Time has a way of muddling cause and effect. It’s difficult to know if the fly-fishing vest evolved because anglers needed something to hold all their gear, or if fly anglers carry so much stuff simply because someone invented a place to put it. Either way, it was love at first sight, and the vest now stands as the iconic representation of fly-fishing even among non-anglers. Although chest packs and fanny packs have emerged as alternatives, they seem most popular for less gear-intensive forms of angling—steelheading or the flats, for instance—where such packs are enormously useful. But for day-in/day-out trout fishing, far fewer anglers seem to have made the change. For them, a vest remains the most congenial approach.
The general requirements in a vest are brutally simple: It must hold your stuff securely, keep it conveniently but unobtrusively at hand, and distribute the weight comfortably. The devil, as always, lurks in the details, beginning with the concept of “your stuff.” This, in quantity and kind, is nearly as individual to each angler as a fingerprint—because it is a fingerprint of sorts. What you carry represents your approach to the sport; it summarizes your angling identity. And you want a vest that accepts you and your stuff as they are, quirks and all, rather than forcing you into a lot of changes. It’s a little like marriage.
I spent spring, summer and fall trying out the new vests that have appeared since the last time I covered this gear category, about eight years ago. From the standpoint of storing your stuff, vests differ in two main ways: the total number of pockets and the distribution of pocket sizes. To give some idea of capacity and organizational flexibility of the new products, I’ve categorized the pocket sizes as follows:
- Large will hold a large C&F or Umpqua UPG fly box, roughly 7.75" x 4.5" x 1.5".
- Medium will hold a large Wheatley box or a Scientific Angler’s System X box, roughly 6" x 4.25" x 1.5".
- Small will hold the generic, usually 6-compartment, small box, about 4.5" x 3" x 1".
- Accessory flat, non-bellows pockets with zip or hook-and-loop closures, or other specialized sleeves or compartments.
Cabela’s PackRat Fly Vest
Storage: 2 large; 4 medium; 1 small; 2 accessory; 4 grommeted tippet; nice water-resistant camera pouch; 1 large, 2 smaller rear cargo; rear compression straps.
The Upside: This mesh-lined, ripstop shorty style vest is tough, and super light; yoke and collar construction bear weight well. Compression straps allow for lashing rain jacket to vest exterior for greater carrying comfort.
The Other Side: While this vest has good capacity, there’s almost no organizational provision for small items. Some pockets could use larger hook-and-loop closures for better security. Mesh lining doesn’t contribute much to performance.
Best For: Anglers who want moderate capacity, primarily for carrying fly boxes rather than accessories: deep waders or float tubers or other shorty users; those who want a functional, workmanlike vest at a reasonable price.
fishpond Sagebrush Mesh Vest
Storage: 6 large; 2 medium; 5 small; 1 drop-down fly tray with foam insert; tippet pocket; 3 mesh accessory; 1 large, 1 smaller rear cargo.
The Upside: Narrow shoulder design and extensive mesh make for comfort in the heat. Slightly stifened fly-box pockets offer blessedly easy, one-hand zipper operation. This one offers comfortable load bearing and surprising capacity for a stripped-down chassis. Nice quality.
The Other Side: Most fly-box pockets are stacked; fill them all, and there’s a lot of bulk low on the vest. It’s most comfortable partially loaded. Some of the pockets contain mesh, which can snag gear. Accessory pockets lack effective closures, and there’s not much dedicated space for smaller stuff.
Best For: Those needing a lightweight, comfortable, medium-capacity vest that permits good upper-body mobility: hike-in anglers or pontoon-boat users; fishermen who prefer a more minimalist shell or fish a lot in hot weather; those who like a more contemporary look and design.
fishpond Flint Hills Vest
Storage: 2 large; 6 medium; 1 large, 1 small rear cargo.
The Upside: A good balance in upper and lower pockets distributes bulk nicely. Four curved zip-opening pockets are ergonomically more comfortable than straight zips. Strap shoulder and waist design, along with mesh back, make a cool vest in the heat. Clean, smooth-profile exterior design (except for mesh pockets) utilizes front of vest very efficiently.
The Other Side: Non-securing, exterior mesh pockets are low in utility and tend to snag on brush. There’s not much range in the pockets sizes, and no specific storage to keep accessories and miscellaneous tackle organized.
