November 20, 2022
Being a card-carrying member of the outdoor media family, I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to enjoy opportunities to view and test gear before it hits the sporting-goods shelves. Most of these in-person experiences occur at industry events, including ICAST (fishing), SHOT (shooting and hunting) and ATA (archery) tradeshows, but the downside to those events is seldom a chance occurs to put the new incoming products to the test in a real-life situation.
Public-relations and marketing firms collaborate with manufacturers and retailers to create an environment where writers and photographers come together to test the products and present the results to the consumer through the written word, images and video. As far as I’m concerned, if the products that we get to test and review don’t measure up, you won’t hear about them from me—editorial integrity is important to folks like us.
To be upfront, my career focus is on the fishing side of the business, but I also spent years working on the hunting side of the industry and I currently keep up to date on both. In nearly two decades of service to the sports of hunting and fishing, I’ve only been on two “cast and blast” trips where editorial curators get to sample both hunting- and fishing-specific products. To say I was excited to attend this one would have been an understatement.
The job takes you to some cool places. But really, the best part is the people I get to meet and work with along the way who share similar outdoor passions.
Thanks to the collaboration between the folks at Gunpowder Inc. and Academy Sports + Outdoors, I was headed to Spread Oaks Ranch just outside of Markham, Texas—about 90 miles southwest of Houston. The quarry included blue- and green-wing teal on the ranch property itself and a combo of redfish and speckled trout out of nearby East Matagorda Bay.
The objective was putting to work Academy’s private-label brand of clothing, footwear and outdoor gear known as Magellan Outdoors, the store’s new shotguns were on-hand, too, both in semi-auto and over-under models, and also a first-hand preview of Academy’s rebranded H20 XPRESS fishing brand, soon to be known as H20X, which includes rods, reels, tackle storage, baits and more. (The company is in the final stages of finalizing the fishing gear, so this article won’t provide an abundance of details on that side of things just yet. Keep an eye on In-Fisherman.com for upcoming announcements and gear reviews to cover much of the H20X fishing-gear family in coming months.)
I’ll be the first to tell you, getting to the front doors of Spread Oaks Ranch will require some expanded—and likely verbal—instructions as Siri and Google Maps were not entirely capable of providing the correct turn-by-turn directions. That was even further intriguing to me, as I love off-the-grid locations like that. And, I must also add that my driver, while sporting an unhealthy addiction to Mentos, did not, in any way, get us lost or make us late to dinner the evening of our arrival. (I jest). All’s well that ends well—the trip in certainly added to the amount of laughter shared throughout the duration of our stay.
Spread Oaks is a 5,500-acre working cattle ranch featuring prized Brangus cattle, agriculture operation with abundant wildlife in a setting mixed with oak mottes, coastal prairie and river-bottom wetlands. Located along the Central Flyway, the habitat is absolutely perfect for hundreds of thousands of wintering waterfowl.
The ranch has worked hard to develop and maintain ideal habitat for not only waterfowl and whitetail deer, but other game and nongame species as well. Their mission is to provide the discerning adventure seeker with the ultimate outdoor experience.
There is also a fun and challenging clay-target range where guests can hone their shooting skills, or in our case test new shotguns. I may have embarrassed myself some, but after getting it together, I managed to break a few clays in preparation of our upcoming duck hunt the following morning.
The amenities left nothing to be desired. They were flat incredible, in fact I can’t think of better food and lodging at an event like this.
I’d be remiss to not talk about the food. Second to none. But, perhaps you’d expect outstanding cuisine at a resort-esk ranch house like what’s offered at Spread Oaks, but I assure you as a full-figured man who loves to eat, you won’t be disappointed in the menu. Sure, the lead chef Ric Rosser is due all the credit—his recipes and experience brought everything together beautifully, but the ranch is basically self-sufficient.
The program is worth a 2-hour tour, but the short of it is the ranch features a greenhouse full of herbs and vegetables, a shade house that promotes shade-loving vegetables like broccoli, lettuce, cabbage and more, a smoke house that might change your life—it’s filled with ranch-raised meats including hams, loins and sausages. There’s also a henhouse filled with happy, free-range, egg-laying chickens and ducks.
