When we first did the Best of the Best Awards in 1998, no one knew how they would be received. The idea was simple: To choose items that “F&S editors found…can make all the difference.” But would they make a difference to you, the reader? The answer was a resounding yes, and we have been presenting these awards every year since.
In 2005, seven field editors did the tests, selecting gear they considered special. They used it, compared it with competitive products, then sent it to F&S’s offices, where the New York editors weighed in.
Here, you’ll read what we consider to be the best gear introduced this year. The following 22 items all performed up to expectations and, in many cases, beyond. Their prices are reasonable and fair. Their designs are well thought out. And their usefulness to sportsmen is unparalleled.
Federal Premium Vital-Shok TruBall Rifled Slug
This new line from Federal redefines Foster slug accuracy. I had no trouble shooting 2-inch groups at 50 yards with 12-gauge TruBall slugs in a smoothbore.(Most Foster slugs won’t group tighter than 4 inches at 50 yards.) What’s the secret? A little plastic ball–which fits into the TruBall’s hollow base and sits in a dimple on the wad–keeps the slug centered in the bore as it expands upon firing. The ball also helps the wad and slug separate cleanly as they exit the muzzle.
TruBalls are real tack-drivers by slug standards. What’s more, you get this revolutionary accuracy for only a dollar more per box than traditional Fosters. They come in 12-and 20-gauge and 12-gauge low-recoil versions. $5 per box of 5; 800-322-2342; federalcartridge.com
Winchester .325 Short Magnum
Battalions of shortfats have been introduced in the past few years, and everyone assumed that the next Winchester addition would be a .338 shortfat. Wrong. Winchester Western ballisticians concluded that if they wanted to design something bigger than .30 caliber, then it should be a .32. Thus, the .325 was born.
The .325 is an efficient cartridge that throws medium-weight bullets at very respectable velocities. W/W offers a 180-grain Ballistic Silvertip at 3000 fps, a 200-grain AccuBond CT at 2900, and a 220-grain Power-Point at 2800. If W/W comes up with a 220-grain Fail Safe loading, that will transform a highly useful cartridge into a truly formidable one. $37-$53 per box of 20; 618-258-2000; winchester.com
Designed for nearshore saltwater use, the Torsa has big, tough gearing, all nestled in a machined-aluminum frame, which produces unreal cranking power and gives room for a huge drag to tame everything from stripers to tuna. The lever-drag system allows you to use eight interchangeable cams that tune the reel for specific fish.
Four models range in size from the TS16N (narrow spool, 28.6 ounces, 300 yards of 14-pound mono) to the TS30 (31.1 ounces, 420 yards of 25-pound mono). All have 5.8: 1 gear ratios and adjustable centrifugal cast controls. It’s a top-of-the-line reel in every respect. $670-$700; 877-577-0600; shimano.com
The list of the Viento’s premium features is headed by a Twitchin’ Bar, which lets you retrieve short lengths of line without cranking the handle. Thumbing the bar once slowly retrieves 4 inches of line–ideal for twitching.
Other features include six ball bearings, a solid anti-reverse, Mag-force antibacklash control, a rigid aluminum frame, a fast 6.3: 1 gear ratio, and an easily controlled perforated spool. At 8.3 ounces and holding 100 yards of 14-pound-test nylon, the Viento is light, and the price is right. $200; 562-802-9589; daiwa.com
Greenhead Gear Full-Body Mallards With Real Motion Bases
Making decoys that look real is difficult, and having them move like live ducks is a major accomplishment. Greenhead Gear succeeds on both counts with its full-body mallards. They come in feeding and active styles, with swiveling heads for different poses.
The Real Motion base puts the waddle in the decoy’s walk. Setup is simple. The base consists of a ring of wire and an upright post, and a plastic cone is screwed to the under-side of the duck’s back. Put the ring on the ground, set the cone on the post, and you’re ready. Even the slightest breeze seems to breathe life into these decoys. $90 per half dozen; 800-333-5119; averyoutdoors.com
Rivers West Ambush Fleece Jacket
It’s not the way this jacket is cut or the long list of smart features that sets it apart from other garments. The key is in the waterproofing. Rivers West uses a proprietary membrane and stretchable exterior fabric that blocks water for as long as you stay outside.
Unlike other garments that are breathable and waterproof, the seams are not taped; they are sealed with an immersible thread that’s guaranteed not to fail. The fleece is ultraquiet at 60 or minus 10 degrees, and I have yet to puncture it. This is the first waterproof-breathable fleece that I would take to Alaska as a primary coat. Even if it rained for three days straight, I would still be bone-dry–it’s that impressive. $200; 800-683-0887; riverswest.com
Ruger Gold Label
This side-by-side shotgun is a new American classic with English lines. Patterned after the round-action guns of John Dickson, the Gold Label is wonderfully slim and light. At 6½ pounds with 28-inch barrels, this 12-gauge is lighter and trimmer than many 20-gauges.
