February 12, 2020
By Jonathan Wright
“This fishing pack article first appeared in the 2020 Gear Guide. It was originally titled Hauling Stuff: packs to get you there (and back) with everything you need."
If fly fishing was an Olympic sport, it would have as many individual events as track & field. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a half dozen pursuits within our obsession that are distinct disciplines unto themselves. Tailwater rivers, high mountain lakes, and Spey casting with deep wading all fall under the umbrella of trout and salmon fishing, but each requires a different approach. Throw in saltwater fly fishing—both tropical flats and cold water—and you have another whole set of variables that need to be addressed. On top of all this, let’s not forget the logistics of airline travel and operating out of boats.
While track & field events each require minimal equipment, fly fishing is pretty much about the details—specific tactics, techniques, and very specific gear. You’re going to need a method to carry all that stuff, and depending on your situation that might mean a boat bag, a backpack, a chest pack, or on long-range trips, a duffel or roller bag.
I was a climbing and mountain guide before I became a fly-fishing guide, and the choices within that market are similarly varied. Packs for Mount Everest have very different requirements than those for technical rock climbing. When your equipment choices have potentially serious consequences, you begin to get very picky about what you carry. Any unnecessary junk is a waste of energy, but not having what you critically need is much, much worse.
We don’t need packs with a crampon pocket, but fly fishers should never underestimate the level of design detail that translates into a good pack for the water. The right pack often means you have tippet where and when you need it to catch a tricky rising tailwater trout, or it might mean you have a rain jacket, or the wire you need to catch a barracuda on the flats.
I’m from the Rocky Mountain West, and have invested a lot of days into chasing native trout in remote streams near treeline. Here, having a streamlined pack that allows you to slip through brush without getting snagged is important, and having a contoured shoulder harness with a sternum strap to spread the load and increase upper body mobility allows you to scramble and climb up to places that others can’t.
Total pack size is a crucial consideration here, in that you need to carry (at a minimum) raingear and an insulation layer, food, water, a light but complete first-aid kit in a Ziploc bag, a small headlamp in case you get benighted and, of course, a fly box, with extra leaders and tippet. This typically translates to needing about 15 to 25 liters of total interior volume.
In an alpine environment, the fishing can be quite simple, and the contents of my pack are mostly centered around my own personal safety. Tailwater trout fishermen generally operate closer to the car, but need quick access to a wide array of compact technical tools, and often many fly boxes. While the total volume of bulky items you need can be somewhat reduced for this exercise —on the order of 2 to 4 liters—shoulder mobility becomes even more of an issue than with a backcountry pack, in that long sessions of high-sticking and repeated presentations to picky fish can induce fatigue and back pain. A chest pack or sling pack is often a better choice in these situations.
When you are considering a purchase, try on a pack in the store with a modest load, and hold your outstretched arm in front of you for more than a few seconds. It will quickly become apparent whether your style is going to get cramped.
Steelheaders and Spey casters have similar pack volume requirements, but they tend to wade deeper than their trout brethren, and need higher-riding designs that won’t be getting dunked all day long. Having an integral chest pack or large shoulder yoke pockets to spread the load around is an excellent solution.
Recently, some new arrivals on the scene are addressing the needs of more mobile and minimalist anglers. Sling packs and waist packs with capacities of about 10 liters or less are becoming popular among those who move light and fast, or are just out for short excursions.
Sling designs, as the name implies, are thrown across one shoulder like a military bandolier, leaving the other with maximum mobility for casting and reach moves in tight quarters. A shoulder sling allows you to deliberately undo the clasp and swing the entire unit around in front of you to add tippet, tie on a new fly, apply floatant, or to grab that all-important camera phone. As a right-handed caster, I prefer my right shoulder to be free with these models. There are some slings that are intended to be ambidextrous, with a symmetrical profile that allows them to worn by those of either persuasion.
Waist packs give you comfort and mobility, though at a cost of requiring extreme discipline in your equipment choices due to their small capacity. Normally, waist packs are a horrible idea where deep water is involved, but some new waterproof waist packs like the new Simms Dry Creek Z Hip Pack overcome this hurdle.
But what if you need more for a day? What if you plan on carrying a full set of waders and boots into a coldwater fishery that is too far to walk in wading boots? To fish the South Platte in Cheesman Canyon, you must walk more than a mile on the Gill Trail, and it’s often too hot to wear waders and boots, so you’ll need to carry all that and everything else you need to match wits with some of Colorado’s toughest trout.
When you’re hauling this much stuff, you need to bump up the volume with designs in the 30- to 50-liter range. One of my favorite fall excursions while guiding in Rocky Mountain National Park required a 2.5-mile approach with 1,000 feet of elevation gain to a stream at 9,000' altitude. This was pretty much at the limit for me to walk in wading boots, and I certainly couldn’t ask clients to do it. My solution was to upscale the pack sizes for two clients to the 30-liter range so they could carry their own waders, raingear, and lunches, and I humped a larger 60-liter rolltop dry bag with a shoulder harness. With my own waders placed strategically against my back along with some soft insulators, my pack accommodated three pairs of wading boots stacked vertically. The waterproof material of the dry bag made carrying wet boots back out much more pleasant.
This brings us to the largest category of packs, those from 50 to 100 liters. These models allow multi-day excursions or the ability to support extended travel overseas. They assist in your fishing efforts, but technically they are not “fishing packs” since most of us wouldn’t consider actually fishing with that much weight on our shoulders. Most of these types are duffel bags with straps, or roller duffels, the kind of thing that can survive baggage carousels at international airports, dirty pickup truck beds, and the wet bottoms of boats and rafts.
