Rolling Duffels

Rolling Duffels

The most practical approach to flying with your fishing gear

  • By: Ted Leeson
In the post-9/11 era, the logistics of angling travel have devolved from the merely inconvenient to the nearly incomprehensible. Standard operating procedures (packing reels, flies and tying gear in carry-on bags) and courtesy leeways (allowing longer rod cases on board) have gone the way of the floppy disk and the federal budget surplus. Today, everything is left to the dubious discretion of TSA functionaries-with wildly inconsistent outcomes, presumably depending on whether they had bran muffins for breakfast or passed the criminal background check.The upshot is that, if you want to pass GO without schlepping rejected carry-on tackle back to the ticket agent or downing a Paxil to counter the anxieties of "gate check," just about all your gear should be packed in checked luggage. Granted, you may slip something through from time to time, but I've had spooled-up reels and 4-piece rods stopped cold at security screening. So I'm resigned to putting the fate of my fishing trip in the hands of disgruntled baggage personnel and rent-a-cops sniffing my wading boots for C4 plastic explosive. Certainly, there are different theories here. The divide-and-conquer approach says to split up your gear among various bags in hopes of arriving with at least some of it. I favor the winner-takes-all approach and pack the whole works in a single, checked bag. For one thing, I want luggage big enough to carry 9-foot, 4-piece rods (still a very popular configuration), and a bag of that size (a bare minimum of 30 inches long) is usually big enough to carry everything else. And while splitting up your gear may ensure that you arrive with at least some of it, it also doubles the chances of losing at least part of it. Conventional duffles do the job, but transporting a fully loaded one is best left to trained Sherpas, who have the stamina. Recently, manufacturers have responded to the problem with larger, wheeled duffle bags-an improvement in a couple of ways. Obviously, rolling is easier than carrying, particularly now that the dime-size, tinker-toy wheels of the past have given way to large-diameter in-line skate wheels that are more durable, bear more weight, and roll better over uneven surfaces. And wheels require a rigid bag platform in the first place, which offers greater protection for reels, fly boxes and fragile stuff. There are downsides as well. Some of these bags, when fully loaded, exceed the maximum allowable baggage size (62 inches-found by adding length, width and height). However, I routinely travel with a bag that is eight inches over this limit and have never had trouble. (My attorney has advised me to phrase this as personal anecdote rather than recommended procedure.) And even if I'm caught one day, the 25-dollar penalty is a small price for having all my gear in one place; I'll just forgo an insipid, overpriced lunch at the Shakedown Cafe and still come out ahead. A more serious, but controllable, problem is weight. Most of these bags hold a lot. Fifty pounds is the airline limit, and since baggage platforms at most ticket counters double as scales, overweight bags rarely escape notice. The problem is compounded by the fact that, owing to a rigid chassis, some of these duffles weigh as much 15 pounds empty. You need to keep a watch on overzealous packing or, as I do, regard the penalty charge as just a cost of doing business. Still, I find these big-wheeled duffles to be a practical-and sometimes ideal-solution for the destination angler. Some duffles are available in multiple sizes; in the interests of compactness and weight, I went with the smallest size from each product line that would still hold a 9-foot, 4-piece rod-such a bag is generally plenty big for the rest of your gear. Here's what rolled in. Cabela's The Extreme Wheeled Duffel is one of a kind-completely waterproof, it's essentially a dry bag on wheels. The shell is RF-welded, nylon-reinforced PVC (standard dry-bag fare), mounted on a bathtub chassis, lined and fitted with a high-quality Tizip waterproof center zipper. Two mesh pockets are mounted on the interior sides of the bag, and 4-piece rod cases fit easily in the bottom of the extra-large version. The bag itself is voluminous, though the zipper length, kept short in the interests of waterproofing, makes access a little awkward. This is a sturdily built-and heavy-duffel, though one construction detail seems questionable. The waterproof shell is drawn tightly around the bathtub bottom, pulling the fabric taut over rigid corners of the platform-in my experience, prime locations for abrasion if the bag sees use under the extreme field conditions for which it is designed. This is a specialty duffel, just the item for anglers who head from the airport right to a float plane, a boat launch or to camp, and