It's a cattle ranch, right? Well, there’s also a black angus herd and Katahdin sheep to provide organic protein for the commercial market, and field-and-farm direct to the kitchen at Spread Oaks. Plus, an abundance of wild game to be enjoyed as well. The options are endless, and the food—I’ll say it again—is second to none.
I’ll keep this section brief, but I can promise you won’t be disappointed in the sleeping quarters. There are rooms in the main house, but there’s also a guest house only a brief 1-minute walk from the main building that provide massaging shower heads and spacious sleeping arrangements, not to mention more than adequate air conditioning—a necessity when visiting South Texas in September.
Oh, and there’s an infinity pool just off the back patio. For me, a perfect place to test out some new baits.
We were there to duck hunt, but if given the chance I’d go back and hunt the whitetails. The sheds and mounts around the ranch house were impressive to say the least. Our targets were the fast-flying teal that tend to leave their cooler northern summer haunts at the first hint of cold weather. In most cases, you won’t need a jacket, but pack a little bug spray during September’s early special teal season.
The ranch has countless blinds overlooking marshes and pits designed specifically to be attractive stops for traveling ducks. Both green- and blue-winged teal will zoom in and out of your decoy spreads until the heat of the day sets in. You can enjoy a hot cup of coffee while a staff guide sets decoys, retrieves your birds and they’ll even dress them for you. Talk about easy.
There are plenty of fall and winter waterfowl options to consider as the season progresses.
I knocked down a handful of ducks. I missed more than I’ll admit in this story, but I burned through nearly two boxes of shells, and the ATA Arms Neox Inertia Shotgun performed flawlessly, unlike my wing-shooting skills.
The important thing was being outfitted in the right gear that not only fit well and kept me comfortable, but the company in the blind was top shelf. A previous career position had me working at Bassmaster out of Birmingham, Alabama. During my time there I got to know a lot of the anglers, one of which was Bassmaster Elite Series pro Stetson Blaylock who also happens to be sponsored by Academy Sports + Outdoors, and is quite the hunter by his own right.
The folks at Academy made sure we were outfitted with comfortable and effective gear for our duck hunt. Below are just a few of multiple items that added to the overall experience. I need to say one thing, the Magellan Outdoors brand has come a long way in offering true quality at a very attractive price. I was impressed.
Magellan Outdoors Men’s Eagle Pass Deluxe Zip-Off Pants
What I Liked: These pants were comfortable, quiet and perfect for a warmer hunting climate. Easy on and off, plus they feature vents for increased breathability.
Magellan Outdoors Men’s & Women’s Eagle Pass Mesh Long Sleeve
What I Liked: Again, when hunting in a warmer climate, having the kind of clothing to accommodate moisture is key to staying comfortable. The mesh shirt is breathable and will keep you cool and dry when the conditions aren’t. Plus, the ducks couldn’t see us thanks to the camo pattern options.
Magellan Outdoors Men’s Jersey Knee Boots
What I Liked: I go through a lot of boots whether I’m hunting or fishing, and frankly you need different style boots for different temperatures and scenarios. These boots will crossover nicely. They were perfect for the conditions where we hunted Texas ducks, and the next time I’m on the front deck of my bass boat fishing in the rain, these will get the nod then, too. They’d fit nicely under my raingear. They aren’t over insulated for warmer climates—perfect for our hunt and perfect for summer fishing in the rain.
Magellan Outdoors Pro Waterproof Gear Box
MSRP: Small $49.99; Medium $79.99; Large $99.99
What I Liked: I am an organizer. I like my gear to be easily accessible when it’s needed, and then I prefer to know it’s being safely stored when not in use or during the offseason. These boxes are awesome and provide me with the confidence I need to stay organized all year long. Believe me, I’ll have the whole collection soon. I can think of countless different ways to use these gear boxes. They’re well thought out and very durable.
ATA Arms Neox Inertia Shotgun
What I Liked: I still can’t wrap my mind around this shotgun only costing $499. I own several semi-auto 12 and 20 gauges, and this one shot like it was a much more expensive version. In short, I put a couple hundred rounds through one on the duck marsh and back at the clay range and not a single jam—it performed perfectly. I’m not sure you will find a better deal on an autoloader. I plan to add one to my arsenal and shoot a turkey with it. This shotgun is exclusive to Academy, chambered to 3 inches, features a 28-inch vent high rib barrel, a durable polymer stock with rubber inlay for added comfort, a tactical bolt handle, fiber optic front and rear sights and it comes with a set of five choke tubes.
