June 24, 2014
One of the most underrated tools in the outdoorsman’s bag is the flashlight. If you asked 50 hunters to come up with a list of “must have” items for the hunter’s pack, it’s a fair bet 25 of them will completely overlook the flashlight. I don’t think that’s because folks don’t think it’s an important tool, but because it’s so ubiquitous they just tend to take it for granted. For my part, any time I’m more than an hour or two from the truck, I like to have at least two flashlights, as well as spare batteries. But even when I’m hunting within sight of the house, I seldom get into the stand without a light in my pocket.
It’s not because I’m scared of the dark. I’m not.
And it’s not so much because I can’t find my way out of the woods at night without a light. The truth is that I prefer to hike without a light in the dark whenever there’s the faintest bit of ambient light. It’s easier on my eyes and gives me a good bit more peripheral vision. But sometimes, especially in thick cover or cloudy, moonless nights, it’s just so dark that it’s unsafe to try to navigate the brush, rocks, and ravines without some light to guide the way.
More important to me, though, is the availability of a good light to find game after the shot. I don’t care how good your night vision might be, it’s not good enough to let you follow a blood trail in the dark. Without a light, you can’t read the sign to see if the animal is wandering, dragging a limb, or hiding in a thick pile of brush just off the trail. And for this kind of work, the brighter and cleaner the beam, the better off you are.
Flashlights have evolved drastically, even in my own lifetime. Modern lights with concentrated power and LED bulbs are simply miles ahead of the old aluminum-cased, glass lensed, torches we used to use. They’ve not only gained power, but they’ve grown smaller as well to be more compact and portable. I’ve got three-ounce headlamps that put out more light than my old 6-volt Boy Scout lantern ever dreamed of, and palm-sized handhelds that rival the old Q-beam spotlight for intensity and range.
In a lot of ways, we have the tactical market to thank for turning out some pretty amazing flashlights. The requirements of the battlefield or law enforcement situations mean that these lights are strong, weatherproof, and durable. They are bright enough to disable a close-up opponent or to light up the field for a couple hundred yards.
The folks at Olympia Products have pulled all of these advances together to create the RG850 flashlight. I was fortunate enough to receive one of these lights for review recently, and while there are still some things that only time will tell, my initial impressions have been pretty favorable. Let’s look at a few key criteria:
- Brightness – The RG850 is named for the 850 lumens it produces at full power. Now I don’t have a testing lab or any of that fancy equipment to verify that I’m really getting that sort of output, but I can tell you that this light is one of the brightest handhelds I’ve ever used. I also realize that lumens aren’t the only measure of light quality. There are other aspects, such as color and clarity that determine the value of a flashlight’s beam. I’m not the kind of expert who could provide an empirical analysis, but with my own eyes I can definitively say that this light is more than enough to light up a blood trail… even on medium power (there are three power levels and two blink modes). I flashed it out across the pasture on a recent cloudy night and was easily able to see jackrabbits over 100 yards away… not just their eyes, but the entire rabbit.
- Size – With the battery in place and the wrist lanyard attached, the RG850 weighs in at six ounces on my kitchen scale. Considering the heavy-duty construction of this light, I think that’s plenty reasonable. There are lighter flashlights on the market, but this one seems to be on par with most others in this class. I wouldn’t want to hold this one in my teeth for an extended period (e.g. field dressing a hog in the dark), but it certainly isn’t any burden to carry in my hand or drop in the pack.
- Durability – I haven’t tried driving nails with the RG850, and I haven’t backed the truck over it or dropped it in the river. They only sent one to review, and I’d hate to destroy it because I like it so much. At the same time, just based on the feel and the specs, the light is tough enough to meet with any hunter’s demands. The moving sections (the lens cap and tail cap) are waterproofed with O-rings, and the packaging even comes with spares in case you need them. I have dropped the unit a couple of times, but most modern lights can withstand that sort of abuse anyway. The specs say the unit is waterproof to two meters, so I probably wouldn’t use this as a dive light, but at the same time, that should be more than sufficient for the occasional dunk in the duck marsh or mountain stream.
- Battery life – One of the drawbacks to the super-powered flashlights is the intense drain on batteries. The RG850 is supposed to give a little over an hour of service at its highest setting. At the medium setting (appx. 360 lumens), it should provide about three hours of light. On the lowest setting, which provides about 20 lumens (enough to keep you from running into trees on a dark trail), you should expect about 65 hours. Of course, all of these averages are going to be impacted by how you use the light… either sporadically flashing it to see specific things or continuous use. I haven’t used it long enough to run it down yet, but I see no reason to doubt the advertised numbers. The cool thing is, though, that the RG850 is rechargeable. Even cooler is that you can recharge it from anything with a USB port. The package includes a USB cable and an adaptor for 110v household outlets, but if you have a USB port in your vehicle, or a cigarette lighter plug with a USB port, you can charge the flashlight in your vehicle. Of course you could also use any of the solar charging solutions on the market as well, if you’re way out past where the powerlines end.
The downside to being rechargeable, of course, is that you can’t replace the battery with a standard AA. It comes with an 18650 NiMH battery, and I suppose you could pick up a spare to keep in your pack, but in general, the fact that you need a recharging source suggests that the RG850 is best suited for work closer to home. On an extended, backcountry trip I believe I would choose to carry a couple of old-fashioned, battery-powered lights instead.
- Cost – I list this last, although it is certainly a priority to a lot of people. The RG850 has a suggested retail price of $89.99 (actual store prices will vary… often a bit lower). For a light of this quality, that’s not cheap, but it certainly doesn’t put it in the neighborhood of the Surefires or some other high-end tactical lights. Still, 90 bucks is a lot of money for a flashlight. Is it worth it? I can’t honestly answer that just now. Give me a year or so to put this thing through normal use, and if it’s still holding up, then we’ll talk about value.
