31 January, 2013

Go-To Gear - Part I

Last night I'm walking the dog as the weather goes from rain to snow all snug in one of my primary pieces and I realize that I truly have some Go-To favorite pieces of gear. So, I thought sharing some of these items might help others find some truly cool products.

Simms Windstopper Fleece Hoody
The garment that inspired this post. After picking it up on a whim, one of the things I grab without even a thought. Despite its fairly light weight, totally windproof. Winds of 20+ with gusts to 40mph last night and I'm snug as a bug. Also fairly warm. And best of all the cut always seems just right - nicely able to layer things under it (see Patagonia Nanopuff next item), but not overly baggy. Of course, like all Simms products with hoods, the hood is freakin' awesome. Yeah, it's $250. And it's worth twice that. Just buy one. Mine's black, like it should be -- picks up some nice solar energy when the sun pops out for a little extra warmth.

Patagonia Nanopuff Pullover
One thing first -- it's Patagucci, so it isn't cheap. But the reason is simple: it works and its warm. I once had a well-known Patagonia Ambassador tell me, "When I want to be really warm in miserable weather, only Patagonia will get it done." And I have to say I concur. Mine's the ultimate insulation layer for a pretty broad range of conditions. Last Fall I spent several full 30ish degree days out swinging in the Pere Marquette river with just a base layer and my Nano on top. Warm, dry and toasty. Didn't even need a shell or other top layer. Coolest feature? It stuffs into the chest pocket making it an easy extra layer to throw in your pack. My only criticism is the standard, goofy, "you never quite know" Patagonia sizing. Mine's an XXL because I needed it across the shoulders. Definitely a garment you want to try on before you buy it. If you like this one, but need something for colder temps, try the Down Sweater Full-Zip Hoody. And, yeah, I have one of those, too. I gave the Nano the edge as I find appropriate for a broader range of conditions.

Nordica Speedmachine 10 Ski Boots
I've owned a lot of ski gear, including boots. Remember the old Hanson VF101's? Top-entry? WTF was that all about? Had a pair for several years and could NEVER get them to fit right. I've had Lange ZRs, Nordica 981's, and a few others. But nothing compares to how happy I am with these boots. Great stiffness, comfy all day, and fantastic energy transfer. They're certainly not high-end race boots - which is fine by my middle aged skiing preferences - but they've got plenty of go. While the boots were pretty great out of the box, HUGE credit goes to bootfitting wizard Rob Parent, one of the owners of Sun & Snow Sports here in Ann Arbor, MI. Rob's one of the best in the Midwest, if not the country. If you want happy feet, go see him. He spent a bunch of time on mine, including custom orthotics that made a HUGE difference worth far more than the modest cost.

Columbia Stuttgart Boots
Fishing buddy and guide extraordinaire Jon Ray turned me on to the merits of duck boots for boat-based Winter steelhead fishing. Warm. Dry. Comfy all day. What more could you want? Turns out they're even good for duck hunting -- whodda' thunk it? I have no clue if these are the best. They were on sale and they fit me great. I love 'em.

Scott A4 Fly Rods
I own two A4's -- a 6-weight and a 7-weight. They're some of my most-used sticks. 100% made in America, even have Michigan-based ownership. I like that. But what I like the best is how they improve my casting and presentation skills. My 6 is awesome for terrestrials, nymphing, dries. But when the streamers or poppers bust out for trout or smallmouth, the extra oomph of the 7 is just right. Though I have several of the previous generation A3 and even an A2, the 4 series are a definite step forward. Looking for a great rod but don't want to spend a fortune? Check 'em out.

So there you are - five of my faves. Stuff that's so good I never give it a thought. In my book, that's great gear.


29 January, 2013

Outstanding Outcast

Had a great interaction with the folks at Outcast Sporting Gear over the past week. My FishCat 13 suffered from a leak I couldn't seem to find. I shipped the bladder back and they quickly found the pinhole I couldn't locate. When they called me, they told me the repair was gratis (nice) and I asked to order some parts. Locally I only have one Outcast dealer - Cabelas. I thought my odds of getting a specialized part that's beyond the one-man float tubes they sell seemed unlikely. So Outcast offered to sell these items to me separately. They were even kind enough to do some investigation to save me some $$$ on shipping my 20# pyramid anchor!

