed into a compact scope, at home on a hunting rifle, and they have succeeded. The scope is just 12 inches long and weighs only 19 ounces. With its small objective lens, it can be mounted low, and the ocular bell is short compared with most European scopes, allowing more latitude for mounting and eye relief. It is offered with two of Nightforce’s innovative illuminated reticles, which deserve an article in themselves. The NXS 2.5-10 x 32 keeps company with the Europeans in both quality and price ($1,400 to $1,600, depending on options), but breaks new ground in usability.


Nosler Custom Model 48 Bolt-Action Rifle
















Bob Nosler (center), CEO of Nosler, and his son, John (left), vice president, chat with Steve Walburn, general manager of Gray's.




Why is a bullet company making a rifle? They are building the rifle they thought would be perfect, but could not find anywhere else. The Nosler Custom Model 48 is named for the year (1948) in which John Nosler experienced a bullet failure on a moose and returned home to design his famous Partition premium bullet. The Model 48 follows that tradition of innovative thinking. Never a lover of composite stocks, I nonetheless appreciate their value in some situations (like backpacking in mountain rain). Nosler’s Kevlar stock is the first I’ve handled that felt good in my hands, not like a piece of plastic. The action is a Nosler design that borrows the best features of some established rifles, such as a three-position safety, and adds innovative ones like a special coating on all moving parts to maximize corrosion resistance and minimize wear. Both metal and stock are impervious to weather. But unlike many stainless actions, this one feels slick and solid. The match barrel is 24 inches long—neither too long nor too short—which gets the most out of the superb, made-for-the-mountains 6.5-284 Norma. The rifle is exactly the right weight as well; at 8.5 pounds loaded and scoped, it’s easy to carry backpacking but stable to shoot. And accurate? It shoots some loads really well, and others really really well: Five-shot groups with every load ranged from a half-inch at best to an inch-plus at worst.
At $2,800, the Model 48 is a lifetime’s worth of rifle.


Zeiss 10 x 45 T*RFBinocular
















Erik Schumacher, president of Zeiss, receives a Gray's Best plaque from Steve Walburn.




Imagine for a moment that you’re sitting on a mountainside in shifting fog and rain. There is a Dall ram somewhere across the ravine, but you’re not sure where. You get glimpses as the fog and rain come and go—a rock here, a bush there, a tantalizing touch of brown. It’s several hundred yards off, and you know if you get a chance at all, it will be one shot. Just one. The perfect binocular for such a situation has finally arrived: Zeiss has married its stellar optics to a simple, fast, easy-to-use laser rangefinder, then added its moisture-shedding LotuTec technology. The result is a package that is easy to carry up any mountain you would want to tackle with a rifle. The Zeiss 10 x 45 T*RF is the glass we’ve been waiting for since the first combination rangefinder binoculars made their debut in the mid-1990s. It is the size and weight of a regular binocular, thereby eliminating one piece of optical equipment to carry. Yet it gives up nothing in quality of glass or durability. At $3,333, the T*RF will seem a bargain to our rain-soaked sheep hunter. Two years ago, Zeiss received a Gray’s Best award for its LotuTec technology, which causes glass to shed water and remain clear in even the hardest driving rain. Having this feature on a laser rangefinder that is also a 10X binocular is the answer to a sheep hunter’s prayer: No more spotting a sheep, then trying to find it again in a separate rangefinder of different power. And rain? What rain?

by Steve Walburn

Orvis Primaloft Yarn Sweater
















Jim Lepage (right), Orvis vice-president of rod and tackle, and Scott Buchmayer, Gray's account executive, take a break from the bustle of the SHOT Show. 


Take nature’s finest wool and spin it into a yarn with some of technology’s best microfibers, and you get a luxurious new fabric tailor-made for the sportsman. Orvis’s Primaloft Yarn Sweater ($129) combines merino wool with the insulating fibers known as Primaloft—a kind of synthetic down—to create a garment that is versatile, comfortable, and stylish. Worn over a thin base, it’s as good a wingshooting sweater as it is the perfect top layer for ghosting through the deer woods. As a midlayer, it dramatically increases thermal protection without adding bulk or restricting movement. Slip it over an Oxford shirt, and you’re fit for cocktails and dinner at the finest wingshooting lodge. Left and right shooting patches of soft washable suede facilitate a smooth gun mount, while the Primaloft-and-merino wool blend combines the best properties of both fabrics—insulation and water repellency—in one outstanding garment.


