Travel Fly-Tying Vises

Travel Fly-Tying Vises

Field tools for the adventurous fly tier.

  • By: Buzz Bryson
  • Photography by: Aaron Goodis
Travel Vises

There are two primary considerations for any fly-tying vise: It must hold the hook snugly, and it must allow you to tie a fly easily, i.e., the vise can’t get in the way. The only practical reason to buy a travel vise is that it is smaller—lighter and more compact—than your primary vise, while maintaining an acceptable level of function. It’s that simple.

The first question to ask when considering a travel vise is whether your desktop vise (and for convenience, let’s call all stay-at-home vises “desktop” models) is suitable for travel. Often, and certainly for road trips, the weight and bulk of your normal vise, perhaps your entire tying kit, is not an issue. If your current setup works, and you don’t mind packing and unpacking it every trip, well, you don’t have a problem. And do look at your entire travel tying kit. You’ll certainly realize the greatest weight savings in your choice of a vise, but your “tool box” and materials can consume quite a bit of space, if not weight, too. Again, for a road trip, that might not matter.

For air travel, however, most anglers are literally weighing their gear piece-by-piece because of the airlines’ luggage policies. Desktop vises with pedestal bases are usually out. As handy as one is, the base adds too much weight—typically a couple of pounds. If you want to use your desktop vise as a travel vise, or are considering buying a second desktop vise to serve double duty, look for a C-clamp base. Many vises are designed to allow the installation of a longer stem, or the addition of a stem extension, for a C-clamp (most pedestal vises have short stems). Look at the choices of C-clamps carefully. Choose one that is lighter in weight (aluminum), and that opens wide.

If a travel vise is something you want, even need, but you aren’t prepared or able to commit to a pricey model, consider a simple entry-level conventional vise. There are several that work well and cost less than $100. Most are somewhat heavier and larger than high-end vises, and with fewer features, but they’re certainly serviceable.

Finally, you might be in that prepared-for-any-eventuality group; you’ve had your fill of those frustrating gotta-match-the-hatch situations. You have decided that you need a tying kit to permanently stow in your ready-to-go duffel bag, one that serves for distant and local trips.

Regardless of whether your travel vise will be a road-going desktop model or of the purpose-built travel type, there are several things to look at besides size and weight. Start a list of features that you like and that you dislike about your current desktop vise. For instance, are you wedded to a rotary vise? If so, don’t bother looking at conventional vises, but realize that you’re not going to find a truly tiny rotary model. Make sure the travel vise’s jaws hold the hook sizes you’ll be tying. Some are limited to medium-sized hooks, and won’t handle the larger streamer and saltwater irons. If you’re going to tie primarily saltwater flies and the vise won’t securely grip the hook, tying becomes a very frustrating experience. Conversely, if you’ll be tying mostly spring creek patterns, avoid a vise that won’t grip, or one that hides, tiny hooks. You might find the “perfect” travel vise. Or you might find that you’re faced with a series of compromises. Weigh them carefully.

The extremes have to be considered. For instance, you’re off to a remote destination, where the outfitter encouraged you to, “Bring some tying gear; you never know when a new pattern will really light them up!” and where the small charter plane you’re on has a baggage limit of 30 pounds, and the local fly shop is two time zones away. Suddenly, ounces matter. And it is perhaps just as likely that you’re limited to bags of a certain size (smaller than you’d like), again because of plane/boat restrictions. So, do you take tying gear, extra camera batteries, a spare reel, replacement fly lines . . . ? If you’re on a solo trip, well, the choices are yours. If you’re traveling with one or more buddies, divide and conquer. Decide who needs to carry the vise and other tying gear, who will take a spare reel, etc. You might need spares of everything, but it’s unlikely that everybody needs spares of everything.

Your justification aside, the actual choice should not compromise the reasoning that brought you there. Don’t forget your prioritized list of features most important to you when confronted by a dizzying, or limited, array of options.

