Vestments

Vestments

FR&R's Equipment Editor reviews 25 fly-fishing vests

  • By: Ted Leeson
To the true believer, a fly-fishing vest bespeaks a kind of sanctity. It is the angler's cassock (surplice if it's a shorty), the emblem of holy office, the incarnation of our faith. Strange, then, how we treat the robes of our calling. Even when they sag with age, faded and threadbare, funk-stained with a personal Shroud-of-Turin imprint, do we retire these worthy relics? Enshrine them as beloved objects of reverence? Hell, do we even wash them? Nope. We wear them till they rot off our backs. Part of the reason is the perfectly understandable "favorite shirt" syndrome, that reassuring feeling of familiarity and comfort, the affectionate sense of a shared history.But part of the reason too, I think, is the perception that vests haven't changed much over the years, that the basic idea remains unaltered, that updating doesn't buy you much. There's a measure of truth in this-about the same measure, in fact, as arguing that click-and-pawl fly reels haven't changed much over the years, that new ones are pretty much like old ones. That is, it's true if you choose to ignore improvements in materials, designs and manufacturing techniques that often lead to better performance. "Performance" may seem an odd term to apply to a fly-fishing vest, but it boils down to this: comfort (the ability to carry and distribute weight without producing fatigue in neck, shoulders or back; fabric that breathes and dries quickly); convenience (organizational flexibility that gives ready access to contents; proper mix of pocket sizes for your needs; closures that are easily operated and secure); and durability (fabric resistance to deterioration; stitch count and quality; reinforced stress points; long-lasting closures). Overall vest capacity is a more contingent matter, depending on whether you are a minimalist angler, or the Swiss Army type, or somewhere in between. Of much greater importance is how that capacity promotes or hinders a useful placement of contents. I am hardly one to point fingers here, appearing streamside as I do like a cross between a fully armed S.W.A.T team member and the Kraft Marshmallow Man, but the fact that a vest has 50 pockets is not a requirement that they all be filled. It's a matter of choosing the pockets that put your gear at your fingertips and stow it safely. If that doesn't take all 50, well…God bless you my brethren; you're made of sterner stuff than I am. I took a look at all the vests that have been introduced or significantly redesigned since the last roundup piece in the July/August 1998 issue of FRR. Here's the lowdown: Aqua Design Guide Vest Chapter and verse: Nylon microfiber shell with 50 UV protection, mesh lined; rolled, foam-padded collar; shorty; mesh version (Travel Lite Vest, $69) available. The Righteous: Camouflage fabric (3 colors available) with sun protection; good capacity and ample cargo pocket for a shorty; good size balance in flybox pockets; straightforward layout. The Fallen: Padded collar contributes only marginally to weight distribution under heavy load; light on accessory pockets; zippers could operate more smoothly. Salvation for: Stealth anglers who need camo; float tubers, since most vest space is accessed from exterior; big-fly-box folks who want a shorty, say, steelhead and striper anglers. Cabela's AFT Vest Chapter and verse: Tactel Lycra shell; Coolmax mesh lining (except for lower pockets); Lycra yoke; stretch-knit collar; double zippers on lower pockets; two water-bottle pockets flank cargo pocket. The Righteous: Yoke, collar and to a lesser extent, shell fabric all flex for excellent weight distribution and load bearing-among the most comfortable of all vests; useful mix of pocket sizes and convenient arrangement; high capacity; intelligent design and clean appearance; not exactly cheap, but a lot for the money. The Fallen: Extensive use of exterior piggyback pockets (3 deep on the lower half) can make access awkward when fully loaded; yoke design reduces size of cargo pocket. Salvation for: Heavy packers; those who favor modern design and materials; those for whom "value" in gear is not the same as "low cost." Stretch and flex throughout the shell make this a particularly good choice for those who spend a lot time behind oars. Cabela's River Guide Supplex Vest Chapter and verse: Teflon-protected Supplex shell with Coolmax lining (except for lower pockets); neoprene yoke; stretch-knit collar; elasticized bellows on cargo pocket; double zippers on lower pockets. The Righteous: Yoke and collar provide some weight distribution and cushion; straightforward and practical