Field Test

Field Test

Thinking Inside the Box

  • By: Ted Leeson
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Field Test by Ted Leeson



the Box

An exploration of fly-storage options.


EVERY FLY-FISHING SUBSPECIES CONFRONTS ITS own particular version of the same predicament—how to carry flies on the water in some reasonably organized and easily accessible fashion. For trout anglers, who tend to accumulate more flies than a Dumpster collects bags of trash, the storage problem stems from the sheer number and variety of patterns. For saltwater fishermen, it comes from oversized streamers on big irons; for bass folks, from bulky popper and divers. Every season, it seems, begins with a clever new storage scheme and ends with the same two thoughts:

There’s got to be a better way, and That better way hinges on finding the right fly boxes.

Fortunately, there have been some useful developments since I last took a close look at this equipment category. Last season I gathered a stack of new fly boxes and took another crack at the whole fly-storage problem. It hasn’t been entirely solved, but I’ve made some progress. Here are some of the products that helped me along.


The Big Boys



These briefcase-style boxes are especially useful for saltwater anglers and others who chase big fish with big flies, though I see more and more guides in drift boats and rafts using them for ready access to an array of trout patterns.

The Orvis Boat Box for Streamer and Saltwater Patterns uses a single slotted-foam panel in a streamlined package; handle and hardware are smoothly recessed, and the box stows unobtrusively in a boat or destination luggage. The 27 full-width slots (in the large size I tested) optimize fly placement for efficient use of space. The foam here is admirably thick (3⁄8") and holds even large flies securely, but some slots are oddly shallow. I noticeably improved the gripping power, particularly on large patterns, by deepening the shallow slots with a razor blade. The slots aren’t indexed, and hence troublesome to locate (I ran a waterproof laundry marker down each slot to improve visibility). I do question the long-term durability of the plastic-strip hinges, which could crack with repeated flexing—though no problems so far. The slimmest and lightest of the Big Boys. $49.

For all practical purposes, Montana Fly Company originated the briefcase style with its Boat Box, and the new MFC Fly Case puts all the features of the original in a mid-size package. This double-sided box has the equivalent of 23 full-width, hole-indexed slots per side, with a 1⁄4" slot spacing and ample headroom for patterns in the middle to larger sizes. It’s distinguished by admirably stout construction—a thick, rigid plastic shell (with see-through lids); a wide, sturdy nine-barrel hinge; and full-perimeter tubular gaskets for true waterproofness. Sturdily built (and heavy at 1.75lb), this box can take some abuse. A smooth, non-snagging profile, big snap latches that operate easily with one hand, and tightly gripping foam slots make this exceptionally practical for anglers seeking a durable box with good capacity. $44.99.

The Magnum Boat Box, from Umpqua Feather Merchants, is a lightweight double-sided box that contains two slotted-foam panels treated with Zerust, an industrial corrosion inhibitor. (I tested this by storing wet flies for two weeks—no sign of rust.) The 40 continuous, full-width slots allow adjusting fly placement for maximum capacity, and index holes mark the slots so you can find them. A third—and highly useful—panel on the exterior gives quick access to flies without opening the box. Though not waterproof, the box is highly water-resistant owing to the seamless shell construction and two big, easily gripped slider latches that lock up tightly. Foam slot spacing is fairly wide (5⁄16"), and the 3" interior width gives lots of headroom to prevent crushing—both of which spell a box that’s especially useful with large flies. The Magnum runs $59.99 (the two smaller sizes cost $39.99 and $44.99).


montana Fly company


umpqua feather merchants



These boxes are configured to store a mix of fly sizes and types. They hold a little bit of everything—useful for a quick, travel-light day trip or carrying in a small, low-capacity chest or waist pack.

Day Boxes

The C&F Design 12-Compartment/8-Row Box takes an old-school but highly functional approach and puts it in a better package. One side of the box has 12 individually lidded compartments for storing dry flies up to size 12 or so. The other side has eight foam bars with 192 notch-indexed slots for everything else; the very finely cut slots hold small flies reliably. The box case is intelligently done—gasketed lid for waterproofness, impact-resistant material, sturdy full-length hinge and a non-snagging design. Like most waterproof boxes, this one is a bit heavy—half a pound empty, which isn’t bad if you carry only one box. And the lift tabs on compartment windows are overly small and smooth to grip conveniently. But the hybrid design makes a wonderfully practical day-trip box for those who carry an assortment of fly styles and dislike foam storage for dries. $42.25.

