In Praise of Traveling Light and Shirt Pockets

I like traveling light - when possible. The Driftless Area is my home waters. More specifically, I fish within 30 minutes from Viroqua probably 75% or more of the time. And I have been doing that for some number of years. So I have a pretty good idea what to expect any season of the year.

Old school photo
A scanned from film photo - so you know it is old - of Big Spring Creek to show how old I am.

There was a time when a day of fishing was a day of fishing. Today, that day is more likely a few hours during the best part of the day. That was a hard-learned revelation. You can fish all day but most days, an hour or two make your day. Miss that hour or two and your day goes from average or better to crap. That is trout fishing, trout are fickle critters. And once you figure that out, you learn that fishing smarter, not harder is a wise idea. The old adage, "fish when you are most comfortable" is generally pretty true. Fortunately, most of the time, that hour or two is pretty predictable. In the early season, often the best fishing are on warm - but not too warm - days where the sun helps warm the water a bit but does not add too much snow melt. Fish from 9 AM to maybe 11 or noon depending upon the day. And by mid-summer, the best time to be fishing is often when the sun is low on the horizon (or at night). By June, I am often fishing the first and last few hours of daylight. Or even at night - not that I do that very often.

Not every day is a "throw a fly box in a shirt pocket, grab a hemostats, and go" kind of day. There are times and days when I not only do not mind carrying my slingpack or whatever your choice of vest / pack is but I prefer to go more heavily outfitted. There are tons of good reasons not to travel light. No need not to carry a lot of flies if you are traveling by boat. Nor am I going to travel very light if it is a place I am less familiar with. And some days, I plan to be there for the better part of a day and want room for a Clif Bar and a bottle of water. For me, much of traveling light is a familiarity and comfort thing. When I am pretty confident I will have the flies, I travel light and when I am less sure of what I might need, I carry more flies and fly boxes. It also provides a unique challenge for the angler to pack the right flies.

Duranglers fishing shirt
Fishing shirts are a great - and useful - momento from fishing trips.

In looking online, the "old school fishing shirts" seem to be out of style and have given way to sun shirts that generally lack the front pockets I am looking for. My perfect fishing shirt has at least two front pockets - preferably large ones that open to the side with zippers. The perfect fishing shirt has four pockets, two that are the large pockets that open to the side and two that are smaller and are on top of these larger pockets. Those smaller pockets are nice to store a spare leader and a spool - or two if you are not traveling ultralight - of tippet. And the shirt would have a small loop where a zinger can attach to without poking holes in the shirt. The shirt would have a decent bit of sun protection built into it. And the shirt would help show off my favorite Trout Unlimited chapter or fly shops. These fishing shirts are often my souvenirs from fishing trips as they are a reminder of good times as well as a functional piece of fishing gear.

Durangler fishing shirt
This is a great shirt - there is some ventilation built in, it has great pockets, and reminds me of a great fishing trip.

A good fishing shirt is harder to find than you might expect. I have several sub-optimal shirts that do not fit the criteria above. One even lacks front pocket(s). Why on Earth would they do that? Or better yet, why did I buy it? Fashion changes much faster than my fashion choices do, I guess. If I were building the perfect shirt, while the pockets are probably the biggest concern; I think color is pretty important here. Most of the shirts I own are some shade of tan but that is mostly because that was what was available. I would probably prefer blue or a camouflage or maybe the best of all worlds, a sky camouflage.

side-zipped pocket
Side-zipped pockets with something to easly grab the zipper - these are the holy grail of fishing shirt pockets.

As long as I am wondering down this road, some other features of a good fishing shirt are the material they are made from and its weight, whether or not ventilation is built in, and how the sleeves are constructed. I have a mix of shirts with heavier and lighter weight fabrics. One in particular is very much a spring and fall shirt, way too heavy for the summer. Most are great in the summer as they keep the sun off but are light enough not to make you sweat bullets. I have no idea how much the ventilation and mesh fabrics really do to keep you cooler but I assume they do or manufacturers wouldn't use them.

SEWTU fishing shirt
Not a bad shirt - has a few places to put a zinger and has two large pockets but I prefer zippers as they're more secure than Velcro. In the history of vests and fishing shirts, has anyone ever used the strap to hold your rod in place? (above the pocket on the right side of the photo)

On the topic of features that nobody uses, has anyone ever rolled up there sleeves and used those built-in straps and buttons?