need to keep everything together and dry. For more general use, I'd choose otherwise. (Price: $199; weight: 14 lb.; volume: 9700 cubic inches). The idea behind the Stowaway Roller Duffel Bag crops up now and again, and it has merit-four PVC tubes large enough for uncased 9-foot, 4-piece rods are permanently installed inside the bag and accessed through zip-closing flaps on the outside. Rods are protected, cases don't shift around in the load, and you can access rods without unpacking the bag. You don't, however, have individual rod tubes at your destination, and space is wasted if you don't carry four rods. As rolling duffels go, volume is on the low end, but I like its compactness; there's sufficient room for essential gear (and a few extras) in a package that's low profile, small footprint and easy to handle. The medium-size bag I tested has a non-adjustable strap handle on the end, and taller anglers may find it a little low to the ground for comfortable rolling. But this is highly practical choice for anglers who are seeking a fishing-specific bag that doesn't need to carry the kitchen sink. Features and nice price make this my favorite of the Cabela's bags. ($89.99; 9 lbs.; 5200 in3). The Ripcord Wheeled Duffel is about as simple as they come-a standard, center-zip duffle with one big compartment mounted on a flat platform. Lightweight fabric and platform hold down weight, even in the 36-inch model I tested. (9-foot rods were too tight a fit to recommend the 30-inch model.) There's nothing unusual here, just a functional bag, high in capacity but, except for one exterior pocket, low in organizational features. The absence of compression straps means some load shift, especially on a duffle this size, unless the bag is packed full-which takes some doing; there's lots of room. The shell material is suitably rugged, though I'd like to see more double-stitching and reinforcement on a bag designed for big loads. But if you like uncomplicated design and a big, undivided packing space, this one is functional and affordably priced. ($129.99; 8 lbs.; 9700 in3). Dan Bailey The Signature Rolling Duffel offers some useful features. The zip-open bottom compartment is long enough for cased 9-footers and deep enough for boots, waders and bulky items and is separated by a water-resistant barrier from the contents in the upper part of the bag. Mesh pockets in the lid and bag interior organize smaller items, and stiffeners in the bag ends and lid hold the bag open even when it's empty. When packed, it will stand upright. This one is thoughtfully designed, though I'm less enthusiastic about the construction. The flat platform seems somewhat light and flexible for a bag of this capacity, and the wire frame in the lid is vulnerable to bending by baggage handlers. Riveted handles and vinyl piping trim seem better suited to lighter-weight luggage, as do the single-sewn zippers, and it could profit from compression straps. All this, however, must be weighed against the price, which, as these things go, is not high. Although I have reservations about long-term durability, practical design and affordable price make this one attractive to anglers seeking a bag for occasional use designed specifically with fly tackle in mind. ($129.95; 11 lbs.; 77in3). Filson Three characteristics of the Extra Large Rugged Twill Wheeled Duffle stand out. First, proportions: the bottom platform is long enough to comfortably carry cased 9-footers, while the rest of the dimensions are slim enough to pass muster at the airport. It offers good interior volume without being oversize, and three interior bag-style pockets organize small items. Second, construction: an unsurprising strength from Filson; this one is built. And third, materials: treated heavy-duty twill and impressively stout bridle leather are plenty durable. Still, a few features are wanting. The zipper is brass-eye-catching, but metal zippers are more trouble-prone than modern synthetic ones, and a single center zip gives less convenient access than a flap top. You roll the bag with a leather handle, which I find less comfortable and versatile than a retractor type, and there are no compression straps. But ultimately, these will be minor objections for anglers who appreciate-and are willing to pay a premium for-a high-quality, long-wearing bag with the look and cache of traditional twill-leather-and-brass appointments. ($424; 12 lbs; 6500 in3). Fishpond The Outbound Rolling Duffel offers an unusually thoughtful design, incorporating useful features for the fly angler without over-determined, tackle-specific compartments that can limit packing options. This is a big bag; 9-foot rod tubes fit easily into the bathtub bottom, along with waders, boots and wet or dirty gear-all separated from the upper cargo area by a waterproof neoprene barrier, while mesh panels in the bottom allow contents to dry out. The top flap