Neil Travis - June 2, 2012

Today many fly fishers don't wear the traditional fly fishing vest, but there was a time when, if you didn't wear one you could not be considered a serious fly angler. The proto-type of the modern fly fishing vest came from the creative mind of Lee Wulff. Lee designed a short wading vest for fly fishermen in the early 1930's. He not only designed the first model, he sewed it himself.

In his book, American Fly Fishing – A History, Paul Schullery wrote the following about the invention of the modern fly fishing vest:
"One other piece of equipment was appearing with increasing regularity, that being the fishing vest. A variety of fishing shirts and jackets had been developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but Wulff's vest, which he developed around 1930, was the impetus for the modern fishing vest without question; it is just one of the many ideas owed to this singular angler. I have no idea what percentage of fishermen were wearing vests by 1945, but today practically all fly fishermen you see on trout streams have one…"

My first fly fishing vest was a cloth and canvas model that probably had a total of a half dozen pockets. I remember that it was a dark olive green color and, most likely, I bought it at a hardware store or sporting goods department at a local chain store. That inexpensive vest served me for several years and I presume that somewhere on some old fading photographs there is a picture of me wearing that vest. Due to inertia on my part I have not searched the photographic archives looking for that image.

Journal - THe fly fishing vest
My first 'real' fly fishing vest

My first 'real' fly fishing vest is still hanging in my closet, although I have not used it in several years. It was obtained from Orvis®, and was called the Orvis Tac-L-Pac®. It had 6 pockets on the front, 2 large zippered pockets inside, 2 long pockets that had individual pockets for tippet spools, 2 other pockets to hold sunglasses, etc., and a large zippered pocket across the back. There was a cloth strap with a D ring sewn into the collar where you could hang your landing net. In its day it was the state of the art vest, and in 1968 it set me back $23.50 plus shipping. [Today that same vest, with a few more pockets, sells for $119.00] It's interesting to note that in early Orvis® catalogues it was called the Lee Wulff Tac-L- Pac.

Journal - THe fly fishing vest
View from the back

The late JC and I had identical vests, and we both wore them for many years. In those days we operated a side business called "American Field Test and Research Specialists" and we had our company name embroidered on the back of our fly fishing vests. Even after we no longer operated that business we still wore the vests. Unfortunately, the years of use took their toll and there were wear spots on some of the pockets, and the collars was frayed, but despite all the use that vest endured all the zippers and snaps still function perfectly over 40 years later. If I needed too I could still load it up today and it would function perfectly.

Journal - THe fly fishing vest

After I retired my Orvis® vest I picked up a Dan Bailey's vest. Called "The Vest" it was similar to the Tac-L-Pac but it had a few more pockets. This vest sold for $59.95 in 1983. Like my Tac-L-Pac, it was a good serviceable vest, and although I did have to replace a couple of the snaps on the pockets it wore well and is still serviceable today. Unlike my Tac-L-Pac, The Vest is no longer available.

Journal - THe fly fishing vest

Today I still use an Orvis® vest but it's sort of a hand-me-down from my fly fishing nephew. Originally the lower pockets were waterproof so that your fly boxes did not get wet if you waded too deeply. Years of wear have pretty much negated that feature but it is still the vest I use. Unlike my original Tac-L-Pac it has Velcro rather than snaps on the pockets and I find that a nice feature.

Over the years I have also experimented with alternate ways of carrying my fly boxes and other paraphernalia without using a vest, and I see lots of anglers today that don't wear a vest but use waist packs, packs that are worn over one shoulder, and even backpacks. Mostly I find myself still wearing my vest, although I find myself carrying far fewer fly boxes and other stuff in my vest. If I'm fishing out of a drift boat I hang my vest over the seat back and rarely wear it even when I get out to wade and fish. When I'm wade fishing without a boat I still wear my vest, more for the convenience than for any other reason.

Each of these vests has a history and a story written in ink that is invisible to anyone but me. The old Tac-L-Pac reminds me of my days on Michigan's Au Sable River and the many evenings that JC and I sat on a streamside log waiting for the evening action to start. It was the vest that I wore on my first fishing trips out West when life was everything was new and fresh. It speaks to me about the vigor and excitement of my younger years. It still hangs in my closet because it reminds me of where I came from and how far I've come, it reminds me of the losses that I have experienced in my life, and it's a vivid reminder that all that is new will ultimately become old.

My Dan Bailey's vest marks another time in my life, my stint as a professional guide, and traveling around fishing the waters of the Greater Yellowstone area. It was my 'middle age' vest, plain, brown but functional.
My present vest was slightly worn when I got it, much like its present owner, but still serviceable. It doesn't make much of a fashion statement when I pull it out, but that's OK because I'm not much of fashion maven. It's wrinkle and faded and there are stains that no detergent could wash out, again somewhat like the present owner. I've worn it long enough that it's like a familiar old friend. Unless something happens to it, it's doubtful that I will ever replace it and when I hang it up for the last time it's probable that my fishing days will be over.

If you are looking to purchase a fly fishing vest I would caution you against buying one with too many pockets. I've seen some anglers wearing one of the modern vests that have so many pockets they I'm afraid if they fell down they would be unable to get up without assistance. The more pockets you have the more you are tempted to fill them up. Soon you have enough fly boxes and other equipment slung on your upper body that you could open a fly shop right on the stream. In addition, at the end of the day carrying all that stuff, most of which you did not need, will add to your fatigue.

You might also consider that you're not just buying a piece of clothing but a storage place for memories.

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