I recently had a customer asking for my opinion about hip packs and sling packs. I’ve used a variety of methods over the years to carry all the “stuff” I need for a successful fishing day. In my opinion, there is no perfect fly fishing vest or pack. I’ll provide a few thoughts about how to choose between vests and packs for fly fishing.
A few years ago, a friend of mine gave me a box of slightly used packs from several manufacturers. Some were bigger, others only held a couple of fly boxes. He gave them to me because he was always searching for the perfect pack. The last one I saw him fishing with was a sling pack. Eventually, I sold all of them to my friends who were looking for a pack and gave him the money I received. They loved it!
The hip pack above is the one I’m currently using. It’s made by Temple Fork Outfitter. It’s a replacement for my William Joseph hip pack I wore out. I fish with it every day and have been rethinking my approach, especially during our long fly fishing road trips. I found the support strap hurts my left shoulder because of extended use.
Here are three criteria to consider when selecting a vest or pack:
- Easy access
- Storage capacity
What do you need to carry? Here are a few items I’ve carried in the past:
- fly boxes
- spare spools
- coat, vest, or sweatshirt
- rain jacket
- extra fly rod
How long are you planning to fish? Are you out for an hour or two or an all day excursion?
What sizes are your fly boxes? Yes, size may dictate some of your decisions.
Answering these questions will help decide if you’ll select a vest or pack.
Here is my old fly fishing vest I pulled out of the garage. It’s been a few years since I’ve worn it. There are numerous versions to choose from. I chose a short vest to prevent getting wet while wading deep.
Vests are great when fly fishing all day long. They allow you to carry LOTS of gear. Not sure what flies will be hatching on a new river? You’ve got it covered because every fly box you own is in your vest. The downside is the vest will become very bulky and heavy. Pockets in the back will carry a lunch and rain jacket. Add these items and your vest will grow 3 – 5 inches in front and behind you!
If you are purchasing a new vest, consider taking a fly box or two with you to the fly shop to see if they actually fit.
Here are a few things to consider:
- How bulky will a fully stocked vest be? If the vest is full, will it be comfortable all day long?
- Will a rain jacket fit underneath? There are lightweight and heavyweight rain jackets. Will yours comfortably fit through the arm holes? If purchasing a vest with a jacket in mind, will it be too big on sunny days?
- Will your current fly boxes fit in the pockets? How big are your boxes? Be sure to check where each fly box fits for easy access. Streamer fly boxes are longer and thicker.
- Will a rain jacket fit in the back pocket? Some vests have one compartment behind, while others split them into different sizes.
- Where will you carry a water bottle during a long day?
- Carry a lot of gear.
- Multiple pockets allow organization.
- Weight is evenly distributed over the shoulders.
- Easy access to everything in the vest.
- Fits easily over a shirt or light jacket.
- A net easily connects on the back collar.
- Can be hot in warm temperatures.
- Easy to overload with too many fly boxes, creating excess bulk.
- May become heavy.
- Current fly boxes may not fit in pockets.
- May not fit comfortably in winter with multiple layers.
As I mentioned above, this is the pack I wear every day. I’m right-handed and place the strap over my left shoulder. The pack rests on my right hip when I need something and easily slides back to allow casting.
It replaced the William Joseph pack below.
I carry three tippet spools and Frog’s Fanny in the outside pockets of the Temple Fork Outfitters pack. Inside, you’ll find 6 – 8 fly boxes of assorted sizes, extra leader, mesh paint strainer bag to fit over my net and capture insects, and a filtered water bottle.
The two things I don’t like about the pack are a sore shoulder from the strap after many days on the water (I know, what a problem to have, right?) and it restricts my wading. On more than one occasion, I’ve returned to shore from wading with water draining from the pack.
The shoulder strap helps hold the pack up, preventing it from sliding down my waist. if you don’t use the shoulder harness, you can swing it around with easy access to all compartments.
- Minimal size compared to a vest.
- Very comfortable if not using the shoulder strap.
- Easy access to fly boxes.
- Depending on the pack, several fly boxes will fit in the compartments.
- Stays out of the way when casting.
- Some have water bottle holder.
