Angling Duffels

Angling Duffels

Packing appropriate gear; makng it fit.

  • By: David Hughes

Once you’ve booked that trip of a lifetime, you almost immediately bump into the twin set of questions: “What do I take?” and, “What’s the best thing to take it in?”

Trips rarely get ruined by any absence of gear; don’t worry about that, unless you have size 14 feet and forget your size 14 wading boots. If that happens your anatomical predisposition may prove troublesome; for most of us, lodges carry anything you may have left at home, within the range of averages for fitting and gear. Size 14 boots don’t fit the average.

You’ll be happiest, however, if you manage to take all that you need and not a lot extra, and pack it in a way that makes it a pleasure to pass through the airport perils and boat rides and all the various ways that we propel ourselves to those destinations where the fishing is fantastic.

The best advice I ever got about travel was from the great angling writer Dave Whitlock. We were fishing a remote lake in Chile and the water was full of big brown trout. But the weather was nasty, and those fish tucked themselves about 20 feet down. Dave and his wife, Emily, danced them all morning. When we got together for lunch, I shuffled my feet in lakeside sand and whined about being armed with a delicate rod, perfect for presenting size 20 midges over rising trout, but not able to deliver a sizable bite to within 10 vertical feet of those angry browns.

While the guides coaxed fire out of wet wood and cooked an amazing shore-lunch, Dave winnowed through his rod tubes and boat bag, then delivered a stout rod armed with a line that would plummet. He handed the outfit to me and said, “Fish a big, ugly streamer. Cast it toward the steepest shorelines. Count it down 25 seconds. Retrieve it slowly.”

I had plenty of ugly flies; they’re the only kind I know how to tie. My afternoon became excellent, and I began to forget to whom I owed my sudden access to those big trout. At dinner that night, over pisco sours, Dave delivered the pithy line that I’ve always remembered when packing for any fishing trip: “Take the minimal range of gear that prepares you for the maximum range of situations. Then you’ll always be prepared for anything.”

The first way to get prepared is to read the lodge list of recommended gear and flies, and be sure to comply with it. Almost every lodge has one. Your booking agent should provide it, because they suspect that if you go on your trip with all of the right stuff and none of the wrong stuff you’ll catch lots of fish, have a good time and want to go back. The second step is to assemble all that gear, make sure it works—rods with no hidden flaws that cause them to snap; waders with no hidden holes that cause them to leak—and get some familiarization with it. The short word for that is practice.

If you’re going to the salt, my best advice is to not take my advice. Get it by reading expert Chico Fernandez, who writes about saltwater fly-fishing in this magazine. And again, consult your booking agent and local shop. Tell them where you’re going and what you’re going after, and let them guide you about gear. Your booking agent and fly shop remain the best sources of advice, but I can tell you some things you might not hear from them.

First, your wet gear—waders, wading boots, gravel guards and merino wool socks (don’t wear cotton unless you’ll be fishing in warm water, or if you enjoy cold, clammy feet)—is going to weigh about 10 pounds extra after you finish your last day fishing and pack it in a hurry to catch a plane. That soaked gear will often puts you over your weight limit. With all the invasive species hitchhiking around the world today, it’s a good idea to buy new wet gear for a destination trip, then leave it as a partial tip to your favorite guide or lodge.

I’m not going to list dry gear—your vest or pack with all of its many and necessary trinkets. But be sure to refresh your base leaders and buy new tippet spools. Don’t go with half-empty dispensers of bug repellent or fly flotant, and add an extra of each. Pack extra socks, silk tops and bottoms—they’re the world’s only useful pajamas—fleece, shirts and further layers according to the climate. Be sure your rain jacket and hat are bulletproof. Don’t go to a saltwater destination or the Southern Hemisphere without gloves. I don’t need to nag you about sunscreen, hand cream, Alka-Seltzer, Pepto-Bismol . . . carry a miniature medical kit that covers life’s probabilities and your own special needs.

If you’re preparing for a trout trip, and following the great Dave’s dictum, take a light, a medium and a heavy rod. The light would be a 4- or 5-weight, 8½ to 9 feet long, for presentation fishing. The medium would be a 5- or 6-weight, about 9 feet long, with a brisker action. The heavy would be a 6- or 7-weight 9-footer, a distance rod. All those rods should be 4-piece; 2-piece rods are impossible to pack in a duffel, and you’ll therefore be subject to the whims of individual airline personnel, a position it’s wise to avoid. If you’re as smart as Dave Whitlock, you’ll have an extra rod of the kind you use most, in case one breaks, or if some whiner on the trip has forgotten his own rules.

