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Bassmaster Elite Series Angler Stetson Blaylock fishes Amistad Reservoir. (Joshua Garza/Academy Sports + Outdoors/)

Not surprisingly, pro angler Stetson Blaylock pulled an almost five-pound largemouth out of the grass beds of Amistad Reservoir, a south Texas fishery that sits on the U.S.-Mexico border, while the rest of us missed bites and snagged lures in the hydrilla. Blaylock fishes the Bassmaster Elite Series after having spent 10 years on the FLW Tour. And unlike many of his peers, he utilizes a lot of inexpensive tackle novices like you and I fish with. Some of his go-to rods and reels from Academy Sports + Outdoors cost under $100, which is pretty remarkable in an age when there is so much emphasis placed on fishing gear with a high price tag and name-brand cachet.

But even though Blaylock fishes with every-man gear, he is a far cry from us weekend warriors who love to spend a Saturday afternoon on the pontoon, swilling beers, and hooking the occasional bass from the waters just below the fish feeder. And if you’re like me, you probably think the heat of late summer and early fall are god awful times to try and catch bass. Well, for greenhorns, it can be. Most big bass are not crashing baits right now. But with a little more time on the water—and these tips from Blaylock—you can start landing more quality fish

Outdoor Life: We almost always see pro anglers throwing baitcasters over spinning reels. Is there a decided advantage in using one or the other?

Stetson Blaylock: Both have an important place in my boat. Spinning rods give you more control when you are using lighter line and baits. You can be more accurate with casts and have more control of smaller fish when they are on your line. One thing a baitcaster does, is the stiffer rod gives you better control in heavy cover, and you can be more precise with it when you are throwing heavier line and baits. Any time I need to finesse a fish into the boat, I downsize my line weight and go to the spinning rod. But one is not necessarily better than the other. I just use them to fish different types of structure.

OL: I grew up hearing that fish go deep in the heat of summer, but at Amistad we started off fishing grassbeds with topwater lures. Why?

Stetson Blaylock pulled this 5-pounder out the grass at Amistad.

A black lab retriever peeks its head from a waterfowl hunting blind. (Lee Thomas Kjos/)

We decided to name our bird dog after an elevator company. This was before we even had a dog, when my girlfriend (now my wife) and I were living in New York City.

“Otis,” she said, reading the company name above the floor numbers. “That would be a nice name for a dog.”

“Someday we’ll leave this damn city,” I said. “We’ll get a little black Lab puppy, and we’ll name him Otis.”

Talking about an imagined future was our way of fast-forwarding through the present. I had been diagnosed with cancer the week before, and my immediate future was full of nothing but medical tests, operations, and grim uncertainty.

Much of that fantasy life revolved around the hunting dog we would name Otis. Steph imagined a cute furball she could love and who would love her back. The pup would rely on her for every basic need—a not-so-subtle surrogate for the baby she wanted but wasn’t ready for. I imagined a tireless hunting partner I could take on any adventure, no matter how unlikely the odds of success—­an obvious substitute for the close hunting buddy I never found in the city.

Kjos’ dog Cap charging through adiver spread.
Deke bringing a bluebill back to hand.
Miller lines up Sage for a blind retrieve.
Sammie, an old, gray-faced veteran, waits for the next flight of ducks during a morning hunt in Missouri.

Five riflescopes arranged on a grey background. (Bill Buckley/)

Maybe you’ve heard about a new class of riflescope, optics that use electronics and wireless technology to help with the main job a scope is ­designed to do: consistently place bullets in a very small area across great distances.

These are variously called “smart scopes,” ­"e-scopes," or “electro-optics,” but what they have in common is their use of technology to derive an aiming solution, generally presented as an illuminated dot on the crosshair or as a digital display inside the scope. Some use built-in laser rangefinders. Others use wireless Bluetooth antennas to receive ballistics ­information transmitted from a mobile-phone app. And still others communicate wirelessly with “smart” rangefinders.

This species of electronic optic showed up on the market nearly a decade ago, led by Burris' revolutionary rangefinding Eliminator and the TrackingPoint system developed by partners of Remington Arms that was panned at the time as unethical for hunting because of its reliance on technology. But now the number and variety of digital scopes in the commercial market is accelerating. Advances in integrated circuitry, microprocessing, and wireless technology have prompted more companies to develop smart scopes, and many brands that don’t have e-scopes in their product lines now have plans to release them.

It only makes sense that electronics, which have pervaded so many other aspects of our lives, would eventually show up in our optics and on our rifles.