Features for rolling up sleeves.
The sleeve button - can't say I have used it more than once to roll my sleeves up.

What to Carry In and On Those Shirts?


Essentially, this is asking how to travel light. The lightest I travel is one small fly box, a pair of hemostats (with a scissors built in), a spool of tippet, and a little container of desiccant. Preferably, I would add a spare leader and another tippet spool or two. Traveling a little heavier, add a second - or even third fly box if they are small - some strike indicators, a bit of weight, and if I am fishing later into the evening, my regular glasses to replace my sunglasses.


I have not found a favorite fly box but if I am packing for a day and want something highly versatile, Cliff's Days Worth and Supper Days Worth are good choices. I am sure there are others - in fact the one I carry most is a semi-circular compartment box with a Driftless Angler logo on it (can't find it online). I have yet to find the perfect fly box which I am sure does not exist.


So this leads to what I fill that fly box with. I am a fly tying maximalist (I tie a ton of different patterns) but a minimalist when it comes to what I carry. I have covered some of my favorite flies such as my Driftless Baker's Dozen as well as a number of patterns I use a lot like Andrew Grillo's Hippie Stomper, Hans Weilenmann's CDC and Elk, and a whole lot of others posts with the tag, "Fly Tying". I will break the seasons into Early Season (January through March), Spring (April through early June), Summer (mid-June through August), and Late Season (September through the end of the Wisconsin season).


Early Season Fly Box

Early season generally means fishing deep, often in slow water. I am fishing buggers and leeches much of the time. Throw in a few sculpin patterns, a scud - which the Driftless Fly Angler should have during all seasons, and some small nymphs and I have

  • Milwaukee Leech and Downtown Leech (the tungsten bead version)

  • Ben's Itty Meaty Thing - a "jiggier" leech pattern. Driftless Angler carries 11 leech patterns as I write this - I have no idea how much pattern matters but this and the Milwaukee leech are my choices.

  • Woolly Buggers - there have been wars fought over what color buggers work and do not work (no, not really...at least I don't think). I carry white, olive, and black - the standards. Maybe a yellow/orange version as well.

  • I am carrying some sort of crayfish pattern - I don't have a favorite but keep it relatively small.

  • Nymphs - I am not a huge believer that pattern matters all that much but I carry a few with no additional weight but most are fairly heavily weighted as I think most of the time, getting down deep is what makes nymphs most effective. Pheasant tail (or Turkey tail), Perdigons, zebra midges, and scuds - the Driftless fly angler should always have scuds - or Pink Squirrels - will probably do it.

  • The early season is rarely great for dry fly fishing but early in the year, there is a chance for winter stoneflies and by the middle of March, you might encounter some blue-winged olives. So I carry a few adult midges, a few Griffith Gnats, and some small dark stonefly/small caddis patterns along with a few small (#18 and smaller) BWO patterns. An unweighted PT nymph is a great emerger pattern. More than anything, catching rising fish when there is snow on the ground is a pretty cool novelty.

Winter is probably the easiest season to plan for - there simply is not much happening bug-wise so most of the fishing is streamers and nymphs fished deeply. Most days I tie on a Milwaukee Leech to start and rarely do I find a reason to switch.


Spring Fly Box

Spring fly selection gets a lot more interesting as the bugs are starting to get more active and change over the course of the season. I am still carrying the leeches and sculpin - but they're good in every season - and the same nymph patterns, and, of course, some scuds. But by dry fly selection is broadening a lot more.

  • Grannoms (link to Tom Lager's presentation) begins the "real" fishing season, in my mind (yes, I am largely a dry fly snob). There are tons of great grannom patterns but the CDC and Elk works great for me. Recently, I've added a bit of green or chartreuse Glo Brite Floss as a tag to imitate the eggs of the female.

  • Hippie Stomper and dropper nymph is not my favorite style of fishing but it is pretty effective and I will do it, when I have to.

  • Softhackles and wet flies start to work a lot better once fish become more active. I like to carry a few dark and a few light patterns. This is another place where I think the movement is much more important than the color.

