There’s something evocative about a good packing list. In fact, when it comes to fishing, I carefully scrutinize outfitters’ packing lists for trips I'm not even going on—I like to see what they recommend. Of course at the end of these provisional lists they say they’ll send the full packing list when you book a trip. Well, where’s the fun in that?
A packing list, especially for a fishing trip, implies order and control over an inevitably chaotic process. You can plan all you want from your Manhattan apartment but you’ll never really know what to expect until you get to Patagonia, Norway or wherever it is. Even if you have everything you need the fish will have ideas of their own.
When you make a packing list, as I am doing right now for a little bonefish expedition, there’s usually a story behind every unexpected entry. Bring your own coffee means you suffered through Folgers on your first visit. Similarly, Extra Strength Benadryl means the No-see-ums, which I’ve never really had a problem with, are very menacing indeed. The first time I visited Long Island, in the outer Bahamas, (where a chapter of The Optimist takes place), my ankles were circled with about 80 devastating bites that lasted well after my return to New York. (Why did you think I was wearing socks over my pants? A kind Canadian angler asked me. I guess I figured it was a Canadian thing.)
Yes, a packing list represents experience and hard-won knowledge, even if that knowledge came at the expense of your previously un-prepared self. So here’s the beginning of a new series, The Packing List. Hopefully this will help you on any Bahamas bonefish trip. And don’t worry angling agnostics, it’s about more than fishing (but it always is, isn’t it?).
FISHING: With saltwater fishing the reel is the most important thing. The level of rods and reels is very high now and the prices are also very high. You can usually find good used rods and reels on eBay.
-Rods. An 8-weight for sure. And another 7-9-wt, depending on your preference. I use an 8wt. Helios 3D as my primary rod and also use a criminally nice 9-wt Loomis Asquith. When I started out I very happily used more budget sensible rods (you can do very will with TFO).
-Reels. I have an Orvis Mirage on the Helios, a reel I absolutely love. And a Galvan Torque on the Loomis, a great mid-priced reel made in the US. My friend Ruaridh turned me on to these great Swedish Danielsson reels that aren’t that well-known in the US and are shockingly well-priced. I’ve used one for salmon fishing and loved it.
-Leaders. I think Rio makes great leaders. They can be 8 or 10 lbs. Even 12lb. And plenty of tippet or mono.
-Nippers. These are very personal and should have some sort of history to them. I wear a pair on a Simms boot-lace tied around my neck. This lace has mystical qualities and I would be bereft (bereft!) if I lost it. If you can ever find these Abel nippers for not too much you should get them.
-Flies. The water where we’ll fish is shallow so all flies should have plastic eyes (which are lighter and don’t splash). A dozen Gotcha, a dozen Crazy Charlies, a dozen shrimp patterns (a mix of spawning and mantis), 6 pink puffs. The colors we fish might be described as shrimpy: pale, orange, a little pinkish, tan, brown. Saltwater flies add up fast. You can buy them online at Discount Flies or even in bulk (usually six at a time) on eBay. If you want the personal approach and real expertise head to Urban Angler a place, like the old Dean & Deluca, where it’s impossible to leave without spending a small fortune (and worth it!).
-Pliers. Matt Hranek swears by Van Staal, which are very good and priced accordingly. I found a pair on eBay from Fishpond. Other companies make them and they’re all good—they will of course get saltwater on them.
-De-hooker. These are great and important. Your guide will probably have one but if you catch a fish on your own (hey now!) this will help you release it without touching it too much or even at all. Handling bonefish as little as possible helps them recover and avoid predators, so easy on those photos.
-Fly boxes. One of these Tacky boxes will be very useful. And you might need a few others arranged with obsessive precision. What else are you going to do in February if not carefully curate your fly boxes? Make sure you have one small box (even those round ones they give you at shops) that fits in a shirt pocket, when wading.
-Polarized Glasses. Yes, I worked on a pair with Kirk Originals that are near and dear to my heart. Those are sold out (they might make you a pair if you ask nicely). Try Smith ChromaPop with brown lenses (really a personal preference, but shouldn’t be grey). A second pair of glasses (very important). And some of those wipes to keep them clean.
CLOTHING: I operate under the assumption that anything that goes in a boat will get wet. Saltwater just makes that more intense. So nothing here is too precious.
-Shirts. I like lightweight shirts, usually khaki, with very large chest pockets and, in a perfect world, a large collar. These are surprisingly hard to find. That’s why I made some with Rivay and Drake’s. You can try to track down whatever appeals to you on eBay, search old Filson feathercloth shirts. Depending on your fear of the sun you can wear a chambray shirt (Hranek does). That’s not an issue for Matt because he aspires to a “Sicilian tan” and will likely take his shirt off anyway. And you haven’t really been on a fishing trip with Matt until he hands you the sunscreen turns around and instructs you to Do my back.