opens lengthwise for convenient access to a big interior with four large mesh pockets. A pair of big exterior end pockets help organize large or bulky items, and a flat pocket on the outside holds tickets, boarding passes, and so on. This is intelligently laid out and soundly built from durable, good-looking materials, impressive in the way it usefully divides up space among variously sized cargo areas. Designed with fishing in mind, this is one of my favorites and an impressive bang for the buck-an excellent value for the serious traveling angler. Includes a waterproof, nylon rain cover. ($260; 13 lbs; 9000 in3). L.L. Bean The Maine Guide Luggage Rolling Duffle is designed for the serious long haul with some useful fishing-specific features. The flat bottom will easily accommodate 9-foot rods, but the two external end pockets have zip-down panels on the inside, giving enough additional interior storage length to hold tubes up to 39-inches-long. Zip the panels up, and these mesh-sided pockets can be used to store damp or dirty gear; two more exterior pockets allow for further organizational fine-tuning. Compression straps would be a nice idea for this cavernous cargo space, and slightly larger wheels would help in negotiating curbs, stairs and uneven terrain. I like this one best for its durable shell fabric and construction and for the cleverly useful end pockets that allow you to customize the space apportionment. I snuck this noticeably oversize duffle past ticket agents twice, though you can't count on that sort of thing, so be prepared. A serviceable high-volume bag for long trips, fishing or otherwise and fairly priced. ($149; 11 lbs; 10,000 in3). Orvis The Battenkill Rolling Magnum Duffle Case is indeed magnum. The deep, zip-open bottom compartment alone can probably contain the bulk of your gear, and there's twice as much additional space in the main compartment. The chassis here wisely incorporates four skate wheels to bear the weight and stabilize the heavy loads this bag is capable of carrying. You pull this bag along by a non-adjustable strap handle, but the bag is long enough that even tall anglers won't be stooping as they walk. The zipper opens in a "wide-mouth" design, which eliminates the restricted access problems typically posed by a single center zipper. The bag is built of classic materials of the Battenkill line-forest-green, heavy-duty canvas; leather handles, reinforcements and trim. Fair enough; these are durable materials. But the metal zippers seem pointlessly retro from the standpoint of function-too prone to binding and sticking. My other quibble is that the sides of this bathtub platform could be a bit more rigid to provide stability with bigger loads. Like the Filson bag, this one will probably appeal most to anglers who don't mind trading away updated fabrics and modern hardware for traditional materials; tasteful, unostentatious looks, and pride-of-ownership equipment. ($335; 16 lbs; 10,500 in3). The Safe Passage Rolling Wader Duffel has a well-designed bathtub bottom-just long enough to fit 9-foot rods but deep enough to hold waders and boots, and sensibly ventilated to let wet gear dry. It also has internal compression straps to prevent shifting of contents and help compensate for the rather flexible sidewalls that don't contribute much to stabilizing the load. The shell is sewn of lightweight ripstop cloth with a big flap top, internal mesh bags, and a U-shaped plastic stiffener rod that helps the bag stand on end-a bit Rube Goldbergish, but it does work. I would like to see more double-stitching on zippers and high-stress seams, and the compression straps have too little adjustment for a partially loaded bag, which is when straps really help. But I like the design here-great chassis and a useful apportionment of space among top, bottom and end compartments that offers both overall capacity and some organizational flexibility. Thoughtfully sized and practical, it can double as an ordinary travel bag, and is my top choice in the Orvis line. ($198; 10 lbs; 7200 in3). Consider the Safe Passage Rolling Duffle as a stripped-down version of the Rolling Wader Duffle. Flat frame and rip-stop nylon shell keep this one a bit lighter than most. Cased rods won't fit between the platform ends, but pack them last and they ride on top of the load. Retractable handle, compression straps and two large interior pockets are useful additions, but in most other respects this is a basic, center-opening, single-compartment duffle-a familiar design constructed of durable, updated materials. The strong points here are simplicity and usability of all interior space-it's a big, capacious compartment. I suspect that more reinforcement or double-stitching at stress points would beef this up, but it's certainly a reasonably choice for anglers seeking an affordable, double-duty bag-large enough to haul tackle but sensibly sized