Alan Dixon illustrates the technique of the backpacking fly fisherman: carrying your full overnight gear while fishing en route from camp to camp. This style of fishing allows you to cover a tremendous amount of fishable water, especially in areas like the Beartooths or Uintas (shown here), where there seems to be a lake, pond, or stream at every turn of the trail.
"Backcountry fly fishing" conjures up vastly different meanings to different people. For some, it means riding a four-wheeler up logging roads to a remote pond. Others may strap a float tube on their back and hike in five miles to an alpine cirque for a day. In Montana and Wyoming, it's not unpopular to join a horse packing trip to a remote wilderness for several days of supreme lake and stream fishing, with all the amenities of wilderness luxury: dutch ovens, cabin tents, and bottles of wine.
This type of backcountry fly fishing places few demands on the amount of fishing gear one might take: The ATV'er or horse packer is not so concerned about weight, and it's not so bad to haul a float tube, waders, fishing boots, and a loaded vest to a high alpine lake if for only a day or an overnighter.
But what to do if your backcountry fly fishing trek demands a full load of long distance hiking and camping gear, and you want to maintain an ultralight ethic - and pack?
Backpack Fishing vs. Camping Fishing
The backpacking fisherman fishes while on the trail - following a stream, or dropping a cast into every lakelet he may encounter. He usually carries his rod while hiking, and the majority of his fishing - including casting, catching, and releasing fish, is performed while wearing his full backpack. The camping fisherman stows his fishing gear in his pack, and only pulls it out occasionally on the trail, or once he arrives in camp, and seldom fishes while wearing his backpack. This article is tailored primarily to the backpacking fisherman.
Waders, Wading Boots, and Watercraft
If you are considering any of these items on your trek, this article is not entirely for you. Even the very lightest waders, wading boots, and trail boat or float tube is going to set you back a minimum of 4 pounds and if using mainstream (not ultralight) gear, can easily exceed 15 pounds. It's tough to go "ultralight" when you're adding that much weight. The subject of waders, boots, and watercraft is more appropriately addressed in Larry Tullis' article, Backcountry Fly Fishing: Lightweight Gear and Style.
For the ultralighter, wading means getting your feet wet, which places demands on the type of footwear you select. Fortunately, water warm enough to wade often equates to hiking in footwear that need not provide any insulation. Lightweight trail running shoes with mesh uppers are my favorite wading footwear: they drain well, dry fast, and of course, serve double duty for hiking.
Others perceive minor to significant risks when hiking in wet footwear, primarily related to blister formation and psychological well being. They may opt for a second pair of shoes for wet wading, or a pair of sandals. I'm not a sandal fan for wading in streams: they don't protect your feet from rocks and they don't keep the foot aligned with the sandal footbed well enough when precariously perched on the sides of boulders and steep streambanks.
I've hiked in wet shoes all day long while fishing - and carrying my pack - and I've never encountered any foot problems. It's important to fully dry your feet at night, or you do run the risk of the epidermis separating from inner skin layers, which can cause serious problems when you start hiking, and result in blisters, cracks, and subdermal lesions.
I also wear a lightweight pair of merino wool socks while wading - for both foot protection and warmth in cold streams. In addition, wearing socks allow me to seamlessly transition from wade-fishing to trail hiking.
The backpacker who focuses on wade-fishing while wearing a pack will give serious attention to the type of backpack suitable for this activity.
Fly fisherman, especially, need to consider both pack weight and comfort because arms are raised while casting more often and more dramatically than while spin fishing. Consequently, your pack's shoulder straps should be "minimally invasive," or provide adjustability to remain so, while fishing. Obviously, this is not a requirement if you don't fish while hiking, and only expect to fish once you arrive in camp in the afternoon.
Ideally, the fishing pack will offer a hip belt - it allows you to put all of your weight on your hips, freeing your shoulders and arms to cast unencumbered. I spend a fair bit of time bushwacking (as do many backcountry fishermen), and have found that a pack that has a low profile (thin, short) improves your experience in thick brush, especially when wading along forested streambanks. Few pack makers manufacture "thin" packs that have a long enough torso to support 15 or more pounds comfortably on your hips. My packs of choice that meet these criteria include a custom McHale Summit Pack, and the very low profile small volume packs from GoLite, including the Powder 8, Vision, and 24.
Carrying Your Fishing Gear
The Mayfly Pouch Lanyard is the author's favorite means of organizing gear while fly fishing with a full backpack. The Pouch Lanyard is worn around the neck, and holds two small fly boxes, offers attachments for tools, and keeps everything accessible. The author's lanyard weighs 4 ounces, but there are rumors that the Mayfly Company is using more durable fabric in new versions, increasing weight by an ounce.
Vests and the increasingly popular chest packs are out. They are incompatible with a backpack harness and generally, heavier than they need to be.
