Traveling Light to Tropical Destinations
An angler’s journey from freshwater to salt begins much like the steelhead from the Pacific Northwest. It’s an evolutionary transition in which the angler travels to saltwater destinations year after year only to return home to fish their native spring creeks, freestone rivers or stillwater lakes. Just like rivers, these transitions aren’t etched in stone. Bodies of water come and go as they choose, twisting and turning and making their own way to the ocean. Some of us prefer to reside on a stretch of river, never to feel the saltwater flow through our veins. Some of us never return to the waters we first called home. Just as nature prepares and seasons steelhead for their journey to the ocean, it is incumbent on future saltwater anglers to ensure they are well prepared as well.
Making the leap from freshwater to tropical saltwater destinations is not something that can be taken lightly. I love fly fishing gear like the next guy, but buying a bunch of equipment and clothes without much thought, only makes you look like you walked off the Orvis catalog and does nothing to prepare you for what really lies ahead.
For most people there are two legit ways to pack. (There’s actually three ways if you’re über rich and can afford to buy all your clothes and gear when you’re already there. Even if that was the case, its definitely risky, and you might find the only rod left on the rack is a $20 dollar, 3’ Snoopy fishing rod and the last flats boots are a women’s size 6.)
At the end of the day you can pack heavy or you can pack light. There are benefits to both, as well as some serious pitfalls, but in traveling to tropical saltwater destinations, I prefer to travel light. It’s allowed me to easily shuffle around the world with all my gear with minimal headaches, not have to pay the absorbent fees at the airport, and not have to rent private storage when my room isn’t ready but my rod arm is.
Assuming a fishing/traveling trip to the tropics for 6-8 days, the magic number when packing your clothes is three. For starters, three pairs of pants, three pairs of shirts, three pairs of underwear. Not everyone will be willing to travel this light; but after a couple trips, you will realize its not necessary to model a new outfit to the grungy fishing guide who is himself wearing the same thing for 6 days straight. Mileage may vary.
Truthfully, In order to save weight & and enable me to bring far more gear than I should, I bring a minimal quantity of clothes, some multi-purpose detergent and wash them each day. If weight and space allow, a small length parachute cord can be used as a clothesline and exponentially help to dry your clothes. I’ve been teased by my buddies who balked at my bottle of Woolite or wilderness detergent, only to beg for a quick shot of soap as their clothes smelled somewhere between bait and locker room funk. In a pinch you can use bar soap or shower gel, but I like wearing fresh smelling clothes.
Bring lightweight, synthetic, neutral colored pants. Columbia, Simms & Redington all make good products. I prefer to have at least one pair with zip off lower legs. If pests aren't an issue, it’s oftentimes nice to remove the bottom leg of your pants while wading the flats. This will help prevent your fly line from getting tangled up in your pants and ruining a perfectly executed cast. The color of your pants is also an important factor in your comfort. On a recent trip, my buddy Josh had worn some slate gray zip offs that while perfect guiding in the cooler freestone rivers, were unbearable in the tropic heat. He conveniently zipped off the lower legs and was instantly cooler - until he discovered he developed sunburn above his knee 30 minutes later.
Equally important are lightweight, synthetic long sleeve shirts. While every brand offers different pocket configurations & venting solutions, the bottom line for the angler should be sun coverage. There are many factors involved, but primarily due to the tightness of the weave, and thickness of the shirt, button down long sleeves offer more sun protection than plain cotton tee shirts. A regular cotton tee shirt has the SPF rating of about 5; whereas many fishing shirts from Columbia, Simms, ExOfficio are rated around 30 to 50. Look for more fishing specific shirts to advertise a higher SPF number and recently more products are available with insect repellent or anti-bacterial embedded additives. There are many great brands out there. Get one you like and save your skin.