Yildiz Legacy HP Over/Under Shotgun
What I Liked: Again, a high-performance shotgun for only $499? This thing looks like and performs like it’s four times that expensive. Whatever Academy is doing to offer exclusive shotguns like these, I like it. I like it a lot. The shotgun features a 28-inch 7075 alloy barrel with a blued finish, Grade II Turkish walnut stock, available in both 12 or 20 gauges, single selective trigger, fiber optic front sight with a mid-bead rear sight and comes with 5 different choke tubes. This shotgun shoulders easily and lines up quickly to make necessary shots at game birds or at the range.
There is a freshwater managed bass lake behind the lodge and a 5-mile stretch of the Colorado River adjacent to ranch property. Plus, there is an in-house coastal guide service for expanded saltwater experiences on nearby Matagorda Bay.
Anglers will encounter largemouth and striped bass at the lake behind the main house, and countless species of saltwater fish from the bay, including redfish, speckle trout and other in-shore species. There are more than ample fishing experiences to stay busy with.
The morning after our duck hunt, we headed to Matagorda Bay to see about catching some redfish. The gameplan was simple, get launched and take advantage of the outgoing tide and locating schooling baitfish. We rigged up the new H20X rods and reels with popping corks tipped with a shrimp imitator soft plastic.
I shared the boat with Academy’s Austin McCurry who is the company’s Sr. Product Development Manager. He held a key role in the development of the H20X fishing gear and the shotguns—he put on quite the shooting clinic at the clay range the day before. And he can catch fish, too. We both managed to land nice redfish and quite a few speckle trout while putting the new H20X gear to the test.
It was a great way to cap off the trip. Like I said above, the best part of my job is the people I get to meet along the way and sharing the boat or blind takes it up a notch. Academy has it going on, go check this stuff out!
Again, the rods, reels and baits that are in the final phases of production will be featured in coming months on In-Fisherman.com. But for the short term, here is a quick list of items that absolutely made our fishing trip more enjoyable.
Magellan Outdoors Men’s Pro Angler Technical Pants
What I Liked: These pants featured an adjustable elastic waist system, which is good for a big man like me, especially after all the amazing food Spread Oaks Ranch prepared daily. They helped keep me comfortable when on the water, plus they’re water resistant, so you don’t get soaked by sweat or water when fishing. And they come standard with a built-in pliers pocket—very handy. They come in Small through XXX-Large and two colors.
Magellan Outdoors Men’s Pro Angler Mossy Oak WhiteCap Gaiter Hoodie
What I Liked: I love this shirt. Not only does it look good in the Mossy Oak WhiteCap patter, which is exclusive to Academy, it fits just right and offers all the comforts of performance sun wear. The gaiter fit well, the hood was large enough to provide shade and it kept you cool thanks to the moisture-wicking material and the ventilated mesh cooling side panels. The shirts are available in Small through XXX-Large and several cool color options.
Magellan Outdoors Men’s Tidewater Boat Shoes
What I Liked: These shoes are so comfortable and if you happen to get them wet, they dry out very quickly—which is perfect for a daytrip on the boat. I’ve already put some miles on my pair, and I can assure you there will be plenty more. Lightweight, comfortable, dry and functional, these shoes are solid.
Keep an eye out for an upcoming release of the fully rebranded H2OX (formally H2O XPRESS) that will include a complete line of soft plastics, hard baits, terminal tackle, tools, tackle storage systems and several lines of rods and reels, some of which have been tested in the heat of battle on Stetson Blaylock’s bass boat. Many of these items will appear on In-Fisherman.com once released.
I’ve had some fun with good people on these types of events over the years, but this is one of my favorites. It’s certainly exciting to see a company like Academy Sports + Outdoors go to the lengths they are to create reliable and stylish in-store brands. They’re knocking it out of the park, and I don’t give my endorsement easily.
Check this stuff out, I promise you won’t be disappointed.