Our Top Choices for Angling & Hunting Gear in 2019
[by the Gray's Sporting journal staff ]
GRAY’S BEST awards are anticipated by longtime readers of Gray’s Sporting Journal and coveted by hunting and angling manufacturers. The reason? GRAY’S BEST carries the weight of authentic sincerity. Many sporting magazines publish an end-of-the-year roundup of new products. Gray’s publishes a distinguished selection.
Our editors cover areas of expertise and experience—Angling, Shooting, Apparel, and Accessories—and select gear that not only makes good first impressions, but also satisfies during repeated use. We make choices of our own volition, absent encouragement and incentive from the manufacturers. Further, GRAY’S BEST winners deliver on the claims of their makers but also have an extra attribute, an extra something that triggers a tenor of feel, remembrance, or aesthetic and can be defined only as . . . satisfying. Much like Gray’s itself.
[by Miles Nolte]
Orvis Helios 3 Fly Rod
Upon first seeing the newest Orvis rod at the International Fly Tackle Dealer Show, the color scheme struck a chord of familiarity. It reminded me of a Daiwa spinning outfit I owned in the ’90s. Orvis’s redesigned Helios (beginning at $849) sports a bright white wrap rising several inches up from the cork, an appearance that’s easily identifiable on the river. It’s either iconic or an eyesore, depending on your tastes. I’m not much of an aesthete. Fly rods, like just about everything else, should be judged on their function, and this rod functions exceptionally well.
Orvis touts the H3 as the most accurate rod it has ever built. Of course, any rod can only be as accurate as the person casting it, but some do tend to track truer than others, and my experience with the H3 supports the company’s claims. I fished this rod all over New Zealand, where pinpoint placement of the first cast is often the difference between a fish that eats and a fish that spooks. The H3 didn’t bewitch perfection upon every presentation, but it outperformed all the other rods I took. In fact, I used the 5-weight H3 almost exclusively, even in situations that called for a 6-weight. I liked it that much.
The Helios 3 comes in two models: the F (for feel) and the D (for distance). Though I generally prefer a fuller-flex rod to a faster one, I think the D model fishes better than the F. www.orvis.com
High N Dry Liquid Floatant
For years, I have faced a floatant dilemma: use the environmentally friendly stuff that requires reapplication every other cast or the stuff that keeps my feathers cork-buoyant but smells like jet fuel and leaves shimmering rainbow rings on the surface film.
Last year I ran into a sales rep friend of mine at the best taco bus in Montana. (If you’ve been to Dillon, you know the one I’m talking about.) Over delicious carne asada, he introduced me to the new High N Dry line of floatants. The company was founded by a group of semiretired chemists who shared my love of fly fishing and my floatant dilemma. These gentlemen applied their decades of chemical wisdom to the problem and created a new line of environmentally friendly products that actually work.
Throughout the entire 2018 guide season, I dipped every dry fly in High N Dry Liquid Floatant ($12) and can report that it works just as well as the stuff that smells like paint thinner. Oh, and by the way, that stuff that smells like paint thinner is essentially paint thinner. Let’s keep that out of the trout streams. highndryfishingproducts.com
Simms Solarflex Armor
You may have noticed a distinct shift in upper-body fishing apparel the past few years. Buttons and collars are going the way of tweed jackets and ascots. While I’ll be the first to admit that airy fabrics and sun hoods don’t make for the most flattering attire, they sure are comfortable. They also help prevent the exhaustion that comes from long days under relentless sun, not to mention the C-word.
Skin cancer is the leading killer of fishing guides (yes, even more than cirrhosis of the liver), and you’ve probably noticed that most serious anglers are covering up these days, myself included. But I was disappointed when Simms replaced its line of sun shirts that featured built-in gaiters with sun shirts that featured hoods. Hoods are nice but don’t protect the neck and face from the sun as well as gaiters do. Simms has now fully redeemed itself with the Solarflex Armor ($130).
It’s the only shirt on the market with an integrated hood and neck gaiter. The shirt boasts a sun protection factor of 50, comes with mesh side panels for ventilation, and also has a sewn-in cloth for cleaning glasses. This really is the Cadillac of sun shirts, and if you fish in hot, sun-soaked climates, you should invest in at least one of them. simmsfishing.com
Stealth Master Tyer Hook Sets
Have you ever spent a half hour on hands and knees, squinting into the carpet, searching out the dozen minuscule hooks that you scattered, like so many dandelion seeds in the wind, when your elbow knocked their tiny bag off the tying table? I know I have. More than once.
Readers familiar with my choices for Gray’s Best will know that I especially appreciate thoughtful redesigns of essential gear that is easily taken for granted. Case in point, hooks and their packaging. Stealth has reimagined fly tying hooks, how to produce them, how to select them, and how to store them.
Its wet and dry fly systems ($150 and $95, respectively) start with hook “vaults,” larger vessels organized with a slotted foam insert that can hold 16 boxes. Each box contains a magnetized dish that holds 25 high-quality hooks. These hooks fall into one of three categories: D for dry flies, N for nymphs and streamers, and C for curved hooks that imitate scuds or emergers. That’s it. No confusing numbers or complicated codes.