exterior layout; good capacity for a shorty; useful mix of pocket sizes; lightweight and breathable. The Fallen: Interior mesh pockets can snag gear; smallish cargo pocket. Salvation for: Anglers who definitely want a shorty with lots of capacity and reasonable comfort in carrying it. Otherwise, spring for the extra 10 bucks and get an AFT. Cabela's Shorty III Chapter and verse: Single-layer cotton/poly shell; stretch-knit collar. The Righteous: Basic and simple; if you don't carry big flyboxes, has a good mix of pocket sizes for overall capacity; low cost; light weight. The Fallen: Not particularly short for a shorty; pocket configuration only moderately useful-not a great mix of sizes; single-layer shell reduces durability; not cleanly finished inside. Salvation for: Entry-level anglers or those who seek a basic, low-cost vest of moderate capacity. Clear Creek Mogel Guide Vest Chapter and verse: Double-layer Vin-Tex nylon shell, mesh lined (except for lower pockets); stretch-knit collar; double zippers on lower pockets; built-in detachable pigtail retractor; mesh sides on cargo pocket. The Righteous: Supple, breathable, quick-drying shell; huge main cargo pocket; good large-flybox capacity; simple and sensible layout; light weight for full-size vest. The Fallen: Collar contributes little to weight distribution or cushion; interior mesh pockets can snag contents; no provisions for storing and organizing small items such as split shot, indicators, flotant; could be more generous with hook-and-loop material on some pockets. Salvation for: Anglers who like lots of larger pockets; those who eschew tekkie features and design details in favor of a more traditional look and approach. Clear Creek Super Vest Chapter and verse: Double-layer Vin-Tex nylon shell; stretch knit collar The Righteous: Shell fabric breathes and dries quickly; slick fabric finish allows contents to slip easily in and out of pockets; good mix of pocket sizes, with plenty of small accessory pockets; good exterior layout; clever tippet pockets with zippered storage flap. The Fallen: Small hook-and-loop patches require conscientious pocket closure; collar does little to distribute weight; may go a bit overboard on smaller pockets Salvation for: Anglers who like an abundance of options in organizing gear, especially accessories; those who prefer a traditional appearance. My choice for the best value in the Clear Creek line. Clear Creek Ultimate Vest Chapter and verse: Cotton/poly shell, mesh-lined back; exterior of cargo pocket can be rolled down and stored in pocket to make a mesh-back vest; stretch-knit collar The Righteous: Mesh-back option for hot days; nice balance of pocket sizes for boxes and accessories; sensible pocket placement inside and out-everything's easy to reach The Fallen: Fabric is a trifle stiff; zippers on largest pockets could be longer for easier access; when roll-down flap on back is zipped up to make cargo pocket, there are big openings in the lower corners-all but the very largest items (like raingear) can fall out Salvation for: Anglers who want warm-weather convertibility in a vest. If this isn't the topmost priority, consider the Super Vest for the same money. Clear Creek Pro Vest Chapter and verse: Double-layer Vin-Tex nylon shell; neoprene collar; shorty. The Righteous: Breathable, quick-drying; basic but functional layout; stretch in collar adequate to cushion smaller load of a shorty vest; light weight. The Fallen: Smallish armholes may be restrictive over heavy clothing; hook-and-loop closures could be larger; larger spools may not fit tippet pockets. Salvation for: Anglers who want a shorty that forgoes whistles and bells for decent capacity and straightforward utility. Columbia Cool Creek Mesh Vest Chapter and verse: Double-layer polyester mesh shell; stretch collar; 2 built-in pigtail retractors. The Righteous: Piggybacked pockets and open layout expose plenty of mesh for ventilation-this one really breathes; stretch collar and elasticity of mesh cushion load nicely on this moderate capacity vest; light weight; useful balance of efficient pocket sizes. The Fallen: Shell mesh easily catches on brush; most pockets contain one mesh face that may snag contents; pigtail zingers tend to hang up in their nylon webbing sleeves during retraction-decidedly unhandy design. Salvation for: Anglers who make keeping cool a top priority; those who hike or bike to fishing (but not dedicated bushwhackers); those who fall in a lot and need a quick-drying vest. Fishpond Gore Range Tech Pack Chapter and verse: Ripstop nylon shell, mesh-lined, with full mesh back; adjustable padded shoulder straps and adjustable side cinches