Columbia Super Wader Widgeon Parka

Mike Floyd (left), Gray's director of sales, presents Gray's Best recognition to Joe Boyle, Columbia general merchandise manager (center), and Joe Craig, national sales manager.


Technical hunting jackets come and go, but Columbia Sportswear’s Super Wader Widgeon Parka ($720) is designed so you can stay. Outdoors. As long as you want. In sideways snow or pelting sleet, the Wader Widgeon will keep you in the hunt. As part of Columbia’s Performance Hunting Gear lineup, (an extension of its popular Performance Fishing Gear brand), the Widgeon is the Cadillac of waterfowling jackets. A reversible down inner jacket zips snugly into the soft waterproof shell, with copious pockets and quick-loading tubes for either 20- or 12-gauge shells. Neoprene cuff closures keep out the ice water on wading retrieves or when managing decoys. And the brimmed storm hood protects your face from the elements but moves with your field of view when leveling up on passing ducks. I hunted in this jacket on three successive mornings last year over frozen South Dakota potholes, and not once did I think about the fireplace back at the lodge.


Patagonia Guidewater Shirt
Image Many fly-fishing shirts these days have all the next-to-skin comfort of cellophane. They don’t feel right. They’re too technical, and with their Zorro-cape vents, shoulder epaulets, sleeve roll-ups, and bellows pockets, you end up feeling more costumed than simply wearing a favorite fishing shirt. This is why Patagonia’s new Guidewater Shirt ($120) is such a refreshing change. Though definitely a technical garment, it wears like a favorite button-down that just happens to be built with the fly fisher in mind. The nylon-blend fabric is durable, fast drying, and four-way stretchable, and neither too heavy nor too light—it can be fished in all but the steamiest tropics. And the “flat-minded” tailoring and use of snaps rather than buttons leaves nothing to snag your fly line during that first blistering run from a big fish. There’s a hidden daisy chain tucked beneath the left breast pocket for holding zingers or other tools. And the shirt is just plain good-looking. Having won a Gray’s Best award last year for its Guidewater Jacket, Patagonia’s latest addition to the line is, plainly put, a natural fit. 



Kenetrek Mountain Safari Boots

Jim Winjum (right), president of Kenetrek Boots, accepts a Gray's Best plaque from Steve Walburn.


Regardless of durability, stitching, tread pattern, and other metrics of fine cobblery, there’s really only one question in evaluating a boot: How comfortable does it feel in the field? Some of the boots I’ve tested this year have left me doctoring blisters the size of daisies, but not Kenetrek’s new Mountain Safari ($305). Manufactured in Italy of soft, full-grain leather uppers with perforated calfskin liners, they’ve worn well from the first step. Intended for warmer climates, especially rugged high-desert country, this isn’t a waterproof boot. But high water resistance combined with bombproof durability make it a great all-around boot for terrain from Arizona to Africa. Basically a beefed-up hiking boot, the Mountain Safari is made for trekking long distances in comfort. The K-Talon rubber outsoles offer great traction in sketchy terrain—scree fields, rocky creek bottoms, blowdowns—and the mid-height uppers provide just the right amount of ankle support without making your feet feel encased in Flubber. Double-stitched seams and bedrock-strong lacing points complete this well-made hunting boot.



