Western fishing trip - Packing and planning considerations

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In my Montana trip discussion @jerseystriper said:


sounds like a great trip for the fishing and more important time with your son. Great memories for sure. I for one would love to know what you packed in the way of clothes, rods, housing and setting up guides. Some day, I plan on doing such a thing.


No problem so this discussion is about planning and packing to keep it separate from the trip thread. The following will be focused on floating rivers rather than DIY or guided wading. I will note differences when possible. Of course, you need to adjust for season, weather and length of stay. 

ETA: this is being typed while I am returning from the West, but there is very little above that would be different if floating the Delaware River system. I have floated the West Branch and Main Stem out of the DRC and have packed almost exactly the same gear. The only difference is I would bring waders to the Del if floating, as it is common to park the boat, get out and work runs on foot. 

Top level advice on packing is take less than you think you need. Start list-making a few weeks ahead. Then lay out your stuff somewhere a week ahead and start thinning it out before you pack. Also, think about multi-day usage and/or sink-washable clothing. 


  • Figure out the range of weather you might face and work from the extremes inward. Early July in Montana could see lows in the mid-40s and highs above 80, we had both with 30-35* swings from morning to takeout. 
    • As with all outdoor activities, layers are best, heavy in morning and then shedding layers as the day progresses. 
    • Each morning I started with a long sleeve wicking "sun t-shirt" against the skin, a wicking fishing shirt on top and a thin soft shell jacket over that. On two mornings I wore a more insulating outer shell when the guide picked us up but put that into spare clothing bag when we got to the river 90 minutes later. The lighter shell was usually shed by 11 or Noon.
  • You must have a hooded rain shell of your choosing. We only needed then for a half our during that rain/hail sqwall, but without it we would have been in trouble with the 20* temperature drop. Colder and wet is no bueno when you are miles from your takeout and the guide's truck. 
    • Rain pants are optional, we never used them but would have were there to be a full day of rain. Bring them, packed in a large ziplock bag and put them in the bottom of you clothes bag.
  • I wear long pants while floating for both the minor wind blocking and the major sun blocking. Columbia and Ex-Officio are my brands but there are many others. I don’t bother with "convertible" designs with zip off legs, though I own a couple pair.
  • Whatever you choose, make sure it is fast drying with 0% cotton content. 
    • Since I mentioned it, leave all cotton at home, except maybe for t-shirts to wear off the water or to sleep in. Cotton is no bueno and do NOT wear jeans or khakis. 
    • Speaking of cotton, buy some wicking underwear from Patagonia, Ex-Officio, etc. They dry quickly if your butt get wet, they breath if it gets hot and you can wash them out in the sink with the hotel's free shampoo.
  • As with underwear, you can clean anything Synthetic in the sink as long as you have a day for it to dry. If your trip is only two or three days, just bring enough for those days and forget the sink deal. 
  • Hats: baseball or wide brimmed as is your preference. Bring a couple. 



  • Eyewear serves two purposes, cut light and glare, and protect the eyes. Thus, I wear glasses anytime flies are flying, even if it is cloudy.
  • On this and most trips, I brought six pair of polarized Mauis and Costas for my son and myself. Two were yellow or "sunrise" tints in the event it was overcast. Two were green mirrored lenses with a vermillion or "pink" tint for everyday wearing. Last two were older brown lens models as backups.
  • I wear some sort of retainer on all my shades. The last thing you want to do is drop glasses on floor or over the side. $15 is cheap protection for $100-200 eyewear. 
  • I need reading glasses and keep a pair in a pocket in case I need to deal with a knot, etc. I don’t like bifocal sunglasses.  
  • You will need to clean your shades several times a day. Sunscreen, fish slime, splashed water, fingers will all leave marks that need to be removed. For cleaning lenses, I prefer disposable packets of cleaner rather than a spray bottle and a knobby cloth. I buy the Leitz brand off of Amazon by the dozens and keep them everywhere. They have an alcohol and non-alcohol version and they both work. 