Best For: Minimalists who still want more than shirt-pocket capacity: bushwhackers and light travelers; those who row and want unencumbered arm and shoulder movement; anyone seeking a well-made, modest-capacity vest that carries weight comfortably.
L.L. Bean Emerger Fishing Vest
Storage: 2 large; 4 small; 4 accessory; 1 large rear cargo.
The Upside: There’s a good mix of pocket sizes in this low-capacity vest. Nylon shell wears quite comfortably and is decently tough. The absence of frills or extras holds down the cost. Also comes in a women’s model.
The Other Side: There’s a lot of shell area for so few pockets; it could be cut shorter and thinner for less weight and better ventilation without sacrificing storage.
Best For: Entry-level, cost-conscious, minimalist or youth anglers; fishermen seeking a second vest for specialized fishing with low-capacity requirements—small streams or farm ponds, for example.
L.L. Bean Double L Vest
Storage: 6 large; 3 medium; 4 small; microfiber sunglass pocket; tippet-spool pocket with built-in retainer cord; 5 accessory; 1 larger, 2 smaller rear cargo.
The Upside: High pocket count and useful mix of sizes give this vest excellent capacity and organizational options, with lots of room for small accessories, particularly on vest exterior for optimum access. Ventilated neoprene yoke bears lots of weight with cushiony comfort.
The Other Side: Piggybacked accessory pockets can be tight to access when underlying flybox pockets are loaded. The shell fabric could have a bit more body to reduce pocket sag.
Best For: Trout anglers who carry lots of miscellaneous items and are obsessed with efficient organization (say Amen!, brothers and sisters!); anyone who favors a vest with high exterior capacity.
Patagonia Rivermaster II Vest
Storage: 4 large; 2 medium; 4 small; 8 accessory; 1 large and 1 small rear cargo.
The Upside: This updated version of the original Rivermaster uses a supple, slightly stretchy shell fabric for excellent mobility. It has very high capacity for a shorty vest, while the neoprene yoke and collar comfortably cushion the load. Elasticized openings on some pockets help secure contents. Very useful layout.
The Other Side: Hook-and-loop closures on some exterior pockets don’t give completely secure hold unless you fasten them with more deliberateness than it should take. Mesh-lined interior pockets are a bit snaggy and somewhat narrow for easy hand access.
Best For: Deep-water waders and float tubers; anglers who want high capacity in a trim, lightweight, compact vest; those who habitually go top-shelf.
Patagonia Mesh Master II
Storage: 4 large; 2 medium; 4 small; 4 accessory; 1 large, 1 small rear cargo.
The Upside: This is the newest vest in Patagonia’s long lineage of vertical-pocket models. All-mesh construction (except for pockets) makes this feather light, and cool in the heat. Overall capacity is good for a very short shorty, with a highly useful mix of pocket sizes and easy accessibility to everything on the vest exterior. Vertical-pocket design keeps bulk away from your elbows.
The Other Side: Precisely the same as the Rivermaster II, since hook-and-loop material and vest interior are identical.
Best For: Anglers with big fly boxes—steelhead and striper folks—who need lots of unrestricted arm mobility; those who row a lot; hot-weather fishermen; anyone who wants a minimalist vest shell that still holds a pretty fair amount of stuff.
Patagonia Minimalist Mesh Vest
Storage: 2 large; 2 medium; 2 small; 2 accessory; 1 smallish rear cargo.
The Upside: Skeletal mesh chassis and shorty length make this super light, and extremely cool in the heat. It has surprising capacity for the design and a highly functional mix of pocket sizes, most in piggyback vertical configuration. Shoulder padding carries a full load pretty comfortably. Halves of vest front detach for attachment to pack straps of the current Stormfront Pack (older pack models may lack the proper hardware).
The Other Side: The mesh shell snags if you’re brush-busting. Again, hook-and-loop pocket closures could be more secure. Stacked pockets put some bulk at the bottom of the vest when fully loaded.
Best For: Anyone who fishes with the Stormfront Pack; anglers who travel light but still want more than minimal capacity; float tubers and other shorty users—steelhead, salmon and striper anglers.
Redington Clark Fork Mesh Vest
Storage: 2 large; 2 small; 9 accessory; 1 large, 1 small rear cargo.