We evaluated many of the electro-optics currently available, assessing them on their own merits and against each other, but also against representatives of more traditional riflescopes used for both hunting and precision long-distance target shooting. You can check out the whole field of new scopes in our Optics Test 2020.

Laser rangefinders and wind meters, like Horus' new HoVR weather station, are critical tools for long-range precision shooters.
The author shoots Steiner’s M7Xi electronic riflescope.
Jeron Wesen preps a MagnetoSpeed chronograph to capture bullet velocity.
A. SIG’s Kilo2400BDX rangefinder connects via Bluetooth to a mobile app loaded with the ­properties of your specific load. B. Because the BDX system shows precise holdover on the reticle, smart scope turrets are not routinely dialed. C. The rangefinder communicates distance and bullet drop to the scope, which computes an illuminated holdover.

Think about how much time you have to dedicate to training before buying a pup. (Tony J. Peterson/)

Too often we choose hunting dogs based on preconceived notions of what we have seen a particular breed accomplish in the marsh or uplands. Rarely do we question our own individual training ability and commitment to the long game of developing our gun dogs into better hunters. That’s a shame, because while it’s important to match up a breed to the role it will have in the field, ignoring temperament, personality, and biddability in dog selection is a recipe for disaster. This holds true for all hunting dogs, but is absolutely crucial for any new dog owner, or anyone hell-bent on taking the contrarian route in dog ownership.

Be Realistic

Human nature dictates that a certain percentage of us will not do what’s most popular. This seems to be particularly true for gun dog owners. Many of us get obsessed with buying a certain dog and forget, or don’t consider, the skill it takes to train a pup into a finished retriever, pointer or flusher. The fact is, you need to consider how knowledgeable you are before getting too caught up in the breed you want to buy. Novice trainers need easy-handling dogs, like Labs or German shorthair pointers. These two breeds are historically less temperamental than most and want to please their owners. Some breeds enjoy “going into business for themselves” as the great trainer and writer Jim Spencer used to say. And those dogs should be avoided by newbies.

I get you might not want the same dog that all of your buddies have, but there are countless reasons why a Lab is a great choice for amateur trainers, namely, they are easy to work with. This is also the case with well-bred golden retrievers, even though they’ve fallen out of favor with many hunters after decades of poor breeding practices and widespread adoption through the general, non-hunting public. Good ones can be had, but they take work to find. The plus side is they, along with Labs, and German shorthairs are damn easy to train (as long as they have formidable bloodlines) because they want to work with you.

Off-Breed Duck Dogs

Well-bred Labs are some of the most easy duck dogs to train.
There’s a reason why so many upland guides hunt Brittanys and GSPs.
A Chesapeake Bay retriever is a good example of a gun dog impatient, novice trainers should avoid.

Finding the best grouse gun is a never-ending pursuit. (A.J. DeRosa/)

A low electronic hum created an ambient sound that complemented a smell that was a mix of what I could only guess was steel, gun oil, and concrete well aged in this fluorescent-lit room hidden in the back of a parking lot. The industrial metal door thumped shut like we were barricading ourselves from a zombie apocalypse. A Purdey over-under leaned against a dusty workbench to my immediate right, the surfaces filled with what seemed like a disastrous maze of tools, parts, and who knows what else, that with the slightest touch could send piles cascading to the ground like an avalanche just waiting for a tipping point. Stephen Hutton of Britannia Sporting Arms, AKA “Doc,” spoke with a thick English accent in slow, deliberate precision to Gregg Elliot, a gun writer, and double gun connoisseur.

Without delay, we soon huddled over one of Gregg’s original Fox A Grades, disassembled next to the newer Savage Fox A Grade. As I snapped pictures, Doc spoke. “Would you like me to take it down further?”

It was no shock what we would find. Despite their similar names, these guns are not the same. The modern version is a rendition of the Connecticut RBL made more in commemoration of the original A Grade in name and looks but not mechanics. Gregg took careful time to show me the inner tooled workings of the original shotgun. You could see the markings of chisels and faint memories of a fine American craftsman long gone.

On the surface, when a grouse hunter walks out of the woods, side-by-side in hand, grouse dog in tow, bell jingling around a modern GPS collar, it does not look much different than 100 years ago. Yet innovation is at every corner in the modern age. New technical fabrics, more durable and practical boots, even the advancement of electronics have infiltrated this timeless pursuit. It is an exciting time to be a hunter. Yet a paradox exists in the double guns we carry. The introduction of the Anson and Deeley action by Westley Richards in England, or more commonly referred to as the boxlock, was invented in 1875 and as Elliot wrote in the article The Insult That Conquered the World, “If you’ve ever fired a side-by-side or over-under, there’s a 99.9 percent chance your hands have touched one of Westley Richards’s patents.”