The inside cover of the “vault” features a printout showing which hooks (and sizes) are appropriate for imitating which aquatic insects. It’s all clear and user-friendly. The hooks themselves come in a black finish, which Stealth designers claim helps to fool finicky fish. I can’t attest to that one way or the other, but I can say that the hooks are wicked sharp out of the box and hold up well. www.stealth.fish
[by Terry Wieland]
Mauser M 18
There are three key things to look at when assessing a new rifle: ergonomics, price, and accuracy. Mauser’s new M18 ($699) scores very high on accuracy, its ergonomic qualities are excellent, and its price is almost unbelievable.
The M18 bolt action follows in the tradition of the Mauser 98, but with such modern features as a three-lug, low-lift bolt and a trigger-block safety. The latter, however, is three-position, meaning you can unload the chamber without moving the safety to “fire” and have a third position where the trigger is blocked and the bolt is locked closed. Mauser achieves that partly by fitting it with a composite stock rather than wood and dispensing with open sights, which are almost an anachronism these days anyway. A Mauser detachable scope mount is available, and it’s outstanding.
Out of the box, this is one of the most accurate rifles I have ever encountered, and it has an absolutely superb trigger. Other innovative features include a detachable recoil pad, which allows storage of small items like a pull-through; a detachable polymer box magazine that outwardly resembles the traditional Mauser; a trigger guard that is integral with the stock, eliminating the need for a floorplate; soft rubber inserts in the polymer stock to give a firm, comfortable grip.
Because of the price, Mauser styles the M18 as the “People’s Rifle.” Considering its low price and high quality, it could also be termed “Everyman’s Rifle.” www.mauser.com
GPO Passion 3x3–9x42 Riflescope
GPO stands for German Precision Optics, a company founded several years ago by a group of senior German optics executives with the goal of combining German technology and production standards with Far Eastern precision and low-cost production. “Design, engineering, and quality control” are all done in Germany.
The American branch is headed by Mike Jensen, and few industry executives know American hunting (and hunters) as well as he does. The result is a line of riflescopes and binoculars that look German and perform as if they were German, but seem to be missing a few digits from the price.
The 3X line is not extensive—yet—but consists of the eminently useful (but neglected of late) one-inch scopes. Among these is the one I would nominate as the single best for most hunting situations: 3–9 x 42. It lists at $400, astonishingly inexpensive by today’s German optics standards. Some would call it “no frills,” but a better description would be “no unnecessary impediments.”
Waterproof and shock-proof with a Plex reticle, positive but easy adjustments, and excellent optical quality, this is the kind of scope you want to buy a few of, just so you always have one available. At the same time, the scope is missing nothing essential, including focus adjustment on the ocular bell and long eye relief for use on rifles with heavy recoil. GPO’s top executives are not only optics experts but also hunters and shooters, and it shows. This scope is the company’s “work - horse.” Who could disagree? www.gp-optics.com
Steyr-Mannlicher Zephyr II
Back in the 1960s, before inflation changed the rifle world, Steyr produced a high-quality .22 rimfire called the Zephyr. It combined the best steel, genuine walnut, nice styling, and Steyr’s incomparable Austrian craftsmanship to produce a real rifle, for serious riflemen. The Zephyr disappeared from the American market around 1971, as European labor costs drove prices out of sight. At the same time, American .22s generally evolved into cheap, undersized guns aimed at the “kids and paupers” market.
Now, Steyr has returned with the Zephyr II, a bolt-action sporting rifle, elegantly styled in steel and walnut, put together using Steyr’s modern CNC machinery and an Austrian eye for quality. Among the Zephyr’s virtues are a trigger rarely found these days even on quality centerfire rifles, much less .22s, unless they are out-and-out target rifles.
It’s a military-style two-stage trigger with a crisp release but is adjustable to shorten or even eliminate the initial take-up, according to preference. It has a five-shot, detachable polymer clip. The walnut stock is modern Teutonic, with a Bavarian cheekpiece and Schnäbel forend; instead of checkering, there is laser-cut fish-scale pattern on grip and forend. Overall styling is similar to recent sporting rifles from Steyr.
At a list price of $995, the Zephyr II is not cheap, but everyone should have one really good .22 on the rack. This may be it. www.steyrarms.com
Revelation Shotgun from CSMC
It is safe to say that no American gunmaking company knows more about fine shotguns than Tony Galazan and his Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company (CSMC). Over the past few years, Galazan has produced ground-breaking guns such as the A-10 American (an over-and-under with detachable sidelocks) and the less expensive boxlock Inverness.
Now, Galazan has produced an over-and-under aimed directly at the starter-gun market— the aptly named Revelation ($1,995). In the past, there have been fine, well-balanced O/Us, and there have been inexpensive O/Us, but never the twain have met—until now.
First, the price: Over-and-unders do not come much less expensive. Now the specs: It’s a 20-gauge, with a straight grip, slim forend, and 30-inch barrels, weighing just 6 pounds 6 ounces. Combined with its sleek, rounded boxlock action, this is a recipe for a sweet-handling gun with the feel of much more expensive over-and-unders. It may not be a Boss or a Woodward, but it is far closer than anyone else has achieved at such a price in a hundred years.