A few thoughts about the entire travel kit: If you are serious about putting together the optimal and minimal kit for travel, consider the vise as a starting point. For instance, if you’re satisfied with only a couple of sizes and colors of thread, you’re golden. But if you feel the need to carry monocord, standard 6/0 and 12/0 threads for everything from big streamers to midges, and each in several colors, you’re suddenly looking at a lot of spools. Consider whether, for your travel kit, you should re-spool thread onto mini-spools that fit a midge bobbin, significantly reducing the bulk. Look at your other tools for similar savings. Switch out that finely machined brass-handled bodkin for a lighter wooden or plastic model. Tiers usually buy hooks in boxes of 100. On a trip you’ll rarely use more than a few dozen, at most, of any one size and type. Get some miniature zip-lock bags, repack your hooks (in smaller quantities) in them, and label the bags with a Sharpie. Do the same for materials: reduce the amount, save on bulk, save on weight. Piece by piece, ounce by ounce, inch by inch, you’ll realize considerable shrinkage.

Start with your local shops. Tying flies is a very tactile experience, and small features make big differences. You’ll want to look at, touch and try out the choices if at all possible. If local sources don’t have what you’re looking for, or if your “local” shop is a day’s drive away, go to the Internet. You’re handicapped by not being able to handle and compare different vises, but do what you must. Gather what information you can from online sources. And don’t forget to look for used and even out-of-production vises. Travel vises have been a fascination among anglers and tiers for decades, and some exceptionally fine travel vises and kits have been made over the years. Look for deals, but don’t be surprised at eye-popping prices for some “collectible” travel kits.

Here are a few of the options available:

C&F Design

The Marco Polo Fly Tying System ($649.95) is functional art, miniaturized. Neatly arranged in a case that fits into a jacket pocket (or an equally small spot in your luggage), the Marco Polo contains a vise, bobbin, hackle pliers, scissors, whip-finisher . . . in other words, pretty much every typical fly-tying tool. This vise is small but the two-screw-adjustable jaws hold an astonishing range of hook sizes. It’s not set up for production tying, but if you absolutely want to minimize the size of your kit, the Marco Polo is a great way to go. The machining and finishing is superb. But it isn’t cheap.

D.H. Thompson

My first vise, and doubtless that of many others, was the Thompson Model A; Thompson has produced the vise for more than a century. It was also my first “travel vise,” because for years it was my only vise. The box it came in served as my tool kit until the many layers of tape just couldn’t hold it together any longer. Thompson still makes the Model A, albeit a bit gussied up from the original. And the Model A still works very well, including my own. Don’t overlook the tried and true!


Ron Abby produces several vises in the travel category that can also serve as your primary home vise. The Kingfisher ($149) is a conventional model, although the shaft smoothly rotates a full 360 degrees. The Squire ($189) and Prince ($199) are similar, with additional features. If you’re a rotary aficionado, the Trekker ($249.95) is Dyna-King’s smallest and lightest true rotary, being approximately one-third smaller than the full-size rotary model.


In context, a travel vise isn’t typically a “high mileage” tool, and logically should be priced according to the amount of use (let’s not debate whether logic often enters into fly gear purchases). Doubtless it has to perform adequately, but the price should be reasonable. The Superior 1A vise ($49.95) is representative of several modestly priced, very serviceable vises on the market. While not marketed as a travel vise, the simple design results in a relatively compact package and deserves consideration.


Regal offers a relatively new Travel Vise ($179.95). It comes with a pedestal base only (albeit a small one) and weighs in at 2 pounds, a tad heavy for a lightweight travel vise. Nonetheless, the Regal vises’ toughness and hook-holding ability make them favorites, and for a car kit this would be a top contender.


Andy and Lily Renzetti make a family of three rotary travel vises, the Traveler ($194.95), Saltwater Traveler ($234.95) and Clouser Traveler ($204.95). All share the same quality of workmanship seen in the flagship Master vise. In a conventional vise, Renzetti offers the Apprentice ($99), an entry-level, non-rotary vise that satisfies experienced tiers as well. The Apprentice has a rotary tension screw and a hinged stem, and it holds hooks size 28 to 1/0. The body is anodized aluminum; the jaws are hardened steel.