- May limit the number of fly boxes you can carry.
- Hard to carry a net.
- Can’t carry a lunch.
- Can’t carry a rain jacket (some have straps underneath for this purpose, but it gets bulky quick)
- Fits around waist and will get wet when wading (a few are waterproof)
This is my wife’s pack she has worn for the last year or so. She selected it to carry a little more gear than her chest pack allowed. It has multiple pockets with zippered inside compartments and will carry a lot of gear. Many can be pulled over the shoulder for easy access, then return to the back allowing unrestricted casting. You’ll notice her water bottle and net attached. It does add more bulk, but everything is in its place.
- Keeps everything out of the way when not in use.
- A LOT of gear fits inside.
- Slide the pack around for easy access to multiple compartments.
- Some have a pouch to carry water.
- Not as comfortable as a backpack for a long day on the water or hiking.
- A heavy sling pack rests on your shoulder and can cause pain on the shoulder and neck.
- Some packs are not convertible and only fit on one shoulder.
- Difficult to carry net, which adds weight.
This is the choice for a minimalist! I use this pack on occasion when I don’t need to carry a lot of gear. It’s my choice when steelhead fishing because I can wade deep and not worry about getting everything in my hip pack wet. A couple of fly boxes, tippet, flotant and a few tools will easily fit inside.
- The lightest option to minimize weight.
- All items inside are easily accessible.
- A large fly box will fit inside.
- Outside zipper panels usually act as a convenient tray when opened.
- Limits the amount of gear you can carry.
- Only one or two fly boxes will fit inside.
- Difficult to carry a net.
I used to have a fly fishing backpack for long trips where I could carry a lot of gear, lunch, rain jacket, and anything else I thought I’d need. It had a couple of pouches on the front straps to hold a small fly box. I sold it a couple of years ago because I hadn’t used it in a very long time.
- A backpack will carry everything imaginable.
- Great for backpacking into lakes or remote rivers.
- Carry food and extra water for long days on the water.
- Holds many fly boxes.
- Easily stores extra reels or spools.
- Allows extra layers of clothes for changing weather.
- Carry a fly rod or two in their cases.
- Difficult to easily access items inside while fishing.
- Can be bulky depending on how much gear and clothes are inside.
- A fully stuffed pack will be heavy.
So, there you have it. Those are my ideas. Did I miss something? If so, be sure to leave a Comment below.
Vests and packs are an individual choice. I’m not sure there is a perfect one. Find something close and get out and fish!
Enjoy…go fish, stay safe!
John thanks for your thought on packs, vests, and slings. Looks like you have to purchase several items over the years before you decide which one is the best for your particular situation until the next best thing hits the market. Appreciate your weekly newsletter.
All good thoughts. I’m a “pack” rat and have a garage wall full of vests, sling packs, hip packs, backpacks and more. I should take your best advice and sell a couple….
Informative article. I’ve settled on hip packs in two different sizes with a third being waterproof. I put the shoulder strap over my head on the side opposite where the pack hangs and buckle the waist belt. The net goes between my waders and the waist belt. I still have a shorty vest, but haven’t used it in a couple of years. I’ve tried a Patagonia Atomic sling which I got cheap — it doesn’t work for me because of the need to secure it with a second strap and having to unbuckle it and rotate the pack each time to access the pockets. Slings have lots of room, but are inconvenient for me.
Thanks for this article. I have been going through the same struggle for the past few years and am finding as you have indicated there is no perfect pack. I have been going back and forth between a vest and a Fishpond chest pack and have been looking at trying a sling pack. The thing I don’t like about them is they all seem to be designed to hang on the right shoulder. Since I cast right handed, I am not looking to add further stress to my right arm/shoulder. While the basic functionality of a waist pack is appealing I am afraid I would be emptying and drying everything after a day of fishing. I am trying to not end up like your friend with a box full of various packs but it is just too difficult to get a good feel for how a pack will perform without putting it through a few days on the water. Oh well, the search continues.
Just food for thought: My good wading legs have long left and leave me having to ALWAYS use a wading staff and what ever I use I have to accommodate having a staff strapped to my waist.