The Upside: The polyester mesh shell is cool and light. Curved pocket zippers are comfortable to use. There’s a good layout here for a small-capacity vest—virtually all the storage is on the exterior. Comes in youth sizes.
The Other Side: The interior pockets are so small or difficult to access that they have little use. The pocket exteriors are cotton fabric, which doesn’t promise great long-term durability. Distribution of pockets leans heavily to accessory sizes.
Best For: Entry-level anglers or youths seeking a basic, practical, but low-volume vest; anglers on a budget who don’t need large storage capacity; those seeking a low-cost second vest for a specialized purpose.
Simms G3 Guide Vest
Storage: 8 large; 4 medium; 6 small; 2 accessory; 1 large, 1 small rear cargo.
The Upside: Molded-foam exterior fly-box pockets offer easy, one-hand zip access, and a well-laid-out vest front puts a ton of gear at your fingertips. Padded collar and shoulders nicely cushion the weight of fully loaded vest. Totally tricked out: two built-in retractors with magnetic docking stations, accessory attachment tabs, and so on. Built like a tank.
The Other Side: Even when empty, the molded foam pockets make the vest stif and bulky—not the greatest for upper-body mobility—and it can be warm in hot weather. The small vertical pockets are oddly wedge-shaped, which makes them less useful than they could be. Very little dedicated storage for small items.
Best For: Anglers obsessed with organizational options and/or capacity (fellow travelers, I salute you); those who keep a vest packed for different destinations with different fly requirements and carry lots of patterns; fishermen drawn to the cutting edge in gear and can afford it.
Simms Guide Vest
Storage: 6 large; 4 medium; 6 small; 6 accessory; 1 large, 1 small rear cargo.
The Upside: Exterior pocket configuration is identical to G3 Vest but without molded foam, offering an efficient use of space and convenient access to a lot of stuff but in much more supple, comfortable package. Unusually good mix of pocket sizes gives a wealth of organizational options. Stout materials and high-quality manufacturing.
The Other Side: Rather aggressive use of Velcro makes some accessory pockets difficult to open. Fabric is not particularly cool in hot weather.
Best For: Serious trout anglers, especially the more “technically” inclined, who seem to carry a large number of smaller things; capacity seekers and organizational freaks; value seekers who have the money.
Simms Vertical Guide Vest
Storage: 2 large; 6 medium; 1 small; 4 accessory; 4 tippet.
The Upside: This one holds a lot for a shorty. Intelligent use of exterior space offers useful organizational flexibility—increased by two, adjustable interior pocket dividers—and ready access to most of your gear. Vertical-pocket design allows good freedom of movement. Good tippet-spool pockets, built-in retractor and other nice touches in a sturdy vest.
The Other Side: Some pocket openings could be larger for simplified access. Fabric can be a little hot.
Best For: Anglers desiring extra arm mobility; steelhead and salmon anglers; deep waders; those who spend lots of time behind the oars; trout fishermen looking for good capacity in a compact package.
Simms Freestone Vest
Storage: 4 large; 2 medium; 4 small; 2 tippet; 1 large rear cargo.
The Upside: This redesign of the old Freestone uses a simple, straightforward pocket configuration that puts nearly all your gear on the vest exterior. The uncrowded layout gives easy access to pocket closures and contents. Good weight bearing from padded collar and a rugged shell fabric.
The Other Side: No real provision for organizing accessories; small stuff is swallowed up in the largish pockets. Mesh lining doesn’t seem to contribute much to ventilation
Best For: Anglers who appreciate simple practicality rather than techie extras; value-conscious fishermen who don’t want to sacrifice quality; those with uncomplicated organizational needs.
Simms Headwaters Mesh Vest
Storage: 4 large; 4 medium; 4 small; 2 tippet; 2 large rear cargo.
The Upside: Same as Freestone Vest, since this storage design is identical except for two added interior medium pockets and an additional cargo pouch. All-mesh construction makes it light weight, and pleasingly cool in the heat.
The Other Side: No real provision for organizing accessories. Not much gain in capacity over the less-expensive Freestone. Mesh shell is snaggy in the brush.
Best For: Those who put a premium on light weight and ventilation in a vest that still offers good, useable capacity; anglers who habitually fish in hot weather or hike in the heat.
Ted Leeson’s most recent book is Inventing Montana: Dispatches from the Madison Valley (Skyhorse Publishing; www.skyhorsepublishing.com).