Duck hunting has and likely always will be a gear game. Check any old photo of mid-1900s duck hunters and you will catch a glimpse of the good looking, functional garments of the time period. Apparel technology has evolved immensely but the need for dependable, durable garb to handle the up and down Arkansas winter will always exist.
Manufacturers have come and gone (and some have come back again) but waterfowlers are uniquely particular about their clothing — some because of the performance, some because the current trends have followed two different paths and the duck hunter’s preference for one or the other is quite strong. The choice seems to boil down to technical versus retro.
Technical apparel has made great strides thanks to the innovations of companies like Sitka, Drake, Banded and Natural Gear, among others. Technical apparel focuses on the function with modern designs, water-resistant materials and more gadgets than one could think are possible on a coat — cutting-edge, camouflage patterns coupled with varying weights to handle wild weather swings.
While the high-tech gear options have expanded, some tried and true brands are sticking with their focus on waxed-canvas type garments that deliver a vintage look. Filson, Avery’s Heritage Collection as well as the return of Duxbak are fleshing out the more traditional waterfowler look with a renewed, modern twist on hats, jackets, pants and bags.
The ode to the 1940s-1960s look has been a big hit with duck hunters not quite ready to embrace the modern styles. Muted browns and greens are the norm, although Filson has recently partnered with Mossy Oak on some camouflaged gear for 2018.
Although I own several coats and accessories made by some of the companies noted, I personally don’t have a strong preference one way or the other as I appreciate the look and feel of both styles. The decision on which to wear on a given day depends on the day. Some work better on windy days, others better on rainy days and so on. Some days, the decision is simply based on the look.
But I have found my lack of allegiance is an anomaly.
Some hunters mix and match brands and patterns, but a majority either like the new stuff or go retro, not both. Trapper Padgett, an Avery Pro-Staffer from Lonoke, is firm in his approach to apparel.
“Modern apparel companies are constantly changing and trying to adapt their product to fit and conform to all weather conditions and also meet the needs of every hunter,” Padgett says. “The emergence of the ‘new old school’ companies like Avery or Filson aren’t having to modify or conform because it’s already been done. The sweet spot has been found.
“This is the reason I love my Avery Heritage gear because it fits me and it fits the hunter who hunts a few days or a few months. I wear it every day in any condition and it meets and exceeds anything I need it to do or any conditions I’m in. From Canada to home here in the Delta, I’ll have my heritage gear on.”
Anthony Bourne, co-owner/founder of the Real South Hunting television show is a big fan of the technical-type gear. “We at Real South Hunting have been blown away by the Sitka Waterfowl gear and how well you blend in with any terrain,” Bourne says. “From those big Arkansas rice fields to standing in the green timber you just won’t find a more versatile pattern. We started with just a few pieces of the Waterfowl Marsh/Field and Timber patterns and plan on using much more, including waders, this season.
“It is difficult to put into words how well Sitka performs compared to the other brands. It is by far the best you can buy to keep you warm, dry and hidden when those big fat greenheads have their landing gear down.”
The waterfowling apparel market is crowded with brands trying to gain market share through various angles. Innovations in materials, camo patterns and functionality have taken the game to a new level. The competitiveness within the industry equals a higher performing garment for the duck hunter. Deciding on which brand and style is the hard part as hunters are presented with more and more choices.
Arkansas-based Natural Gear, known to many as “NatGear,” has also stepped up its apparel lines with the release of its new Cut Down jackets, pants and accessories. Long known for its innovative camo pattern that often appeared on other apparel brands, NatGear has not only improved its clothing but has also released a new camouflage pattern for field hunters.
NatGear Chief Operating Officer John Adams said the new lines are tailored to today’s hunters: “With our long history of being a mainstay company for duck hunters across our state and the country, we have enhanced this Cut Down line with that customer in mind; full ergonomic cuts and features that fit and perform great in the day-in, day-out hunting style that many waterfowlers participate in now.”
Duxbak’s reemergence has run parallel to Avery’s launch of the Heritage line, and Filson’s rededication to waterfowling creates a surplus of garments based on the vintage waxed canvas/cotton/tin cloth material of yore.
The Duxbak brand holds a special place in the hearts of hunters in the 40- to 70-year-old range. As one of the first lines of apparel dedicated to the waterfowler, memories of its trustworthy jackets, hats and shirts with the recognizable logo abound.
Longtime Arkansas duck guide Omar Driskill “laid the best dog I ever had to rest outside my bedroom window wrapped in my favorite Duxbak coat in 1983. Still have my cap today.”
Fit In Where You Get In
With the crowded market, the vintage brands have expanded their line of products beyond coats, pants and headgear.
Filson has been in the travel gear game quite awhile but Duxbak and Avery Heritage have each released a series of versatile bags and gun cases for travel or use in the field. Despite their rugged construction, these bags are probably too nice to drag out to an Arkansas County pit blind but perfectly packable for a trip to your favorite hunting lodge.
Drake Waterfowl Systems out of Mississippi is launching a new line this fall specifically tailored to the hunting environment. Titled the “Guardian Elite Series,” Drake’s new line includes different features and functions for hunters depending on their chosen environment. The series includes apparel for flooded timber, field/layout blinds and boats as well as a flexible 3-in-1 system that will remind waterfowlers from the 1980s of the Columbia line of 4-in-1 jackets. It’s a definitely different take that leans more towards clothes being equipment rather than simply apparel.
Advantage: Duck Hunter
Thanks to the volume of choices and quality found in waterfowling apparel, duck hunters are in the proverbial catbird seat. Perhaps like no other time in the history of hunting has the duck hunter had so many quality, functional clothing options at various price points. Hunters desire gear that is dependable and works in the weather duck season presents.
That you get what you pay for is pretty much true in the world of waterfowling. A lower-end coat works just fine for those 50-degree days that seem to frequent our winters, not so much on those bitter cold January hunts with a big north wind or in a day of rain and sleet. Anyone that wore old army surplus coats and rubber waders in the 1970s and 1980s knows that inferior gear can make for a miserable morning afield.
Apparel companies are dedicating a wealth of resources to research and development to stay one step ahead of their competitors and make a better product for the hunter. From science-based camouflage patterns to innovative features to bringing back a look with improved functionality from years gone by, the choices are there.
Whether you are a brand loyalist or just going for the look and feel you like across multiple brands, now is the time to improve your head-to-toe apparel to ensure your comfort level afield is more dependable than the ducks.
Also see: Watertight Wonders Making A Splash