The Revelation is also available with a pistol grip and shorter barrels, but in the above Gray’s Best configuration, it is a gun like no other ever made in this country. Upgraded wood (as you see here) is the only extra cost, adding $350 to the base price. www.connecticutshotgun.com
[by Russ Lumpkin]
Dubarry Mayfly Gilet
Few garments make the transition from the field to social gathering more handsomely than something in waxed cotton. That’s especially true for the Mayfly Gilet ($239) from Dubarry of Ireland.
Genuine leather trim, tastefully placed around the garment, and brass buttons accentuate the vest’s rugged good looks. On the inside, the vest is packed with a bit of PrimaLoft for added warmth, and even the lining is handsome. It’s also capable of more than just providing warmth on a cool day—it withstands the clinging vines and brushes with limbs that are inevitable in the woods. Some abrasion against cured oak splits also helps bring out the goodness in the Mayfly.
Further, this vest wasn’t just thrown together with materials that look good—the outer seams are double-stitched for durability. The waxed-cotton outer shell is enhanced with a water repellent finish. In short, the Mayfly is constructed to be rugged, used in the woods, and worn in upland coverts every chance you get. That it appears as if it were made simply to impress friends at holiday gatherings is a bonus. The Mayfly Gilet is available in olive and cigar colors. www.dubarry.us
Le Chameau Chameau-Lite LCX
The Chameau Lites hit the market standing on the shoulders of giants—Le Chameau’s Chasseur leather-lined rubber boots have a reputation that ranks among the highest of any product in the hunting industry. So straight from the box, minus any breaking-in period, I wore the Chameau-Lite LCX boots ($469) for two days in the grouse coverts of Minnesota. I walked through wet grass and over muddy ground, and crossed running and standing water. I covered 23 miles, and my feet remained not only dry but also blister-free.
Since that day in the Land of Lakes, I’ve worn the Lites on hard hikes and long stalks, including 15 miles in the Scottish Highlands. The conditions these boots have endured prove the quality of their fabrication, right down to the Michelin rubber used to construct the sole. The upper is a combination of nubuck and leather that looks better with wear. On the inside, LCX, Le Chameau’s five-layer waterproof and breathable membrane, lines the boot and keeps your feet comfortable.
As much as I enjoy wearing the boot, I really enjoy putting them on. They invite your feet in and demand to be laced up and worn—and worn hard. Given such durability and comfort, you might be surprised to learn that the pair of 10-inch boots weighs only 3 1/3 pounds. They might be “lite,” but these boots are heavyweights. www.lechameau.com/us
Avedon and Colby Signature Field Shirt
Recently, while wading a bonefish flat, I realized that I had forgotten to wear a Buff to cover the back of my neck. Fortunately, I was wearing the Avedon and Colby Signature Field Shirt ($198). Now, this shirt has a lot of features—a mesh lining in the back to help expedite moisture wicking, high-quality buttons that are designed with a raised rim to prevent nicking the material, and I could go on—but I employed the extended, flip-up collar, which protected my neck from the sun and played a big role in my comfort that day. Similar to the corrosion-resistant brass zippers employed in a hidden pocket, the collar is a great example of the thinking that has gone into the engineering of this garment.
Despite its name, the Field Shirt is marketed as the “ultimate bonefishing shirt,” and the long-staple linen is very breathable and helps the piece live up to that billing. I’ve found it’s also quite comfortable for early-season dove shoots. The Field Shirt is not so quick-drying as today’s high-tech synthetics, but I find some of those shirts to be uncomfortable if you wore them anywhere other than the flats. And sometimes, there’s just something really satisfying about wearing a garment made of traditional fabric that has been fulfilling a specific purpose for centuries. www.avedoncolby.com
First Lite Men’s Kiln Quarter Zip
The market offers an array of base-layer options, many of them first rate and manufactured by companies known the world over. So it’s nice when a small American company, run by hunters, produces a line of apparel that is among the very best.
My favorite aspect of First Lite’s Kiln Quarter Zip pullover ($110) is the fit. The seams across the shoulders, arms, and sides are a little offset compared to traditional cuts and give the feel of a seamless garment that fits perfectly and not too snug. Further, with 95 percent merino wool, the pullover rests against the skin without irritation and naturally wicks away the perspiration that can make enduring cold-weather situations miserable or worse. The other 5 percent of the garment is spandex, so the whole piece moves with you like an additional layer of skin. It’s a good insulating base layer on cold mornings and perfect by itself when there’s only a slight chill.
The Kiln line includes matching long johns, which can keep you warm on a deer stand or beneath waders during a cold day on the water. Other offerings in the line include a crew shirt and a hoodie. Kiln garments are offered in two varieties of camo—First Lite’s Cipher and Fusion patterns—or three different hunter-friendly colors. There’s also a Kiln line for women. www.firstlite.com
We'll be rolling out our entire Gray's Best gear selection over the coming days. Stay tuned for our Shooting, Apparel, and Accessories category selections.