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The Backstage Pass

Fly Fishing Packs: Selecting the Best Option for You

March 12, 24

The reality of choosing a fly fishing pack in modern times is that we are spoilt for choice. Much like walking into the cereal aisle at a big-box grocery store, there are almost too many varieties on offer.

Chances are if you are an experienced angler, you have tried all of them, or recognize that each style has a time and place. This is quite true--there is no "perfect solution" to finding the best fly fishing pack, but more so nailing down what system addresses your capacity, accessibility, durability, and functionality needs.

In this article, we're going to dive into the pros and cons of each of the fly fishing packs, how each are best utilized, and provide what systems work best for us in an array of fishing scenarios in the world of destination angling. 

+ View the Yellow Dog Packing Series

Pack Fundamentals

Before we dive in, there are a number of basic, but important questions you should ask yourself before purchasing a pack of any kind. 

Are you a gear junkie or a minimalist?

The amount of gear you want and/or need to have on the water will heavily influence your pack system. Some anglers prefer to have the flies and gear for every possible scenario, while others are just as happy with a fly puck, a bottle of old gink, and a granola bar for lunch.

Be honest with what kind of angler you are, and start from there. Additionally, if you are traveling, ask yourself: what is the most I will need to carry at one time and use that as a gauge for what size pack you invest in.

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Many modern packs are highly customizable, allowing you to add and subtract accessories as needed (Bear spray and water bottle holders, net holsters, tippet spool holders, zingers, etc.). But if you aren't worried about bears and prefer to land fish with your bare hands, this is all unnecessary fluff.

At the end of the day, you don't want to lug around a bigger or more complicated pack than necessary, but having the space to be able to adapt should you need a rain coat, a small camera, or another fly box goes a long way should you need it. In short -- Shop within the size range that makes sense for you and no one else.


Will I be exposed to the elements?

Chances are, yes, but not always. 

Many modern packs are fully waterproof, and if you are going to be fishing away from the lodge or your vehicle, wading in deeper water, or taking your pack onto a panga or skiff where bow spray is common, a waterproof pack is a no-brainer.

The downside to these packs is that they are frequently bulkier and less pliable due to the waterproof fabric. Additionally, while you should keep the zippers on your pack clean and free of debris, the waterproof zippers need a bit more regular TLC to remain functional and air-tight. 

There are standard packs with waterproof pockets on the interior, an easy compromise that allows you to at least keep your phone or wallet dry. However, if you're fishing a short ways from your vehicle or assume your guide will magically have an extra dry bag, a waterproof pack isn't always necessary.
 


Am I fishing from a boat, on foot, or both?

If you're going to be spending your fishing day on a drift boat or skiff, picking a pack is fairly straightforward: A boat bag or backpack that can carry what you need over a day of fishing is perfect--as long as it easy to access and not too large for the vessel. 

If you are fishing from foot, whether spending a long day on the flats or walk-and-wade fishing, you need to have a plan.

Consider:

  • How quickly do you¬†want to access your gear
  • How a pack on your shoulders, waist, or back over a long day could impact cramps or fatigue.
  • How¬†a pack might impact your cast. Remember, if there is a place for your fly line to snag, it eventually will. Some packs are more likely to catch in your fly line by sheer placement,¬†while shoulder straps might impact your casting arm.

If you're going to be hopping in and out of the boat, its a great idea to have a boat bag or backpack with the bulk of your gear, and a small pack for heading out on foot with the bare essentials. This mix and match approach gives you the best of both worlds.

Hip/Lumbar Packs

While a lot cooler than your grandparents' fanny pack, hip packs function largely in the same way. Hip packs are a convenient go-between the minimalist approach of a small chest pack and a backpack. They average around 5L of available volume, allowing you to easily pack 1-3 fly boxes, spare terminal tackle, some limited personal items, and a compact rain shell. 

Hip Pack Pros: 

  • Storage:¬†Your average hip pack will have enough space for a¬†day of fishing in most environments, especially if you're on foot. You can pack the essentials and leave the excess at home without making major sacrifices.

  • Compartments: Hip packs generally have numerous interior and exterior zippered compartments that make staying organized easy. In theory, you can easily dial in and customize your setup, avoiding the headache of blindly digging through your gear in search of a thingamabobber or car keys -- but more than a few anglers are known to abandon all care for organization as soon as the fishing picks up.