This was not the first time I found myself looking over Elliot’s shoulder learning the ins and outs of the double gun. We had traveled to Italy together the year before where we spent a few days touring the Beretta factory. This is where the paradox began to reveal itself to me. As we looked at a 3-D printer and a perfect digital rendition of the inside of an actual gun barrel right before our eyes, I realized there was no bounds to how precise a double gun could be.

The CZ Bobwhite was the side-by-side that started the author’s obsession with grouse guns.
Unlike some other hunting pursuits the variety of shotguns you can take into the grouse woods is never-ending.
AYA’s sidelocks are more mechanically elaborate than boxlocks.

Wayne and Candice after a successful turkey hunt. (Courtesy Wayne Hubbard/)

Editor’s Note: If there’s one thing that’s certain after this summer, it’s that Americans need to come together. To do that, we first must listen to those of us who have been ignored for too long. At Outdoor Life, that means Black and other minority hunters and anglers who don’t often see themselves represented in the hunting and fishing community. We’re running a collection of essays to tell their stories and share their perspectives.

Wayne Hubbard never questioned that minorities had a place in the outdoors. Growing up in Oklahoma, he and his family lived close to the land. They fished, hunted, gardened, and collected wild greens—and they put nature’s bounty on the dinner table.

Maybe that’s why he was so surprised when he heard the common refrain: “Blacks don’t hunt or fish.”

“It’s like we were invisible,” said Hubbard, an avid outdoorsman who now lives in Kansas City. “We were out there enjoying the outdoors, but a lot of people looked the other way. It was like they didn’t see us.”

From that point on, Hubbard dedicated himself to preaching inclusion in the outdoors. One of the first African-Americans he convinced was the woman who later became his wife, Candice Price.

You will learn more, and become a better rifle shot, from handloading your own ammo. (Ron Spomer/)

At some point every shooter toys with the notion of handloading his or her own ammunition. Saves money! More accuracy! Faster than factory rounds! Better bullets! Well, there are some real truths about “rolling your own ammo” you might not be aware of.

Handloading rifle ammunition is a bit like building your own arrows or tying your own flies. Yes, you can save money if you disregard the time investment it takes. And you can make a better custom product. But the biggest benefit may be the satisfaction and pride in doing it yourself. Taking a good buck, bull, or bear is quite an accomplishment. Taking it with a cartridge you carefully crafted — priceless.

Much the same can be said about target shooting. If you just want to pull triggers and send chunks of metal downrange, those bargain basement Brand X cheapie loads will suffice. But if you want to shoot purposefully and precisely, you’ll punch tighter groups with carefully-constructed cartridges tailored to your rifle.

So do I recommend handloading? You bet I do! But only for folks who like to work with their hands and have the free time to do it. Handloading is for individuals who can maintain records and order, are careful, and patient. Handloading is neither difficult nor dangerous, but it’s not for the sloppy, lackadaisical, or flippant. You have to take this job seriously. Do that and the rewards are satisfying.

Does it Cost Less?

Once you have your brass cases, the only extra expense in loading a high velocity magnum instead of a standard cartridge is powder volume.
One of the great benefits of handloading is creating superior ammunition for cartridges that don’t get much support from ammo factories.
There are some upfront costs for handloading, but you can defer some of that by going in on the necessary equipment with hunting buddies.
A caliper, mechanical or digital, is essential for checking case dimensions, especially overall case length.

The author takes aim at a Shiras moose moments before the shot. (Bill Buckley/)

I was standing in a long line that snaked through a maze formed by Tensa­barrier stanchions, those portable stands with retractable webbing used by the TSA, concert stadiums, motor vehicle departments, and other venues that want to funnel large groups of people in an orderly fashion.

I glanced at the sheet of paper in my hand, a form with dozens of check boxes with my personal information filled in at the top. It was the size of a menu at a 24-hour Greek diner.

Everyone in the crowd around me, mostly men and most wearing something decorated with camo, held identical applications. I didn’t need to be a mind reader to know their thoughts: Maybe this year.

We were in a broad, carpeted hallway in the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, where the Western Hunting & Conservation Expo takes place every February, usually right around Valentine’s Day.

