Flexible and Breathable
Hard shells are the waterproof, stormproof rain jackets we've all used for years. Hard shells keep you fishing through hurricane precipitation, but although they are made of breathable material, not many people will wear them all day in moderate or changing weather conditions. Soft shells are quieter, far more breathable so you don't get that damp feeling inside, and they stretch so they are more comfortable while casting, rowing, or wading. Windstopper material (see the Simms product below) is a 2-way stretch windproof material. The other products are 4-way stretch, which is wind resistant, not windproof. We tested the difference using a 5hp leaf blower and found the Windstopper works just as advertised, but "wind resistant" is pretty darn good also. All these soft shells are water resistant due to a durable water repellent (DWR) finish. The Sage Quest jacket is made from a nylon/spandex material while the other jackets are polyester or polyester/spandex blends. Nylon by itself is stronger than polyester and also more stretchy, which is why nylon fly-tying thread is so popular. It's also "softer" to the touch and was originally created as a substitute for silk. However, polyester fabrics are more resistant to piling, and therefore more abrasion resistant. The biggest advantage however is that polyester soft shells are quick-drying, and a nylon jacket (once wet) takes much longer to dry—a disadvantage in wet environments.
1 Sage Quest $250
One thing sets this jacket apart from all other soft shells: insulation. This one has it, the others don't. The 120-gram Primaloft insulation is in the main body only—not the sleeves—so it keeps your core warm, while your arms remain as unrestricted as possible. It's like a warm puffy vest with stretchy sleeves. The outer fabric is a 90% nylon, 10% Spandex double weave with a DWR finish. This is a full-fledged cold-weather fishing jacket with five outside pockets total, including a welded shoulder pocket with a laser-cut zipper. There is also a tool port at the chest and a fully adjustable hood you can cinch up around your baseball cap in burly conditions. Available in five sizes and two colors: black and canyon.
2 Redington North Fork Hoody $140
The four-way stretch, double weave polyester/spandex blend of the North Fork Hoody makes it the stretchiest, but least windproof in this group. Our tester said this isn't a good choice as a winter jacket, but the great fit and breathability make it perfect for the shoulder seasons when you don't know what to expect. The DWR finish beads and sheds water in light to medium rain, and the adjustable storm hood wraps around your hat brim for maximum protection. The jacket has two zippered hand pockets, an outside chest pocket, and a large inside pouch. Available in five sizes and three colors: dark earth, red rock, and hunter green. redington.com
3 Simms Flyte Jacket $180
The Simms Windstopper Softshell Hoody has a formidable reputation among guides as a warm, comfortable, high-performance alternative to almost any hard waterproof shell. This is not that jacket. This is the new less-featured Flyte Jacket. It doesn't have all those pockets, and doesn't have a hood, but it has the same Windstopper fabric in a lighter package. Our tester asked this rhetorical question. "Could I wear it fishing? Yes. But this jacket is for wearing every day. I started wearing it Labor Day and have worn it nearly every day since then. Some of my friends recognize the brand and realize it's a fishing jacket, but the nontechnical look makes it my everyday, go-anywhere jacket." Available in five sizes and two colors: sand or gunmetal. simmsfishing.com
4 Patagonia Guide Hoody $180
From the Bighorn Mountains to the Bighorn River, the Guide Hoody is a multisport jacket made of four-way stretch polyester (49% recycled)/spandex with a Deluge DWR finish. It has a comfortable microfleece-lined collar and two handwarmer pockets that can easily take fly boxes. Our tester reported the cut was a little long for deep wading. [In fact, all the soft shells on this page are cut longer than the "shortie" wading jackets most fly fishers are used to. The Editor.] "It's a great steelhead-season jacket when it's more likely to snow than squall. I have no use for a shell you have to take on and off. All-day warmth and comfort is important to me, and I can use this jacket just as easily while skiing or rowing a drift boat." Available in six sizes and three colors: forge gray, pomegranate, and black.