The humble fishing vest fell out of favor for a while, but it’s back. The vest is not as popular as it once was, because there are a host of good options for carrying fishing gear these days. But the fishing vest has been updated — modernized. Vest design has benefited from the popularity of packs and fishing lanyards. And some of the best ideas, made common by fishing packs, are now found in the modern fishing vest. Life is good.
Let’s be clear. The tan, box-store-special, on sale for $20, isn’t much of a fishing vest. I know. I know. It served us well for decades. And I had one of my own. But these days, a good vest takes that traditional layout — the perfect arrangement of functional pockets — and refines it. Fly fishing companies now have a reason for the angle of every flap, the pull-direction of each zipper and the depth of every pocket. Materials are lighter. Vests are more waterproof, tougher and tear resistant. Some of them integrate a hybrid design, building pockets onto a mesh base to keep the vest ultra-light and cool. Some have removable backpacks or add-on pockets that are designed like a MOLLE system.
**Note ** Links to my favorite fishing vest are near the end of this article.
Yes, the fishing vest has grown up. And, because I never left, I guess I’ve grown up with it. I’ve owned seven vests in my lifetime. But because I’ve been fishing for about forty years, seven isn’t all that many. I get about five years of wear from a vest now, and by the end, it’s pretty beat up. I enjoy old things, with collected history and memories. So I hang on to my vests until the end, and I don’t mind a bit of mending. I’ve replaced snaps, Velcro and zippers on my vests. And I’ll do it again, to keep a favorite vest going for one more season.
In my position, five years from a vest is a lot. Because I spend two to three hundred days a year on the water and I fish hard, my vests well outlast my waders, boots and fly lines. Only my rods and reels last longer.
A good vest or pack is perhaps the smartest long-term investment you can make in your fly fishing gear. Not just because it holds up over time, but because we use it so often. Everything you need goes in the vest or pack. It’s there for transport and organization. Not only for standard things like fly boxes, tippet and nippers, it also carries your lunch, extra clothes, bug dope, raincoat, fishing license and maybe some TP — if you’re the prepared type. It’s home base for all rigging, modifying and adapting on the river.
A quality fishing vest or pack is where it all starts.
This or That?
Do you like a pack or a vest? It’s one of the questions I answer most frequently. Many Troutbitten readers have searched for advice on the topic, but this is the first Troutbitten article to dig into the benefits of either the vest or the pack. To be up front about it, this isn’t a balanced look at the advantages of all carrying systems. This is more of a love story with the fishing vest.
I acknowledge that I have strong preferences about these things. And my opinions are based on experience. Although I’ve stayed loyal to the vest, I’ve branched out and tried to replace it — many times. Like most anglers, I’m constantly searching for a better way, for efficiency and simplicity. And my loyalty, it seems, has been strong only because everything else has failed me. So I come back to the vest, always, to the tried and true — the faithful fishing vest.
While my preference is based around my own needs, it’s also a function of my own habits. I’ve carried my split shot in a round Skoal can (now a clear plastic puck) since I was a kid. And it has always been in the left, front, lower pocket — same place for forty years. Moving it anywhere else throws me off. And though I could get used to someplace new, all the other downsides of the packs I’ve tried have never made the switch worthwhile.
So, here’s why I love a good fishing vest as the best solution for carrying my gear.
Following that, I’ll address the various pack types: chest, hip and sling packs.
For the Love of the Vest
As river anglers, we don’t have the luxury of carrying tackle boxes on a boat. Everything we need now and we might need later accompanies us after we leave the truck. Our gear must transport with ease or we won’t bring it. And it must store with convenience, or we won’t use it. The vest solves these two directives better than any other system.
Your First Option
The inherent design of a fishing vest allows for more things to be a primary option.
Most of us carry enough gear that we have the stuff we expect to work, accompanied by the stuff we use when those primary options don’t work. My love for the vest is based here, in the ability to carry most of my gear up front. All my boxes, tools and spools are at the front of the vest and at the ready. That’s key, because I can easily transition from one tactic to the next without the inconvenience of digging through a backpack or rotating things from the back to the front.