  • Balance of Comfort & Support: Your core is doing most of the hard work with a lumbar pack, and shouldn't cause much strain unless¬†are packing to capacity. If you are filling your hip pack to the brim, make sure your hip pack comes with a shoulder strap to share the¬†load across a¬†couple of muscle groups--or opt for a backpack. The shoulder strap additionally prevents gravity from taking its toll over a day of walking or hiking, as your pack can and will start to sag if heavy.¬†

  • Customizable: Just about every type of pack is customizable, but hip packs really stand out in terms of being able to easily add or subtract pieces of gear as you need.¬†Most hip/lumbar packs will come with ample accessory attachments for adding on things such as a tippet spool caddy, floatant holsters, or water bottle/bear spray holder.

  • Accessibility: This is a pro or a con, depending on¬†the angle. Hip packs offer better accessibility than a backpack, and you can easily look down to access your fly boxes, terminal tackle, and the various featured compartments after sliding it around. But...

Hip Pack Cons:

  • Accessibility: Many anglers do not like having to routinely move their pack from back to front to access their gear, especially if frequently changing flies, tying on new tippet, or grabbing a drink of water. Most hip packs come with a shoulder strap that allows you to unbuckle the hip and swing it around a bit easier, but it is by no means as accessible as a vest or chest pack.

  • Net Holster: This is not a problem with some hip packs that feature an integrated net slot, but many do not. You can alleviate this problem with the addition of a net holster to your wading belt or a net retractor that latches onto your pack, but its nice to have a designated net slot on your pack.¬†

  • Low-Riding: If you plan on wading deep or crossing streams/channels, a hip pack might not be your best bet. Of all the packs, it rides the lowest, and is guaranteed to get wet when wading deep -- so opt for a fully-submersible waterproof pack if you do go this route and do not forget to zip it up after each use! It is easy to get excited or distracted, and this is a surefire way to negatively impact your day.

  • Fly Line Management: Your fly line tangling around your pack, hemostats, tippet spool, or whatever else it can find, is nothing short of infuriating -- especially when the fishing is good. Hip packs are notorious for this if you don't have it firmly behind you.

  • Movement: Given that the pack is just above your hips, hip packs can become a nuisance. The problem isn't a deal-breaker, but if you're planning on putting some miles in, a pack utilizing a shoulder strap is a better option.

+ Shop Fly Fishing Hip Packs

Sling Packs

Sling packs come in a number of sizes, ranging from 3L up to 12L-plus, comparable to the volume of a backpack. Smaller sling packs excel for anglers who like to travel light, fishing on your home water, or when occasionally fishing on foot from a boat/skiff. A smaller sling should be able to accommodate 1-2 fly boxes, your terminal tackle and fly fishing tools, and a few small essentials, while a larger sling can also easily accommodate food, a beverage of choice, rain jacket, or a small camera.

Sling Pack Pros:

  • Ease of Use: While yes, you do have to technically still swing a sling pack around to access your gear, its easier and less cumbersome than a hip pack, especially when wearing waders.

  • Comfort: You won't even know your sling pack is there much of the time, especially in the smaller models. They are ergonomic, and unless you're really weighing them down with camera gear or tall boys, you should remain comfortable while fishing or hiking. There are a number of models that come with an additional hip strap which is a must if hiking or for extra support.¬†

  • Tool Accessibility: This will depend on the model, but many slings are well-designed for functionality. A hemostat grab tab on the shoulder strap, a velcro or foam pad for storing used¬†flies, net holster, plenty of tool attachment points, and even lariat straps for carrying a rod tube on some models.¬†A large enough sling can offer anglers plenty of functionality and customization possibilities along with a packing volume comparable to a small backpack.¬†

  • High-Riding: A sling will rest higher than a waist pack or backpack, and you can wade with a bit more confidence if fishing with a non-waterproof pack.¬†

  • Line Management: With your gear firmly¬†on your back, you need not worry about your fly line getting hung up... Unless you're getting inventive with your casting.

Sling Pack Cons:

  • Volume: Your average sling pack cannot compete with the volume of a backpack, and if you're someone looking to bring along a lunch, rain gear, an extra pair of socks,¬†and camera equipment along with your fishing gear, this isn't the best option. The largest sling packs¬†on the market could accommodate all of the above, but you might be eating chip dust and a smushed sandwich come lunchtime if not careful.¬†

  • Accessibility: For the angler that doesn't want to twist or turn to access their gear, a sling isn't your best option. They are more user-friendly¬†than a hip pack, but still require some added effort.