make for a vest/pack hybrid; two zip-down fly trays with removable foam inserts (like you see on chestpacks); double zippers on lower pockets. The Righteous: Very rugged materials; lots of flybox storage and organizational options; zip-down fly trays (if you like them; if not, inserts removable for flybox storage); strap design gives good arm mobility; snugs tight to body to prevent shifting and swinging; high-tech good looks. The Fallen: Padded straps and overall design argue for more pack-like back instead of moderate-capacity cargo pockets; straps bear weight comfortably, but no padding or flex in the neck; pockets at elbows reduce mobility advantages of vertical-pocket configuration; extensive pocket piggybacking makes for bulk up front when loaded; little in the way of small accessory pockets; fairly heavy. Salvation for: Anglers seeking a rugged vest for hard use; those who hike to fish; those unafraid of innovative design ideas; chestpack users seeking greater capacity in an overall layout that will feel familiar. Hodgman Lakestream Shorty Vest Chapter and verse: Polyester microfiber shell; mesh-lined back; stretchable micro-mesh yoke; rolled and padded collar; handwarmer pockets. The Righteous: Vertical exterior pockets give good arm mobility; stretchy yoke cushions and carries loads very well and allows vest to flex with your movement-among the most comfortable in these regards. The Fallen: Fly boxes stored in vertical pockets make piggybacked handwarmer pockets unusably tight; fabric flaps over zippers make closure operation clumsy; rolled collar is overly bulky and warm; little in the way of smaller accessory pockets; somewhat specialized design limits versatility. Salvation for: Anglers who value a cushiony, comfortable weight-bearing over high capacity and organizational features. Vertical pockets and shorty length make this a good choice for steelheaders, striper fisherman and float tubers. Hodgman Brighton Vest Chapter and verse: Cotton/poly shell with full mesh back. The Righteous: Mesh back noticeably helps air circulation; lots of options in organizing small items and accessories; very reasonably priced. The Fallen: Flat-sewn interior pockets of limited use; no cargo pocket; nothing in collar or yoke to distribute weight; goes a little overboard in small accessory pockets; boxtop closures make accessing small pockets clumsy. Salvation for: Economy-minded anglers who still want the real deal; those who'll trade away a cargo pocket for hot-weather ventilation. Nothing fancy here, but good capacity and practical exterior layout make this an attractive vest for the money; among the best price-point products. L.L. Bean Magalloway Vest Chapter and verse: Polyester shell, mesh lining; neoprene yoke band; stretch-knit collar; double-zippers on lower pockets; fleece-lined sunglasses pocket; waterproof interior security pocket; women's sizes available. The Righteous: Shell fabric won't absorb water; yoke and collar help moderately in weight distribution; clean design; mix of pocket sizes allows good flexibility in organizing gear; oversize large pockets for improved access; thoughtful and thorough use of space; nicely made; L.L. Bean guarantee. The Fallen: Stuff can snag on mesh interior pockets; longer flaps would improve versatility on piggyback chest pockets. Salvation for: Anglers who appreciate capacity and technical features; those who want options in arranging and placing gear; those who want bang for the buck. Impressive for the price. L.L. Bean West Branch Vest Chapter and verse: Mesh-lined nylon shell; stretch-knit collar; women's sizes available. The Righteous: Good compromise between simple entry-level vest and a full-featured one; uncluttered layout of moderate capacity; nice materials and construction for the money; L.L. Bean guarantee. The Fallen: Not high in organizational flexibility; possible snagging on interior mesh pockets; minimal weight distribution from collar when heavily loaded. Salvation for: Serious entry-level anglers who wants a vest they won't quickly outgrow; any angler who prefers to keep things relatively simple, with modest demands in capacity and organizational alternatives. Loon Flak Jacket Chapter and verse: Cordura Plus shell with foam-mesh lining; two fold-down front "trays" with hook-and-loop mounted ripple-foam flyboxes (included); vest/pack hybrid with adjustable shoulder straps and side cinches; one cargo pocket for hydration system (included); one shock-corded mesh cargo pocket; two quick-connect gear keepers; two zingers. The Righteous: Narrow strap profile and vertical chest pockets give excellent arm mobility; durable materials; cushiony ride on