Overall, in case you didn’t gather, I’m pretty pleased with this light. It’s found a pretty regular spot in my bedside table where it’s close at hand for any nighttime emergency… or if I want to light up the rabbits in the pasture and thin their numbers on a dark night. I haven’t used it on a blood trail yet, of course, but I have no doubt it will serve that purpose very well. It is a little pricey, but it’s very competitive with other lights in the same niche. If that’s the sort of thing you’re in the market for, I’d definitely give it a look.
March 24, 2014
Several years ago, at the SHOT Show, someone came up to me and gave me a thimble-sized, bell-shaped bundle of neoprene with a clip on one end, and something stuffed into the bell opening on the other end. I fiddled with it for a second and pulled out a square of microfiber lens cloth that was attached by a corner to the bell. I realized immediately, that I could clip one of these little guys onto my binoculars or my camera strap, and always have a good lens cloth right at my fingertips. “Wow,” thought I. “This is kind of handy. I wish I’d thought of it.”
And that was my introduction to Spudz, an innovative little gizmo from Alpine Innovations. Since that day, I’ve got Spudz hooked to my camera strap, my binocular case, my video camera, and a spare in the console of the Tactical Vehicle (my truck). I’ve given them away to friends and clients, and had more than one envious glance from other hunters when I wouldn’t part with my last one. They’re proof to the cliché… sometimes great things do come in small packages.
Of course, a company with “Innovations” in its name isn’t likely to sit back on its laurels, and nobody is going to get rich selling lens cloths… no matter how cool they are. They’ve been steadily cranking out cool new products for all sorts of applications, from hunting and fishing to golf and photography, and even electronics. The Spudz line has now expanded to include a kit with a little tube of defogger, and another kit with a tube of lens cleaner included. There are even big Spudz for cleaning the screen of your computer or tablet.
They do other stuff too, and while I was at SHOT this past January, I had the opportunity to stop by the Alpine Innovations booth and see what’s new. I poked around at the variations on Spudz until one of the reps got a chance to show me around. There’s a lot you can do with neoprene, and while it’s not an entirely original concept, the guys at Alpine had come up with a line of protective “slickers” for outdoor gear, including scopes, spotting scopes, and even the whole rifle. They have a line for archery equipment as well.
I expressed my appreciation and dropped off a card. Sure enough, a few weeks after the show I got an email asking for my mailing address, and not long after that I received samples of the Cambow bow sling, and a Gun Slicker for scoped rifles to try out and review.
Now bow slings aren’t any new thing. I’ve been using one that covers the cams and the strings of my Mathews for several years now. But the advertised feature for the Cambow is that you can shoot while the sling is attached. I’m not a tech-head when it comes to compound bows, and I’ll admit that I am very hesitant to do anything that might impede the normal operation of my bow. Every little thing is important, at least as far as I understand, so I was a little skeptical about the Cambow. So I had to try it out.
Once I figured out how to adjust the Cambow sling and get it on properly (my demo unit came with no instructions), I really couldn’t figure out how you’re supposed to shoot without removing the sling. Fortunately, there’s a YouTube video for that.
In fact, Alpine has a whole channel of videos about their products.
So it turns out, the sling actually detaches from the top of the bow and hangs from the lower limb while you shoot. I took a few shots out back, and it didn’t really seem to impact accuracy or performance. However, be careful. If you get a little excited after the shot like I do, it’s easy to step on the hanging sling and trip yourself up. Apparently, it’s not that hard to do even if you’re not excited, as I learned in the back yard. Fortunately, I’d chosen not to make this a video gear review.
Seriously, though, I can see the value in keeping the sling attached to the bow after the shot. My other sling (by another manufacturer) is designed to pop off quickly, but once it comes loose I have to either stow it or toss it on the ground where it’s likely to get lost. In fact, I’ve almost left it on the woods more than once after a stalk.
Overall, the Cambow sling is useful and does what it’s advertised to do. At around $25, it’s not expensive, and having a sling on the bow to free up your hands for those long hikes is an awful handy thing.
The Gun Slicker is a gun cover (think gun sock), more or less, that slips over the rifle. The muzzle goes up into the cover, while the bottom of the gun is exposed. This allows you to sling the rifle and keep it covered, which is something the basic gun socks don’t do.
Once the Slicker is over the rifle, a draw string allows you to pull it tight and achieve something of a snug fit. I was a little worried when I pulled it tight over my Savage because I had to pull pretty hard to snug it down. But the cord cinched up like it was supposed to, and the locking tab held just fine.
This thing is big, by the way. It would easily cover any scoped rifle, and I expect it would fit over a fully-dressed AR if that were your thing (I don’t have one, so I didn’t try it).
I can’t tell you much about the durability or the foul weather performance of the Slicker, because I haven’t really had an opportunity to get out and test that sort of thing (a recent hog hunt got cancelled). However, the slicker is well made with solid fabric that should hold up to the general kind of use you’d expect from field equipment. I would have no doubts hauling it around the Rockies on a wet, snowy elk hunt, or carrying it through the chaparral on a CA hog hunt.
Of course, just making a gun cover isn’t enough for a company like Alpine Innovations. They had to do something different… something to add their special touch. The Gun Slicker is packable, and folds into an attached, drawstring-closed bag. The result is a handy, reasonably small (5 oz.) bundle that would easily stow inside a day pack. It has a nice little carabiner clip as well, so it can be attached to a pack, saddle, or belt.
Overall, I think the Gun Slicker is exactly the kind of thing I’d expect from Alpine. It’s convenient, it works, and it’s inexpensive (under $30).
December 16, 2013
Fair warning… I’m on holiday this week and probably won’t be paying much attention to the blog. Posts will be scarce, and it’s likely that I won’t be responding to comments. You’ll have to hold down the fort yourselves.
