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Last fall I walked up to a young hunter sitting on a log. He was fiddling with a GPS unit, obviously puzzled. We struck up a conversation about the unit he was using. He was unsure of where he was and was confused by the GPS readings.

I grinned and asked if he had a compass. He looked up at me and said he didn’t own one. He’d heard they were complicated.

I told him the direction he needed to go in and watched him walk off. He wore the latest camo design, a new binocular and new boots–all in all, a walking sporting-goods catalog. There goes a real woods techie, I thought. I suspected he had little hunting or outdoors savvy.

My earliest hunting mentors were my grandfather, my uncles and my dad. In those days we hunted on the outskirts of the city we lived in; today that area is occupied by housing developments, malls and other civilized structures. Practically all of us can relate to such changing times, but think for a minute about the new hunter.

A person born in 1985, ready to enter college now and looking to hunt, has never known a world without HIV/AIDS, or The Tonight Show without Jay Leno. Most have never seen a television without a remote control or a telephone without buttons. They don’t know who shot J.R.–they don’t even know who J.R. was.

The fact is, young adults and new hunters have no idea what it was like 20 years ago. So, how have things changed? Consider our gear.

At the top of the list is camouflage clothing. Before the 1980s, the basic camo design was the military woodland pattern. Then came Trebark, soon followed by Realtree and Mossy Oak. Before long there were more than a dozen designs on the market. Camo clothing actually became a trendy fashion statement. Hunters wear it whether they’re going hunting or not. It’s the style in airports, in restaurants and even in hunting towers, where the fully clad camo hunter peers out of a small window, or more curiously still, where hunter orange is required to cover the camo. It doesn’t matter; camouflage is the thing to wear.

I wear camouflage for a couple of reasons. Some of the garments are made of tough, waterproof fabric and have a sturdy hood and all sorts of deep pockets to accommodate my gear. I also wear camo for the purpose for which it’s made–to hide from the quarry. I wear hunter orange for safety reasons when I’m hunting big game, but if I’m hunting turkeys, waterfowl or predators, I’ll wear camouflage from my nose to my toes.

Fabric technology has made great strides. Wool was the material of choice many decades ago, and it still is in cold, damp weather. My wool clothing is always handy, and I especially appreciate it when I’m headed out into stormy mountains. But now there’s Gore-Tex as well. Garments lined with Gore-Tex fabric are not only lightweight, but are waterproof as well (though the effectiveness can vary depending on the quality of the garment). Undergarments are now made from synthetic materials that we can hardly spell. Polypropylene, chloropropylene and others wick moisture away from our bodies and keep us warm and dry.

The latest rage among deer hunters is scent-blocking fabrics that incorporate charcoal filtration to mask human scent from a deer’s sensitive nose.

Hunting boots have changed dramatically. I had to constantly massage my first boots with a homemade mixture that included bear grease to keep them waterproof, but today’s boots require no such care. They also grip better and you can find tread designs for any hunting situation you might encounter. I prefer an air-bob sole, which in my experience handles slippery slopes better than any other design.

Optics have also gone through extraordinary changes in the last couple of decades. My first riflescope was a fixed four-power, and I did quite well with it for 20 years. In fact, it’s still my favorite type of scope, but the 3-9X variable is the current darling among most hunters. Most noteworthy is the technology inside the scope. Nowadays there are all sorts of reticles and gizmos that help you judge a bullet’s drop over a certain range, and some allow you to quickly figure how far away an animal is standing. That’s not my cup of tea; I don’t want to have to use my brain to interpret the little lines and circles in the scope when an elk is about to bust into the timber and I have just a moment to make the shot.

My idea of a great scope is one that is absolutely waterproof and fogproof and has a crisp focus, a simple crosshair with a dot in the middle and excellent light-gathering capability in low light. Ditto for the binocular (minus the crosshair, of course), but make mine roof prisms that won’t break my neck after wearing them all day. The old Porro prisms that weighed 15 pounds (well–it seemed like it) are stored in my attic. Spotting scopes are the least-used hunting optic, but the most important in open-country situations. A couple dozen years ago you had to be totally sold on the spotting-scope concept because they were bulky and heavy. Today they’re compact, light and a joy to use.

The range finder has become a big hit in the optics industry. Now we can confirm that an elk is indeed standing out there at 318 yards instead of 267 or 418. I think that’s perfectly acceptable. Anything that helps us to make a more accurate shot is okay.

RISE OF THE SYNTHETIC STOCK Guns haven’t changed a whole lot if you look at their external features. What has changed dramatically in firearms is the disappearance of the once-beloved wood stock. My first serious big-game rifle was a Winchester Model 70, primarily because I was a devoted Jack O’Connor fan and this was his rifle of choice. If there were any synthetic stocks around in 1963 when I got this rifle, I didn’t see them, but I would have considered it blasphemy to own any firearm that didn’t have a wooden stock. I was proud of the nicks and scratches on that Winchester’s stock after 20 years of use. Then something happened to my brain. I actually handled a gun with a synthetic stock, tried it and liked it. Now, synthetic stocks are my choice. They offer lighter weight and better accuracy and don’t make me wince when they get scratched.


The electronic devices that are commonplace today simply didn’t exist when I was starting to hunt. Now we can tell how many deer walk down a trail and even take pictures of them with a camera attached to a tree. Patterning is now the all-important strategy. When we kill a deer or elk, we can call our pals on a two-way radio and ask for help to get it out of the woods. Where we have cell phone service, we can call our wives, bosses or kids from the tree stand, and if we have a satellite phone we can make a call from the middle of the tundra above the Arctic Circle or from a Yucatan jungle. My biggest concern with any electronic equipment is ethics and fair chase. Hunters who use two-way radios to guide each other to game, for example, should be banished from the woods. Those who carry the new heat-seeking units designed to help find wounded deer should also hit the road if they attempt to use the devices to locate healthy, hidden animals.

Portable GPS units are marvelous. I haven’t figured out how to use them yet, but if they allow you to penetrate the woods with more confidence and find more game, then go for it. But they do run on batteries. It’s still good to keep a compass handy.

So what’s ahead? I wish I could look into the crystal ball and say for sure, but since I can’t, I’ll say that we’re in for more vastly improved electronic gear, profound advances in optics and perhaps a GPS unit that even I can figure out. But some things will never change. We still put our hunting pants on one leg at a time.

Zumbo’s Picks

Of all the recent developments in big-game hunting, these are the technological advances the author wouldn’t want to hunt without.

High-tech outerwear. Wool is great, but today’s outerwear hides us behind photo-realistic camo, keeps us dry and warm in rain and cold, allows our body’s moisture to escape and can even help mask our scent.

Modern optics. Today’s compact binoculars weigh less and transmit more light than older designs. Coated optics, lenses that shed moisture and waterproof construction have made our riflescopes better as well.

Synthetic stocks. These stocks are lighter and more durable and offer more consistent accuracy than do traditional wood designs.

Boots. Light boots that are waterproof and warm and give great support let us hunt harder, longer and safer in nasty weather and tough terrain.

Big-game calls. Hunters today know a lot more about big-game biology and behavior than previous generations did. Calls, such as the cow elk call invented by Don Laubach in the mid-’80s, have totally changed the way we hunt elk, deer and other big game.