Scientific Anglers’ Max Nymph/Dry 446 is a clever double-sided design. One side has 16 raised and slotted foam bars on the lid interior and center panel, intended for dry flies size 10 to 20. The other side—the nymph half of the box—has three slotted bars, a compartment for indicators and another for split-shot. This is a highly convenient arrangement since everything’s in one spot. The 446 foam slots give an equally solid hold on tiny dries and larger nymphs—even beadheads. A full gasket seal makes this box completely waterproof, and the rounded box corners slip easily in and out of a vest. This is smartly designed for its purpose, and ruggedly constructed, with a full-length hinge and a clear case to see the contents. And at 4.2 ounces, it’s also lighter than other boxes of equivalent size and design. $27.95.

SA’s Compact 164 Angled Fly Box offers a different take on mixed-pattern storage; the center panel is tilted, so there’s more headroom at one end than the other on both sides of this double-sided box. You can store bigger, taller patterns at one end, and smaller, low-profile flies at the other—a simple but ingenious approach that utilizes interior space efficiently for anglers who carry a broader range of fly types and sizes. I like this box particularly for farm-pond fishing, since nymphs, Buggers and mid-size poppers all fit handily. Box construction is identical to the Nymph/Dry 446, and a bigger version is also available for larger flies—longer streamers, bulkier poppers and deerhair patterns. The Compact 164 runs $23.95; the Big Fly 116 Angled is $31.95.

The UPG Day Tripper, from Umpqua Feather Merchants, incorporates some thoughtful design features that boost the usefulness of this double-sided box. One side offers lots of headroom and six foam bars—with varied spacing so you can accommodate larger flies. The other side has less headroom to reduce bulk, with two slotted bars and a larger slotted panel for storage versatility. Two magnetic compartments make excellent spill-proof storage for tiny nymphs, which can work loose from, or get lost in, foam slots. This is a rugged water-resistant box, with a stout hinge and Zerust protection. At almost seven ounces it’s a bit heavy, but it holds a lot. I like this one particularly for its organizational flexibility and tough construction. $36.99. The similar but larger Weekender ($42.99) is a carrying commitment at 11 ounces, but very high in capacity.

The iconic Wheatley fly boxes are now manufactured in America by REC, which has expanded and updated the product line, including the new Malvern series, patterned after the classic aluminum boxes but made with an ABS plastic shell. The #8106 box has 16 individually spring-lidded compartments on one side that allow for efficiently organizing dry flies. The lids can interfere slightly with finger access (I use a hemostat instead), but they do help prevent fly loss to wind or spills. Flat foam on the other side holds nymphs and wets, and the box holds an ample day’s worth of various pattern types. Much as I love the aluminum boxes, this ABS version is, frankly, tougher, more practical and just as good looking, resistant to the dents or deformations that can make the aluminum shell tricky to close. And at $43, the Malvern 8106 is half the price of its aluminum counterpart.



c&f design

umpqua feather merchants


scientific anglers



c&f design

Specialized Boxes

“Specialized” here can mean one of two things: boxes designed with a particular fly style or fishing application in mind, or those that incorporate a special design innovation that I found useful.

The small Threader Box, from C&F Design, addresses one extreme of the fly-pattern spectrum—the small stuff. One side of the box has 138 notch-indexed foam slots. The other side holds six wire fly threaders—similar to fly-tying bobbin threaders. Prior to fishing, you slide flies onto the threader (each holds about six flies); when you need one, slip the tippet through the threader and slide the fly off onto the tippet. Since both the threader and doubled-over tippet must pass through the hook eye, it’s worth experimenting to get a workable combination of hook and tippet sizes. But when daylight (or eyesight) fades and fish are rising, the threaders can be game savers. It’s a highly specialized—and somewhat expensive—box, but altogether practical under the right conditions. $40.95.