So anyway, it’s a little late for Christmas shopping, but if you’re like me, you’re always late… so what’s new? If you’re a little stumped on ideas, I’ve got a couple of thoughts.
Browning Hog Hunter knife – The road to hell… well, we know what it’s paved with. The good folks representing Browning sent me one of these knives a little while back, when they were still pretty new and I was just getting settled into my Texas home. I had every intention of putting it right to work, since Texas is notoriously crawling with hogs, and chasing them down with hounds to kill them with a knife is as commonplace as waving at other drivers on the highway. Except, well, I apparently picked the only place in Texas that isn’t crawling with hogs, and finding someone to hunt with isn’t all that easy either. Most folks around here just shoot them, often right off the back porch.
Bottom line… the knife never got out of the house. Worse, it got shuffled around while I was working on the place and didn’t resurface for months. But here it is now, in the box and looking as lethally cool as any other knife I own. And it is a really nice looking knife. It feels nice in the hand as well.
I can’t speak from tons of experience stabbing hogs (I’ve killed one with a Ka-Bar and finished a wounded one with my Buck 110), but I’m pretty sure the Browning Hog Hunter will get the job done nicely. The seven-inch blade is plenty long enough to reach the heart of the biggest boar while still handy enough to be safely managed with the dogs and handlers in close proximity. The spear point is slightly dropped to enhance piercing penetration, and the edge is wicked sharp. The finger grooves on the synthetic rubber grip allow you to get a good hold on the knife, which is critical when you go in for the killing blow.
Suggested retail on the Hog Hunter is about $72, which isn’t bad for a knife that’s both nice to look at and functional.
Morakniv Bushcraft – For a more utilitarian knife… something suitable for skinning that hog, or for cutting tent stakes, you could do much worse than the Morakniv Bushcraft.
The Bushcraft is a solidly built knife that is sturdy enough for almost any camp or backcountry use you might want to put it to. It’s also sharp, and it tends to stay that way when you’re using it. I spent a day in the skinning shed trying this knife out and I came away pretty well impressed… especially considering the suggested retail price of $34.99.
A big selling point for me was the fact that this knife comes in brilliant, blaze orange. Every hunter I know has, at some point, lost (or nearly lost) a knife in the field, simply by virtue of laying it aside for a moment. The traditional brown or green handles and sheathes are guaranteed to blend into the background at the worst possible moment, especially in the dark. I can’t understand why every knife manufacturer doesn’t offer something in blaze orange… unless maybe it’s because if hunters keep losing their knives, they’ll have to come buy more.
Winchester Razorback XT Ammo – If the hunter on your list would prefer to shoot his hogs instead of stabbing them, it’s always nice to find a box or two of ammo in the stocking on Christmas morning. There are a lot of great options out there, but I was recently impressed by the performance of Winchester’s relatively new, Razorback XT in my .44 magnum.
First of all, the Razorback handgun and rifle ammo is lead-free, which makes it legal for CA as well as a good choice for the hunter who is concerned about his impact on non-target wildlife. The .44 totes a 225gr, beveled, hollow-point bullet that leaves the muzzle at about 1250 fps. It packs a wallop as I saw first hand when I had to finish a slightly wounded whitetail.
Another interesting thing about the Razorback is that it’s loaded with a flash-suppressed powder. When I first used this ammo in Georgia, we were shooting hogs at night, and that’s really what this load is all about. Reducing muzzle flash helps protect the shooter’s night vision, so you can stay on target for follow-up shots. To be honest, on that Georgia trip I don’t really recall the muzzle flash because when we finally got our chance to shoot, the action got hot and heavy and I wasn’t thinking about reviewing the ammo… all I saw was running hogs. But it was pretty dark up under the cedars when I finally located that wounded deer the other night, and despite the 7-inch barrel on my Ruger, that .44 magnum usually lights up the night when it goes off… so I definitely noticed the difference when the shot didn’t blind me this time. That’s probably not a major selling point for most handgun hunters, but it is a nice extra.
Books – For a lot of hunters like myself, if we’re not hunting we’re reading about hunting. A good book is generally a welcome gift, and I’ve had the opportunity to read a couple of great ones over the past year or so. For the culinarily inclined, Hank Shaw has just published his second book, Duck, Duck, Goose. This is a seriously diverse collection of recipes alongside cooking and handling tips for all sorts of waterfowl. You can read my full review HERE. Hank’s first book, Hunt, Gather, Cook – Finding the Forgotten Feast is also a great read. I reviewed it a while back, on my old site.
For something very different, Tovar Cerulli’s book, The Mindful Carnivore takes you on his very personal journey of self-discovery as he goes from self-righteous vegan to hunter. For those of us who have hunted for our entire lives, it’s an opportunity to understand how other folks view our sport… and a chance to take a second look at how we see it ourselves. I reviewed The Mindful Carnivore way back in 2012.
There’s also Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars, a book I reviewed back in June. It’s a pretty cool book about how our efforts to manage wildlife have succeeded, and where that success is starting to look a little like failure. For example, the restoration of the whitetail deer was quite the accomplishment, but the recovery didn’t just stop when the deer were back to healthy populations. Before long, the animals went from nearly gone to crop and landscape-destroying pests. Sterba’s book doesn’t just look at the individual pieces of the picture, but at the whole… from wildlife to the changes in our entire forest systems.
So that’s a start. If you’re really stumped, you can always just send your hunter on a guided hunt for his favorite game.
November 25, 2013
I’ve always been sort of knife crazy. For a brief period, I thought I’d start collecting… but that little fantasy dissolved under the harsh light of basic economics. Knife collecting is not cheap, especially if you want to get into it on any kind of serious basis.
