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Bargain hunting: From trash-bag decoys to homemade bird calls, low-cost solutions can save big bucks

Dec. 30, 2010 - 08:16PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 30, 2010 - 08:16PM  |  
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Open any outdoors magazine and reports of the hottest new gear often dominate the coverage.

That's hardly surprising. Hunting, fishing, hiking and camping are part of a huge industry, and shiny new gear can help you be comfortable, successful and safe.

But some expensive solutions to outdoor pursuits can be reverse-engineered. Costs can be whittled down to pennies without sacrificing an iota of functionality.

For example, I own some nice shooting sticks, the kind that collapse down and are carried in a spiffy camouflaged nylon case. I also have a carbon-and-plastic monopod with a retractable shooting rest.

But let's face it: A monopod crafted from a sturdy 1.5-inch-diameter sapling with a nice notch at the top where branches began to fork can be just as functional. A couple of hatchet swings, some clipping off of small, emerging limbs and presto you have both a monopod and a walking stick that cost nothing.

Marine Lt. Col. Mark Mackey, an avid hunter and angler, understands the desire to save money on outdoor pursuits and had several recommendations.

Some of Mackey's hunting buddies call him "cheap." He prefers "frugal."

Some advice for saving big bucks on outdoor gear:

Shooting sticks

Many shooters use two or three - to -inch-diameter, 3-foot-long dowels and wrap a fresh, heavy-duty rubber band tightly around them about 6 inches from one end to form bipod or tripod shooting sticks. These can be used in tree stands or in sitting or kneeling positions when shooting from the ground.

Big bird decoys

Feel free to buy expensive, molded plastic snow goose and tundra swan decoys, but if you're hunting in fields, basic white garbage bags make excellent dekes.

Virginia is one of only a couple of states where hunters can enter a lottery to draw a permit to harvest a tundra swan. My first time hunting the big birds, our hunting party placed the trash bags over sticks that we stuck in the ground. When we were finished, the group organizer said, "How do you like my $1.99 decoy spread?"

Everyone filled their tag as birds landed among the bags.

Mackey says he has used white garbage bags and paper plates for snow goose decoys in Saskatchewan. To prevent high winds from ruining your decoy spread, he advocates tying or fastening the bags on a 30-foot string and then staking the ends of the string a foot or two off the ground. This technique would also speed the decoy setup.

Duck decoys

Some products marketed to outdoor enthusiasts are variations of things you can find cheaper in other sections of hardware or department stores.

Instead of paying big bucks for a spinning-wing duck decoy (either battery- or wind-powered), Mackey advises buying a wind-powered spinning bird from the lawn and garden aisle sometimes for half the cost of a decoy.

Repaint the lawn ornament with some flat colors similar to the target species, and make sure one side of the spinning wings is white and the other black or brown.

Mackey grew up hunting the big, open waters of Lake Superior. Duck decoy spreads in the hundreds are routine, and a spread like that can cost thousands of dollars. Cut the cost in half by fashioning about half the decoys from empty two-liter plastic bottles. Remove the labels and rough the surface with steel wool or sandpaper before painting with flat paint with a white stripe across the middle.

Placing and removing large spreads in deep, icy water is "a real chore," Mackey says. To make it easier, link the decoys, a dozen or more, on strings. Plastic one-quart milk bottles filled with sand can anchor the string of cheap dekes.

"From a distance, you can't tell which decoys are which," he says. "Neither can the ducks, because we shoot an awful lot of ducks over those spreads."

Shotgun wrenches

Shotguns with interchangeable choke tubes typically come with special at least they look special choke tube wrenches.

Lose a wrench? Don't buy a new one for $10, Mackey advises. A quarter unscrews most 12-gauge choke tubes. A nickel handles a 20-gauge.

Tree stand rail covers

Metal tree stands can be noisy, especially when you bump into them with any metal you're carrying.

A cheap alternative to buying fitted, camo tree stand rail covers is getting some gray foam pipe insulation from the hardware store and cutting it to the desired length.

"Zip-tie them into place on rails and ladders. They also work great on the gunnels of a boat to rest shotgun barrels while duck hunting," Mackey says. "Mole skin works, too, but needs to be colored and isn't as durable."

Ice-fishing shelter and gaff

Ice fishing can be a blast, but winter winds can be brutal. Manufactured shelters can cost a few hundred bucks, but a $5-$10 tarp configured around some two-by-fours creates a shelter that slides on the ice and gets you out of the wind.

Mackey employs a homemade alternative to expensive fishing gaffs when trying to heft a big fish, such as some huge winter northern pike, through the ice.

The ice can be a couple of feet thick, and a gaff with a single, giant hook leaves little room for maneuverability and visibility in the hole. He cuts a broomstick to the desired length, usually about 3 feet, and fastens a 7/0 or larger double hook to one end, connecting it with a screw through the eye. Stick a cork over the hook point when traveling.

Turkey calls

Turkey wing bones can be cleaned and fashioned into calls that faithfully reproduce the yelp of a turkey. Mackey saves the wing bones of every turkey he shoots and then makes wing-bone calls, giving them as gifts or hunting mementos to friends and family. Wing-bone calls are tricky to learn, but once mastered, they sound authentic.

John Byrne, legendary wing-bone call maker from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, believes wing-bone calls match the tonal qualities of birds the same age and sex as those from which the calls were crafted.

Coyote or fox calls

If coyotes or foxes are on your to-do list, Mackey advises hanging on to worn-out or retired duck calls. "Take the reed assembly out of the barrel and hold it sideways in the corner of your mouth. It takes some practice, but once you have, it's the best and loudest predator call out there," he says.

Rifle-cleaning solution

Retired Marine Col. Chub Madden saves money when cleaning rifles by making his own black-powder rifle-cleaning solution instead of buying an expensive packaged product.

Mix one part rubbing alcohol, one part hydrogen peroxide, one part Murphy Oil Soap and one part water. "It works great and dries quickly due to the alcohol," Madden says.

Sale items

Finally, if you must buy a name-brand product, be patient and wait for sales. Catalog discounters such as The Sportsman's Guide offer clearance or discontinued items. The Cabela's online "Bargain Cave" is a good place to watch for deep discounts.

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