Access is the point here. That’s the advantage. Whatever I need, whenever I want it. A good vest permits it. A good vest encourages it.
A place for everything, and everything in its place. Having all of that gear up front means nothing if you must rummage through the contents of an oversized pocket to find what you need.
Good fishing vests are built with an abundance of separated storage. And I’d rather have thirty places to stash my gear than six or ten. Efficiency on the water is about organization, and having dedicated pockets for everything helps a lot.
Thirty pockets doesn’t mean much if those pockets aren’t designed for a fisherman. And here, in the golden age of fly fishing, we have a wealth of vest and pack options that were designed by and for dedicated anglers.
The pocket and closure layout of a good fishing vest allows the angler to flow between changes. With thoughtful placement of zingers and tool access, modern fishing vests offer the most room for options within that flow.
Combine all three points above, and it boils down to convenience. A well-designed fishing vest allows for everything at hand — all that we need now and that which we might need later. It’s a quick, convenient carrying system for the angler who values versatility above all else.
— A vest is arguably easier to wash than most packs, because it can be thrown in the washer.
— Fly fishing vests are shorter than they were a decade ago. Standard vests used to come down to the beltline. And we had to search for a “shorty” vest to get something that wouldn’t dip in the water while wading deep. Now, the standard vest length is much higher, often just below the ribcage. And that’s a good thing.
It wouldn’t be fair to skip over three important downsides of a fishing vest. These are the most common complaints:
For some, the fishing vest hangs on the shoulders too much. Modern designs have improved upon this with yoke systems to distribute the weight more like a backpack. Hey, the weight has to be somewhere, and if you’re carrying much gear, the only solution for getting it off your neck and shoulders is a hip pack (addressed below).
Some anglers complain that a vest is too warm. Yes. It covers more of your body than most packs. For me, that becomes an issue only in the heat of summer. And I offset any extra heat by wet wading, dipping my hat in cold water or wearing the right shirt. Modern vest materials are light and breathable — nothing like the tan cotton vest that your Granddad wore.
Vests put all of your working tools and gear up front. As noted above, that’s a strong, positive point for me. But for others, bumping into bulging pockets with their forearms is restrictive. My friend, Sawyer, is a bass guy who fishes mostly from a boat. And when he fly fishes trout rivers with me, he hates a vest because he’s used to carrying nearly nothing. While on the boat, most of Sawyer’s gear is in tackle boxes or meticulously distributed throughout his craft.
Sawyer likes a sling pack. But that comes with its own set of issues.
Here’s a brief rundown of all that.
Pack Types and Why They Fail (For Me)
I’ve owned and fished with many different pack solutions. Much of my exploration with fishing packs happened over five years ago. So I haven’t fished with some of the newest pack designs. But I try them on regularly, in shops and on the river. I borrow them from time to time to see what I’m missing. Point is, the failings of a chest pack are the same as they were a decade ago. Just as the failings of a vest are the same.
Please remember: What I say here is what works for me. Every solution has its imperfections. But I find that a vest comes closest to covering my own set of needs. Yup. I’m a vest guy.
If I was to wear anything other than a vest, it would be a chest pack. Some are roomy enough to store a fair amount of gear up front. And the weight distribution is often better than a vest, with straps like a backpack.
The downside? You never have as much dedicated and separated storage in a chest pack as a vest — especially up front. You can stuff a bunch of extra fly boxes and things in the back section of your chest pack, but it takes longer to access them. There’s just not as much room for organizing and separating gear in a chest pack compared to a vest.
Chest packs also block vision to your feet. Look down, and you see the chest pack instead of your wading boots. That’s a deal breaker for some.
Carrying all your fishing gear on the hips seems like a great idea at first. It keeps the arms and shoulders free to move and cast. It keeps all the weight on your hips. And as every hiker knows, that’s a much better place on your frame to carry weight than your shoulders.