Nevertheless, I’ve managed to put together something of a collection of skinning and hunting knives over the years. Sometimes it was a matter of simple expedience… I was hunting away from home and forgot my skinner. Other times it was more of an impulse buy. And rarely, but often enough to be kind of cool, it’s a case of a publicist or marketing company asking me to try out something new.
Morakniv is not new. In fact, I believe they’ve been making knives in Sweden since the late 19th century. But they still come out with new(ish) ideas, and this year they’ve got a couple of new(ish) twists on the bushcraft knife. Lucky for me, their PR person found the Hog Blog, and their email did not get sent directly to my Spam folder. ABC, tic-tac-toe, and bang… the Bushcraft Orange was on its way.
First of all, some of my American readers may be wondering what a “bushcraft knife” is all about. Bushcraft is all about backcountry survival skills, from foraging to building shelter. You need to get the most out of your tools, and the knife is arguably one of the most critical pieces of your kit. Think “camp knife”, a versatile, fixed blade knife that is hefty enough to cut tent poles and whittle stakes, but handy enough for the finer work, like field dressing and skinning game. Fellow blogger, Suburban Bushwacker spends quite a bit of time in discussion of bushcraft, and has reviewed Mora in the past.
For my own part, my primary need from a working knife is for dressing and skinning game. I also like to use one knife from start to finish, so I need something that holds a good edge, is handy enough for the fine work, but not so fine that I would be afraid to separate joints with it. It’s a sort of stupid point of pride for me, but when I’m breaking down big game, I never use a saw (except to remove a skull cap). I do it all with a knife. This is why I have come to rely so heavily on the old Buck 110 for so long… it’s nearly indestructible.
So earlier last week, the Morakniv Bushcraft Orange arrived in my mail. Unfortunately, the whitetail doe I’d shot the previous night was already skinned and dressed so I couldn’t put my new “toy” to work. However, I was pretty sure the weekend would give me the opportunity to really put this knife through its paces… and it did.
On Sunday morning, Carl, the owner of the Nueces Country Smokehouse gave me a call. He had a couple of deer already checked in. With the cold, rainy weather and the rut just around the corner, he expected more to be coming. I tossed the Mora and a steel in the truck and headed over.
Over the course of the next three hours, I skinned four whitetails and an axis, and caped out a blackbuck. The Mora popped open ribcages, separated knee, tail, and axis joints, and peeled away skin. I didn’t get a chance to hit the steel until I was well into the third deer, and the knife still performed like a champ. After a few swipes of the steel, it was like starting with a freshly sharpened blade.
Now I’ve skinned, dressed, and cut up a lot of animals over the past 30-0dd years. Would I say the Morakniv Bushcraft was the best I ever used? Well, no. For my personal tastes, I have a fondness for the trailing/clip point design like my Buck or my old Schrade “Sharp Finger”. That shape just sort of suits the way I work on an animal. The Bushcraft is more of a drop point (which is still a very effective design), which made me adjust my habits a bit. But other than that, I’d put this knife up against anything else on the market.
Still, good steel that holds up to hard use is one thing. A handy design is another. But for a lot of hunters, reality dictates that they consider the price tag. Here, again, the Morakniv Bushcraft shines… with an MSRP of $34.99.
Sure, you can go out and pick up a more expensive knife. Lord knows I’ve seen some doozies. Seems like all the rich sports from Houston and San Antonio have to show me their “prize” skinners when they’re in the skinning room with me… knives with fine pedigrees and three digit (and more!) price tags. And I have no doubt that these are some high quality blades. But while they’re showing me their fancy knives, I’m the one skinning their deer. And the next one. And the next one.
And I’m doing it with a knife that any hunter can afford.
You can find Morakniv products online, or at many outdoors retailers including Bass Pro, REI, Sportsman’s Warehouse, and many others.
November 13, 2013
When I was in California, it seemed like every weekend involved a road trip. I was usually off to either hunt or guide, but sometimes it was just to get the hell out of the urban jungle that was the San Francisco Bay Area. As a result, my old Dodge stayed packed and ready to go. Behind the driver’s seat you could find a case of bottled water and a Tupperware container full of homemade trail mix.
There’s a lot to say about trail mix, and an awful lot has been written. I won’t (can’t) cover all those bases. But what I can say is that a well-made trail mix is a sure enough blessing for the person on-the-go. It’s generally healthy with lots of natural goodness, and it’s portable. You can eat it while driving, hiking, or riding horseback.
Whenever my tub started to run low, I’d stop off at just about any grocery store or even a truck stop and pick up some dried fruit, nuts, and maybe some yogurt-covered goodies and refill it. Of course, the quality of the ingredients is what distinguishes good trail mix from bad and my random selection didn’t really guarantee any degree of quality. But when you’re hungry, almost anything is good… and it’s hard to mess up almonds, cashews, and peanuts.
Anyway, I thought about that Tupperware tub the other day (I still keep it in my truck), when I received an email from someone at GoBites.com, a company that specializes in “Whole Snacks Delivered”.
What does that mean? It’s kind of an interesting idea.
GoBites makes pre-packaged, portion-controlled trail mix from whole foods ingredients. According to some of the information they sent me, they have over 25 varieties of snacks. 22 of them are made with 100% USDA Organic ingredients. 21 have no wheat or wheat products (gluten free). And most of them are acceptable to either the Mediterranean Diet or the Paleo Diet (if you happen to be into that sort of thing).
I don’t really follow most of the food trends, especially when it comes to special diets. But what I do know, because they sent me a few sample packs, is that these things are pretty danged good. Of course, keep in mind that I like trail mix, granola, and dried fruit. If you don’t, then this probably isn’t going to be for you.
