How To Choose The Right Fly Fishing Vest

A big question for fly fishermen and women is how do I choose the right fly fishing vest?

When it comes to spending time on the river, it’s incredibly important to choose the best fly vest you can afford. Now, this isn’t to say it’s imperative you spend $150+ on a vest, stick within your budget, but remember this is the second most used piece of equipment you’ll use.

Well, maybe third, if you’re counting waders.

Regardless, choose a vest that not only fits your budget, but also your fishing style. Do you like to use a backpack when you fly fish? Would you prefer to only use a vest? These are both big keys to choosing something that will serve you well on the water and it may be worth paying a bit more to get something that you like rather than “what works”.

Our Top 6 Fly Fishing Vests

This post is about how to choose the right fishing vest for your budget.  If you are looking for a new vest, I would suggest purchasing one of the top three vests on this list, if you can afford it.  Otherwise, for budget options, the bottom three vests will work, they will not have the same quality and features although.

What should I be looking for when choosing a fly fishing vest?

The easy route is to start talking about features. How many pockets there are, how easy these pockets open, backpack space, the durability, technology (pole strap, retractors) and so on.

However, we’d be out of line to assume budget doesn’t matter.. when it clearly means everything. The first, and most important thing to consider when you’re evaluating a vest is budget.

Can you afford a $150 Simms Headwaters Vest? Then buy it (because it’s good). If you can’t afford it, find something that’s offers the best quality, not features, at a price you can afford. A fly vest should stand the test of time, not offer every feature under the sun for a $40 price tag.

And yes, those $40 fly vests with every feature and shiny objects do exist, but we don’t highly recommend buying one. Why? When we make a recommendation, we want it to be the right recommendation.  If it’s too good to be true, then it just might be.

Bottom line, look to buy the best quality vest you can afford.

Evaluating durability in a vest

A couple things on this.

It’s very hard to evaluate how long a vest will last online, so if you can check it out in person.. do it.

With that being said, you really do get what you pay for with a vest. The first things to go are going to be zippers and buckles, so if a vest you fancy has a lot of them (the best true budget option would use only velcro and buttons) make sure you know what you’re getting in to.

If you’re new to the sport, brands like Orvis, Fishpond, Allen, Redington and Cabela’s are all brands you can trust.

There is a reason companies like this have been around for some time. The product speaks for itself.

How much space do you need in a vest?

One of the reasons I’m such a fan of the Fishpond Wasatch Vest is the space it offers. As you get further and further into your fly fishing career, you’re going to find that you’ll want to take more on the water.

Personally, my big space eater is fly boxes. Before I switched to Tacky Fly Boxes, real estate in my vest was dominated by boxes (and candy bars, who doesn’t love a Snickers on the water?).

The short answer is, if you’re serious about fly fishing, you’re going to use more space in your vest.  If you’re just occasionally heading out to the river here and there, by all means pick up a lower end model of fishing vest.  It might not be the best quality, but that might not matter as much to you.  And that’s just fine!

Also, don’t forget to look for things like D-Rings (tippet line holders, line clippers, etc) and in the case of some packs, water bladders.

What type of pockets do you prefer?

Would you rather fumble around in a pocket and save a hundred bucks, or have fold down fly benches with built in foam?

Experienced fly fishermen carry several boxes on the river (with everything from Nymphs to Streamers) and some like quick access to the flies that are hitting. This is where the bench style pockets suit an angler well.

Personally, I don’t mind keeping things completely organized with my fly boxes, so I don’t actually use the bench a bunch. On most vests, you can actually replace/remove this foam (which is what I ended up doing).

In addition, do you like floppy pockets? Do you fly in to your fishing spots? If that’s the case and you want to keep your vest loaded, a structurally sound pocket on your vest could come in handy.

What’s on the back of the fly fishing vest you’re after?

Do you use a separate pack? Do you carry water on the water? What’s your fishing style?

These are all questions that matter when you’re trying to choose the perfect vest for your next trip to the river.

If you’re the angler that prefers to put everything in one place, get a vest that offers a backpack built in. Such as a Fishpond Wasatch.

Another option is buying something similar to the Allen vest we recommended above, where there literally isn’t a back on the vest. If you’re heading on walking distance trips, you could easily get away without a backpack. Do you fish to eat? If that’s the case make sure you get a setup where transportation and keeping the fish cool works well.

Related article: Best Fly Fishing Packs for 2020

So all in all, choosing the perfect setup comes down to.. you.

When you’re in the store, you’re looking online, ask yourself the above questions and match a vest to your budget.

Or, if worse comes to worst, buy two.

My beginner vest was a $14 model from Dunham’s way back in the day. I’ve replaced the zippers on it, but the vest is still around today.