For my own system, I carry all the heavy things on a utility belt: net, camera, water bottle, wading staff. All of this is placed on my belt and directly carried at my hips. My vest is the place for all the fishing gear, and that’s heavy enough.
The problems with hip packs are clear. There’s simply not enough storage room for the versatile angler. Pockets and space are limited, and half of what you need is often behind you. Worse yet, wading near the beltline soaks your gear. These days, you can buy waterproof hip packs. They keep the water out, but the zippers are stiffer. Pockets are fewer and material is less flexible.
I spent a lot of years with a nylon creel that could fairly be classified as an early sling pack. At the time, I fished minnows on a spinning reel. I did one thing on the water. I had no need for versatility, so I carried a handful of items. The creel was enough storage room. But even then, the strap weighed on my neck by the end of a long day, and I knew I needed a better system.
Modern sling packs are slick designs. And like the hip pack, they seem like a great idea for a while. I’ve owned two modern sling packs, and I had high hopes for each. They were well designed and solidly built, but the inherent flaws of a sling pack are unavoidable.
Sling packs are primarily designed to carry most of your gear behind you. So when you need to change your rigging, all too often it requires the extra step of slinging the pack around to the front. Anyone who says that’s not a big deal hasn’t done it fifty times a day for a full season. For anyone who changes and adapts regularly, the sling pack is a flawed option.
Companies have responded to the complaints about limited storage in sling packs by making them bigger, but a sling pack always puts the weight on one shoulder. Some now have a chest strap to help distribute the weight. But unbuckling that is just another step necessary every time you need access to the sling pouch. “The trouble is, you think you have time.” ― Jack Kornfield
Carrying a net is problematic while wearing a sling pack too. Where should it attach? Put it on the pack, and it must sling around every time you access the pouch. That’s inconvenient. I’ve seen anglers who remove their net before they sling the pack to the front. That’s even more inconvenient. A net holster on the belt is probably the best solution while wearing a sling pack, but the pouch and the movement — back to front — still makes this a chore.
There’s an ever-pressing drive for simplicity that creeps into the seasoned angler. We want to carry less and fish lighter. We know we save time by limiting our gear. And carrying everything you own to the river is not only heavy, it’s confusing.
Believe it or not, I’m a minimalist at heart. Like so many of us, I search for ways to limit the gear I carry, yet still be prepared for any situation. In reality, it takes more gear than I can stash into a couple of shirt pockets or easily fit into a hip pack or a sling. And because I want my gear perfectly organized and immediately accessible, I’m a vest guy.
As you might have guessed, I’m picky about the necessary features in a vest. So I do my research, shopping long and hard for just the right vest. When Patagonia changed their vest design a few years ago, some of the changes didn’t work for me. I found everything I needed along with some pleasant surprises in the Simms G3 Guide Vest. It’s perfect. I particularly love the molded pockets, the placement of the zingers and D-rings, the stacked chest and lower pockets, and the zipper/clasp adjustable closure system. It’s a sweet vest.
A full Troutbitten gear review on the Simms G3 Guide Vest is coming. It will be the second installment in the 100 Day Gear Review series. I have about sixty days on the vest now. So in a month or so, I’ll post a full review. Barring any catastrophic or unusual failure, it’s safe to say this vest will be holding tough with no issues at the 100 day mark.
** Note ** The partnerships and the support of this industry are part of what keeps Troutbitten going. And I’m proud that Troutbitten is a Simms affiliate. You can read my policy on gear reviews HERE. And if you decide to buy the Simms vest (or if you buy any other Simms product), Troutbitten receives a commission of the sale, at no additional cost to you, when you click through any of these links. So thank you for your support.
What’s your system?
That’s the system that meets my needs and keeps me efficient on the water. Each of my closest Troutbitten friends has a different system that works for him and her. What’s yours?
Leave a comment below. Because sharing your own carrying system may spark a good idea in the next angler.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N