But the thing that’s different with GoBites is that they work on a subscription basis. You sign up for periodic deliveries either every week, two weeks, or four weeks. Each delivery is 14 snack packs, each of which is a reasonably good-sized snack (and I have a hearty appetite). You can choose your own from their menu of offerings, or provide some preferences when you sign up and let their system select the best match for your needs (e.g. Paleo diet, or gluten free).
The price comes out to $1.99 a pack, or just under $28 per order (14 packs). That’s certainly pricier than loading up at the bulk aisle in Safeway, but considering the quality and variety of the ingredients, it’s not a bad way to keep a good stock of snacks for road trips, or for the trail. If you’ve got kids, it seems like this could be a good option for the lunch boxes, or for after school.
There is no contract, so you can drop the service any time. The catch here is that you have to be pro-active because if you don’t cancel, you will continue to receive your packages… and the bill. Just like any other subscription service, you’re obligated until you formally disengage.
At any rate, it seems like an interesting idea, and worth sharing with you readers (and hell, they did send me some free samples).
Personally, I decided I’d sign up for a subscription. I definitely enjoyed most of the samples I tried (there’s one, Mayan Treasure, that I wasn’t crazy about). Also, this will probably be a better snack choice for me than of Kat’s homemade cookies and brownies. But dammit, I LIKE those cookies and brownies. Guess it’s gonna be all about finding a balance.
November 6, 2013
Years ago, when I was barely a teenager, my best friend’s dad got us into waterfowl hunting. It was perfect for us, living right on the banks of the Intracoastal Waterway. We could hop in the canoe and hunt the salt marshes any time we wanted. In an effort to keep us interested in the sport, my friend’s dad told us that the ducks with the big white patch on their heads were “buffleheads,” and were good to eat. What we didn’t know at the time was that the birds were actually hooded mergansers, and that they rate right next to seagull (yes, I’ve tried both) on the table. But for two kids new to the sport, they were beyond plentiful and they decoyed with abandon… and we shot lots of them.
That went on for a couple of years, until the day I decided to cook up one of those birds for myself.
But even after I’d learned to determine “good” birds from “trash”, I still found ducks lacking at the table. My limited culinary expertise told me that chickens have to be thoroughly cooked to kill bacteria, so I applied the same tactic to my ducks (they’re both poultry, right?). Anyone who has tried a well-done, wild duck can attest to the outcome. It’s pretty bad… so bad, in fact, that I was near the point of abandoning duck hunting. If I didn’t want to eat them, I sure didn’t see the point in killing them.
Fortunately, it was just about that time I discovered Justin Wilson (RIP) and an episode about cooking a duck. Right after that, I delved into a couple of wild game cookbooks. The error of my ways shone clear…
Years later, I’d moved to California which is a waterfowler’s paradise. Not too long after that, I met Hank Shaw. Among other things, Hank had just started a blog about cooking wild game. I was immediately impressed by his writing, and while I’ve never been much on following recipes, I was intrigued by some of the things he wrote. When I finally had the opportunity to sample his cooking, I knew this guy was going to do something special. Hank has skills.
Since then, Hank has proven those skills several times over. In addition to other awards and recognition, his blog, Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook has been thrice nominated and once selected by the James Beard Foundation as Best Food Blog. In 2011, he published his first book, Hunt Gather Cook, Finding the Forgotten Feast (my review of that one is here, on my old site). And now, just in time for the holidays, he’s published his second work, Duck, Duck, Goose.
And by “just in time for the holidays”, I don’t mean the Christmas gift giving madness (although this book will make an awesome Christmas gift), but the holidays that accompany the prime waterfowl seasons across the U.S. This book can, and should, be the impetus for everything from hearty meals at the duck club to a centerpiece for family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are how-tos and recipes in here for everything from the simplest, slow-roasted whole duck to fairly elaborate productions and charcuterie (goose prosciutto anyone?).
As with pretty much anything Hank does, Duck, Duck, Goose is not your average cook book. First of all, Hank is all about the details. Whether you’re an experienced chef or a neophyte, there’s nothing in this book that will leave you guessing. From identification and understanding the difference between various ducks and geese – to plucking, dressing, and butchering birds for the table – to preparation styles based on the different qualities of the duck you have in your hand (all ducks are not cooked equally)… you’ll find pretty much anything you need to know.
Hank draws from, literally, an entire world of influences and styles… and these are all represented in Duck, Duck, Goose. There are recipes for braunschweiger to bulgogi, confit to cassoulet, and tea-smoked duck to Thai duck curry. If you never used another duck and goose cookbook, you wouldn’t ever be bored. In fact, I didn’t count them all, but I’d say you could almost pick a different recipe for every day of the duck season and experience truly global cuisine from a South Carolina-style barbecue on the opener, to a hot bowl of duck pho after a frigid, season closer.
One other thing that sets this book (and Hank) apart is that it’s based on the principle of eating everything but the quack. There’s more to cooking a duck than breasting it out and leaving the rest for the ‘coons. Hank shows us not just how to cook the wings and legs, but the hearts, gizzards, livers, feet, and even the tongues. Not satisfied to stop there, Duck, Duck, Goose includes recipes for rendering and cooking with duck and goose fat (there’s a hollandaise sauce in there that’s just screaming my name).
And, finally, there’s the photography. The book is a beautiful package and worth the extra bulk of a hard-copy for the photos alone. Hank’s long-time girlfriend, hunting buddy, and guinea pig, Holly Heyser combines a great eye for composition with a real passion for the subject matter (waterfowl and food) in order to pull together an incredible set of photos for Duck, Duck, Goose.
You can find a copy of Duck, Duck, Goose (or a bunch of copies… they’re great gifts) on Amazon in either hard back or Kindle e-book. I highly recommend it, whether you’re a waterfowler looking for new ways to feed the family or an experienced chef. Hell, even if you’re like me and refuse to follow a recipe, it’s a great source of diverse ideas and inspiration.