On the form, 200 Utah tags were in play, everything from humble public-land turkey permits to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like bison and desert sheep. For the modest fee of $5 per tag, you could try your luck for as many of them as you qualified for. (Some are specifically for nonresidents only.)

The author and his guide, Jonnie Kellogg, wait for the bull to move out of cover.
Glassing for animals on public land in the Wasatch mountains just outside of Heber City, Utah.
Three rounds of factory Hornady 143-grain ELD-X ammo in 6.5 PRC.
The author’s gorgeous custom Dakota rifle that was built for the hunt.
Kellogg bellowing out a moose call.
Hiking through a stand of late-summer aspens.
A quick picture before the real work begins.
The author notches his tag.
Cutting up the moose by headlamp.

The 12-gauge pump shotgun is touted as the ultimate home defender. It’s far from a one-trick-pony and about as general-purpose of a firearm as you can buy. A shotgun can take the place of a rack of assorted rifles as long as you’re shooting at shorter distances, and can be used for hunting, garden pest control, guarding the family campsite, and, of course, defending your home.

The pump shotgun is relatively easy to use and requires little skill to be an effective shot. As far as maintenance is concerned, the pump is the workhorse of long guns, and might be the most passed over firearm by homeowners. Many think a handgun or even AR-15 are better options, but neither is as forgiving in terms of accuracy and stopping a threat. Shotguns cast a wider shot pattern, and can take down an intruder even in the most inexperienced hands.

Once properly set up, the 12-gauge shotgun is probably the best all-around choice for the average homeowner seeking a defensive firearm. With an extended magazine tube, or detachable box magazine loaded with 00 buckshot, the shotgun brings overwhelmingly effective firepower to a close-quarter fight.

Losing the Tactical Advantage

One disclaimer I’d like to make right out of the gate: It has been said, and often repeated, that the simple sound of racking a shell into the chamber of a shotgun is enough to repel the most determined intruders. This mindset is incredibly naïve. When armed, and responding to a potential threat, your firearm should be loaded, with the safety on and positioned at your choice of ready position. It’s a mistake to think racking a shell into the chamber as an act of intimidation will scare an intruder off like you see in Hollywood movies. You have actually just lost the tactical advantage and told a potential adversary 1) you’re armed, 2) what you’re armed with, 3) your location, 4) your magazine capacity is limited, and 5) you’re untrained.

Winchester’s PDX-1 Defender is stacked with three buckshot pellets on top of a 1-ounce slug for increased accuracy.
There are benefits and drawbacks of each platform, but the pump-action is more reliable.
Shorter is better for home defense shotgun barrels.
The Magpul SGA allows for a better shotgun fit.
An aftermarket fore-end with a mounted light should be considered a necessity for all home defense shotguns.
A red-dot is the ultimate shotgun optic.
The Mossberg 590M has a 20-round magazine capacity.
The M4 is relied on by the U.S. Marines.

The dual powder tubes throw fast, accurate charges. (Bill Buckley/)

Everyone wants to be a precision rifle shooter until it’s time to do precision rifle stuff, like throwing ridiculously accurate powder charges. Dispensing powder for precision shooting can be a drag because you need the charges to be accurate, preferably to within a kernel or two of powder, but you also want them fast because it’s a high-volume proposition. Those things don’t normally go hand in hand. Between old-school volumetric powder throwers and expensive electronic setups, dispensing powder quickly and accurately can seem like it’s part voodoo ritual and part Jet Propulsion Laboratory project. RCBS developed the Matchmaster digital powder scale and dispenser to provide the necessary level of accuracy and speed for precision rifle shooters in a relatively affordable, user-friendly package.

Normally, to get the needed precision and volume output, a reloader has to obtain and integrate various components such as precision scales, mechanical powder throwers, and computer-controlled tricklers. This is time consuming and requires a lot of tinkering. It also turns out to be fairly expensive, and what you end up with looks like an escapee from a robotics fair. The Matchmaster, on the other hand, is a combination scale/dispenser with a footprint no larger than a couple of normal-sized reloading die boxes and is just 10.5 inches tall.

The heart of the unit is the load cell, which is accurate to .02 grain of powder, which is basically a kernel of most stick propellants. The system is capable of dispensing charges in “match” mode accurate to +/- .04 grain rather than the typical +/- .1 grain of most commercial dispensers. That difference helps shooters get closer to the holy grail of single-digit SD and sub-20 ES velocity measurements.