I've found that two types of gear carrying systems are indispensable while backpack fishing: hip belt pockets and a pouch lanyard.
Hip belt pockets are available as integrated features with the hip belts of several lightweight backpacks. Examples include adventure racing packs (there are many, with appropriately sized versions from both GoLite and Gregory), and packs by ULA Equipment, where such pockets are available as options when you order your custom pack. In addition, a variety of aftermarket add-on pouches are available from the likes of Outdoor Research and others, where you can add pockets of varying sizes to your hip belts or shoulder straps.
The pouch lanyard, however, is my favorite fishing gear innovation, with the Mayfly Pouch Lanyard setting the standard for both weight (4 oz) and utility. The Mayfly Pouch Lanyard holds a fly box, leaders, tippet, license, and offers enough attachment points to keep a few tools handy. The Pouch Lanyard is worn around your neck, but offers the utility of being stashable in your pack when it's time to cruise some distance along a fishless trail.
The Rod Case
Hard core ultralighters skip a rod case altogether. More naïve backpackers carry their rod in the absurdly heavy 16-40 ounce PVC or metal tubes that came with their rods. If you want scratch protection, you can carry your rod in its fleece or cloth rod sock (1-4 oz). Additional protection for your pack rod can be gained for 4 ounces using the Ultralight Rod Case at BackpackingLight.com.
Regardless of the options, consider the data required to make a smart decision about protecting your rod:
- How much is your rod worth? The owner of a $600 Winston will be more inclined to store his rod in a case than he who purchased a rod for ten bucks at a garage sale.
- How much off trail hiking will you do? Difficult scrambling and thick brush are hard on a rod (especially a longer two piece one) that is lashed to the outside of your pack.
- How long is your fishing rod? A two-piece rod protrudes far above your pack and is more prone to damage than a four- or five-piece pack rod, which can be lashed to the side, or even packed in the main packbag (with your tent poles?) for added protection.
Large trout, like this 23-inch Yellowstone Cutthroat, caught on a hopper pattern, are the fruits of hard-earned exploration in remote wilderness. This trout was caught in a stream less than 15 feet wide, miles from the closest trail, and earned by bushwacking for several hours through dense grizzly bear habitat. No signs of human presence were found on this stream, which was occupied mostly by 6-10 inch trout: this one was certainly a surprise. The rod and reel combo used: a Cabela's Stowaway 5-piece, 3-weight, 8'6" pack rod with a Sage 3100 reel.
Two-piece rods, which don't pack down to less than 3.5 to 4.5 feet in length, are out for me when I'm bushwhacking. However, if I know that I'm going to be hiking mostly on trail, or mostly with my assembled rod in hand, then one of my favorite small stream backcountry rods is a tiny 5-foot Mini-Rod by Flylite, which stows to a length of only 2.5 feet as needed.
Such a short rod, while being a joy to fish with in small streams and ponds, is a liability on larger rivers or mountain lakes subject to windy conditions. Long rods that pack down to a small size are usually comprised of four- and five- pieces, with five pieces hitting the sweet spot for backpackers.
If money is no object, the five piece rods from Winston, Sage, and Thomas & Thomas share no equal, but expect this to be the most expensive item in your gear inventory, rivaling the cost of an Everest-worthy expedition tent and causing you to think twice about leaving the rod case at home.
More practical options, which offer excellent performance, light weight, and better economy, are the Stowaway series rods by Cabelas, and the new BPL Series 5-Piece Fly Rods which get you into a high quality five-piece fly rod without breaking the bank.
With the exception of the beautifully crafted and incredibly light Fly-Lite Mini Reel that is included only in the combo, expect most fly reels in the $100 or less range to weigh in the neighborhood of 5 to 7 ounces. Sub-3 ounce reels are possible, but not cheap. You'll pay $200+ for the Hardy Ultralight and $400 for the ultralight champ, the Sage 3100 (the author's favorite).
You can save weight on a reel by sizing down: seldom will you need vast amounts of backing or full length fly lines for backcountry fishing.
Backing & Fly Line
In the backcountry of most developed countries, with a few exceptions (New Zealand and Alaska come to mind), you won't have to battle fish with tarpon-like strength. So, backing and line are places to save weight: shorten the line to what you can effectively cast with your fly rod (many will be surprised that they can cut a 90-foot fly line in half and get two for the price of one!) and make up the rest of any needed length with lighter 12-pound Dacron braided backing. Some opt for a full length line and eliminate backing altogether. I prefer a half-length line with some backing, which takes up far less spool space, meaning you can get by with a smaller, lighter reel.
I recommend weight forward floating fly lines for backcountry fishing. Casts are usually short, and a weight forward line casts more accurately and with less loading effort than double taper lines. Unless you are fly fishing in deep lakes, sinking lines are unnecessary in the backcountry.