August 21, 2013
If you spend much time around folks who’ve been shooting and hunting as long as I have, you’ve probably noticed a couple of common traits. We’ll lean forward a bit when you speak to us. We’ll often ask you to repeat what you’ve said. Some of us might even cup our ears in the universal sign of, “speak up, please.”
When I started shooting, you didn’t hear much about hearing protection. I’m sure someone must have known about the risks, but no one really talked about it. You just took the gun and went out to shoot it. No one bothered to tell you to wear ear plugs. I remember in Boy Scout camp, I’d spend every available minute at the rifle range. They didn’t pass out hearing protection or safety glasses (of course, these were just .22 rifles, but still…). I’m pretty sure that if I’d shown up at the junkyard to shoot with my friends, I’d have been laughed clean out of the woods for wearing a set of “Mickey ears”. And if I ever showed up in hunting camp with a set of plugs in my ears, the old guys would have looked at my dad and wondered what sort of spoiled little pansy-ass he was raising. That’s just how things were then, and many of us are paying the price today.
In fact, it wasn’t until I was late into my teens that I first learned the importance and value of hearing protection while shooting. I think the catalyst was an article I read in Outdoor Life about how a shooter’s flinch is often a response to the noise of the firearm, rather than a response to the recoil. It made sense to me, and the next time I went out in the woods to shoot up a bunch of cans and paper plates, I took a roll of toilet paper. I stuffed a goodly wad into each ear, settled down and started shooting.
And I was amazed that there was a noticeable change in my groups, especially with my .243 which is still one of the loudest rifles I own (not counting the ones with muzzle brakes). I realized that I wasn’t anticipating the shot as much, and I was able to stay on the target right through the muzzle blast. Of course, I was noticing things I’d never paid attention to before, so maybe the change wasn’t as extreme as it seemed at the time, but there was definitely a difference. Perhaps the best thing was that I didn’t have to sit through school the next day with that infernal ringing in my ears. I was sold.
I eventually graduated from wadded up toilet paper to those orange or yellow safety plugs. I was working at paper mills at the time, and there were always jugs of plugs available for the taking and I made the best of it. A few years later when I started shooting at organized ranges, I moved up to ear muffs (Mickey ears), and then discovered electronic hearing protection at the SHOT Show.
The thing about wearing hearing protection is that it doesn’t just reduce the noise of a gunshot, it reduces all noise. It’s difficult to have a conversation with plugs in your ears. It’s even more difficult to hunt without the ability to hear all of the sounds of the woods around you. Even most of the electronic aids that amplify normal noise but block sudden, loud noises can be a real detriment in the field. The amplification makes the slightest rustle of grass sound like an elephant charge, and if you turn them down enough to dampen the noise of your footsteps then you can’t hear much of anything. As a result, like many people, I’ve stopped wearing hearing protection while I’m in the field.
The industry has been all over the place in an effort to create hearing protection that allows you to hear and function normally while still dampening dangerous noise. The electronic solutions are the best, so far, but the quality options are all pretty expensive… generally in the range of several hundred dollars for a set of good ear buds, to over a grand for the high-end, digital systems. There are also some electronic hearing protection devices in the $25 to $50 range. These are fine for target shooting and plinking, but terribly unsuitable for hunting applications.
There have also been advances in the design of the basic ear plug. While you can certainly still get the old-fashioned, squeezable foam plugs, there are newer designs that offer baffles that create a better fit in the ear canal and block even more of the noise. I know, for example, that shooting my .325wsm with the muzzle brake is too much for the old-school plugs. They help, but I still end up with ringing ears after a couple of shots. The baffled plugs work much better. But of course these make hearing other sounds practically impossible.
BattlePlugs are, according to the manufacturer’s website, authorized hearing protectors for use by the U.S. Army… both for soldiers and civilian employees. They offer a non-electronic filter that dampens sudden, loud noises (e.g. gunfire) while allowing normal soundwaves to pass through.
How do they work?
Well, I’m not a specialist in this kind of thing so I don’t pretend to understand the science here. However, the plugs have a little cap that opens or closes. When the cap is closed, you get a pretty significant reduction in sound (about 24dB). When it’s open, the reduction is about 9dB. I’m not sure if there’s some sort of high tech thing happening in there, or if it’s just simple physics. If I open the cap and look inside, it’s just a tiny tunnel from end to end.
But they do seem to work as advertised.
I received a sample pair last week, and had a little time to mess around with them. They were a little uncomfortable to put in, but once they were in place they filled my ear canal very snugly (I got the medium size. They come in three sizes.) and were quite comfortable. With the cap closed, they really dampen all the sound like a super-effective ear plug would be expected to. You can still hear, but not much. With the cap open, I was able to watch TV… although the sound was somewhat muffled. Carrying on a conversation was possible, but not optimal. 9dB of sound reduction is a lot more than it may seem.
I did have some trouble opening and closing the cap without removing the plugs from my ears, but the literature that accompanies the plugs indicated that I should expect this until I got used to using them. That’s probably true enough, and I also think they just need to be opened and closed a few times until they loosen up. Overall, I didn’t find this to be much of an issue.
I took the BattlePlugs out behind the barn this weekend to test them under fire. I started out with the .22 pistol, which is really not much of an ear ringer without protection. It wasn’t much of a test. After emptying a few mags with the .22, I moved up to 9mm which was still pretty much nothing, and then to the .44 mag. Now, my .44 is loud, even with the 7.5″ barrel on it. I don’t like shooting it without hearing protection. With the BattlePlugs in and the little cap closed, the report of the .44 was nicely muffled. That wasn’t really a surprise, based on how completely they fill my ear canal. With the cap open, the report was not unpleasant at all, and it was still muffled enough that I didn’t get any ringing in my ears. That’s not very scientific, but it was a good practical experience.