Like I mentioned earlier, I travel with 3 pairs of underwear. Seriously? Absolutely. I know underwear is not usually the talk amongst men, but like Michael Jordan, I’m definitely comfortable in my undies. At first, I was really skeptical - until I tested out 3 pairs of ExOfficio “Give-n-Go’s” on a recent trip to Belize. I know of no other brand that actually markets traveling the world for 2 weeks with only 2 pairs of underwear, but $25 dollar britches can’t be wrong. They offer many well designed, extremely comfortable styles for men and women and not only are they incredibly quick drying, they have an impregnated Aegis anti-bacterial layer that kills bacteria and odors. Oftentimes you’ll slip in and out of the boat, wading the flats. Your pants and shirts will dry super fast, but your underpants, not so much. Who really wants to wear damp Joe Boxer briefs while waiting for that trophy fish? Give these a go, I think you’ll be hooked. Care and maintenance is easy. I washed one set each night and then setup a 3-day rotation. It was a like a fresh pair of clean underwear right from the washer / dryer. Well almost. Make sure you wash them well.
Don’t forget a pair of flats boots & flats socks. In many destinations, there is a high probability that you'll be wading the flats. Bonefish and permit are often aware of the boat and often these fish will lie up frustratingly beyond the reach of your longest cast. It is infinitely more difficult to spot fish while you or your guide are off the boat, but you will get higher quality shots for skinny water fish with shorter more accurate casts. If you keep still, fish will often bump right into you and continue on their way offering the angler another shot to catch a prize permit. While the wading boots prevent you from beating up your feet on the hard coral, wading socks prevent the sand from collecting and causing additional irritation. Bring at least 1 pair of each and wring the socks dry each day. You may not use your boots every outing on your trip, but by all means bring them on every boat ride. If you're thinking of skimping on this and bringing some Keen style sandals, or boat shoes forget about it and don't say I didn't warn you.
If you've booked a guide for most of your vacation, flip flops and flats boots are probably the most you'll need. You most likely wont wear shoes while you're on the deck so no need for anything heavy. Even though I hardly wear them, I always throw in a pair of hiking shoes or even protective water sandals in case adventure awaits inland. You may think about bringing some lightweight socks if your feet are very sensitive to the heat and sun while you are standing up on deck all day.
Sunscreen. Many sunscreens will turn your expensive fly lines into limp spaghetti noodles that will deny even the most capable casters to shoot the line through your guides. The bottom line is that the chemicals in your sunscreen will melt your fly lines and add a noticeable smell to your flies if handled too quickly. It is far preferable to wear a bit more clothes than risk a burn, your vacation and your super expensive fly lines. There are a couple of sunscreens out there that are marketed as "fly line safe," but I haven't tested any of them yet.
There are three general rules for not getting burned. You might call it the ABCs of sun protection. 1. Apply sunscreen, 2. Bask in the shade, 3. Cover up. You’re pretty much going to have to forgo rule number two. There is very minimal shade on the flats and although there is frequent cloud cover, all shade will allow some amount of UV rays to reach your skin.
What is SPF? Basically SPF is a measure of how many times longer you can stay in the sun with sunscreen applied vs you not wearing it. For instance, if it takes you 10 minutes to burn, SPF 15 would provide you with 2.5 hours of protection before you would burn. Lots of factors come into play as you will generally need to reapply after you get out of the water or after a certain amount of time.
Ball caps. I prefer the "trucker" style mesh ball caps while out on the water due to its lightweight & ventilation. There have been numerous times I have taken off my non mesh cap due to heat, only to realize I burned my scalp a little later. Some prefer long billed caps with drop down sides. Although these caps provide a lot of solar protection, I find them incredibly hot to wear and really not my style.
Buffs / Neck Wraps. Don't burn your neck, face, etc. It’s seriously not worth it. It hurts like hell and it makes for horrible pictures. For those that aren’t familiar with these things, they are basically a fabric tube your pull over your neck and face. Pretty ingenious actually. The wrap while obviously designed for sun protection also doubles as a seatbelt for your ball cap when you're flying Mach 3 in 3 feet of water. Bring a few of them and cycle them through. As an added bonus, a few of these wraps are also being impregnated with insect repellent for those dusk adventures or hunting in mangroves for snook or baby tarpon.
Every fly angler knows the importance of polarized sunglasses. Everyone has his or her favorite lens. My favorite tropical flats lens happens to be a pair of copper lens Kaenons (Rhinos or Jettys / C-12/C28). These glasses seem to make everything appear sharper and clearer. There are lots of great brands of glasses out there. Kaenon, Costas, Maui Jim, Smiths to name a few. Do yourself a favor and get a good pair.