The only line you need for the light rod is a double-taper or weight-forward floater. Arm the medium, the most versatile of the lot, with weight-forward floating, clear intermediate and full-sink lines—the latter being the fastest-sinking line the rod will carry and cast well. For the heavy, carry weight-forward floating and full-sink lines. Be sure the reels are balanced to the rods. Carry the extra lines on spare spools. It won’t hurt to have a spare reel frame for the medium rod.

Now that you’ve gathered that list of clothes, personals and tackle to cover the widest range of possible situations, what do you carry it in? The prescription, like the gear, is minimal: You need a duffel that holds it all, with a minimum length of 30 inches to allow packing 9-foot 4-piece rods; 32 inches if you want to pack them in tubes; 35 inches if any of your rods are 9½-footers. It helps, though it’s not necessary, if the bag has a separate bottom compartment. End pockets are also nice but not needed. I think it’s necessary for the bag to have wheels. They protect your back, and the struts protect your rods (I sometimes take my rods without their tubes, wrapping them in a towel and storing them between the frame struts in a wheeled bag. But this is risky).

Some of the following bags are built specifically for fishing. Naturally, they solve your needs most precisely. Others here are not, but they’ll still work well, are generally less expensive, and serve for other sorts of travel, too.

Outback Series Drop-Bottom Wheeled Duffel, Large
Designed for fly-fishing travel. Constructed of canvas and leather. Separate drop-bottom compartment. Two large end pockets. Compression straps.
30" x 14" x 16"; 6,700 cubic inches; $149

Passage Rolling Duffel
Designed for fly-fishing travel. Single large compartment, with several interior pockets. Made of 1050-denier nylon.
31" x 18½" x 14½"; 8,315 cubic inches; $390

L.L. Bean
Rolling Adventure Duffel, XL
Designed for travel. A simple large bag with a single interior compartment; no drop bottom or end pockets.
34" x 17" x 15"; 8,350 cubic inches; $99.95

Rodeo Rolling Duffel
Designed specifically for fly-fishing. Separate drop-bottom compartment with neoprene layer between bottom and main compartments to serve as moisture barrier. Zippered front, side and end pockets.
31" x 16" x 16"; 7,872 cubic inches; $369

L.L. Bean
Sportsmen’s Drop-Bottom Rolling Gear Bag, XL
Designed for fly-fishing travel. Separate drop bottom. Zippered end compartments. Constructed of 1,000-denier nylon.
31" x 16" x 15"; 7,440 cubic inches; $219

Safe Passage Rolling Duffel
Designed for fly-fishing travel. Single large compartment. Two inside pockets. Exterior compression straps.
30" x 16½" x 16"; 7,920 cubic inches; $149

Battenkill Duffel on Wheels
Designed for fishing and other travel. Canvas-and-leather construction. Separate drop-bottom compartment. Zippered end pockets.
31.5" x 16½" x 15½"; 7,800 cubic inches; $425

William Joseph
Terrestrial Travel Duffel
Designed specifically for fly-fishing travel. Constructed from heavy Cordura. Separate drop bottom. Three exterior pockets. Holds 9-foot 3-piece rods.
37" x 19" x 12"; 8,436 cubic inches; $299.95

William Joseph
Designed specifically for fly-fishing travel. Constructed from heavy Cordura. Separate drop bottom. One end and two side exterior pockets.
36" x 16" x 12"; 7,056 cubic inches; $199.95

Freewheeler Max
Designed for fly-fishing travel, but a tight fit for 9-foot 4-piece rods. Separate drop-bottom compartment. Water repellant. Compression straps. Zippered end pocket.
29" x 17" x 15½"; 7,500 cubic inches; $399

Must Have
Travel Item:

I don’t care to confess how many cameras, lenses and other pieces of electronic gear I’ve destroyed by drowning them on trips. I’m sure the cost would finance some fine travel. Most often the disaster is not caused by dunking, but by rain, or by splashes while going through waves or rapids in a boat. I’ve long since learned that a waterproof daypack is an essential on any distant trip.

Many are made specifically for fishing. Those are designed for the job, and therefore the best. You’ll find some at your local fly shop, or that shop could order one for you. Because I spend a considerable amount of time on float trips, and always carry my expensive gear and spare clothes in a daypack-sized dry bag with straps, I use the same bag on destination trips. Don’t leave home without one. —D.H.