-Field Jacket. When the boat is running it gets pretty brisk. I wear an old army field coat—sort of a desert sand color, that I tracked down on eBay. It gets heavy with salt and I have to soak it at the end of the saltwater season.
-Rain jacket. Preferably collapsable. Might get saltwater on it. Patagonia Torrentshell is still my favorite.
-Shorts. These can also be a swimsuit. They should be on the longer side so you don’t get too much sun. Something that dries quickly and has large pockets. Tan or blue. Patagonia Baggies or anything like that will work. I like their old Wavefarers.
-Chinos. Light color, lightweight and never to be worn in the city again. By the second day my lily-white calves are usually scalded from the sun so I wear these on the boat and sometimes wading too. They should reach your ankle, if they’re longer they’ll get sand in them while you wade and get heavy. I’m not really into technical fabrics, but these J. Crew stretch chinos have worked well for me in the past.
-Hats. I’m partial to the Quaker Marine Swordfish or a hat from the last time you attended the Masters. You should definitely have two. Not just because one might fly off the boat but sometimes a hat swap is needed to change your luck. That’s just science. Also the most lightweight Buff that looks like a bandana.
-Boat Shoes. What you wear to and from the boat and occasionally on it. They’ll get wet and have to be non-marking. I love white Sperry Striper slip ons. Classic and with some saltwater and sand they get even…classic-er.
-Wading boots. We wade barefoot most of the time (bless Long Island!) but sometimes need boots. I don’t like most of the new boots from fishing companies. They’re too built up, too expensive and too branded. Any scuba boot will do. These are usually side-zipped and black. If you can find a weird beige pair online (like these) then get them no matter what shape they’re in. Orvis used to make some funky ones that I try to track down. You need to wear socks so I bring the most destroyed Bombas I have. They will get ruined with salt, so those socks will not make it off the island.
BAGS/WATCHES/BOTTLES: Again, everything that goes in a flats boat will get wet at some point.
-Small Waterproof Duffel. This will get saltwater on it so hidden zippers are good. I use a Patagonia Black Hole (which Michael Williams seems to disapprove of). I’m open to any waterproof bag that stays standing up, closes completely, isn’t too heavy, and has a few interior pockets. I still think this is really good and the black is pretty discreet though they should make one with no markings. Note: every company should make one version of things with no visible branding.
-Patagonia Black Hole Cube. I have one of these for my fly boxes and another for all medical/sun/pharmaceutical. Very useful.
-Watch. It’s good to have a saltwater version of your favorite watch. I wear the Benrus Field Watch with a khaki cotton band. I love the look and feel and it’s exactly as much effort as I want to spend on a sporting watch.
-Water Bottle. If your hotel has a huge water dispensers then fill your bottle and bring it with you. I love these Nalgene Canteens. We are anti-single use plastic bottles (in the highest possible terms!), Nalgene is a much better option. Or just go wild on the Yeti site—their jugs are very good (and what my favorite guides in Patagonia use).
EXTRAS: Bottle opener. Lighter. Ground coffee. Anything salty you want to eat with beer or rum. Band-Aids. Sunscreen of every variety. Advil. A small white, highly absorbent towel (like what they use at car washes). Fingerless sun gloves. Cash for guide tips. The latest William Boyd novel (available from the UK), the last two issues of the New York Review of Books.
All this is the easy part. Now all you have to do is catch a fish. Good luck out there!
The Contender is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts every week and the Central Division podcast please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Great list, David. Thanks. I can't argue with anything you have on here. Fishing gear is highly personalized, as you know. I like the feel of Winston rods, for instance. And the only tarpon fly rod I like to have on my skiff in SW Florida is a one-piece G. Loomis NRX in 11-weight. One addition I'd recommend to your list is a Spyderco Assist Salt folding knife. Put one in your pocket, just in case. If you or your boat mate have ever double wrapped a heavy saltwater leader only to have a fish decide she's not quite done, well, then, you know why I'm suggesting this. And it doubles as a cigar cutter in a pinch. Also, AFTCO makes some OG fishing shorts that ain't winning any fashion contests, but are tough as nails, stay cool, and perform. Hell, they were good enough for Lefty and the gang back in the day. I'm sure there's some vintage ones on eBay somewhere. Tight lines, mate. Go get 'em!
Just did some flats fishing in a pair of West Marine Aqua Socks, which are actually shoes. The uppers are made of mesh and neoprene. So water that gets in runs out, they're breathable and they dry really fast. Neoprene so they fit snuggly and they're comfortable without actual socks. Soles are light but thick enough to avoid scraps or punctures. Also non-marking on boat decks.
They have an elastic drawstring lacing system is like a bungee cord that locks down to keep them from slipping off when they get wet. Very comfortable, sturdy and value priced at $26.99