  • Casting Troubles: This isn't¬†the case for all anglers, but if your sling pack's shoulder strap rests on your casting arm,¬†you might find discomfort¬†over a day of fishing.

+ Shop Fly Fishing Sling Packs

Chest Packs

Fly fishing chest packs have come a long way, and many of the modern packs also easily pair with a backpack. If you are someone who prefers traveling light, having immediate access to your flies and tackle, or frequently wade through deeper water, a chest pack could be the best solution for you.

Chest Pack Pros:

  • Accessibility: Chest packs are easily the most accessible of all pack systems, allowing you to quickly change flies, apply floatant, or add on a new length of tippet. There is no sliding gear back and forth, eating into your precious on-water fishing time, and most chest packs utilize a "work-station" style approach that makes rigging super easy and efficient.

  • Travel Light: When you have a lot of available space, its hard not to find a way to use it up. Chest packs force us to dial in exactly what we need and cull the excess. By taking up very little space and minimizing weight, chest packs¬†are more mobile-friendly than the others.

  • Comfort: Chest packs distribute weight evenly across your back and shoulders, and¬†help reduce strain while fishing. They also take up less surface area which is a major plus during the warmer months where a backpack or hip pack leave you sweating.¬†

  • High Riding: Given that the pack will rest just below your sternum, a chest pack will allow you to wade waist deep without thinking twice.¬†

  • Combo Packs: Many brands have chest pack features that buckle in with backpacks -- meaning you can have the best of both worlds. This is the perfect setup for someone putting in a lot of miles, flats fishing in remote destinations, fishing in the backcountry, or hiking into an alpine lake. You can easily remove the backpack at a run, or utilize the chest pack to carry fishing essentials with other gear in your backpack.

Chest Pack Cons:

  • Limited Volume: To be able to travel light, you have to make sacrifices. Chest packs are perfect for hitting your home water for a few hours, getting in and out of a boat to fish a run, or for a session on the flats. Volume is by far a chest pack's greatest limitation.¬†

  • Line Management: Its easy for things to go afoul when you have a pack, tools, and buckles protruding from your chest. What you gain with immediate accessibility to your gear, you lose in potential snags. However, if you're a competent caster, it shouldn't impact you much.¬†

  • Adaptability: Because you are limited to less supplies, you are less adaptable should you need to change your game plan. If you were dead set on¬†dry fly fishing¬†but your buddy is wacking fish on streamers, you might be asking to borrow some flies... Likewise, if a¬†big barracuda shows up on the flat, but you only left the wire at home... best of luck!

 + Shop Fly Fishing Chest Packs

Backpacks

Backpacks are a staple for the traveling angler. For many remote destinations, they are a must-have to ensure you are dialed in for the day, with the option of an additional smaller pack for specific scenarios such as hopping out of the boat and fishing from foot.

Backpack Pros:

  • Volume: Most backpacks average between 25 - 30L of available packing space -- 3x your average hip pack, 5x your average sling, and upwards of 10x larger than some chest packs. If you require extra room for adding/removing insulation layers, a backpack is your best option. Additionally, you can pack everything you might need without stressing over limiting yourself.¬†

  • Comfort/Support:¬†If you're¬†doing any sort of hiking or covering a lot of ground over a day of fishing, most backpacks are well-padded with accompanying hip/lumbar support to keep you comfortable.¬†

  • Compartments: Backpacks are easy to organize, and should come with¬†various pockets and dividers to¬†keep your gear in order. A pro tip is to utilize packing cubes to divide your belongings so you aren't spending unnecessary time searching for a specific item, and pack the items you need least at the bottom.

Backpack Cons:

  • Accessibility: If you want to access your gear, you're taking the backpack off. Backpacks are the least accessible of all packs, but if you are using them as more of a base of operations from a skiff or boat, this is not a problem. As mentioned, some backpacks can be paired with a chest pack to have plenty of storage while also having your immediate tackle needs right in front of you.

  • Weight: It's not rocket science: the more you put in a pack, the heavier it will be. Traveling light has a time and place, so consider how much you can actually comfortably carry. If you're heading off for a week of fishing, fill your pack with everything and try it out--You'd be surprised how quickly you start to become uncomfortable. You don't want something like the weight of your fishing pack slowing down or impacting your fishing experience.

  • Bulk: Backpacks¬†are not the friendliest option if you're having to get inventive to access a remote fishery and can be a nuisance to have on while casting. If you're working out of a boat or can rely on leaving your bag with a guide, this shouldn't be an issue.