Tippets and Leaders
Access to this stream in the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness requires a multiple-day trek on faint trails through grizzly country, but the rewards are worth it: technical, difficult flat-water spring creek fishing for wild rainbows up to 20 inches. This is one of the few places the author takes "an extra box of small flies" and plenty of 6x tippet.
Most of my backcountry fishing is done in the US West: Wind Rivers, Yellowstone, and Beartooths, where the normal fare are brook, rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout ranging in size from 6 to 16 inches, with a few larger. Generally, mountain trout are less wary than their by-the-highway-bridge cousins, so ultra fine tippets are not usually necessary.
One piece tapered leaders are simple, cheap, and effective. I tie one on my line, and carry a spare or two in my kit. Seven and a half foot leaders tapered to 3x should be purchased in bulk: they are the most versatile. Large flies, such as streamers and hoppers, can be tied directly to the end of the tippet, which provides enough length for small stream fishing.
For more challenging conditions requiring smaller flies and longer leaders, I'll tie 2 to 5 feet of tippet to the end of my leader. A leader tapered to 3x easily accepts tippet material with a diameter of 3x, 4x, or 5x. In rare cases, where I need to use tiny flies on thin tippets for extremely wary trout, I'll tie a foot-long section of 5x to the leader before tying on 4 to 6 feet of 6x tippet.
Two tapered 3x leaders and a spool of 4x and 5x tippet will cover 90% of the fishing you'll ever need to do in the backcountry for a week-long trek. If you fish larger flies, add a spool of 3x tippet, and if you fish for large, wary trout with tiny flies, consider adding a spool of 6x tippet. And if you're going to be out for longer than a week or expect to change flies very frequently, add one extra leader.
I store my leaders carefully coiled in a MicroZip Bag. Tippet spools find their home on a piece of AirCore Plus attached to my lanyard pouch with an UrsaLite Carabiner on one end and a wooden bead and knot in the other end to keep the spools from falling off.
I don't pay a lot of attention to brands and quality of leaders. Virtually anything you'll find in a specialty fly fishing retailer's shop will suffice. Tippet material is another story. If I'm after big fish and using small flies on fine tippet, my experience and faith tells me that Frog's Hair Tippet is the best. It knots easier than fluorocarbon and offers more elasticity than standard monofilament. The end result: you can catch bigger fish on finer tippets with fewer break-offs.
The Fly Box
Arguments about the best way to carry your flies (compartmentalized box, clip box, foam box) carry the philosophical air often found in campfire discussions of other controversial topics, such as gun control, mountain bikes on trails, and whether grizzly bears should be introduced in the Bitterroots. However, ultralight flyfishers in the know are almost universally gravitating to the use of Morell foam fly boxes. My favorite size is that which slips perfectly into the Mayfly Pouch Lanyard. It measures 4" x 3" x 1.25", weighs 0.8 ounce, and easily holds the several dozen flies I'll need for a week-long trek into the Wind Rivers or Yellowstone high country.
Key benefits of the Morell foam fly box in addition to its incredibly light weight: it's durable, it's cheap, it floats, and it holds flies securely when it's open.
What flies you carry depends on where you are going. There is no such thing as a "universal fly selection" in spite of what any retailer may tell you. Always contact a local fly shop well versed in fishing the backcountry of the area where you are going, and get their advice. Plan accordingly around their recommendations and you'll be far more successful than just taking along a bunch of "gnats" and "buggers" in assorted colors!
There are so many different brands of floatant on the market that you'll get dizzy trying to sort them out and you'll waste a lot of time trying to figure out which is best. The most important thing to consider when choosing a floatant is the container in which it's packaged: it will be the heaviest part! Only one company, Hydrophobe, makes a fly floatant in a container that will be the envy of any ultralight backpacker (it's available from Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, MT), but any floatant can be repackaged into Backpacking Light's MicroDrop Bottles for easy dispensing.
Wet Flies, Nymphs, Split Shot and Strike Indicators
Large brookies, like this one caught in the Uinta Mountains of Utah, are often caught when the weather is at its worst. On this day, high winds and heavy rains eliminated dry fly fishing, so it was nice to have along some nymphs, strike indicators, and split shot to "pass the time." This nice brook trout was caught on a beadhead Woolly Bugger streamer in a small pond well off trail in an area normally accessed only by horse packing groups due to its long distance from the trailhead.
Dry fly purists, skip this section. But when the weather goes south and the fish stay down, the fly fisherman with the ability to fish nymphs can keep catching dinner while the purists hang out in their tents.
