New fly anglers are easy marks for every widget and gadget any expert claims will be the difference between catching enough fish to make their arms sore or being skunked. It’s easy to see who has fallen victim to the siren song – their fly fishing vests are so overloaded they look like a Sherpa hauling gear for an expedition. As always in these articles, let’s get back to basics.
The fly fishing vest is not a surrogate for a backpack. It is only marginally useful as a daypack since anything in the large, unconstrained rear zipper pocket will snag uncomfortably down at waist level. Remember, the vest is on 100% of the time, with the load providing a potentially painful reminder every step. An overloaded vest might even be fatal if it upsets balance while wading in a strong current. So, the first lesson is to separate the gear into two piles: things needed for fishing and gear for comfort or emergency. Only put the fishing-related items onto and into the vest. Carry a small daypack for everything else. If it is heavy, take off the daypack and leave it on the bank in a well-marked spot; fish and return.
With that philosophy in mind, choosing a vest and a daypack are two separate decisions. If you must have both in one incarnation, examine some of the vest/pack hybrids explicitly made for fishing rather than forcing a vest to do double duty. To pick the correct vest, assess the size, material, color, zippers, fly patch/pocket, D-rings, and pockets as part of the buying decision.
Size: The first rule of buying a vest is always to try it on. It must fit comfortably over clothing considering all fishing seasons. Next, decide on length. A traditional vest extends from shoulder to belt. There are short models where the bottom row of pockets is high, above the belly button, to keep the contents dry when wading. Frankly, those who routinely wade in water a few inches above the belly button accept a risk of being swept away as the body’s natural buoyancy reduces boot grip on the bottom. Stick with the traditional length and avoid deep water. If you do wade deep or kayak fish, will a PFD fit comfortably over the top of the vest? Will anything on the vest interfere with the RexFly system used for easier kayak fly fishing?
Color: Check the avian stalking (as opposed to diving) predators in your area and match their color to blend with nature. For example, blue herons routinely feast on unsuspecting trout by leveraging a natural camouflage color tuned by evolution. It must work!
Material: Do not get hung up over the difference between a mesh and full fabric vest. The cooling provided by a mesh material in summer is directly offset by the loss of heat in colder months. Therefore, the material is a personal preference. Gently pull on the material to assess stretch. You want the vest to hold its shape.
Zippers: Zipper failure ruins vests. Look at each zipper closely and work them back and forth. Do they slide smoothly? Can you make them jump the track? Is the zipper tab large enough to hold easily? Does the zipper tab include a cloth extension to make it easier to grab while wearing gloves? Is the zipper made out of material that may rust and jam? Does the surrounding material produce loose threads that will get caught in the zipper?
Fly Patch/Pocket: Does the fly fishing vest have a fly patch? The patch is the small square of foam or wool intended for temporary storage of flies. Some manufacturers cover the foam with a cloth flap and call it a pocket. Seemingly insignificant, the fly patch is a handy tool to hold a few flies either awaiting use or storage without taking time to dig in a fly box.
D-Rings: Does the vest have at least two D-rings? These are handy for attaching zingers to hold floatant, forceps, whistles, and nippers.
Pockets: These are the most critical feature of the vest. Too many, too few or poorly placed pockets will cause you to throw the vest away. While it seems like a large number, a good vest should have at least ten pockets. If you have more than twenty, you will either lose track of where everything is or feel compelled to fill the empties with useless stuff.
Exterior: Load the fly fishing vest in the store with the same number of fly boxes and accessories you intend to carry. Look for two large pockets, one on each side, on the bottom row, with two small pockets sewn onto the outside of each. Use the large pockets to hold dry flies in one and nymphs/streamers in the other. Consider using one of the new retractable fly boxes, like the one from Boomerang Tools, that attach to the vest on a heavy-duty zinger and keep the box from being left on the side of a stream or lost when dropped in the current. The four small outside pockets can contain 5X and 6X tippet, 4X and 3X tippet strike indicators, and split shot, respectively. Many anglers prefer using a tippet holder on a zinger instead of putting the spools in a pocket. The top row may have one or two pockets to hold a thermometer, glass cleaning cloth, pocket knife, and any other small item not attached to a zinger.
Interior: Some vests have a few interior zipper pockets handy for storing a couple of extra leaders and your fishing license if it does not have to be displayed.
Finally, many vests come with a D-ring on the back to hold a net with a magnetic release. It is a handy feature if you routinely catch “nettable” fish.