The compact Matchmaster doesn’t take up much space on the reloading bench. (Bill Buckley/)

Getting these precise charges quickly is really the main issue because most of us would rather spend time shooting than watching powder dispense. To this end, the Matchmaster has a patent-pending dual tube system. The large tube quickly dispenses the majority of the charge before stopping at a predetermined point. The small tube, which runs the whole time, fine-tunes the charge, finally trickling the last few kernels into the pan to land at the correct weight.

One of the best features on the Matchmaster is the app that lets you control it through your phone. It is particularly helpful for setting up custom powder profiles that let you throw your charges faster ­without sacrificing precision.

The compact Matchmaster doesn’t take up much space on the reloading bench.

After the first week of the dove opener, you can use some uncommon tactics to continue to bag a few birds. (Josh Garza/Academy Outdoors/)

I never want dove season to end…ever. It’s the best and most consistent bird season the average hunter has here in central Illinois. The ducks and geese don’t migrate in droves anymore during the fall, and killing a wild pheasant is tougher than my mom’s meatloaf. But I can almost always count on a few decent dove shoots every summer. By that I mean four or five hunts where I shoot more than five birds. Then I’m hopeful for another handful of hunts where I shoot two to four. Maybe that doesn’t seem like much to a Texas or Arizona dove hunter, where the birds are plentiful. But that’s the harsh reality in my neck of the woods, so I try and do the best with what I have, which is a private 1.5-acre sunflower field my brother and I plant each spring and a few public spots that get pounded badly the first week of the season.

To shoot as many doves as possible, I’ve found that the conventional route of sitting on a five-gallon bucket over spinning-wing decoys only works for so long. Doves are pretty wary birds once they start getting shot at, and if you pressure them, they’re gone. That’s why public land (at least where I am) is really only hunted the first few days of the season. Birds get shot up, and push on, and it’s over—all that time and hard work spent planting by state employees goes up in smoke in a weekend. But that doesn’t stop me from going back to such places a few weeks later to try and scavenge the few birds that remain.

If you’re not ready for dove season to end, there are a couple proven tactics I have used over the years that work. They may seem a bit odd, but trust me, while your buddies are at home on the couch complaining that the birds have all gone south, you will be shooting doves.

1. Take the Wings Off the Mojos

Taking the wings off spinners will still attract doves. (Joe Genzel/)

Most hunters only have one or two dove spinners. I get it. They hunt doves once or twice a year. There’s no reason to have any more. But I will use 6 to 10 later in the season. After the first week, I will take the wings off multiple decoys and just stake them out in the field on the Mojo poles. Some folks like to use dove decoys that clip on to the sunflowers or wire, to mimic doves on a powerline. Those will work too. Watch how birds use the field and set up the decoys accordingly. Sometimes doves will fly straight to the ground. When I see that, I prop decoys upright on the ground as long as the field is not too weedy. If the birds can get a good visual on the decoy, you should try this. You can also use Mojo’s Dove-a-Flickrs. If birds are landing on flower heads first, I keep the spinners on their stands.

Taking the wings off spinners will still attract doves.
Finding a tree or brushline is a good place to find doves later in the season.
Check in with your deer hunting buddies during fall to find out if late migrators are in the fields.

Aldo Leopold inventories specimens for his natural-history collection. (Corbis/Getty Images/)

When Aldo Leopold wrote about land management a century ago, his intention wasn’t to grow bigger deer racks or design a “kill plot” under a treestand. Instead, it was to restore health and vitality to land that had been depleted by overgrazing, over­logging, overfarming, and underappreciation.

Best known for his collection of essays, published posthumously as A Sand County Almanac, Leopold was one of our first professional wildlife biologists. His classic book Game ­Management, published in 1933, laid the foundation for the discipline of scientific wildlife management. Published during the depths of the Great Depression, in it, Leopold asked his readers to mull the purpose of humans’ dominion over nature.

“The central thesis of game management is this,” Leopold wrote. “Game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have destroyed it—axe, plow, cow, fire, and gun.”

His was one of the first calls to invest in habitat, and to set aside and improve landscapes mainly for the use of wildlife. By ensuring that we have abundant water, healthy soils, and clean air, he stressed, we’ll also care for our human communities.

Read Next: Take a Holistic Approach to Habitat Management Projects

The new GoPro HERO9 Black is packed with features for hunters, including the addition of a new front-facing screen. (Natalie Krebs /)

GoPro’s newest member of the HERO family is here, and it has plenty of applications for hunters, shooters, and anglers. If you haven’t seen the slick new Apple-inspired video they released this morning (below), it’s worth a watch to see all the new features in action.