Here, pack designers have to contend with the need for maximum volume, while at the same time balancing simplicity. Planes and watercraft provide almost as many opportunities to snag and rip materials as a thick forest, so unnecessary straps and loose flaps should be avoided in selecting a large pack that you intend to throw in and out of vehicles repeatedly. When engaging in adventure travel, pack selection is no place to economize—buy the best-quality bag you can afford so the things you need arrive intact.
Today’s specialized fishing packs are getting zeroed in on all the details that make a day on the water go more smoothly. From dedicated attachment points for tippet spools and forceps, to bar-tacked nylon MOLLE systems and powerful magnets, pack design for fly fishing has come a long way since your grandpa’s rucksack. Check out our picks for 2020, and see what fits your style and playing field.
Patagonia Ultralight Black Hole Pack 20L
The problem with some packs is that much of the weight and the bulk is the bag itself, not the contents. That’s not the case with this 10-ounce Ultralight Black Hole Pack that more than pulls its weight when you’re traveling, fishing high-country streams, or hauling stuff to and from the skiff. When it’s empty, this entire 20-liter backpack reverses into its own internal stuff sack about the size of a restaurant burrito. You can take it anywhere. The top-loader is made with tough 100% recycled nylon with a 100% recycled polyester lining and has a drawcord closure and a handy micro daisy chain top so you can fold the pack down very small if you’ve got just a few fly boxes and you’re not using the full 20 liters. The light and breathable shoulders straps also have an adjustable sternum strap. $80 | patagonia.com
Umpqua Overlook Zs2 500 Chest Pack Kit
If you are going to haul a lot of stuff, you need your carry system to be comfortable, and well-organized so everything is at your fingertips when you need it. The Overlook ZS2 500 (500 cubic inches, 8 liters) succeeds on both accounts with padded, load-bearing shoulder straps and a full back panel to evenly distribute weight front and back. In the front you’ve got two easy-access mesh pockets and a MOLLE modular attachment strap. It has two zippered main compartments, the bigger one with a capacity for about four large fly boxes, the other one with room for two large boxes. Each compartment has mesh interior organizers, and the outer one has reach-through slots so you can dock clamps, zingers, and nippers onto an internal docking system. It’s a slick system that keeps all the tools right where you need them, but tucked away where they won’t snag your fly line or branches. The kit version has two different back attachments—one is a simple large zippered mesh back pocket with a D-ring net attachment; the other is a much larger hydration-compatible mini backpack with 550 cubic inches (9 liters) of capacity, an exterior drop-through net saddle, and an easy-access pouch for a water bottle. $130 | umpqua.com
Paxis Twin Lakes
Backpacks are by far the most comfortable way to haul lots of gear, but when fishing, and especially when you’re wading, it’s cumbersome to get what you need from behind you. The 30-liter Twin Lakes from Paxis solves this problem with a Shuttle Pod you can swing around 180 degrees on an aluminum jointed arm. To release the Shuttle Pod, you pull a T-bar release on the right side, and the pod swings to the front. You can clip a waist belt to keep the pod in front if you know you’re going to be busy changing flies and tippets. If you’re going to hike for a while, just swing the pod around to the back and it locks back into position. $325 | paxispak.com
Simms Dry Creek Boat Bag
This newly redesigned bag does two things exceptionally well: 1) It allows easy one-handed access with a magnetized catch-and-release closure; and 2) it keeps rain and boat spray out of your bag with an overhanging compression-molded lid. This 40-liter boat bag is built from a water-resistant TPU-coated fabric with sealed joints, so the bag can sit in inches of water all day. Inside, a Velcro-fastened customizable organization system helps keep your sandwiches separate from the camera gear, extra reels, and fly boxes. $300 | simmsfishing.com
Simms Dry Creek Z BackpAck
Waterproof zippers have been around for years, but the TruZip toothless waterproof closure on this new submersible pack from Simms is not something we’ve seen before. A normal zipper has hundreds of tiny teeth, and each one has to perfectly lock onto the next to create a waterproof seal. If just one of those teeth breaks or deforms—or if sand and salt jam the teeth—then the bag leaks or more commonly, the zipper won’t even close. The Dry Creek Z Backpack avoids these hundreds of potential problems with a toothless zipper that is silent, dustproof, and reliable. The bag is constructed from 300D ripstop polyester with a PU coating on the face of the bag, and a TPU coating on the backside. With a 35-liter interior plus a water-resistant exterior stash pocket, this backpack is at home in any boat, rainstorm, or wherever you wade deep. It has two exterior water bottle holders, a centered D-ring net holder, and a loop field for wet flies. The interior organizational pockets for passports, wallets, keys, and iPhone make this perfect for travel abroad as well. $300 | simmsfishing.com
Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel 100l
I’ve taken the original Patagonia Black Hole Wheeled Duffel to Chile, Argentina, Seychelles, New Zealand, Mongolia, and Russia. The wheels have rolled across sandy beaches in Mexico, Belize, and the Bahamas, and through mud and rocks in Boliva and Brazil. I can tell you that these are the sturdiest, most durable wheels (and retractable handle) I’ve ever experienced. The most important thing Patagonia has changed with this new version is improving the exterior fabric from nylon to a tough 100% recycled polyester ripstop with weather-resistant TPU film laminate and a durable water repellent (DWR) finish. That means the new bags with the new Patagonia logo designs can sit in the rain on airport runways, get pelted with salt spray in the boat, and your stuff will stay dry. The bag has a cavernous 100-liter interior, but there’s also a zippered side pocket and two interior mesh zippered pockets to help keep things organized. $350 | patagonia.com
Jonathan Wright is a freelance writer, photographer, and former fishing guide.