Unfortunately, I didn’t try them with any of the braked rifles (.270, 30-06, .325wsm). Sorry, but with temps in the low 100s, I just didn’t feel like sitting out in the sun any longer. Based on the results with the .44, I feel confident that the BattlePlugs would be plenty sufficient for shooting a braked gun. They’re miles and miles better than the old, orange squeezables. I think they also outperform my cheap, Outers ear muffs.
BattlePlugs retail for around $12.75. That’s about $10 more than the old-fashioned plugs ($2.95/pkg at WalMart), but about half the price of low-end electronic muffs. The plugs are washable, so if you take care of them you should get a bunch of uses out of them. I expect that the baffles will eventually start to wear and tear, but of course I haven’t had these long enough to see any sort of wear. You can also order additional tips for about $3, in the event that the originals do finally wear out.
Overall, if you’re looking for something relatively inexpensive but effective, and don’t want the bulk of a pair of muffs, the BattlePlugs are certainly a good option. I’ve used other baffled plugs in the past, and the BattlePlugs are at least as good as any of those. The option of opening the cap to allow for better hearing is a nice feature, I suppose, although honestly; I find it’s just as easy to remove the plugs so that’s not much of a selling point.
BattlePlugs are currently available online, from National Safety, Inc. I found them at a few other industrial safety equipment sites as well. I haven’t seen them at any of the major outdoors distributors yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them start showing up soon.
June 10, 2013
In the dusty recesses of my desk, I uncovered a veritable treasure trove of stuff that I need to review. OK, there were only a couple of things that had been stowed away while I’m remodeling my office, but I was glad to find them. Because I spent the better part of this past weekend in the air between NC and TX, the first item I chose to review was a book… Nature Wars by Jim Sterba.
Nature Wars is an attempt to describe how our efforts to manage wildlife turned out to be too successful. It’s an excellent illustration of the rule of unintended consequences… or how the road to hell is actually paved.
In the book, Sterba lays out his case in three key parts. First, there is the foundation of all wildlife… the forests. We read the tale of how the great forests were initially decimated as the country was settled. Most of us are familiar with this part of the story, but Sterba takes us a little deeper with facts (and factoids) so that, instead of reading like an indictment of evil, it’s easy to understand how it happened. For example, he explains how critical wood was to the early settlers as a building material and a source of power and heat. Then he shows us how the eastern forests have been in a fairly continuous state of regrowth. It is no longer “recovery”, but expansion. In some places the eastern forests cover even more ground than they did when the settlers first arrived.
Later, he goes into the history of wildlife and how close we came to completely wiping out entire species through uncontrolled hunting (especially market hunting), habitat loss, and disease. The way west was paved by the beaver, as the rodent’s skin practically drove the entire economy. As beavers were wiped out of one area, the trappers continued to push them further and further west. Their current comeback has created multiple conflicts as they must now share their habitat with humans. Beavers don’t really differentiate between landscape and wild trees. And once they begin to dam a watercourse, that water has to go somewhere… which often means it backs up over roadways, fields, and even homes.
Likewise, Sterba tells the story of the decimation and recovery of whitetail deer and turkeys… both of which have become nuisances, or even menaces to farmers, homeowners, and drivers. As with the other sections, Sterba uses a combination of historical data, statistics, and anecdotal information to make his case.
Throughout the book, Sterba manages to maintain something of a netural-but-interested perspective. While you can certainly sense occasional narrative bias, he leaves most of the judgment to the reader. “But,” he seems to say. “Before you judge, consider the whole story through the perspective of the people who were there.”
Did I “like” the book?
I found it very interesting, and it made me consider some things I hadn’t thought about before. It was sort of strange that, after reading the first half on the way into Wilmington, NC., I noticed how much bigger the trees in and around town seemed to be. The old highway corridor from the airport to my mom’s house was practically walled by enormous trees (liberally hung with kudzu). I don’t recall it ever looking that way. I think this is part of what he was talking about when he described the “reforestation” that’s happening before our eyes.
I also really appreciated his discussion of the complicated web of “solutions” for the current issues caused by the return of so many wildlife species. I know how some of those conversations can turn, and how logic is often overwhelmed by emotion. California is one perfect example of wildlife management through the ballot box, but as Sterba points out in the book, CA is hardly unique there.
Sterba’s writing is very good. The writing itself is clean, and he builds each paragraph carefully. I found little to complain about, except that much of the book is very dry. At times I did have to labor a bit to keep reading because even though the story was very interesting, the storytelling was sort of flat. I’ve certainly seen it done better… but I’ve also seen much, much worse.
You can find Nature Wars on Amazon or most other online booksellers.
May 22, 2013
I just got the latest from my friends at Impressum Media, the producers of The Firearms Guide DVDs.
Every year, I kind of wonder what in the world they can do to improve this incredible firearms reference guide. It already has tens of thousands of firearms, conversion charts to help international hunters match up European calibers with US equivalents, printable targets, and so much more. But they’ve done it. Not only have they continued to expand the listings of conventional guns, including printable schematics, but they’ve now added an extensive listing of military firearms, historic and modern. As a minor war history buff, I found the listings of military firearms to be pretty danged cool.
As I clicked through the DVD, I was quickly overwhelmed with the amount of information it provides. Simple browsing can be fun, but sometimes you want to be very specific. No problem. Because the whole guide is built on a database engine, you can search based on a wide variety of keywords, from action type, to manufacturer, to available calibers, and much more. There is even a FFL dealer reference.
Powder-burning firearms are not the only guns included, as the Guide covers a variety of air rifles and pistols. And, not only does the reference cover firearms, but there is also an extensive listing of ammunition, from antique through 21st Century high-tech.
