By Ambassador Josh Mills, @millsfly
Standing knee deep in a steelhead stream, attached to my 13-foot spey rod made of highly engineered graphite is a reel produced in England well over 100 years ago.
Slung over my father’s shoulder for the last 50 plus years of deer and elk hunting is a Savage .270 that was bought used from a pawnshop. Improved with a top of the line 3x9 scope 10 or so years ago, that hunter and rifle combo are as deadly as they come.
Wool and Gore-Tex. A compass and OnX. Carbon Fiber and Click Pawl.
It's amazing to see the blend of history and innovation with regard to hunting and fishing and how it plays out today in the sports we love. There’s so much to hold with esteem from the past and so many new ways to improve on our outdoor endeavors with technology. Some shun the new to stay with the old, while others early adopt and drink up all that is new.
Where we all fall on that continuum is a question of what we hold dear and what we are looking for.
For the first time in 20+ years, I went looking for a new scope for a rifle that itself was a piece of history, a 30.06 made by legendary gunsmith Al Biesen. To make a long story short, Beisen was a master in gun production and made many of the rifles that Jack O’Connor used in his time as shooting editor at Outdoor Life. Passed down from my maternal grandfather, it’s truly a work of art. I felt honored to bring the rifle back into the field after decades of sitting unused in a safe. Beautifully checkered patterns on the stock and a Mauser action that is just plain silky. The last time I bought a scope, you settled in on a brand and what power you wanted. The standard answer in our family was a Leopold 3x9.
Standing with the sales associate, I was blown away with the options available. Red dots, reticles and more…I was starting to feel like I needed to go to sniper school to understand the light years of advancement that scopes had undergone since my last purchase. How many deer had my father taken with a simple 4x fixed power scope atop of his .270? The answer is many.
It made me think, “Are these advancements covering my deficiencies as an outdoorsman?”
It’s a hard pill to swallow when looking at it from that perspective. People that I grew up hunting and fishing with were the type to head out a trail, hunt all day and without fail arrive back at the truck at dusk. Now we have beautiful GPS programs like OnX that have given me the reassurance that yes, the truck is over that ridge.
I have thought about this subject a lot. Years ago, fired up about the possibilities that a GPS could provide us with, I gave my dad a shiny new GPS to match the one I had just purchased. A month or so later there it sat in its package, unopened. “Bud, I don’t need that thing.” Accepting that was an acknowledgment of his skill and that even with technology, I still needed to work on my woodsmanship.
There’s a romance attributed to the past, and nowhere in my outdoor life is that showcased more than in fly-fishing. Reels today are soaked in research and development, computer-aided design and finished with items like fully sealed carbon fiber disc drag systems. Some fly rods are developed with nanotechnology and crafted to the millimeter out of boron. Still, there are classic English made reels by companies like Hardy that are as collectible as they are useful. My pre World War 2 Hardy St. John salmon and steelhead reel still stand as a testament to its simplicity and genius. It’s my go-to reel that can stop a running fish with nothing more than a couple of springs. Sure there are reels made today that can stop a truck if you wanted to, but nothing sings a story of soul and craftsmanship when a steelhead makes a run and races off downriver.
Convexly, I don’t want to fish with the silk lines that came out with that reel. You can’t convince me that it’s a good idea to stand in the river in rubber waders of yesteryear. Similarly, I don’t pine to shoot with open sights. I’ll happily trade my heavy wool pants of Army surplus origin for the merino wool blends of today.
It’s likely that every generation has felt a bit jealous over the advancements in technology that is afforded to the newest class of outdoorsmen or outdoorswomen. I would submit that in my case, I have found the most enjoyment when I have the ability to embrace the old where I can while improving my experience with technology.
This fall I cannot wait to go out in search of mule deer accompanied with the Beisen 30.06 topped with the perfect scope loaded with technology. When steelhead returns to the rivers like the Clearwater, Grand Ronde, and the Snake, I’ll be fishing with fly from a pattern that’s well over 75 years old, a reel approaching 100 but waders that are packed with Gore-Tex and are lighter than a sweatshirt. One day I hope to pick up a classic English side by side 12 gage to go after pheasants and chukar as my dog searches the cover with a GPS collar.
My best experiences out there in the wild outdoor world seem to happen when I embrace what I can from the past, all while being open to all the advancements afforded to us. It provides homage to our forefathers, helps us understand where we have been and what the possibilities are for the future.