The fabrics, pocket design and trim found on fishing vests have been upgraded since the first one was created in the 1930s, but the basic concept remains the same. The vest is essentially a sleeveless shirt without tails, made of stronger, water-resistant fabric that houses pockets and a zippered pouch in the back to hold a day’s fishing supplies within reach.
So how do you choose the best design, fabric type and other options for your fishing style?
Data obtained September 2019. Prices are subject to change and should be used only as a general guide.
*Note that some fishing vests come in one-size-fits-most with adjustable straps, so you can set the length to suit your body size and needs. Others are nonadjustable and come in various sizes. Check sizing charts on the product page of the vest you’re interested in to compare lengths and fits of different models.
Types of fishing vests
Standard vs. “shorty”
Fishing vests are available in two basic lengths: the standard and what’s known as the shorty. The standard-length fishing vest hangs down near your waist, and the shorty rides about four inches or so above your belt line.
The shorter length allows you to wade a little deeper without soaking the bottom of your vest, but it also means that you’ll have slightly less storage room for supplies.
Pockets and closures
When shopping for a fishing vest, you’ll notice that the number and placement of pockets, zippers and other closures vary wildly across models.
Most vests have multiple pockets on the inside and outside. Some are large enough to hold fly boxes, while other smaller ones are designed to house tippet spools and split shot containers. Other pockets can hide built-in retractors for nippers and small pliers. While zippered pockets are still used, a number of vest manufacturers have switched to Velcro, magnetic or button closures.
Pocket design and closures are a matter of personal preference. Some anglers believe that the YKK zipper is superior to others. It’s a popular choice for zippered vests.
Loops and D-rings
Loops and D-rings to hang gadgets on are often a deciding factor when choosing between one vest or another. Tippet spools, stream thermometers, small tools, fly floatant, fly patches, sunglasses and fishing license holders are just some items that you’ll likely want to attach to your vest while fly-fishing.
The rod holder loop used to be standard on all vests but some manufacturers omit them now. Some seasoned anglers believe that newer fishermen don’t understand the loop’s purpose, which might be why some brands have decided to do away with it.
The rod holder loop is usually located in the lower right of the front of the vest. You can place the butt of your rod into the loop, lay the rod up and across your chest area and rest the rod across the inside of your left elbow. Your hands are then free to tie extra tippet, flies, etc. on the line without having to set your rod down.
If you purchase a vest without this loop, you can make your own and sew it on yourself at home.
How to compare fishing vests
Perhaps more so than any other piece of fly-fishing gear, vests offer almost too much variety in design, features and brands. To help you narrow down your search, consider these main features when shopping:
Price. Fishing vests can range in price from around $40 to $200 or more. Look for a vest made with high-quality materials, zippers and other closures that work properly.
Material. Most vests are made of nylon, polyester, treated cotton, breathable material such as mesh or a combination. Material type comes down to personal preference — as long as it’s resistant to tears and snags.
Water-resistance. Many but not all fishing vests are water-resistant. Those that are feature some type of DWR — durable water repellent — coating.
Length. Choose the length — standard or shorty — that makes the most sense for you. If you often wade in deeper water, the shorter length could come in handy.
Pockets. The number and placement of pockets on your vest largely comes down to personal preference and how much storage space you need for your fishing items.
Color. Most fishing vests come in a shade of tan, but army green, gray and camo have become much more popular recently. Lighter colors reflect light and therefore might make you more visible to wary trout.
Sizing. Most vests come in standard sizes from small to XXL, while others come in one standard size with adjustable straps. An increasing number of manufacturers also offer youth and women’s sizes. For example, Fishpond now offers a dedicated model just for women.
Extra features. Some vests come with added features such as a built-in personal flotation device (PFD), the helpful rod holder loop mentioned above or other bells and whistles.
What are some alternatives to the traditional fishing vest?
While the traditional fishing vest continues to be a favorite among many fishermen, it now has competition from other types of convenient storage wearables.
Sling packs. These packs are relatively new to the fly-fishing scene. They’re worn diagonally across your upper body, with a strap that goes over one shoulder so you can easily spin them around to access the pockets. Many all-purpose sling packs haven’t been suitable for fly-fishing because they lack adequate pockets and interior compartments, although now there are many more options that are designed specifically for fly anglers.
Fanny packs. Also called waist or hip packs, these are designed to sit at your waist and stay out of the way. But the downside is that they tend to have fewer storage compartments and carry fewer items than other options.
Chest packs. Like the name suggests, these packs are worn on your chest, like a front-facing backpack. But they are much smaller than a backpack, sling pack or vest and can be uncomfortable on long hikes through the woods. On the plus side, they’re more compact and just as accessible as a vest.
Fishing backpacks. If you plan taking long treks during your fishing trip, a fly-fishing backpack could be a sensible pick. These can carry everything from a change of clothes and snacks to your rod, flies and other tackle. But their size can make them cumbersome for short trips, and the pockets aren’t as easily accessible as other options.
Hybrid vests/packs. Some vests or packs combine the best qualities of both worlds into one, such as a fishing vest with a smaller backpack attached in the back for added storage.
Narrow down your search for a fishing vest by paying close attention to the available materials, features and options. Check out our top picks for a side-by-side comparison of some of the most popular vests out there.
We considered the price, type, material, brand and overall features of each product to create our list of the best fishing vests. We also took into consideration our personal experiences with some of these products, as well as third-party online reviews.
Frequently asked questions
Yes. You will want some type of vest or pack to carry flies, extra line, nippers, forceps, tippet spools, split shot and more.
If you’re headed out on a day hike or overnight camping, you may want a larger pack to bring extra clothes, snacks and drinks.
The choice is really up to you. Mesh can help make your vest more breathable on hot days — as well as more comfortable to layer clothing under in the winter. But whether you choose mesh, another fabric type or a combination of both comes down to what you personally like to wear.
Magnetic net holders that attach to your fishing vest are one of the most popular and easiest ways to carry your landing net. Holster-style net holders are also available.
Try to avoid jamming your net into your wading belt — this loosens the belt and hinders its safety function in case you fall in the water.
Gabrielle Pastorek is a staff writer at Finder, helping readers to round up the best deals, coupons, retailers, products and services to make sound financial decisions. She's written more than 800 articles on the site and is a quoted expert in Best Company and DealNews. She earned an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, with essays and short stories published in The Collagist, Blue Monday Review, Blotterature and others. When she’s not writing, Gabrielle can be found out in the barn with her horse, Lucy.
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