Pack options for anglers have exploded over the last decade or so, and vests have become lighter and more comfortable, with more technical features. With such a variety of tackle-storage options, there is no one answer to the question, “Which is better, a fly-fishing vest, a sling pack, or a hip pack?” for all experiences. However, you should treat a pack or vest as any tool designed for a collection of uses — wading from the car in spring, wet-wade hiking to backcountry lakes in late summer, float trips, and so on. Mix in those desired uses with a heavy dose of personal preference, and you’ll find the right pack for you.
To help you narrow down the best fly-fishing pack or vest for your needs, I talked to some of our endorsed guides from across the country to get their own personal preferences for fishing in different conditions. And, of course, you’re invited to share your bag or vest preferences in the comments below.
The Guides’ Take
“I find a time and place for each pack — waist, sling, or full backpack. On days guiding in Yellowstone National Park, I carry spare jackets, water bottles, first-aid kit, bear spray, snacks, and all of my fly boxes (plus a spare rod or two for clients) and use a backpack. When fishing for myself, I find that a larger sling pack does the trick for extra layers, some food and drink, and my fishing gear. When I’ve layered up in the colder months, I prefer not to have anything over my shoulders due to the bulk of my waders and clothing. That’s when the waist pack — and plentiful jacket pockets — best suits my needs. I guess the solution is to have one of each!” – Mike Mansfield has been guiding in Southwestern Montana for 17 years. You can find him guiding the area rivers for Montana Angler throughout the year, or exploring the alpine terrain of the region on foot, bike, or skis.
“The beauty of the options available today is that there is seldom a need to compromise when selecting a tackle-management system. On days when I’m primarily in a boat, I use a waterproof boat or tackle bag. This allows a handy storage system for my gear and keeps my flies dry and my body unencumbered with the weight of a vest. When I plan on wading for a day, whether it be on a river, stream or saltwater flat, I prefer to use a sling pack. This gives me enough space for fly boxes, tippet, leader, a rain jacket and water. This changes when I’m guiding clients and need to carry more gear, and beverages and lunch. Then I switch from the sling pack to a day-size backpack. If I’ll be on the river for a shorter period and not far from my vehicle, and when spot hopping from a vehicle, I prefer a good old-fashioned lightweight vest. The pockets in the vest give me ample room for fly boxes and other trinkets we reach for while on the stream and are easy to get to. During cooler weather when the bulk of my clothing is an issue, I’ll bail on the vest and either go to a sling pack or waist pack depending on how much tackle and other stuff I feel a need to take along.” – Joe Demalderis has been a full-time fly-fishing guide for over 25 years, named Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide of the Year in 2010. He owns Cross Current Guide Service and makes his home waters on the Upper Delaware River System.
“Chest pack, backpack, sling pack, etc. Choice. Choice. Choice. Guiding can be fairly physical so personally, I’ll use different packs depending on the trip; but very often I go back to the Orvis chest pack. It’s light, has plenty of room and I can move it around my body, so it’s out of the way. To me traveling light is key: I can move longer and faster without getting tired. A good pack that survives all the abuses will become your best friend. But again, as Truel Myers of the Orvis Fly-Fishing School says, ‘The situation will dictate what you’re going to do.’” – Antoine Bissieux taught thousands to fly fish at the Orvis Fly-Fishing School in Manchester, VT. Now you can find Antoine (The French Fly Fisherman) and his FJ Cruiser year-round on the Farmington River and surrounding rivers in Connecticut and the adjacent Northeast.
“Our home waters here in Arkansas have us using a boat as part of our daily program. For me, the boat bag is the key piece. It’s ‘home base’ and the mothership. I love this piece. It’s not too big, not too small and most importantly, not a fly-line trap. The next, almost as critically important, piece is the hip pack. When we drop the anchor and take off on foot, separating ourselves from the mothership, I will have the hip pack with the must-have essentials for our wading session.” – Jamie Rouse co-owns Rouse Fly Fishing with his wife Kati, based on the Little Red River in Arkansas. Jamie was Guide of the Year in 2007 and has been an Orvis Endorsed Guide since 2004.
“As a guide along the Colorado Front Range, I’m primarily wade-fishing. I’ve used vests, hip packs, but decided I prefer the sling packs. Besides storing everything I need, it’s comfortable on my back, easily keeps my net secure, and rides a little higher for those deeper river crossings. When I do have an opportunity to float, I put the sling in a drop bag and have access to whatever I need.” – Scott Dickson has been working and guiding in the fly-fishing industry since 1999. Primarily a walk wade guide for Trouts Fly Fishing, he puts in many miles hiking around the Deckers area of the South Platte River, as well as the Dream Stream, Blue, Eagle, and Colorado.
So is one vest or one bag all you need? You can certainly fish a variety of conditions enjoyably with one tackle storage solution for all of your fishing — you may find, however, that your sling pack can be cumbersome on long hikes to alpine lakes, or your vest can’t store a rain jacket and water bottle for longer days wading from the car. With that in mind, here are some pros and cons of selecting a single vest or pack as your only tackle storage solution.
- Everything you need is within easy grasp in front of your torso.
- Wears seamlessly over light layers like a fishing shirt or a shell without insulating layers.
- Limited storage for bigger items.
- Can feel bulky when layered over winter clothing and a shell.
- Fits a ton of gear, generally second only to a backpack.
- Easy access to everything you need, whether it’s forceps on the chest strap, or your tippet spool and interior compartments within reach at the swing of the bag under your arm.
- Not as comfortable as a backpack for longer treks.
- Carries almost as much as a sling pack, while remaining less bulky.
- Stays out of the way when you don’t need it, but is easily accessible when you do.
- Smaller capacity than a sling pack or backpack.
- Needs to be waterproof if you plan to wade past your waist.
- As accessible as a vest.
- Can carry larger fly boxes.
- Outside zipper panels usually act as a convenient tray when opened.
- Smaller capacity than other pack options.
- Can be uncomfortable when wading or walking longer distances.
- Can carry everything you need for a day on the water, including clothing layers for changing weather, food, big streamer boxes, and more.
- Comfortable on long treks to alpine lakes and creeks, or remote river accesses.
- More difficult to access most pockets than other pack options.
- Unnecessarily bulky for wading short distances from the car, lodge, or boat.
- It’s designed for a day on a boat and lugging everything you need.
- It’s designed for a day on a boat.
Still not sure which fly-fishing pack would be best for you? Stop in a store and try some on. Walk around and see how they feel. Do you already have a favorite? Let us know in the comments.