Do you Need a Vest for Fly Fishing?


Fly fishing vests are one option to carry your gear while on the water. Most have ample capacity and compartments to fit more accessories than you'll ever need or use. I often hear the question: Do I need a vest for fly fishing? No, you do not need a vest for fly fishing. There are several alternatives you can choose from.


These include:

  • Lanyard

  • Chest Pack

  • Pouch sling

  • Shoulder pack

  • Shirt/pants pocket

  • Backpack

  • Hydration pack

It's also important to remember that it might be best to combine some of these seven together depending upon the fly fishing situation.

I recall my first vest. After fly fishing "seriously" for about six months, I decided I "needed" one. If for no other reason than I saw so many other anglers wearing them, I felt like I wouldn't "fit it" without one. So I got online and ordered a middle of the road model.


When it arrived at my doorstep, I tore open the package and immediately started filling the pockets with all my fly fishing paraphernalia. Even though I put things in there I'd never used before (you know, those shiny do dads that look like "must haves" in the fly shop), there was still plenty of empty pocket space left. I was elated, that meant I could buy more stuff to fill the voids!


Fast forward to now. I can count the number of times I've used that vest on two hands. It looked like the best option to carry my gear when I purchased it, but I've since then tried several alternatives to a fishing vest. I'll share my thoughts on the pros and cons of seven of them, and the fly fishing situations they make the most sense for.

Lanyard as a fly vest alternative


Often considered the "minimalistic" approach to carrying fly gear, lanyards are worn around the neck and hang down to about chest level. They're made of string, rope, or bungee material, and have various clips that you can attach and secure your gear to.


Best used for:

Seasons and streams that require little variety in fly selection or tippet sizes, or local waters that you know well enough to pair down your gear to the very essentials.

Not great for:

An unfamiliar stream that you'll have to use trial and error to figure out.


Pros of Lanyards

  • Lightweight and easy to carry

  • Inexpensive compared to other gear carrying options

  • Easy access to everything on it

Cons of Lanyards

  • Very limited capacity. They only allow you to carry the absolute essentials.

  • Can easily tangle with itself. Make sure to hang it up when not wearing it instead of laying it down. This will you save many frustrations!

Chest Pack as a fly vest alternative


These are constructed with strap(s) designed to go over your shoulder(s), with the carrying compartment positioned across your chest. The primary difference between the various models are their size and carrying capacities.


Best used for:

Times of the year or stretches of water where you'll need more than one fly box.

Not great for:

All day hiking/fishing trips. They might have enough room for a granola bar or two, but not much more food, and certainly not enough for water.


Pros of chests packs:

  • They won't get tangled up in your fly line when casting

  • Most have a fairly good amount of storage capacity for fishing gear

Cons of chest packs:

  • Bending over to net a fish in front of you causes the vest to be closer to the water. This can cause the pack to get soaked or tangled up in the net if the fish isn't cooperating

  • Managing various zippers across your chest while wading can be extremely awkward, often times forcing you to find a place to rest your rod before being able to extract anything from the pouch

Pouch Sling as a fly vest alternative


Another minimalistic approach, the pouch sling consists of a strap worn across the shoulder, which attaches to a small pack that hangs down to the side of the body. The small pack usually has room for a small fly box or two, as well as has clips and snaps on the outside of it to attach other accessories to.


Best used for:

Streams you're familiar with because you'll have limited capacity to bring anything that isn't essential.

Not great for:

To use as a stand alone carrying pack. They're best used when paired with other fly fishing vest alternatives.


Pros of pouch slings:

  • Small enough to be used in combination with other fly vest alternatives

  • Many options to customize the attachments that can be added to the outside of it

  • Lightweight and inexpensive

Cons of pouch slings:

  • Can get tangled in your line if positioned incorrectly

  • Won't fit much more that the essentials

Shirt/Pants pockets as a fly vest alternative


This one might seem a little obvious, but many fly fishermen (myself included here), can get really good at overcomplicating things. When it comes to using clothing pockets, I much prefer shirt pockets over pants pockets.


Best used for:

Small streams surrounded by brush that you don't want anything getting tangled up in as you move through it. Also for short trips that won't take you far from your truck in case you need to go back to it for food/water/fly box etc.

Not great for:

Any situation that would call for variety in your gear.


Shirt pockets vs pants pockets while fly fishing:


I recall an outing when my fishing partner and I decided to only take what we could fit into our pockets. He was wearing a shirt with 2 large chest pockets, and his wading pants only had the traditional hand pockets that most pants come with. I had on a pocketless shirt, but my wading pants had 4 "extra" pockets, one on each side of the leg and two in the rear.


It didn't take long for my jealousy set it. While he was able to wade in water up to his waist, I was limited to standing in knee high water, because going deeper would have soaked everything in my pant's side pockets.


Key Takeaways:

  • Don't base a wading pants purchasing decision on how many "extra" pockets it has. If they're pockets you can't use, why does it matter how many they have?

  • Do base a fly fishing shirt purchasing decision on it having pockets. Finding one with two front pockets is ideal.

Backpack as a fly vest alternative


Some designs are those you see kids wearing on their backs when waiting at the bus stop. Most are designed for either carrying school supplies, or hiking/camping trips. They're rarely marketed by fly fishing companies, therefor we forget they could be an option for carrying around fly fishing gear.


Best used for:

Longer outings that you'll want to include non fishing gear. Such as: food, water, camera, etc., along with everything you'll need to chase fish.

Not great for:

Hot days. The weight and positioning on your back can make it down right miserable.


Pros of backpacks:

  • Can carry other things besides just fishing accessories

  • Usually have several compartments that can help keep your equipment separated and organized

Cons of backpacks:

  • Large and bulky, making moving through thick brush difficult

  • Can be more expensive that other alternatives

Hydration Pack as a fly vest alternative


I'm speaking about the models that have two straps and fit across your back like a backpack. They include a bladder inside that can be filled with water, and most have zipper compartments to hold accessories. They come in many shapes and sizes, the primary differences being in amount of water they can carry, and the size of compartments to hold gear.


Best used for:

All day outings that don't allow for time to return to your vehicle for water or food.

Not great for:

Winter fly fishing. Because you're usually bundled up in cold weather, the hydration pack is uncomfortable when worn on top of or underneath too many other layers.


Pros of hydration packs:

  • To state the obvious: they can carry water!

  • Come in a variety of shapes and sizes so you can find one that best fits your situation

Cons of hydration packs:

  • Some have plenty of room, but the most comfortable models have limited storage capacity other than for the water bladder

  • Most require you to take the pack completely off in order to reach anything in the compartments

Conclusion


When it comes to carrying your fly fishing gear, there's no one size fits all. For some people a vest will work just fine, but others might be better off with the alternatives mentioned above. Another thing to remember is that they aren't mutually exclusive. Not only can you have different alternatives for different fishing situations, you can also use multiple combinations of the alternatives.


My favorite combinations include:


For hot summer days:

Pouch Sling and a small hydration pack


For exploring new water that I know I'll have to cover a lot of ground:

Lanyard and a large hydration pack


For sun up to sun down fishing days:

Backpack with Pouch Sling


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