The marketing message on this model is all about how much more stuff they’ve managed to pack into the HERO9. It has a larger 23.6-megapixel sensor to capture higher-resolution videos—now up to 5K—and 20-megapixel photos. If you forget to take photos, though don’t worry, because you can also pull nearly 15-megapixel screen grabs from video footage. GoPro has also figured out how to introduce 30 percent longer battery life. (That’s on average, so your true battery life will vary based on your settings.) That’s all great news for recording everything from your backyard to the backcountry.

There are a few completely new features, too, including the addition of a second LED screen on the front of the camera, which is especially handy for folks who spend a lot of time in the treestand. The front screen makes it easy to check and adjust the framing of your shot—just like setting a trail camera on the proper field of view before you burn a bunch of a time and battery life recording a crappy angle. The new in-camera horizon leveling that used to just exist in the app is perfect for, say, your float-plane flight into drop camp.

The upgrades to the existing features aren’t shabby either, like the HyperSmooth 3.0 stabilizing function, which will smooth out bumpy footage and keep viewers from getting nauseous when you play back your ATV ride. They’ve also added slo-mo for video up to 4K, so picture more clips of smoking shotgun shells getting shucked in high-def. TimeWarp 3.0 lets you slow down your time lapse of, say, a long, fruitless sit in the treestand just as a buck steps out of the trees—all within the same take and now with real-time audio. Thankfully, it’s also still waterproof and controllable via a mobile app.

For the full list of fancy features on the new HERO9—webcam capabilities, removable lenses, built-in mounting fingers, oh my—check out their site. Any existing GoPro mounts you already own are compatible with the HERO9, although your old-generation batteries won’t work in the new model since that longer battery life is powered by larger batteries.

Andrew McKean with a brace of sage grouse. (Andrew McKean/)

One of my favorite grouse quotes is attributed to author Frank Woolner: “Guns and dogs don’t kill grouse, legs do.”

True, though sometimes killing a limit of ruffies or sharptails is as easy as lacing your boots. Other times, all you have to show for your effort is a face slapped by greenwood branches, arms raked by thorns, and whirring wings beyond a veiling screen of popple. The stories here are about those kinds of grouse hunts, the ones that don’t feature gentle woods or reliable birds. These stories conform to another quote.

“The first time you hunt blue grouse, it’s out of curiosity,” my buddy said, massaging his blistered feet on the tailgate of my pickup. “The next times, it’s for revenge.”—Andrew McKean

1. Mountain Grouse: Cascade Range’s cinder-cone enigmas

For a season in the 1990s, I hunted a ghost. Ostensibly, I was hunting mountain grouse—spruce and blues—along the pumice ridges of Washington’s Cascade mountains. Washington Game & Fish now classifies blue grouse, fittingly, as sooty grouse, and based on the near futility of my experience, it’s hard to think of them as anything but an apparition. But the shotgun was mainly a prop; I was really hunting the long shadow of D.B. Cooper.

A sooty grouse roosts on a ridgeline.
An English setter brings a North Woods ruffed grouse to hand.

the author has been putting Suzuki’s King Quad 750axi to the test in Alaska this year. (Tyler Freel/)

In Alaska, ATVs are critical tools for many hunters. They’re also important in the daily lives of just about everyone who lives outside the cities. This is rugged country, and most of our adventures (and chores) take us off blacktop roads and into the woods. ATVs play a year-round role for many Alaskans. But a stock machine has plenty of room for improvement, and you can’t safely hit the backcountry without a few upgrades. Regardless of where you live, if you’re an outdoorsman or woman investing in an ATV, you want to maximize its potential for your intended purpose. This will cost a little extra money, but there are several simple after-market modifications you can make to get the most out of your new 4x4. Some of these will be more or less helpful depending on where you live and what you’re using an ATV for, so customize accordingly.

Here are the upgrades I think are most important in relation to the places I hunt. If you spend much time in the woods, these basic builds will make life in the backcountry much easier.

1. Winch

Without a winch, an ATV won't be of much use in the backcountry. (Tyler Freel/)

A hunting ATV needs a winch. You can forget going off-road without one. Now, obviously there are some places that might be exceptions, like small farms. A winch can make a lot of problems go away, the most obvious of which is being stuck in the mud. They are also very handy at helping you safely navigate some otherwise suicidal obstacles, primarily steep climbs and descents. On extremely steep terrain, if you can anchor your winch straight uphill, your machine cannot flip over backwards—the main risk when navigating this kind of country. You can also start at the top and lower your machine backwards over small cut-banks and other declines. You can right a flipped machine if you’ve got a tree to help you out, and move or lift a dead deer, elk, bear, or even moose with the right hardware.

