Written by: Bob Terwilliger, Winterhawk Outfitters
When you’re heading out on a wilderness fly-fishing trip, it’s vital that you bring along the right gear. There are no fly shops or convenience stores in the backcountry, so you need to be prepared from the very start. Which fly rods you bring will depend on where you’re going and what species you’ll be fishing for, but the rest of the gear mentioned here is what you’ll need for any expedition far from the pavement.
Although a lot of trips involve summertime wet-wading, good waders and boots are important, especially during early and late summer. Waders enable you to fish water that’s otherwise unreachable, and wet-wading in high mountain lakes can be cold even during the warmest summer months due to the continued snowmelt.
When selecting waders, you should focus on those that are lightweight and packable. Ideally, they should also be tough, as hiking along small rivers and backcountry lakes offer plenty of obstacles that can easily tear a pair of waders. For Wilderness Fishing, I always recommend stocking-foot waders over those with built-in boots. A stockingfoot wader with a good wading boot is easier to pack, and it will provide better fit and stability for hiking on uneven terrain.
For boots, a lightweight, hiking style wading shoe is ideal. Look for one with a with a Vibram rubber sole for good traction. We don’t recommend felt soles because they don’t offer great traction in this type of mountainous terrain. More importantly, felt soles carry an increased risk of introducing invasive species to our waters. Studded or cleated soles are usually not necessary, and are not recommended if you will be using inflatable rafts.
For wet wading, you will want a pair of quick-drying pants and wet-wading sandals, shoes, or boots. You may choose to wear wet wading socks, or you can wear a pair of neoprene socks with your regular wading boots.
Good quality, polarized sunglasses are also critical for fly fishing. They provide eye protection from high altitude sun, tree limbs, brush, and flying hooks, and they enable you to see fish easier in the water. Plastic sunglass lenses are the way to go, for safety reasons. Brown lenses are considered a good all-around color for a wide range of fly fishing conditions. Buy the best sunglasses you can afford within your budget. You will not regret it.
Fishing packs can be another overwhelming area of gear because there are so many styles and brands on the market. Whether you fish with a traditional backpack, a sling pack, waist pack, chest pack, fishing vest, or some combination of the above, is all just personal preference. Ideally, you will want something that allows you to organize your fishing tackle and flies, as well as the rest of your gear.
On a backcountry trip, you will need enough room for extra clothing, rain gear, food and water. For day trips into the wilderness, 1,800-2,000 cubic inches of space is about right. However, this doesn’t include room for waders and wading boots. Otherwise, you will need a pack in the range of 3,000 cubic inches.
As with any venture into the wilderness, make sure you bring enough clothing layers for a variety of temperatures. In the morning, it can be 40-50 degrees when we leave camp. By midday, temperatures can rise into the 70s or even low 80s. During the early and late parts of the season, it can even be in the 30s in the early mornings. Lightweight layers are ideal, so that you can adjust as needed.
Fleece, merino wool, and even Primaloft are all great choices for cooler conditions. Add a rain jacket with these, and you will be warm even in windy or wet conditions. Lightweight, highly breathable, polyester layers are great for warmer temperatures and also provide protection from the sun and bugs. With the sun and bugs in mind, a couple of other items to bring along are a hat, sunscreen, and bug spray! In general, mosquitoes are only a problem early in the summer, but biting flies can pick up once the mosquitoes are gone. Usually by August, bugs are no real issue, but it’s better to have some spray along in case you need it.
The last item we want to discuss in this article is quality rain gear. It is a must for backcountry fishing, and you should never leave camp without it! It’s not uncommon to leave camp in the morning with clear, blue skies, and by early afternoon be looking at heavy thunderstorms. These storms can include downpours, hail, and even snow at the highest altitudes. For rain gear, I recommend bringing both a jacket and pants. Rain gear should be lightweight, breathable, and packable. If you have some good rain gear for hunting, this will work fine.
Bob Terwilliger guides backcountry fly-fishing trips for Winterhawk Outfitters, in Collbran, Colorado.