There’s simply an insane amount of information packed into this single DVD, which is available for both Mac and PC platforms.
Who would use something like this? Let’s see. There would be:
- Gun enthusiasts
- Gun dealers
- Gun writers
- Journalists (this should be a required reference for every news desk)
- Authors who want authenticity and accuracy
The DVD is available now at: http://www.firearmsguide.com Retail price is $39.95.
April 2, 2013
Not too long ago, I was bemoaning the dearth of gear I had for review. Things have been slow since I moved this site last January, and the manufacturers (and their marketing reps) haven’t exactly been beating their way to my door. But I’ve kept at it, and following the SHOT Show I was able to get a few items sent my way, including a pair of head lamps from the Dorcy company.
Some of you know that I’ve been on the perpetual search for a compact headlamp that is bright enough for night time blood-trailing. I’ve used several really nice lights, but so far, none of them has really been able to compete with a good, handheld flashlight. I know, maybe I’m asking too much. Headlights are awesome for most other activities, from setting up camp or cooking dinner on the grill, to field dressing game in the dark. Almost everything I’ve tested so far has been perfectly fine for that.
When the folks from Dorcy contacted me, I had the option of testing the headlamps or one of their new, compact LED flashlights. After some vacillation, I decided I’d try once more with the headlamps. They sent me two versions, one with a 134 lumen, spotlight beam, and one with a broad, 120 lumen floodlight.
By all accounts, that’s a lot of power in a small light. But, while I’m no engineer, my research on compact lights has shown that high lumens doesn’t always equate to a quality light. There are many other factors involved, most of which tend to drive the price point higher and higher. For example, there are some really high-end, compact headlamps that retail for upwards of $150, and those are only outputting about 100 lumens. The Dorcy lights, on the other hand, retail for under $25.
So what do you get for $25?
I had every hope of putting these lights to work on an actual hunt, but it turns out that the Mississippi hunt never required much in the way of night operations. I haven’t had a real hunt since then, much less a blood trail to follow, so I decided just to strap the lights on and mess around out on the ranch. I was pleased with the performance of both headlamps.
Both are very lightweight, which is a major consideration to me. I’ve used some of the heavier headlamps, and besides their bulk, they also tended to give me a headache after extended wear. The Dorcy lamps were barely noticeable. I kept one on most of the evening in MS, just to see what would happen. By the time I was ready for bed, I’d forgotten it was there (I won’t blame the Scotch).
They also provide plenty of light. While I thought I’d prefer the spot beam, I found the broad beam to be most useful while I was poking around in the pumphouse one night, trying to track down a leak. My pumphouse is black widow haven, and I’ve sort of got a thing about spiders. With the headlamp, I could see in all the little nooks and crannies before I put my hands in there. The coverage was excellent, and the light was even and steady.
The spot beam seems to be pretty impressive as well, lighting up the ground nicely from a standing position. The light is bright white, which I think is best for picking out a trail in the dark, as well as looking for blood. I’m still not sure if this would do the trick for some of the harder blood trails I’ve dealt with, but it is better than most of my other headlamps (I don’t own any of the really high-end headlamps for comparison). I also found that the unit fits well in the palm of my hand, and when I use it this way it really lights up the ground. It may not be perfect, but I believe it will work well.
Both lamps run on three, AAA batteries, and the literature says they’ll provide full power for about 12 hours. Honestly, I’ve never tested a light to see if it really ran as long as advertised, and that’s no different with these. I do know the LEDs tend to be very conservative with battery power, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect extended battery life. I like the fact that these lamps are powered by ordinary batteries, rather than some proprietary components that you can only buy through the company website or certain “authorized” dealers.
Are there specific negatives? I didn’t find much to complain about with these lights, although there were a couple of things that I think I should point out.
Like many of these headlamps, the lights have three functions… full power, half-power, and strobe. To switch functions, you depress the on/off switch. This means that to turn the light off from the full-power position, you have to click twice. It’s a small thing, but I find it a nuisance. If, for some reason, I wanted to turn the light of in a hurry, there’s really no good way to do it. You have to cycle through the other functions before the light goes off. Personally, I’d rather have a single-function on/off switch, and if the other functions are really necessary (I’m not sure they are), have a second switch to change modes.
Another thing… the lights are not waterproof. I realize that, from a manufacturing perspective, waterproofing is a bigger deal than it may seem, and it generally increases the cost of the product. However, under real field conditions, it’s almost guaranteed that a light will eventually be submerged. I’ve dropped lights in the pond while setting decoys, they’ve fallen into creeks while packing hogs out after dark, and they’ve sat in waterlogged packs for hours during elk hunts.
The Dorcy website suggests that the headlamps are “lightweight weather resistant”, which I take to mean that they can withstand a drizzle while hiking to the stand, or possibly hold up while setting camp in the rain. I didn’t test them to see how much they can actually take before failure (I’d like to keep them around a while), so maybe they’re a lot more robust than they seem. I did take a closer look at the construction, and it’s obvious that there’s no significant weather seal around the battery compartment. The on/off switch is rubberized, but it doesn’t look like there’s any sort of gasket around the switch to keep water from running down into the guts of the light. What this means to me is that the Dorcy lights wouldn’t be my first choice for serious, backcountry hunters. I also don’t think it’s the best bet for waterfowlers or fishermen. That sort of application is going to require something that’s really waterproof… not just “weather resistant”.
But overall, I think these are pretty danged good headlamps. For the weekend camper, the treestand hunter, or for the day hunter, it’s a perfectly good, economical light. I plan to keep the broad beam version in my truck, where it should be a handy part of my tool kit. Both the broad beam and the spot are very bright and clear, the unit is lightweight, and the retail cost is completely manageable.
The Dorcy lights get a qualified thumbs-up.