You can buy off-brand winches pretty darn cheap, and this may be the best option if you’re rarely going to use it. But if you’re planning to rely on this critical tool so often, it’s advisable to buy a reputable brand winch like Warn. You’re going to depend on your winch working, so buy the best you can afford—don’t cheap out. Mounting a winch can take a little time, and you’ll usually need a bracket specific to your ATV, but it’s not all that difficult. You will also need a winch if you want to use a snow plow, which is nice to have during our extensive Alaskan winters.

Without a winch, an ATV won't be of much use in the backcountry.
Buy a winch with a synthetic rope. They are much more reliable than steel cables.
Brush bumpers can provide valuable protection for your ATV, especially when traveling off-trail.
For serious use, stock ATV tires leave much to be desired and won't let your machine reach its full potential.
Wheel spacers add stability and clearance to your ATV.

The dual Crosscentric Cam on the VXR 28contributed to yet another sweet-shooting flagship from Mathews. (Jeff Wilson/)

What does a bowhunter really need? Is it a compound with a comfortable draw cycle that you can hold back awhile because the bull you were about to shoot stopped behind an aspen? Or is it the fastest crossbow available, because there’s a good chance the buck you’re after will step out at 60 yards this evening and you’ll be waiting for him in a shooting house?

After budget considerations, buying a new compound or crossbow usually depends on your hunting style and personal preference. But if you compare enough bows using the same objective criteria, you will discover that some are just better than others. And if you compare enough of them over time, you’ll see trends ebb and flow.

Our annual test of new bows is one unencumbered by sponsorship deals or advertising arrangements. Our only goal is to tell it like it is, so you can make the best decision for your bow season. Here’s a look at the 2020 winners, as well as the trends happening right now with bowhunting equipment. To find the full list and reviews of the bows and crossbows we tested, ­go to

Best Compound Bows of 2020

Editor’s Choice: Mathews VXR 28

The Mathews VXR 28.
Engineers have maxed out compound design (thanks, physics), so bows are starting to look and perform the same. Now manufacturers are focusing on adjustability.
The Ravin R29X crossbow.
Unconstrained by human draw strength, crossbow design keeps getting faster, cooler, and weirder
The Barnett TS380 crossbow.
HHA Tetra Max sights.
Rigging compounds for recording noise, speed, and vibration in the anechoic (echo-free) chamber at Stress.
The Hoyt Axius ($1,099) in the hot seat.
Recording draw-force curves to determine efficiency.

My hunting buddy Josh Dahlke and I lease the deer hunting rights to a 400-acre farm in northwestern Wisconsin. It’s ideal deer habitat of rolling hardwood ridges and agricultural fields, but that doesn’t mean our deer hunting is easy.

Whether you hunt in public land or private ground, mature bucks are good at avoiding hunters (that’s how they’ve grown old, after all). That means we put in plenty of work before we actually start hunting. Our goal is to hang cameras and stands so that when it’s time to hunt, we’re not scrambling—and potentially blowing a big buck off the property. But really, the “work” we’re putting in is a labor of love. Obsessing over treestand locations, scouting new ground, and scrolling through trail camera pictures is just how I want to spend my late-summer days.

If you’re like us, you’re probably doing the same thing right about now. Here are some of the tactics we use for patterning deer and hopefully tagging a nice buck or two when the season starts.

Get the most out of your trail cams

Trail camera pictures are only as useful as you make them. At the most basic level, they tell you if nice bucks are around. But what you’re really trying to figure out is where those nice bucks are heading, where they’re coming from, and where they might be vulnerable. To do that, you’ve got to really read the pictures, not just flip through them. For example, look to see if one of your target bucks is hanging out with a bachelor group of smaller bucks. That way, even if you don’t keep getting photos of the big buck, but capture shots of the smaller bucks, you can still gamble on the big buck’s general whereabouts (some of the wariest bucks are good at avoiding cameras). In one of our shots we spotted a buck with muddy legs. That tells us he probably crossed a nearby swamp before coming out to feed. You can look for more general hints too. For example, are deer hitting certain food sources more often than others? Are certain fields more active at night versus in the morning? We’re logging all of this information into a mapping app called HuntStand so that as the season progresses, we can objectively identify deer patterns and zero in on areas with the most buck activity.