I found the Gold Label easy to shoot well. It has just that smidgen of muzzle heaviness that makes a light gun swing smoothly through a target. The straight grip and splinter forearm keep the gun so low in your hands that it points like a sixth finger. It handles like a British best but sells for a price that many ordinary uplanders can afford.
The Gold Label was announced in 2002, but production problems kept it from dealer shelves until this year. $2,000; 928-541-8820; ruger.com
Anyone who can learn to speak Finnish must be pretty clever, so it should be no surprise that the people at Sako came up with the idea of a rimfire rifle with interchangeable barrels. The gun comes in .22 LR, .22 WMR, .17 HMR, or .17 Mach 2, or you can get all four as a set. Swapping barrels is so simple that I figured it out without even reading the directions.
The Quad is a racy-looking synthetic-stocked rifle with an excellent trigger, 50-degree bolt lift, and color-coded barrels so you can tell one caliber from another. Accuracy is outstanding. Quads are expected to turn in ¾-inch groups at 100 yards at the factory. $948 for one caliber; $1,739 for four-barrel set; 800-636-3420; beretta.com
Rocky Revolver Hunting Boots
Slip your feet inside these boots, turn the dial, and in two seconds they’ll fit you. Instead of laces, they use an innovative cable system that will not stretch, break, or freeze shut. An easy-to-grip dial engages the cable, tightening the entire boot in tiny increments. And there are no laces to come annoyingly untied. To remove, you push on the center of the dial to release the lock. The Revolvers won’t win any beauty contests, but they provide a practical solution for getting boots on and off quickly and easily. $158; 740-753-1951; rockyboots.com
Cabela’s Ultralight Extreme Hunter 4000
The Ultralight Hunter is made for those of us who need enough pack to haul camp in and meat out. Weighing under 5 pounds, it represents one of the first forays by a hunting-pack manufacturer into the ultralight craze that has revolutionized backpacking. But how would this 4,000-cubic-inch-capacity pack stand up to a 26-mile expedition in Montana’s Beartooth Wilderness, where its papery fabric would have to tote a week’s worth of gear at 10,000 feet? Very well, indeed, and the waterproof zippers lived up to their billing. With its cargo and spotting scope pockets removed, it also served double duty as a roomy daypack. $200; 800-237-4444; cabelas.com
The 33-inch-long Switchback is quiet, easy to maneuver, and screaming fast, with an IBO speed rating of 318 fps. It draws smooth as silk and has all of Mathews’ patented features, including its new Straightline Cobra Cam, V-Lock zero-tolerance limb cup system, new Double Damper roller guard, harmonic damping system, string suppressors, ball-bearing idler wheel, short parallel limbs, and new no-stretch Zebra Barracuda bowstring. $769; 608-269-2728; mathewsinc.com
Simms Hard-Bottom Roller Bag
Having schlepped piles of gear for more than four decades of travel, I hereby pronounce Simms’ Hard-Bottom Roller Bag to be the best piece of fishing luggage ever designed.
The 34x16x13-inch bag has big 3½-inch wheels that handle boat docks and sidewalks. Designed to remain upright when tilted on end, it has an extendable handle for easy hauling. Its lower half–enclosed by the molded hard bottom–has a protected compartment that can hold half a dozen multipiece rods, up to a four-piece 9½-footer. The storage area is so rigid that I’ve carried rods in their cloth bags without metal tubes, which saves space. Another large bottom section is sized to fit wading boots, and a third takes your vest, waders, and other gear. The soft upper portion has two clear-covered expanding sections that hold clothing. $300; 866-585-3570; simmsfishing.com
CVA Kodiak Pro 209 Magnum
This past spring I spent a week pounding across the dry foothills of the Argentine Andes on horseback. When it came time to make the shot, the new CVA in-line performed perfectly, and a trophy red stag was mine. Here CVA has given its popular patent-pending pivoting block action–which uses shotgun primer ignition–another improvement by adding a 29-inch fluted barrel drilled and tapped for scope mounts with all-metal DuraBright fiber-optic sights. It comes in blued and stainless-steel finishes. The ambidextrous, semisolid stock comes with a Quake Claw sling and a CrushZone recoil pad. Both .45 and .50 calibers are available. $333-$440; 770-449-4687; www.cva.com
I hunt where using sabot-encased bullets for muzzleloader hunting is illegal. This isn’t a problem now that I use PowerBelt bullets. Because they are .001 inch under bore, and the pliable plastic base is slightly over bore, the assembly loads easily and fits tightly over the powder. That, combined with a gas seal that eliminates blowby, yields consistent pressures and high velocities. Copper cladding on some PowerBelts reduces friction in the bore, further increasing velocity. The base also protects the tail of the bullet from flame cutting. Performance on game is awesome. In .45, .50, and .54 calibers. $12-$19; 800-376-4010; powerbeltbullets.com
Leupold Golden Ring
In the past, Leupold has offered excellent binoculars in the mid-price range, but never at the top levels of binocular-dom. Well, meet the Golden Ring, which is (a) brown; (b) in the $1,000 bracket; and (c) superb.
