The Fly Fishing Vacation: How to Fly, Drive, or Sneak in your Gear
Fly Fishing expert Hayden B. overviews everything you need to know about packing and transporting gear, and how to turn any trip into a fly fishing opportunity.
While fly fishing is one of the most travel-worthy endeavors, it is perhaps the least travel-friendly. Rods, reels, waders, boots, net, fly boxes, and more all make fly fishing gear heavy. Flying or even driving with the right equipment takes planning, and as many fly fishermen can attest, a critical gear compromise or absence can ruin a trip.
There are many articles out there that detail how to pack for a fly fishing trip to Montana, Colorado, or name your river. These are great for the situation, but their specifics obscure the real issue. Fly fishing is not very packable. In this article, I will give you tips, tricks, and lessons learned on how to pack for any fly fishing vacation, even if it’s not a vacation specifically to fly fish.
General Rules of Traveling with Fly Gear
Regardless of how you travel, there are certain rules of the road for vacationing with fly gear. These will help you avoid the before-mentioned fly fishing vacation killers—breaking or forgetting gear. Take these as lessons learned from missteps along the way.
Use a Sturdy Rod Case or Tube
If your rod did not come with a tube or case, buy one. Modern rob tubes are made from ABS, PVC, or aluminum, and oftentimes are wrapped in canvas or another durable fabric. You can deviate from this and get a nice custom leather or wooden case, but in my opinion, this is one circumstance in which cheaper is better. ABS, PVC, and few other commonly used composites are crushproof. No matter how many times your bag gets dropped, thrown, or beaten with a bat while making its way through checked luggage, or underneath several tons of bags in your trunk, your rod will be safe.
Bring Two Rods
I am a firm believer in risk management, and when it comes to fly fishing trips, I cannot stress this enough. After flying or driving multiple hours or even days, the worst thing that could happen is a rod break. No matter how crushproof your rod tube is, rod breaks are most likely to occur outside of the tube, fully assembled. You can take advantage of having a back-up rod by bringing different line weight, maybe slightly heavier, to use as a streamer rod. Personally, I keep an inexpensive Eagle Claw Featherlight fly rod in the trunk of my car, just in case the worst should happen after investing several hours of driving time to a stream.
Traveling with Waders & Boots
While there are plenty of “packable” waders on the market today, I have found that most non-neoprene waders and boots are more or less packable. If you do not own waders specifically designed or marketed for their packability, the room saved in your luggage or trunk is not necessarily worth the cost of a new pair of waders. Whether you are driving or flying, there is, however, one necessary item for vacationing with boots and waders. Bring heavy-duty trash bags (I use contractor-grade trash bags). You’ll bring your waders/boots dry, but chances are, they are coming back wet.
Flying with Fly Fishing Gear
Flying with fly fishing gear takes both research and planning. First and foremost, you need to determine what items are permitted in carry-on bags, versus which items you need to check. For international travel, this will vary by connection country and destination, so it is best to check the websites of the TSA equivalent in those countries. For US domestic flights, TSA is fairly clear on these rules, but it is up to you to be able to prove those rules to the individual agents you encounter.
According to TSA, rods are permitted in both carry-on and checked luggage for domestic flights. In practice, this is largely up to the TSA agent to know the rule. Therefore, it is best to print out the “fishing pole” page from TSA’s website to bring with you, just in case you are challenged. If you do carry on your rod tube(s), these will count as separate “personal items,” unless lashed to or at least partially contained within another bag.
Your rod(s) should be no fewer than four pieces. This is something that many anglers neglect to consider when buying a rod or planning a long-distance vacation. This is not an official TSA rule, just smart planning. A rod tube for a 9-foot, four-piece rod fits perfectly at a diagonal orientation within most large rolling suitcases. Tubes for longer four-piece rods will fit in a large duffle bag. For these, I use an Army duffle bag and pack my clothes around it.
Reels, Check or Carry On?
This is another weird security rule that varies by country, or even the person screening your gear. The question here is, do I have to check or can I carry on my spooled reel(s)? The official TSA answer for US domestic flights is, "Like other high-value objects, you may wish to pack expensive reels or fragile tackle that does not pose a security threat (small flies) in your carry-on baggage.” Print this TSA "Fishing Lure" rule to bring with your carry-on reels.
While permitted on US flights, carrying on spooled reels is prohibited on many international flights. If departing from the US, this will not be a problem, but it might be with your connections and your return. From my experience with international flights, either unspool your reels to carry-on, or check in your spooled reels. It’s annoying but worth not having to unspool and surrender your line at an airport (especially on the way to a fishing destination).
Even more so than your rod, your landing net might be the least packable item you own. While a single-hand net it is not necessarily longer than a rod tube, it is wider. The combination of one or more rod tubes and a net can take up a lot of room. I have found that the best way to pack this is to lay the net flat on the bottom of your luggage at a diagonal, with your rod tubes, waders, boots, etc. on top.
Driving With Fly Fishing Gear
Driving with gear is easy, so this will be the shortest section. Unlike flying, you can fit easily those not very packable 2-piece rods, long-handled landing nets, and various spares to any essential item. When loading a vehicle with family, friends, and everyone's luggage, keep your rods safe and accessible by stowing rod tubes in the hard-to-smash crevices under seats, behind seats, or tucked away along the sides of your trunk.
One very convenient item that is growing in popularity is the fly rod carrier. These mount to a car or truck's roof rack, and carry two to four (sometimes more) rods. This allows you to carry your rods fully assembled with flies on, so you can hit the water as soon as you arrive. Beyond vacationing, these are great for guides or anyone trying to squeeze in time on the river before or after work.
Smuggling Fly Fishing Gear
I have a special section in my gear closet for my discrete fly fishing gear. Why? These are the travel versions of your fly setup that allow you to quietly turn any trip into a fly fishing trip. While I have a few pieces of gear in this category, including a Handy Pack Net, I will focus on one in particular.
A Special Note on Travel Rods
Travel rods get their own section. They are not a new phenomenon, nor are they disappearing. Orvis recently replaced their longstanding 7-piece Frequent Flyer rod series with their new 6-piece Clearwater Travel Rods. I might be in the minority of anglers who love the concept of a travel rod and have used one for years. This is why. In my previous job, I traveled extensively for work. I was on a plane every month and discreetly packed my 5wt 7-piece travel rod everywhere I went. This packs down in an 18-inch rod tube that I can easily fit inside a backpack. With any downtime during a professional conference or another business trip, I would Uber to local waters. Likewise, for any casual vacation near water … "how’d that conveniently-sized rod get in my bag?"
Travel rods are not perfect, and the action will feel a little unfamiliar with the number of pieces/ferrules. But the quality versions of these are by no means low performance. The difference is largely in aesthetics and 30 more seconds of rod assembly. I have caught just as many fish on my 7-piece than I have on my 4-piece, and here’s the kicker, in far more places! What you lose in subtle appearances you gain in convenience and opportunities to fly fish, making 6 or 7-piece travel rods a smart logistical choice. It is also my go-to backup rod while flying for an angling vacation.
No matter how you travel, have a plan for getting your gear from point A to B, and back to point A. Think through each step of the trip. If you need specific recommendations for travel-worthy gear, send me a message through my Curated profile or reach out to another Fly Fishing expert here on Curated and we'll help you get set up.