shoulders and neck; fold-down flybox trays give quick and secure access; can be cinched up snugly for easy rock-hopping. The Fallen: Relatively low overall capacity and organizational flexibility; you have to buy into the flybox tray idea and commit to using fly boxes supplied; can be difficult to access contents in tall, narrow accessory pockets; foam-mesh adds bulk. Salvation for: Hike-in and small-stream anglers; those who favor arm mobility over capacity; steelheaders, float-tubers; anyone who rows a lot. Orvis Clearwater Vest Chapter and verse: Cotton/poly shell, mesh-lined upper back only; stretch-knit collar The Righteous: Uncomplicated design; functional exterior layout; light weight The Fallen: Modest capacity, and none for large flyboxes; interior pockets almost useless; single-layer shell less durable than other constructions; small cargo pocket Salvation for: Entry-level anglers or cost-conscious minimalists. Orvis Streamline Vest Chapter and verse: Water- and stain-resistant polyester microfiber shell; stretch-mesh yoke; stretch-knit collar; fleece-lined handwarmer pockets; waterproof interior security pocket; mesh cargo pocket piggyback on standard cargo pocket. The Righteous: Extremely soft, supple shell; yoke and neck give good weight bearing and distribution-very comfortable all around; high capacity and flexibility in arranging fly boxes; lots of dedicated pockets (sunglasses, tippet, security, etc.) for those who like them; handsomely and thoughtfully done. The Fallen: Fleece handwarmer pockets dry slowly when wet; exterior mesh pockets can snag brush or contents; dark color may be warm in hot weather; too many dedicated pockets for those who don't like them; lacks general-purpose accessory pockets; cargo pockets are small. Salvation for: Anglers who want high flybox capacity and a fully loaded vest that rides comfortably; those who take advantage of specialized features and who appreciate design details. Patagonia River Master Vest Chapter and verse: A redesign of the old Reinvest; Supplex shell, fully mesh lined; foam padding through collar and yoke; elasticized front pocket tops for added flybox security; double-zippers on lower pockets; shorty. The Righteous: Prodigious capacity (especially for a shorty) and intelligent combination of pocket sizes give lots of organizational options; space thoughtfully utilized; yoke and collar padding bear weight well; light pleasing shell fabric; cleanly made and attractively finished. The Fallen: Mesh lining of most pockets are candidates for snagging contents; filling vest to near capacity crowds pocket access; strong temptation to overload. Salvation for: Deep waders and tubers who want maximum capacity; the organizationally obsessed who have strong ideas about what should go where; hi-tech and feature freaks; those who expect to pay for quality. My favorite of the Patagonia models. Patagonia Mesh Master Vest Chapter and verse: Redesign of old Vertical Pocket model; double-layer polyester mesh with waterproof/breathable ripstop nylon pockets; foam-padded collar; elasticized pocket tops for added flybox security; shorty. The Righteous: Quick-drying mesh and water-shedding pockets make this an all-season vest; vertical pockets give excellent mobility for casting, strip retrieves, and rowing; good capacity in an uncluttered layout; sensible mix of pocket sizes; convenient one-hand access to almost everything. The Fallen: Like all mesh, snag-prone (including inside some pockets); somewhat specialized design makes it somewhat less versatile than other vests; a little stiff for mesh; spendy. Salvation for: Anglers who want to carry big flyboxes but still require arm mobility for distance casting and/or constant strip retrieving-steelhead and striper fisherman; anyone who logs time in a float tube or behind the oars; those who want mesh without sacrificing durability; those who want uncomplicated design in hi-tech materials. Redington Pro Staff Vest Chapter and verse: Nylon shell, mesh-lined (except for lower pockets), mesh back; stretch-mesh yoke; double-zippers on lower pockets; water-resistant security pocket; non-mesh version also available. The Righteous: Good overall flybox capacity gives lots of organizational options; big stretch-yoke is comfortable under load; good exterior layout; puts mesh where it does the most good. The Fallen: Few provisions for organizing small items; tippet pockets won't hold large spools; eight narrow interior sleeves lack closures-very limited usefulness; security pocket good for keys but too small for wallet. Salvation for: Anglers who favor the largest fly boxes and want the ventilation; those inclined to use dedicated