I used a pair on a prairie dog hunt last June and was struck by the fact that they are not as light (29.5 ounces) as other new glasses that go for similar money. A company rep explained that Leupold went for optical quality above all else, and that there are 22 lenses in each instrument (a “glass-rich design,” he called it). Why brown? “To be distinctive.”
They are waterproof, optically and mechanically excellent, and backed by Leupold’s wonderful service and warranty system. $950 for 8×42; $1,000 for 10×42; 503-526-1400; leupold.com
In 1987 the Elite binocular was the first to break the $1,000 barrier, and it was thought that sales would be limited. But when hunters got a look at how good these glasses were, they came up with the money fast.
At 23 ounces for the 8X model, these new Elites are lighter than their fore-bears. They are waterproof and incorporate every refinement in the way of lens and prism coatings for high light transmission and superior resolution. What sets them apart for hunters is the Rainguard coating on the exterior lenses, which means you can use them in a downpour. $950 for 8×43; $1,000 for 10×43; 800-423-3537; bushnell.com
Zeiss Victory 32 T* FL
Made in 8×32 and 10×32, this new glass is about as small and light (both models weigh 19 ounces) as is possible for a full-size binocular. The weight savings is achieved through the use of a glass-fiber-reinforced polyamide casing. Optically, the Victory is gorgeous, due in part to the objective lenses being made from fluorite glass, which is rarely found in binoculars because of its cost but offers superb optical quality. These binoculars are so bright that they give away nothing to larger, heavier 42mm models. $1,400; 800-441-3005; zeiss.com/sports
Minn Kota Maxxum Pro
Heavy lifting to haul up a bow-mounted electric trolling motor is history with Minn Kota’s new Lift-Assist mechanism. The trick: When you stow and deploy the powerful Maxxum Pro with the rope that comes with it, a gas-charged spring similar to that on a truck’s tailgate cuts the motor’s weight in half, reducing fatigue and saving potential missteps when you’re on the bow in rough water. The Maxxum Pro comes in two sizes, with a choice of shaft lengths, one for boats under 20 feet (24 volts, 80-pound thrust) and one with more juice for heftier craft reaching the mid-20s (36 volts, 101-pound thrust). The new models go down–and up–easily and safely, with abundant power for positioning in wind and current. $900-$1,080; 800-227-6433; www.minnkotamotors.com
Wheeler Engineering Deluxe Gunsmith Screwdriver Set
Wheeler actually hired a gunsmith to take the dimensions of all the screw-head sizes commonly used in guns (can you imagine anything more boring?), and it paid off. There are 54 flat-ground bits, eight Allen bits, four Phillips bits, and three Torx bits, and they all fit perfectly.
The handle is even better. Molded in place, it has some give and allows you to apply great force while retaining excellent “feel,” so you don’t twist the heads off fragile screws. For gunsmiths, there is a Professional Set ($105) with 17 additional specialty bits and tools. This is the best screwdriver set I’ve ever used. $75; 877-509-9160; www.battenfeldtechnologies.com
Water Strider Kick Boat
Here is the answer for the globe-trotting angler: a boat that weighs so little (17½ pounds; 28½ with oars, pump, and carry bag) that you can pack it on a bicycle, check it as luggage at the airport, drop it out of a floatplane, and then pump it up bankside to run Class III water down any river on earth–all while carrying gear for a monthlong expedition (it has a load capacity of 515 pounds). Using fins, you can also maneuver the 92×42-inch inflatable into tight fishing spots. $1,395; 406-375-0251; waterstrider.com
Suzuki 700 King Quad
On a test run in Canada, I submarined a 700 in a mudhole multiple times all the way up to the handlebars, and it never stalled, sputtered, or got stuck. All I did was clean off the radiator and then drove it hard for another 60 miles without a misfire. This ATV has fuel injection, a differential lock, excellent brakes, and an impressive downhill engine braking system. It also has exceptionally low vibration.
The King Quad is fast, has good low-end power, and comes with a 2-inch receiver that allows you to tow up to 992 pounds. This machine is a true work-horse, but it’s so easy to handle that even an inexperienced rider will feel comfortable on it. $7,300; 800-828-7433; suzukicycles.com
Pirelli Rut Buster Tire
Last summer I tested a new quad that came with an “upgraded” puncture-resistant tire that six out of 14 pro riders managed to flatten in one day. A month later, during a test in comparable conditions with many of the same aggressive drivers, we sought out every jagged rock and pointy root and not one of us could puncture a Pirelli Rut Buster. The four-wheelers didn’t slide sideways, and they stuck to every hard surface. I was very impressed with their handling in the muck, especially since they’re not mud tires.
Besides being tough, they grip well on rocks and stay tight in turns. These are the best general-use ATV tires I’ve ridden to date. $35-$75, depending on size; 800-747-3554; us.pirellimoto.com
AMMO 160, 168 REELS 161 DECOYS 162 OUTERWEAR 163 FIREARMS 164 BOOTS 165 BOW & PACK 166 LUGGAGE 167 MUZZLELOADER 168 BINOCULARS 169 TROLLING MOTOR 170 TOOLS 171 RAFT 172 ATV & TIRE 173