That's what really garners my respect in a company. They were fast, helpful, and flexible. I already like my raft quite a bit, but this just makes me feel that much better about the Outcast brand. By contrast, I am dealing with a purchase from an online seller that has been the polar opposite. Shipped me someone else's order the first time, hassled me about the return, then correct product didn't fit, so I needed that exchanged. And hostile and inflexible the whole time.

Considering a floaty boat? I would definitely suggest a look at Outcast!

Update on the raft: Since my December shake-down cruise on the Pere Marquette, I've made some key upgrades to the raft. They include:
  • Addition of a 20# pyramid anchor to replace the crappy "mushroom" style that's totally unsuited to rivers.
  • Picked up a K-Pump K-100. This sweet, small pump even comes in a bag with lashing points to attach to the raft frame. Thank you Cabelas inventory clearance sale!
  • Added a second rod storage tube. Existing one (1-1/2" PVC with reel groove and retainer) only held a single stick.
Looking forward to the next float!


24 January, 2013

Gun Nuts

WARNING: This post is going to be pretty blunt. It may offend some.

Regular readers will know me as a consistent moderate on issues of gun control.  I support Federal standardized gun ownership (rather than state-by-state) laws, elimination of high-capacity magazines, closing gun show loopholes, and a variety of other measures that won't prevent gun ownership and use, but which may help to ultimately save lives.

But this from Capitol Hill just pisses me off. So, if you're an anti-gun extremists who thinks all guns are bad, you should probably just browse on to somewhere else on the interwebs.

Assault weapons didn't kill innocent children in Newtown, or theater partons in Aurora, or students in Blacksburg, or seriously wound a Congresswoman in Tucson. A mentally unstable person with a wealth of judgement issues did. No trigger design I'm aware of pulls itself.

This line of thinking strikes me as one thing and one thing only -- reactionary politicians who pander to the anti-gun crowd who thinks anything using gunpowder is evil. "All assault weapons should be banned..." a common statement bandied about lately. Usually by people who've never fired a gun, let alone knowing a bolt from a bandolier.

Assuming I'm someone intent on doing harm, how does this affect me? If I'm even halfway knowledgeable I know that an off-the-shelf bolt-action rifle, like a Remington 700, is far more accurate than all but the most heavily tuned AR-type rifles. A big 20x scope, a hard-hitting flat trajectory round like a .308 Winchester, and a place to hide make you a lethal weapon capable of inflicting incredible damage. And the good news? It's not an "assault weapon" by category. Sweet. Even with this ban, you're still in business.

To go to the complete extreme -- two-thirds of the firearm inflicted deaths in the United States in 2010 were suicides. FAR more lives than all the mass shootings combined. Are we trying to legislate that? No, of course not, since it doesn't get our politicians on TV. And my hat's off to you if you can figure out how to off yourself with an AR. Grandpa's .38 special snub nose is a far better choice.
 - and still legal under the proposed bans.

But we can't put this legislation into the hands of those who DO know that an AR is no more or less lethal than your average deer rifle. They feel compelled to go to the "Ted Nugent extremist, a machine gun in every home, don't you touch my guns" position on complete auto-pilot. As an aside, I love Uncle Ted for many reasons, but he has some seriously off-kilter views.

Legislating semi-automatic firearms won't save a single life. If someone is determined to do harm, they'll find a way. Witness the knife attack in a Chinese school (around the same time as Newtown). Or you drive your car onto a crowded playground or park. Hell, one web site claims more people were killed with hammers than all firearms combined last year. I don't see any movement to ban the ball-peen hammer category...

