I remember when I first started fly fishing. I was of high school age and had set out to fish a small mountain stream for native trout with another friend. We had fished for about an hour with some success and soon came upon a gentleman who was also fly fishing this stretch. I was amazed at his vest and the multitude of pockets it had in it. Being young and fearless, I questioned what in the world he could possibly have in all those pockets. Needless to say, I was amazed at the contents.
A fly fishing vest is a very important piece of equipment. Many beginners seem to select a vest that’s going to look good on them but there’s more to it than that. The vest must be functional as well and meet your basic needs. Some new anglers go out and buy the cheapest one they can find while others go out and buy one based on looks and it ends up being much more than they need (but they’d never admit it). You’ll want to purchase a good quality vest. If you buy a cheap vest from a local department store it may begin to deteriorate in a few years.
Purpose of the Fly Fishing Vest
Let’s start with the role of the fly fishing vest. Very simply, a fly fishing vest is what holds all of your fly fishing accessories and tools such as flies, clippers, tippet and leaders, various tools, floatants and weights and anything else you feel you need to have.
Mesh or Fabric?
This question is a highly debatable one and really all boils down to a matter of opinion. I’ve seen more fabric vests on the stream so they must be the popular choice although mesh offers a few benefits such as its ability to stretch a little more if needed and being cooler on warmer days. Other than that, it’s all about aesthetics. Don’t get too hung up on this one.
Pocket layout and size
You want a good number of pockets to adequately carry your accessories but don’t get carried away. Naturally the right mix is important because if there are too few pockets there won’t be enough room to fit everything you need. On the flip side, if you have too many pockets, you’ll have plenty of room for your accessories but you’ll also end up trying to fit those pockets with unnecessary items that will lead to a heavy vest and eventual fatigue on the stream. I once observed a man pulling a mini fly tying kit out of his vest and sitting down at stream-side to tie a local fly. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to that point but I must admit, I certainly admired that man.
Another important point is that if you have too many pockets, you’ll never be able to remember where everything is located which will lead to frustration. In my humble opinion, I would go for somewhere between 15-20 pockets and no more. Select a vest that has maybe 5 or 6 smaller pockets to hold the smallest items (like your split shot or soft weight, spare leaders, fly floatant, etc). The remainder of the pockets should be of the medium to large size to hold your fly boxes (you’ll end up having a couple of these), digital camera and other things you’re likely to need while out fishing. Again, anything more and you’ll just end up trying to fill those pockets with useless stuff.
Camera – Not a necessity but I don’t like being on the stream without it. Aside from the trout pictures, I’ve been able to get some beautiful stream and wildlife photos as well.
Fly Floatant – This is a chemical preparation that is applied to a dry fly (before using the fly) to waterproof it; may be a paste, powder, liquid, or aerosol.
Fly boxes – The quantity of these will vary based on your level of expertise, the different types of fish you’re after, the time of season, and your desire to organize your flies so they’re easy to find.
Forceps – hand operated medical instrument widely used in fly-fishing to remove flies from the jaws of a hooked fish. Have plier-like jaws with locking clips so that once they are clamped to the hook, they stay there until you release them.
Insect repellent – this one is all a personal preference but I have found it to be a must to keep those nasty insects away.
Leader – the section of monofilament line between the fly line and the fly. It is usually tapered, so that it will deliver the fly softly and away from the fly line (see knotted leader, knotless tapered leader and monofilament in the glossary.). You’ll definitely want to be prepared with additional leader just in case.
Needle nose pliers – To flatten the barb on the hook to make a barbless hook. Why? Because it’s easier on the fish when you don’t have to rip the barb out of its mouth. I usually do this all the time unless fishing for Steelhead, at which time I leave the barbs in tact. Of course you can do this beforehand if you like so that you don’t have to carry them you.
Net – preferably a catch and release net which is specially made to assist in landing the trout and releasing it quickly. It is not as deep as conventional nets so it is easier to handle the fish.
Nippers – or a combo tool. Nippers/clippers serve a single use, to cut off excess line/leader when tying knots. Many anglers use a combo tool today. A combo tool combines nippers with other useful tools such as a needle to clean the eye of a hook so you can thread it easier, and sometimes a blood knot tool and/or a nail knot tool. Very handy tools.
Snacks and water – if I’m going to be on the stream for more than 2-3 hours, I like to throw a candy bar, an apple and a bottle of water into one of the back pockets.
Split shot – you’ll need different sizes for different situations. Use these to weight the line to get the fly down into the trout’s feeding lane. Used for nymphs, egg patterns, streamers, and other subsurface flies.
Strike indicators – floating object placed on the leader or end of the fly line to “indicate” the take of the fly by a fish or to indicate the path of the drift of the fly; used when nymph fishing with a slack line; very effective. Also used in fishing nymphs, and all subsurface flies. They are attached to your line roughly 2-3 feet higher up the line than the depth of water you’re fishing. That distance is a matter of opinion and their are many opinions out there. These are usually made of materials such as floating putty, foam, poly yarn, etc.
Thermometer – It is generally accepted not to fish when water temperatures reach 70 degrees. At this temperature, the trout are stressed and all energies are devoted to survival. Use the thermometer to ensure that the water temperature is below 70.
Tippet – the end section of a tapered leader; the smallest diameter section of a tapered leader; the fly is tied onto the tippet. This is another one of those that you’ll need multiple sizes. When I started, I carried just 4X and 5X. These days I carry 2X – 7X to go after anything from a small native trout from a mountain spring to a mammoth Steelhead from the Lake Erie tributaries.
Tippet holder – a device that attaches to your vest and holds 4-5 spools of tippet.
Zingers – slang for a retractable device. Useful for hanging items such as nippers off your vest to keep them out of the way when not in use. I currently have 2 of these.
The above items are the things that every fly fisherman should carry in his/her vest. There are also other items that some of the more advanced fly fisherman will carry with them. Examples of these items are:
Lanyard – a necklace type device that is worn around the neck and to which things are hooked or tethered onto for easy reach. For example: nippers, forceps, eyeglasses, etc.
Stomach pump – this is a small pump that is used to pump out the contents of the trout (doesn’t hurt the trout if done right) to see what it has been eating.
Sink putty – a heavy putty that is sometimes used in place of split shot to weight the fly line to get the fly down to the trout. Not necessarily only used by experts but the majority of the people I’ve seen use split shot for weight.
Head lamp – this is a small lamp with an elastic band attached to it that the angler can put on his head for hands free light. Useful when the sun is going down and you’re trying to tie on the fly from the hatch that just started coming off a few minutes ago. Another trick instead of using a flashlight (which will hinder that night vision that you’ll be needing) is to hold the fly and line up to the sky which is usually the last thing that goes dark. You want a light/constant background for this.
Naturally this is not an all inclusive list to everything that every fly fisherman wears. This is simply a list of the most popular items that are included in or around the fly vest.