Other than an assortment of wet flies and nymphs, only strike indicators and split shot are required to fish under the surface. Strike indicators are always light, so it's not necessary to consider weight while shopping. Convenience, simplicity, and minimizing trash potential should be your top priorities. Corkies that slide up the leader and fix in place with a toothpick are simple, remain secure, but are inconvenient to use. Foam indicators that fold over the line and are secured by glue on the facing surfaces are simple and convenient, but the glue wears out and they end up falling off the line and resulting in downstream trash. My favorites are yarn indicators with a small o-ring attachment, which are convenient and simple (they are simply girth-hitched to the leader), and remain attached to the line until you take them off.
I usually carry a dozen or so size BBB split shot during the summer, with a few small generic beadhead nymphs and soft hackle wet flies, combined with strike indicators, in a small MicroZip Bag. Then, when I think I want to take a tiny "just in case" wet fly kit with me, I can just grab that single bag and put it in my pouch lanyard. Otherwise, when I'm feeling lucky, or just especially pure, I can switch it out and leave it at home.
Fly fishermen can really get out of hand when it comes to tools and gadgets. Beyond a pair of decent nippers (Fishpond Aussie Nippers are the lightest, weighing only a few grams), little else is really required. I find a pair of hemostats useful for removing hooks from trout and releasing them safely. Long handled hemostats are typically overkill for backcountry trout: save a few grams and buy those with shorter handles. The Ketchum Release fish release tool is lighter than a pair of hemostats, but not as useful. Hemostats can serve as pliers for repairing gear, and are nice for crimping and removing split shot when nymph fishing.
The only other accessory gear I recommend is a lightweight tape measure. Or, place some small bits of tape along your fly rod at two-inch intervals. It keeps you honest!
As for streamside thermometers, aquatic insect nets, zip-cord retractors, fishing nets, knot tying tools - the list goes on and on - and on - skip 'em. Just go fish!
The list of knots required for backcountry fly fishing is short and sweet. Don't get caught up in the intricacies of knot tying and knot performance: the knots below are tried and true and work well enough for backcountry fly fishing if they are tied properly, and are pulled tight while well salivated (improves knot strength and bight lay when tightened). To learn how to tie any of these knots, simply Google the knot name, and a variety of Web resources will come up.
- Backing Knot. Used to tie your fly line or line backing directly to your fly reel.
- Nail Knot, Girth Hitch, and Perfection Loop. Used to tie your leader to your fly line. With the advent of braided nylon loops that can be glued to the end of your fly line and pre-looped leaders, the two can be connected girth hitch style, requiring no knots at all. To create a loop in the end of your leader, you can tie a Perfection Loop. A girth hitch is also useful for attaching the o-rings of yarn indicators to your leader.
- Clinch and Orvis Knots. Used to tie your fly to tippet. Fancy configurations, such as extra loops and twists, do little to improve strength. More complicated to tie, but stronger, is the Orvis Knot, which serves the same function as a clinch knot.
- Blood and Surgeon's Knots. Used to tie larger diameter sections of leader or tippet together. I use blood knots when tying together anything with a diameter larger than 2x. For 3x and smaller knots, I simply use a Surgeon's knot.
Your fishing license can be conveniently kept with the rest of your valuables. I keep my fishing license, driver's license, credit card, calling card, and spare cash in a 5"x4.html" Aloksak, which slides into the rear mesh pocket of my Mayfly Pouch Lanyard. Alternatively, if you want to keep your fishing license with your fishing gear and the rest of your ID's and cards safe in your pack, stow your fishing license in the even smaller MicroZip Bag.
Where regulations allow, I keep my cooking gear handy. I love the flexibility to cook a fresh caught trout wherever I am, and I often cook at least one fish meal per day while backpack fishing in the high country.
My simplest cook kit consists of a 600 milliliter titanium mug (Snowpeak), which is large enough to poach one or two small brook trout - carefully. The 0.85 liter MSR Titan Kettle and 0.9 liter Evernew Ti Pot are more appropriate choices for pan sized fish, with the latter even suitable for frying small trout. The key to cooking trout in a small pot is to cut off the heads and tails, and possibly, cutting the whole fish into silver-dollar sized chunks.
Some of my favorite trout recipes, which I use on shorter or easier treks, involve frying the fish (see Recipes side bar). I use a 7" Evernew Ti fry pan (5 oz), which has a nonstick surface and works very well for this purpose.
Most important, I keep my cook kit handy, with the stove, pot, and fuel easily accessible in a pack side pocket so cooking need not be a long ritual. When the fishing is good, I can catch a fish, clean it, cook it, eat it, and be fishing again in the span of 15 minutes.
Backcountry fishing is not just about hauling your frontcountry gear to remote places. Backpack fishing, the process by which you fish while hiking en route from camp to camp, is one of the most rewarding aspects of fly fishing, and adds a whole new dimension to your trekking exploits.