by Russ Lumpkin

Patagonia Stormfront Pack
Image Patagonia bills its Stormfront Pack ($275) as completely waterproof. And with its polyurethane-coated nylon shell and welded seams, it is. Completely. Neither heavy rain nor water in the boat’s bilge can get inside, where there is plenty of unassigned space for clothes and gear, along with a mesh zippered pocket to restrain small valuables like a wallet or cell phone. An included padded gear case fits snugly in the bottom of the pack and provides safe storage for a camera or binoculars, and outside straps accommodate two fly rod cases. The removable harness, designed to keep the shell away from your skin, incorporates a large mesh pocket to hold anything from fly boxes or lunch to a hydration unit. In addition, Patagonia sells a vertical-pocket fly-fishing vest that attaches to the shoulder straps. I’ve worn the Stormfront comfortably on rainy mountain trails and trout streams—I even wore it swimming across a river—and the only moisture ever to accumulate inside came from a faulty O-ring on a coffee thermos. Because it holds in air just as well as it keeps out water, it even doubles as a pillow. Simply put, the Stormfront is a great all-around bag.


Primus LiTech Coffee Press
















John Smithbaker (right), president of Primus, accepts the Gray's Best award from Russ Lumpkin.


If you must have coffee but find your pursuit of game or fish renders your Mister Coffee useless, the LiTech Coffee Press ($35) from Primus will make cups of quality joe quickly and conveniently. The 11.3-ounce kettle and press replaced the old aluminum percolator, coffee mug, and two small boiling pots that had been in my backpack for more than a decade. In previous hikes into Appalachian trout streams, I’d had to wait patiently for my old percolator to boil over a burdened camp stove, costing time on the stream and fuel. But with the Primus press, the water boiled in about two minutes. Including time for the coffee to steep and cool, I took the first sip of coffee about eight minutes after lighting the stove. Filled near the brim, the press holds the equivalent of seven (small) cups. The press also makes a fine pot for boiling rice or other meals that simply need hydration and heat, and its nonstick surface makes cleaning up a breeze. The kettle’s arms feature a rubber coating that’s comfortable to grip and cool to the touch. This little press has become a necessity anytime I head into the deep woods.


Kommer 2-Shot Knife

Russ Kommer (left), knife designer with Columbia River Knife and Tool, explains to Russ Lumpkin how he came up with the idea for a knife sheath that will hold two rifle cartridges.


Nearly any sporting-goods store will sell a serviceably generic hunting knife for less than $100. But for the same money, Columbia River Knife and Tool will sell you a Kommer 2-Shot with features closer to a custom piece than anything you’ll find at the “knife counter.” The blaze-orange handle stands out right away, but look closer and you’ll find running through that handle a tapered tang, which sheds unnecessary weight and improves the balance. The blade, forged from 12C27 Sandvik stainless steel, resists corrosion and holds an edge, and its short length lends greater control compared with the typical long hunting knife, especially elbow-deep in the belly of a beast. The sheath, with its small pocket to hold two cartridges (and give the knife its moniker), is both handsome and ingenious. Designed to be worn horizontally, and convertible for right or left carry, it’s more comfortable over a long day of walking than conventional knife sheaths that run parallel to your leg. This little knife is such a joy in the field that I look for reasons to use it around the house.


Mud River 2 Barrel Utility Mat

Morgan Stotelmyer (left) and Susan Roers (right) of Mud River accept the Gray's Best plaque from Russ Lumpkin.


To accommodate their dogs, some hunters stuff their pickups or SUVs with various boxes or crates, meant either as permanent fixtures or to be hauled back and forth between storage and vehicle. That’s fine and dandy, but for those of us whose vehicles pull double-duty for both hunting and family, it’s a lot of trouble. Whether you need the extra space for other gear or simply want to give your four-legged friends more freedom of movement, the Mud River 2 Barrel Utility Mat ($72) is a convenient alternative for keeping a dog comfortable and the car seats clean. There are other, cheaper seat covers on the market meant to hang like a hammock, but the Mud River mat is made of double-stitched durable waxed canvas on one side and vinyl on the other, and because it hangs over the backrest and conforms to the slope of the seat, the dog needn’t lie in its own soup. Plus it’s easy to install and virtually maintenance free. This mat survived heavy use nearly every weekend last quail season, and I removed it from the SUV’s backseat only after it needed a hosing off. The season’s long gone now, but the mat still hangs on the backseat. For when the dog wants a ride to the store.