So, my few simple suggestions:
  • Take that money that the NRA proposes we use for armed guards (and what the heck, half of their lobbying budget) and put it into our overstressed mental health system. One clear thing has emerged in all of these shootings - the perpetrators were NOT well.
  • Increase penalties for commission of crimes with a firearm. You commit a crime using a gun -- jackpot! You get an automatic decade in jail. You kill someone during that crime? Hello, Death Row. When the stakes are higher, suddenly it changes the whole game.
  • Institute a modest tax on firearm purchases that funds local law enforcement, as well as mental health. Don't tax ammo - it's proven that most criminals don't shoot many rounds. An ammo tax just hurts the legitimate gun owners. While we're at it, lets tax cigarettes and use that to pay for Obamacare.
  • Hold gun owners responsible for crimes committed with their firearms. If the mother in Newtown knew she was on the hook for having lethal weapons accessible to her violence-prone son, maybe she'd have more carefully considered her options. Though in the end, perhaps you could argue that she got what she deserved. Being killed with your own gun has to be pretty clarifying.
Drastic measures? Certainly. But we're clearly in a drastic situation. These incidents seem to be becoming more frequent and more lethal. Something has to give, but the simplistic banning of semi-automatic firearms won't get it done.

Again, all just one guy's opinion.


Keep Your Head

I am follically-challenged. But, if you believe the old saw that you get your hairline from your Mother's side, it's fairly amazing I have ANY hair left. Let's just say lots of shiny noggins on that side and leave it at that.

Being a Winter outdoorsman, this means that some way to keep my melon warm is critical. There's a lot of debate among the medical community about heat loss through your head. Traditionally it's been set at 40-50% but recent research seems to suggest that may be high. Anecdotally, I find that many times when I'm cold all over, a switch to some form of head insulation makes a big difference. Conversely, when I'm too warm, shedding that hat for a few minutes helps me cool back down. I did a fair bit of this recently while floating the Pere Marquette river. Got hot while rowing, so off goes the hat. Stop to fish, hat goes back on. Perfect.

I have also fairly recently discovered that hoods do more than make your Simms Windstopper softshell hoody or your Patagonia Down Sweater hoody look cool, they also offer wind and cold protection. It seems you can actually put the hood up without looking like the Unabomber. I find hoods ideal when you need that little bit of extra warmth -- when you forgot your hat, didn't want to stop to put one on, or need a layer beyond a hat for the REALLY frigid temps. This has caused me to really consider the hood design as a key part of any garment I'm considering. How does the hood fit? Is it designed to retain good visibility when you put it up? Does it fit closely so wind doesn't just whip around inside? Can you put it up and down easily? It's surprising the number of garments that don't consider these factors. For me, I've found that three companies seem to have hoods down - Simms, Patagonia, and Arc'teryx. None of them are cheap, but you really can't put a price on the value of being warm and dry when you play outside.

For me some variety of insulated headgear is a must. but I've found a wide range of fit, warmth and other issues. My go-to is some sort of knit hat/beanie. What's interesting is that if fit is any indication, I have a gigantic cranium. Finding hats that fit is a frequent challenge. Odd, as in a fitted hat I'm a 7-5/8 -- certainly far from freakishly large.

My default setting has become Simms. My most recent addition is their Chunky Beanie (pictured above). Wool warmth with a trick fleece lining the eliminates the itch. I've also got several other prior-year Simms hats that almost all are top shelf. One suggestion I will offer -- if you find a Simms hat you like, buy a second one. They switch their patterns and styles up pretty much annually. I learned this lesson the hard way. Also, a bit on the "almost all" comment. The Windstopper flap cap is the one fail I've had from Simms. Beyond the goofy fit, I quickly figured out that you can't hear a damn thing when you have it on!  Oddly, Patagonia never seems to fit me properly -- always too small. I see Arc'teryx offers a nice selection -- I'll need to try them.

So there you go - need a lid for Winter fun? Hopefully some of these suggestions will be useful.


14 January, 2013

Product Review: Simms Rogue Fleece Hoody

I received a Simms Rogue Fleece Hoody as a Christmas gift and have been amazed by how much I like this simple piece of gear. This garment seemed to be more sportswear than a technical outerwear solution - or so I thought.

The poly-based fleece breathes and readily wicks moisture. What's surprising though is the softshell exterior (especially at this price point). This thing is surprisingly good at blocking both wind AND water (thanks to the DWR exterior). Sure, it's not up to the level of my Windstopper Soft Shell Hoody or my Arc'teryx hardshell fleece - but it 1/3 of these garments! I wore it out yesterday in light winds and a daylong pissing down rain. I stayed very dry and cozy despite some genuinely lousy conditions.