  • Breathability: Backpacks cover more surface area than any other pack, and can become uncomfortable in warm conditions--especially when weighted down.

 + Shop Fly Fishing Backpacks

Examples From the Yellow Dog Team

Yellow Dog is constantly sending our team around the world, as well spending as much time as we can fishing near home in the U.S. Rockies. We took the time to grab some of their personal insights on what packing systems they prefer in some specific destinations around the world.

"The pack system I like to use is the Umpqua Overlook Chest pack when fishing the Rockies as it keeps my gear and fly boxes organized, above the waterline and easily accessable. From the snag free zero sweep system for things like my forceps and nippers, to the well thought out placement of pockets and attachability of accessories, this pack is able to handle all the different scenarios I find myself in when wade fishing. I also enjoy the ability to have the backpack attachment if I am hiking deeper into some water. For missions closer to the car, I can shed the backpack attachment, and have a nice breathable, harness on the back instead which evenly displaces the weight of the chest pack on both shoulders."

- Seychelles Program Director Alec Gerbec

--

"I prefer anything from Fishpond!¬†When I am fishing in Belize or Honduras, whether it is from a skiff, a panga, or on foot I prefer a waterproof backpack over anything else. Being in a saltwater environment, keeping your stuff out of the elements and as dry as possible when not in use is critical. A backpack provides the space to carry all that you would need for the day ‚Äď flies, terminal tackle, tools, camera, raincoat, sunscreen, bug spray, etc. while also being extremely versatile.

A backpack can work as carry-on luggage, boat storage and organization, and also works great for any extended wading sessions where having the extra gear on you is necessary. Brand and particular style (zipper/rolltop) is less important, but I like to take into consideration color and width of opening when choosing a bag. Lighter colors tend to be easier to see into when pulling stuff out and the larger the opening the better in my opinion. Having smaller travel cubes inside of the pack is also beneficial in keeping loose smaller items together."

- Belize/Honduras Program Director Matt Kelsic

--

"When I am fishing in Bolivia I prefer a submersible waterproof backpack. I prefer a backpack to a sling or smaller bags because it allows me to bring everything I need on the water like a rain jacket, extra sunglasses, sunscreen, fly boxes, leader material, a camera, and other essentials. There are a lot of options on the market and I don’t necessarily have a preference between one with a zipper or one with a roll top, as long as it is waterproof. When fishing in the jungles of Bolivia, anglers are constantly hiking up river and through the water while hopping in and out of the dugout canoes, so a durable reliable bag is imperative. A waterproof backpack give you peace of mind whether you are dealing with rain, a deep water river crossing, or if the bag is sitting in water in the bottom of the boat. "

- South America Program Director Jack Porter

"What an angler likes when it comes to their fishing ‚Äúsystem‚ÄĚ is very much a personal preference and may take a few seasons of trying different methods before finding what you ultimately prefer. That said, I have tried them all ‚Äď vest, backpack, sling, hip pack, etc. And over the years, for me I have found that less is more. Living in Bozeman, I‚Äôll admit that I have the luxury of being able to drive to all my trout destinations. So I can conveniently turn my truck into a mobile fly shop. And then instead of bringing everything except the kitchen sink to the river, I can transfer only what I need from my truck into a small hip pack and then off I go ‚Äď ready, or not. If I‚Äôll be doing a longer hike like into Slough Creek, I‚Äôll use a backpack so that I can also pack a lunch, a couple of drinks, and my rain jacket. But if I‚Äôm within walking distance of my truck, I like to go high speed, low drag! -¬†

- U.S. West Program Director Jake Wells

--

"For fishing in Alaska we always recommend our anglers travel with a waterproof backpack during their trip. The backpack allows you to bring all the gear you might need each day while you are out fishing ‚Äď whether it be on a fly-out day, running around in jet boats, or on a float trip. We prefer a backpack over a sling/hip pack as it allows you to bring everything you need including rain shell, extra layer, fishing gear, camera etc.

Zipper or roll top both work great and usually most anglers enjoy the roll top as you can throw everything you need in there quickly, roll it up and you are ready to go. The backpack can also double as a great carry-on bag when traveling up to Alaska and you can switch it out with your fishing gear once you get to the program you will be fishing at for the week!"

- Alaska Program Director Tom Melvin

--

To check out a wide array of fly fishing packs or for any of your fly fishing gear needs, head to the Yellow Dog Fly Shop in Bozeman, Montana or shop the entire collection online!