Designed for holding large flies, the Bugger Barn, from Cliff Outdoors, is a basic but functional double-sided case. With rounded corners and low-profile hardware, it slides easily in and out of chest or lumbar packs (at 9" long, it’s a tight fit for most vests). The strong point here is a stiff high-density foam that’s almost twice as thick as the foam in many fly boxes; you can seat a fly deeper for an admirably secure hold on the large or heavy patterns. The 10 slots per side run the full length of the box, so fly position can be adjusted for maximum capacity. And the slots are spaced farther apart to accommodate patterns that need a little more shoulder room. This is an eminently practical box for anyone who carries big stuff—musky, striper, even steelhead anglers. $21.95.

Cliff’s Crab Shack incorporates the same thick foam in a double-sided case with a smaller footprint, but more depth. The extra headspace is particularly welcome for storing patterns that sit up higher in the box; with both sides loaded, you can close the lid without smashing anything. The foam gives a bulldog hold even on heavy McCrabs and lead-eye patterns, and the 12 continuous slots per side give good efficiency in storing a mix of large and small flies. The box is smartly designed for its purpose—tucking in a pocket and wading the flats. Like the Bugger Barn, it isn’t waterproof, and the slots aren’t indexed, making them a bit hard to see; again, a waterproof marker did the trick. And like the Bugger Barn, it’s a simple idea, well executed. $21.95.

The Orvis Super Slim fly boxes solve a problem that has bugged me for a long time in storing smaller flies and nymphs. Most boxes have too much headroom, wasting space while increasing bulk and weight. These single-sided boxes are a mere 1⁄2" deep and remarkably light, with a clear top that lets you see the contents. The streamlined case is ideal for traveling light. Or, like me, you can carry two or three of these in the same space required by a single conventional box, increasing organizational options. Three sizes come in two configurations—slotted foam and magnetic compartments, the latter of which is especially good for size 18 and smaller nymphs. These are superb for lightening up and slimming down your load. $9.95 to $14.95.

Rose Creek’s Piranha Clip Fly Boxes put some teeth into an existing storage idea—plastic pinch clips that hold flies upright. But unlike smooth-faced clips, these have tiny teeth on the contact surface that grip hooks solidly, something that’s especially welcome on those heavier nymphs and beadheads that can work loose from foam. The clip design also allows for some air circulation around the hook wire to help prevent rust. The double-sided case contains 120 Pirhana clips designed for a window of hook sizes, about #1 to #14 depending on wire diameter. To accommodate smaller flies, Rose Creek introduced the Micro-Grips clips for hooks size 14 to 20, again depending on hook wire, and the smaller clips double the box capacity. The boxes are available in three thicknesses so you can get the right vertical clearance for your flies. $22.49.




Compartment Boxes



The popularity of foam storage notwithstanding, I still prefer compartment boxes for dry flies—they don’t mash hackled patterns. But the downside to such boxes is uniform-size compartments, which don’t always use space efficiently.

The Adjustable Fly Box, from Orvis, remedies this drawback with moveable dividers. In the large size, each of three compartment rows has nine divider positions; 12 dividers are supplied, for custom sizing up to 15 compartments. Slim dividers and divider tracks give a bit more useable space than other boxes of this type, and a gasketed lid inhibits water entry. But as on similar boxes, the dividers don’t always seat solidly against the box bottom, and flies occasionally get stuck in the gap. But I find the storage flexibility worth the minor inconvenience, and these boxes are sturdily made. Three sizes priced from $10.95 to $14.95.

The new Clear-Site boxes from Wheatley are made of see-through ABS plastic and available in various styles. But my hands-down favorite is the #95712, a 12-compartment box about as thick as a deck of cards but slightly larger. The slim-profile design wastes no headspace in storing dry flies #14 and smaller. It’s custom-made for the hatch freak; I can organize eight different dun patterns and four emerger styles for the BWO hatch in a tidy, compact, extremely lightweight package. And two of these boxes take up less room in a vest than a single box of most conventional designs. The shell is rugged, with an excellent hinge and easy opening, tightly locking closure. The slightly larger #95012 (also 12 compartments) holds bigger dry flies but is still a space-saving 3⁄4" thick. And these are a solid value—the #95712 runs $5.25; the #95012 is $6.95.

cliff outdoors


rose creek