  • Mayflies are starting to hatch by late April (most years) with BWO's being probably the most important early hatch. I carry a few different patterns but a parachute and maybe your favorite emerger - mine is a snowshoe thing with a bit of dun soft hackle which floats it "well enough". I can count the number of Hendrickson hatches I have encountered in recent years on a unicorn's horn.

  • Anglers in the Driftless should carry some crane flies - the Coulee Crane Fly is a great choice.

  • Terrestrials are starting to become more important. I am carrying a few ants and beetles along with "my cricket" by the middle of May. By June, I sometimes wonder is my often fished CDC and Elk is not doubling as a small grasshopper. That reminds me, I need to finish "Project Terrestrial" one of these days...


Summer Fly Box

For the dry fly snob, summer is about terrestrials but the small nymphs, leeches and other streamers, and softhackles are all great this time of year too. I probably add a few gaudy attractors like the Chubby Chernobyl below. The most common mistake I see of those fishing terrestrials is that they often are using flies that are too large, particular those western style grasshoppers which are much larger than hoppers we encounter here.

Royal Chubby Chernobly fly
A Royal Chubby Chernobyl - a great fly for a dropper rig but I also fish it alone.

Probably my favorite fishing of the season is when weed growth is its maximum and only small channel between the weedbeds exist. These weeds create crazy currents and getting a clean drift is nearly impossible. The angler is challenged to make a cast into just the right spot and it almost certainly has to be done with a dry fly or another fly that will not sink into the weeds. I love a good challenge.

My pocket fly box in the summer is loaded with terrestrials of all sorts - from high floating foam attractors like the previously mentioned Chubby Chernobly, to some Morrish Hoppers and a few lower floating hoppers. And I have a similar selection of beetles and ants. For crickets, I fish a smaller Morrish Hopper and "my cricket" (pattern in the Driftless Baker's Dozen - labelled there as the Low-Rider Cricket). One overlooked beetle pattern is Ross Mueller's BHP (Brown Hackle Peacock) Beetle which is incredibly simple yet effective. It is a bit of poly yarn for the shellback, a clipped and palmered brown hackle, and a peacock body (add a little colored poly or other synthetic for an easier to see version). I like them on a Tiemco 102Y hook but they work well on a long-shanked hook too.

My Cricket - based on Tom Wendelberg's cricket
"My cricket" - a low floating cricket which is probably taken as a beetle as much as it is a cricket.

And I am carrying a few versions of Dr. J's X-legs - a low floating terrestrial I am working on figuring out what features work better than others.


Late Season Fly Box

My late season fly box is a bit of a mix of all the seasons. I am sure to have some streamers and leeches. And I am still full of terrestrial fly options, holdovers from the summer. But it is not just a summer fly box as I am adding some more small caddis and BWOs again. Maybe something that looks "October caddis-ish" just in case I ever encounter enough of them to be able to fish them. To me, late season is some of the best and most interesting fishing of the year. And the scenery can not be beaten!

Corner pool
Mike fishing a corner pool created in one flood and taken away by the next.

There is a finality in the fall with the end of the fishing season coming. It is the season I am least likely to travel lightly and carry just a box in a shirt pocket. In part because there is so much potential to need different flies but at least as much because the end is near and I want a few good memories before the season wraps up and I have a winter to wait out for good fishing the next season.


The Wrap-Up


Your choices of flies are certainly different than mine. I have two boxes that I typically move flies in and out of. My spring box is the most unique but all of them have some similarities. I always have some slim, weighted nymphs, some scuds, and a few leeches. I take out some of the flies through the season and replace them with others more likely to work at that time. The boxes evolve through the fishing season based on my experiences. As the season progresses, the boxes get more and more dry fly heavy. If part because the fishes are looking up more once it gets warmer and bug activity picks up but also because at some point, I have caught enough fish and am on to catching them how I want to catch them.

New stream channel after a flood.
Like the Driftless streams, my fly boxes are always changing.

I am unlikely to have everything I could ever want but I am OK with that. In fact, that is part of the challenge. Sure, could wear my slingpack, and I do much of the time, but some days I like the challenge and the freedom of grabbing a single fly box and a minimal amount of supplies and have at it for a few hours. Nothing beats a good fishing shirt.

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