pockets for tippet spools, floatant, etc. Solidly done, but not exceptional in this price range. Redington Blackfoot River Vest Chapter and verse: Single-layer cotton/poly shell; stretch-knit collar; flap-covered fly keeper. The Righteous: Good mix of pocket sizes for a low-capacity vest; lots of pockets for small accessories; simple, accessible layout; price. The Fallen: Large flyboxes are a very tight fit in lower pockets; single-stitching throughout; thin synthetic fly-patch material lets hook points penetrate completely through vest-watch yourself; breast pockets are square, an odd choice since most flyboxes are rectangular. Salvation for: Entry-level or occasional angler; minimalists who regard a vest as a necessary evil; cost-conscious anglers of any skill level who don't require high capacity. Not a lifetime product, but perfectly functional and a good value. Simms Guide Vest Chapter and verse: Shell fabric is Teflon HT-protected Supplex; mesh lined except for lower pockets; 2 built-in pigtail retractors; stretch-knit collar; double zippers on lower pockets; intermediate length for deeper wading. The Righteous: Soft, supple, breathable fabric; high-quality construction; clean in design and appearance; holds a ton of flies. The Fallen: Virtually no small pockets to organize tippet, floatant, split shot and accessories; knit collar makes only small contribution in distributing weight and improving comfort under heavy loads. Salvation for: Anglers who wade deep or float tube and still want a high-capacity vest; those who pack a lot of flies but little in the way of accessories; those who generally favor durable, quality, high-end gear regardless of cost. Simms Vertical Master Vest Chapter and verse: Same fabric and lining as Guide Vest; shorty style; piggybacked vertical exterior pockets have clever two-way design that holds one large flybox or, by attaching interior divider, two medium boxes each with separate exterior access; two built-in pigtail retractors; stretch-knit collar. The Righteous: Pleasing shell fabric and construction; vertical pockets narrow the load profile for better arm mobility; mix of pockets includes some smaller sizes for accessories (including a cool little elasticized dry-shake pocket); efficient blend of capacity and organizational flexibility. The Fallen: Stretch collar not a major help under heavy load, and some may find it a bit irritating against bare skin. Salvation for: Anglers who wade deep or tube; those who appreciate extra arm mobility for distance casting and strip retrieves; those who carry a mix of flyboxes and smaller items. A great striper or steelhead vest and my personal favorite in the Simms line. Simms Freestone Vest Chapter and verse: Shell fabric is Teflon HT-protected Supplex; fully mesh lined; intermediate length for deeper wading; double zippers on lower pockets. The Righteous: Simple and functional pocket layout that still has useable capacity; good quality for the money. The Fallen: Mesh interior pockets can snag contents; no provisions at collar or yoke for load bearing; not my first choice for carrying a lot of weight; no pockets for smaller items. Salvation for: Anglers who want a simple, moderate-capacity vest and have little use for accessory pockets; entry-level anglers looking for quality. Simms Mesh Vest Chapter and verse: Double-layer mesh shell with (mostly) solid Supplex pockets; intermediate length; 2 built-in pigtail retractors; stretch-knit collar; double zippers on lower pockets; essentially a mesh version of the Freestone Vest. The Righteous: Tough, high-quality mesh, and full mesh back, promote air circulation; very light and supple; practical pocket layout. The Fallen: Front mesh pockets contribute nothing to ventilation and can hang up on brush; mesh-lined pockets can snag flybox hinges and pocket contents; designed for flyboxes with little in the way of accessory storage; some durability tradeoff for the mesh. Salvation for: Anglers who routinely fish in very hot weather. Other Vests to Check Out A few vests new for this year were just going into production at deadline, and were unavailable for review. The Solitude (www.solitudefly.com) Stream Dancer Vest and Guide Vest are worth a look, as are the StreamWorks (www.streamworks.com) Shorty Pull-Over Vest and Orvis Battenkill Pro Guide. Contact Information Aqua Design: www.aquadesign.com Cabela's: www.cabelas.com Clear Creek: www.clearcreek.net Columbia: www.columbia.com fishpond: www.fishpondusa.com Hodgman: www.hodgman.com L.L. Bean: www.llbean.com Loon: www.loonoutdoors.com Orvis: www.orvis.com Patagonia: www.patagonia.com Redington: www.redington.com Simms: www.simmsfishing.com