As you'd expect from Simms, the ergonomics are excellent. For my build, a fairly generous cut across the shoulders is key. I've always found Simms gear to excel in that area and this piece is no exception. Similarly, Simms knows hoods. Once you start spending some time outside in challenging weather you really start to appreciate the one-more-layer-damn-I'm-cold value of putting up a hood. And, you see that an awful lot of garments have truly lousy hoods. The handwarmer pockets are right where your hands want them to be. I go back and forth on whether I wish they were zippered or not. Zippers would be nice for transport, but having them open means easy access for frosty digits.

Looking for a great bargain on an outstanding piece of gear? Put the Simms Rogue Fleece Hoody on your list!


02 January, 2013

If You Can't Row, You Can't Go

Last weekend marked by rowing debut for a full-fledged fishing trip on the Pere Marquette river. Sure, I've rowed my FishCat 13 locally for a bit on the Huron, but those were mostly short training runs of one sort or another.

My Dad and I had planned to fish the PM over the Holiday break. I'm relocating the storage for my raft anyway, so needed to have it in Mt. Pleasant by the end of December anyway, so what the hell? Might as well give it a shot.

Of course, this caused some inner angst. As a former Boy Scout, the motto "Be Prepared" is always resonating in my head. Are my rowing skills up for this? What about a capsize? How long IS the float; certainly don't want to do the last hour in the dark! A mishap with my 69-year-old father could prove catastrophic. Fortunately, he's tough and good-natured and was even more up for the adventure than I.

One key aspec of the preparation was the "Oh Sh!t Bag". A full set of dry clothes in a dry bag was procured and packed. Dry and warm is happy. Wet and cold is NOT.

I arranged a car spot, did some research on prime Winter spots and we were off! Launch at the Green Cottage ramp went very smoothly. Within just a few feet I realized that my rowing skills were just fine. In general I was over-rowing, but I suppose that's a natural instinct. Biggest challenge seemed to be staying on the inside of sharp bends.

We successfully stopped at the first significant hole below the reach of walk-ins to give things a go. Of course by this time I learned lesson one. You get HOT rowing. And then you STOP. Brrr. But before long I had things going a bit more smoothly.

At the Clay Banks area we stopped to fish a few key Winter spots. Pretty quickly I hooked, and then lost, my first steelhead of the day. Afterward I glanced at the raft floating a few feet away. "Hmmm, was that right pontoon just underinflated? Seems like that side's a good bit low..." I thought. Naturally this put the brain into overdrive. Sure wish I'd thought to pack a pump. Shortly after I hooked and landed a nice brown trout. Catching fish tends to quiet the mind, so off we went.

I navigated the bottom of the Clay Bank nicely - almost looked like I knew what I was doing. A bit downstream Dad spotted a couple of runs that looked promising. Sure enough, it was! Three drifts in I find myself hooked up to a feisty skipper! NIIIICE! Not the biggest fish, but he had spirit and some great Winter colors. While catching steel with a guide is always great, catching one unguided still gives me an unparalleled thrill.

Hopping in to depart, I noticed that the right side of the raft was now considerably lower. At this point, we made a concerted effort to put some water behind us. A stop at Waddell's yielded nothing, but marked the beginning of the challenging part of the day.

With the right pontoon losing air, two results began to emerge. First, the handling of the raft changed considerably. It was more sluggish to correct and had a tendency to drift right. Second, the lower pivot point to the oarlock both reduced leverage and made it harder to clear the water on the upstroke. Unfortunately, this also coincided with some more challenging tight spots in the water above Gleason's Landing. Somehow I kept it together and only bounced us through a few trees. Of course Dad's laughing the whole time and having a blast as I drag him through the branches! It's good to have a good companion for such adventures.

By the time we reached Gleason's the sun was starting to arc toward the horizon. And the raft had become pretty tough to row in any semblance of control. But we got it landed, located my truck and trailer and loaded up. My target had been to pull out by 4:30pm and I hit it nearly on the nose. We would have liked to have made more fishing stops, but considering this was out maiden voyage I was pretty satisfied. Nobody drowned. Fish were caught. And best of all confidence was gained. I CAN do this!