The Best Rifles of 2020

Editor’s Choice: SIG Cross, $1,780

A man in a cap aims a Sig Sauer SIG Cross rifle during a gun test. (Bill Buckley/)

This new gun from SIG is the real deal. It’s not just a bolt-action thrown into a chassis with AR-15 dimensions. The Cross has attained the elusive goal of being a portable mountain rifle (8.5 pounds scoped), with a hefty dose of battlefield DNA thrown into the mix. The stock adjusts every which way for a custom fit, and it folds down so the rifle can be carried in a pack. The three-lug action is snappy and quick. It runs great from the shoulder and is crazy accurate. With few exceptions, this 6.5 Creedmoor was a one-hole gun, shooting nearly all types of ammo in tiny clusters to the same point of impact.

The tight tolerances on the mag well helped it feed flawlessly from the 5-round P-Mag it came with, and were in keeping with the rifle’s feel of rugged reliability.

Great Buy: Tikka T3x Lite Roughtech, $1,100

A man in a cap aims a Tikka T3x Lite Roughtech rifle during a gun test.
From top: Proof Research Elevation MTR; Weatherby Backcountry; Seekins Havak Element.
Top to bottom: Sako’s S20 in precision rifle configuration; Anschutz 1782; Benelli Lupo.
Bergara’s B-14R comes ready to compete in NRL rimfire matches.
A close look at the engraving on the Marlin Anniversary Edition.
The Beretta 694 Sporting (left) and the CZ Upland Ultralight All-Terrain (right) .
The Mossberg 940 JM Pro (top) and Savage Arms Renegauge are rugged 12-gauge semis.
From top: Caesar Guerini Invictus III Sporting; Browning Citori Gran Lightning; Benelli 828U Sport.

Largemouth bass cruising Florida’s Rainbow River. (isaac szabo/eric engbretson/)

Spend enough time at any boat ramp from Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Texas to Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota and you’ll hear a common complaint: “Man, it’s getting harder and harder to catch a bass.”

Your buddies will want to blame fishing pressure. And while real cause-and-effect is tricky to pin down, there is some good science to support those claims that bass may actually be getting tougher to catch.

Letting 'Em Go and Watching 'em Grow

Before we dig into the research, a quick history lesson. Sixty years ago, bass fishing was primarily a Southern thing. Many new reservoirs had growing largemouth populations, plus good habitat that was easy for anglers to identify. Bass fishing was excellent—for a while.

But over time, catch rates began to decline. Angler harvest was partly to blame. So agencies implemented minimum-­length and reduced-bag harvest limits to protect bass numbers. But the real game changer was an evolving catch-and-release ethos. Using bass tournaments as a stage, and with strong media support, the bass-fishing community promoted the idea of catch-and-release fishing during the 1970s. Today, live-release rates are at 85 to 95 percent among bass anglers, and fish are as abundant as ever in most waters. So…why aren’t you catching more of them?

Nothing weathers the shifting trends in the handgun market better than the compact carry pistol—and for good reason. These midsize pistols are ideally sized for filling both duty and concealed-­carry roles. They can handle 90 percent of the tasks of their full-size big brothers, yet can disappear beneath a T-shirt.

Three of our five picks are shining examples of the midsize carry pistol, sharing optimal dimensions, 15-round magazine capacities, and excellent ergonomics. The remaining two are ideal if compromises must be made to accommodate capacity limits and restrictive clothing, or if deeper concealment is needed.

In general, the following models offer the highest ratio of concealability and shootability, and are as suitable for your nightstand as they are for concealing within your waistband.

1. SIG Sauer P320 X-Compact RX

SIG Sauer P320 X-Compact RX • $1,000 (Bill Buckley/)

The story behind the X-Compact is an interesting one. One sunny New England day, a pair of SIG Sauer Academy instructors decided to create a new concealed-carry pistol. One securely clutched a field-stripped X-Five grip module, while the other eyeballed his cuts with a hacksaw. When the plastic dust settled, the frame had been cut to accept 15-round P320 compact magazines and the dustcover was chopped flush to fit a subcompact slide assembly. It may not have been pretty, but a formidable carry pistol was conceived.

Glock 19 Gen 5 MOS • $620
Springfield Armory Hellcat OSP • $600
Walther Q4 SF • $1,400
M&P9 Shield EZ • $480