Outdoors gear changes regularly, but subtly. True innovation is rare. When you see it, youll wish you thought of it first.
What follow are brief assessments of items a couple of TFG editors and I consider significant introductions, products that truly raised the bars in their respective arenas. Know up front, by the way, that there isnt space for everything that rerouted outdoor recreation and that our opinions varied on some items. Since Im writing the piece, however, I get first say. And if you dont see a favorite listed, know that I had it originally - of course I did - and it was those darned editors who lopped it from this text.
Upside: Outdoors electronics evolve on parallel with the computer industrys warp-speed advances. First it was flashers that indicated "something" was beneath your boat, then increasingly defined images of the bottom and, ultimately, omni-directional color fishfinders. Thats great, but for any of those tools to matter, you have to be on the right spot.
Thats where satellites and palm-sized, handheld receivers come into play. Punch a button, and you can be directed to anywhere on the planet. Within a few feet. Punch another button, and you can "poach" a friend or guides formerly secret fishing spot. GPS gets you to and from hunting blinds, too, even allowing you to take one route out and another back if thats seems a good idea at the time.
Downside: GPS units require batteries, and batteries die. If youre going to use a handheld GPS unit, carry spare juice or, at least, monitor the battery-life icon closely.
Upside: No thing among the many things that didnt even exist not long ago is more common in the wilderness and on the water now than cell phones. And they, more recently, have evolved into smart phones - many of which have built-in GPS navigation systems.
In addition to directions, a phone lets you communicate with friends, check weather reports or summon help in an emergency. They also enable fishermen and hunters to forward real-time photos of their trophies during my weekend radio shows. Knowing that so many people are fishing or hunting while I work makes them happier than it does me.
Downside: Phones, unless carefully (but affordably) protected, can seem suddenly fragile if you stumble over a rock while stalking a giant buck or lean too far over a gunwale to grab a fat redfish across broad shoulders.
Upside: I rarely see the one-way material mentioned in these types of stories but can attest personally to its fond welcome among waterfowl hunters more than two decades ago.
As a professional duck and goose guide for 14 years, Gore-Texs breathable fabric (and its successors) let moisture out but didnt let icy raindrops ruin a morning. We couldnt be nearly so comfortable on atypically nasty mornings without it.
Downside: Cost was an issue early. Now, you expect a waterproof barrier between your skin and the elements, and it somehow doesnt seem that we pay excessively for the comfort. At any price, that wafer-thin layer of miracle fabric is a must.
Automatic Deer Feeders
Upside: Nothing says "outdoor adventure" quite like sitting in a big box waiting for a little box to spew corn and then see what comes to eat it. As a Texan, I cant imagine a world without feeders, and they certainly serve valid purpose in a state that needs to take half a million deer or so annually to keep stride with the habitats carrying capacity.
I get that, and I like watching the traffic around an "active" feeder. Given the chance and time, however, Id rather scout a place well, sweeten the convergence of two game trails with some hand-carried corn one afternoon and be in a nearby ground blind before the next sunrise.
Downside: Many Texas deer hunters are overly dependent on feeders. No corn, to them, equals no venison. To maintain at least a remote connection to Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, eyeball a feeder at that measured 100 yards for only half of each day you hunt; do something different for the other.
And by the way, dont wait around for the biggest buck in the pasture to visit your corn café. It might hang in the shadows, checking out the does and sizing up the antlered competition, but it wont barge in like a loud-mouthed gunslinger pushing through the swinging doors of a saloon. That, in both cases, is a good way to get shot.
Upside: The nearly invisible (underwater) lines most certainly changed the way we fish, at least as much as monofilament and possibly even more than the new braids (which finished a close second to fluorocarbon on my ballot).
I fish a couple of reels loaded with all fluorocarbon and, where warranted, tipped with heavier fluorocarbon leader. On the reels loaded with braid, the end of the line is several feet of fluorocarbon. Im guessing that in most of the places Texans fish, the actual advantage gained is nominal. But it is an advantage, however slight, that Ill gladly take in exchange for tying one extra knot.
Downside: Invisibility carries a premium price, but the numbers are falling into line with traditional spool fillers as more horses enter the race. At the minimum, switch to fluorocarbon leaders.
ATVs and Side-by-Sides
Upside: Where were these things when I was throwing 30 pounds of wet rags and 60 pounds of dead geese over my shoulders in muddy fields, 300 yards from the truck?
As a hunter, I think Id rather have all-terrain transportation and a few gallons of gasoline than GPS. Sometimes, I get tired of walking. And if Im lost, getting "unlost" wont take nearly so long at 25 miles per hour.
Downside: From guide days, my back still hurts, but thats my problem. Theres some maintenance involved, and you need to keep the thing clean to keep it running. Other than that and maybe having to trailer the vehicle wherever you go and always wishing you bought a bigger ATV than you did, I dont see many.
Upside: It and its non-toxic kin make my list of game changers from the conservation angle. I cant say with certainty that ducks and geese and eagles and chi-chi birds all would be extinct if wed kept slinging lead, but I like to think that making the switch saved some of those birds.
Downside: None with the newer loads once you learn to shoot them.
Non-hunters wont understand why conserving and protecting animals is important to those of us who shoot and eat them, but theyll listen if we tell them. Anti-hunters are lost causes that would, apparently, prefer for nature to check its imbalances with disease and starvation.
Thats for another time. Apologies for the deviation from theme.
In the old-timers grab bags of outdoors game changers, youll find also the plastic worm, the free-spool levelwind reel, the trolling motor, graphite for rods and bows and arrows, and a long list of things that once were heavy and now are light.
All products, outdoors and otherwise, only get to be brand new once. After that initial season, after the shiny parts grow dull and giddiness gives way to practicality, most of those products fall a little short of expectation.
The ones I highlighted have remained and continue to be refined, time and time again. And I cannot imagine life in the outdoors without them.