Rose or copper colored lenses help provide better separation in the flats and allow you the best chance to see fish underwater. You've spent a lot of money to get to the tropics and if you're guide is telling you to cast 50' to the right, the likelihood of a great shot will improve dramatically if you can see the fish. Dark smoke, colored lenses are often used for bluewater excursions and amber / copper being the middle of both worlds. I bring three pairs of glasses. Why? Salt water will often scratch your lenses and you never know when you’ll need another pair. Have a cheap or throw down set to use for the boat ride and only put on your quality lenses when you're trying to spot fish or casting on the deck. You can also lend out your third pair to a friend who happens to have a delaminated pair and bribe him with buying your dinner every day he wears your glasses. The minimal extra space it takes will then pay huge dividends.
Large Waterproof Boat Bags are key. I am not a huge fan of waterproof roll bags as they often just keep the humidity in the bag and ruin your clothes, camera, et al. Most are generally too small and difficult to access the items inside. I know, I’ve made that mistake. Simms and Columbia makes some pretty decent waterproof rectangular boat bags that you can throw all your gear and camera equipment in for the boat ride. They’ve got handles, straps and a zipper along the side that provides easy access to your SLR camera, boxes of flies, leader, tippet and extra reels.
The Minimum List for Tropical Travel
3 pairs of Synthetic Light Colored Pants (min 1 zippered leg)
3 each Long sleeve SPF Rated shirts
3 pairs of ExOfficio Underwear
3 head / neck sunwraps
3 pairs of shoes
1 pair of flats boots
1 pair of flip flops / sandals
1 pair of hiking shoes / water sandals
1 pairs flats socks
Sunscreen (The kind that wont kill fly lines)
3 polarized sunglasses (Kaenon, Costas, Smiths, etc)
3-6 tee shirts for after lounging
3 pairs of shorts
EQUIPMENT & GEAR
6 wt rod, disc drag reel, & tropical floating line for smaller bonefish
8 wt rod, disc drag reel, & tropical floating line for bonefish & permit
10 wt rod, disc drag reel, & tropical floating line for large permit, tarpon, snook and barracuda
12 wt rod, disc drag reel, & tropical floating line for large tarpon
Travel Case for Multiple fly rods
Single Rod case for extra rod on boat or traveling by foot or bike
Oftentimes I will bring multiple 8 and 10 wt rods. I have a 10 wt pre-rigged for Tarpon & Snook and another one for barracuda with a piece of wire for a bite / shock tippet. If you had to bring only 2 rods, I would choose an 8wt and 10 wt.
1 Box of flies for Bonefish / Permit. Fly sizes 8-2. Weighted & Blind (no weighted eyes). Tan, White, Pink, & Olive, Shrimp patterns
1 Box of crab flies for permit
1 Box of Tarpon flies. Natural baitfish patterns, Traditional Tarpon / baitfish flies tied in blue, white, chartreuse, yellows & reds
1 Box of Misc. flies. This includes poppers, needlefish imitations
Don't know what patterns to bring? The main food source will be shrimp, crabs, baitfish and smaller predators. With that in mind, you can't go wrong with a generic selection of Crazy Charlies, Gotchas, Deceivers & Clousers. Ask your guide or host what has been working and if you know how to tie flies, bring a vice. It makes for great conversation at the bar at the end of the day.
Leader material in 80, 60, 40, 20 lb
Shock Tippet Material in 80 & 60 lb
Bonefish leaders - 10lbs-12lbs, 12' long
Tippet - 8lb, 10lb, 12lb
Aluminum or stainless steel pliers/cutters
Leader Material, 1 spool each of 80lb, 60lb, 40lb
Single Strand or Braided Steel leader, 1 spool each of 40lb, 30lb, 20lb Tippet
1 Large waterproof boat bag
1 waterproof hip pack or backpack
Swag to give your guides in case they are awesome (caps, shirts, flies, etc)
Fly Tying materials and vice (optional)
Woolite or Wilderness Detergent
Neosporin / Polysporin
Small First Aid Kit