and configured for non-angling travel. ($129; 8 lbs; 7900 in3). Patagonia If a category of gear only seven years old has a great-grandaddy, the Freightliner Max is it, and still one of the best. Materials and construction on both the seamless, molded chassis and fabric shell are hallmarks here, and the size is nicely chosen-even jammed full, it would quite probably pass the ticket-agent test. You do have to pack rods on top of the load here, but the lid flap opens lengthwise for exceptionally easy access. A stiffener panel in the bottom end helps keeps the bag sides from collapsing when the duffle is open (simplifies packing) and makes the bag freestanding as well; the panel folds down for flat storage of the bag. Big mesh pockets on the lid interior keep small items under control, while the cargo area has ample gear space, supplemented with a sizeable exterior end pocket. There are no techie frills here; everything is chosen for function and durability. A good investment for anglers who don't care much for fishing-specific features and prefer to put their money into a sound design, high-quality materials and long-lasting construction. This isn't cheap, but you do get what you pay for. ($325; 10 lbs; 7,500 in3). Simms Introduced last year, the Bottomless Pit Roller Bag defies a brief description. Extremely rigid platform with aluminum skid bars, hard bottom for standing upright, fully padded shell of nearly bulletproof fabric, ample reinforcement and impeccable construction-it's built like an armored car. A hard rod case, fitted beneath a zip-closing divider in the bag bottom, takes four 9-footers (or remove it and pack your own tubes). A zip pocket on the big, flap-closing lid and another on the exterior help organize smaller items, and if you're into technical (but useful) features, this is your item. A wonderfully thoughtful design and handsome as all get out. There are some tradeoffs, however, to this Humvee construction-at 15 pounds, the bag itself accounts for almost a third of your weight allotment; large in overall size, capacity is only moderate (though still ample for gear), and the price tag is high. But for serious travel with an angling-specific bag, I don't think you can find a better duffle. A cost-is-no-object favorite. ($329.95; 15 lbs; 5,000 in3). The Hard Bottom Roller Bag, also introduced last year, takes a unique approach. The bag unzips around the perimeter and opens flat, like a book, into two halves. In the bathtub bottom is a zip-open rod compartment (takes 2 tubes or several uncased rods), a zip-open boot pocket, and an open compartment with compression straps. The top half contains two large zip flaps over additional storage compartments. The clever lay-open design makes all contents readily accessible at once. The impressively rigid, one-piece ABS plastic shell and extensive use of thick padding throughout make this bag the ultimate in tackle protection. There is a tradeoff though: the cushioning, the divided compartments, and dedicated storage reduce the effective volume of the bag (and make capacity calculations almost impossible). This is a good-size piece of luggage that holds a bit less than you'd think. But it is wonderfully well built with the most fishing-specific interior configuration I've seen in a bag. If you expect your tackle to see exceptionally rough treatment on the road, this is probably your best choice of the group. For less extreme circumstances, however, I still prefer the Bottomless Pit. ($299.95; 15 lbs). William Joseph The BFD (Big Fishing Duffle) is aptly named-it's huge. The bathtub bottom forms a padded, admirably protective, zip-open compartment big enough for six rods and a good deal more; interior straps help stabilize the load and maintain rigidity in this very long chassis. It rolls nicely on two oversize wheels, and the strap handle is not a drawback on a bag of this length. The flap opening gives full access to the single upper compartment, while two voluminous end pockets and a big exterior pocket add capacity. Both materials and construction are up to the task-tough and beefy, though I'd like to see exterior compression straps to help control the load in such a large bag. Stuff this full and forget about eluding airline size and weight limits-nobody's that oblivious. This is a take-no-prisoners, fishing-specific duffle for extended trips where sheer capacity is important; best for anglers who like to bring it all, need protection for more delicate tackle, and a lot of space for the rest. ($250; 11 lbs; 11,000 in3). Roll Out: Cabela's 800-237-4444 www.cabelas.com Dan Bailey 800-356-4052 www.dan-bailey.com Filson 800-297-1897 www.filson.com Fishpond www.fishpondusa.com L.L. Bean 800-441-5713 www.llbean.com Orvis 888-235-9763 www.orvis.com Patagonia 800-638-6464 www.patagonia.com Simms 406-585-3557 www.simmsfishing.com William Joseph 800-269-1875 www.williamjoseph.net