  • For waders, decide if you will be only floating, only wading or a combination. We only floated and and any wet wading was calf deep. Thus, we did not pack waders, boots, etc. If you will wade, pack accordingly. 
  • For floating, you need to wear something, barefoot is impossible if for no other reason is you don’t know if you will have to jump out of the boat with zero notice to save the boat, your life, etc. 
  • Try to determine what the bottom is like on the water you will float - clean free stone or algae covered?
    • For clean free stone, which we had, you can get by with any water shoe, flats shoe or other purpose made design. For all but the first day, I wore a pair of slim Krok boat shoes with a strap over the Achilles area. The only time they failed me was when I steps on some wet muddy grass at a takeout and fell on my butt. 
    • If you know your are going to rivers with mostly algae covered rocks, then you might want something else. I have a pair of older Redington wet wading shoes that I wore the first day and hated them. Between the laces, pull strap and lugged soles, I was constantly catching my fly line on them making shooting line a frustration. They were only used once more after the first day and that was when I wet waded the river behind the hotel before sundown. They worked great for that usage. Point is, simple footwear is better. 
    • My son wore a pair of my Keen sandals made for rafting, kayaking, etc. He had no complaints. 


The interesting thing about the clothing list above is that most of the same Is in my packing list for sub-tropical locales, less then insulating items. Same shirts (only one layer), same pants, same rain tops. 

I will address gear and planning tomorrow some time. 

I hope this helps. 



Edited by tomkaz

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  • This really depends on what you THINK you will he doing and what you ACTUALLY end up doing.
  • Same trip, same week, in 2016, it was all dry fly fishing with dry/dropper when there was nothing hatching. Flows were normal and floating was nice and easy. Working specific banks or individual fish was possible with the guide reverse rowing. 
  • This past week was about as opposite that as can be. Snow pack was 100%+ and a little later in melting, so rivers were running a little high. Over two inches of rain the days before we arrived raised levels to nearly flood stage. Floats were very fast, a big rocky in chutes and the guide needed to work much harder. It was impossible to fish specific spots unless there was an eddy or back channel we could pull into and get out of the current.
  • Having done this before, I had planned on both scenarios, plan for the worst, hope for the best. I was also checking the local fly shops' River reports so I knew the water was flowing high and fast.
  • By most opinions, the 9’ 5wt is the universal Western rod with a WF floating line. That will cover most circumstances both on foot and floating. If you are fishing waters known for their wind (Missouri?), you may want a 6wt to cut through the wind. A 4wt can be used for dry fly fishing in windless conditions on really slow water. Candidly, I keep bringing the 4s and never use them. 
  • Casting distance varies depending on the water, whether walking or floating and what the fish are doing. On our floats, casts were in the 10-50’ range with most in 15-25’. Given the speed of the water, we could fish five feet away from the raft and catch fish. Alternatively, I had to cast 40 feet downstream to hit some of those slack areas and mend to allow a few seconds in the target zone. 
  • So for the two of us I had packed: two 4wts with dry fly taper lines, four 5wts with dry fly lines as well as more general purpose lines, one each of 6wt & 7wt thst would be used if streamers were an option.
  • Over five days, we used exactly two 5wts the entire time. The guide had a rigged rod case for the boat and we kept a backup 5wt and a 7wt streamer rod in there, not used. The 4wts were never an option given how fast the water was flowing so they stayed in the hotel with the 6wt. 


  • Regarding reels, almost anything will work. Given we did not hook anything over 18”, there was never a reason to get a fish on the reel and we stripped in every one. Our guide is a big proponent of stripping every fish in saying he’s seen too many trophy fish lost as anglers try to manage line tension, reeling and clearing slack line off the deck. Also, all of his barbs sare mashed down or barbless hooks so any slack in the line will allow the fish to shake free. 
  • On the 5wts we used two Waterworks ULA reels that I have owned for 15+ years. Given the drags are not being used, the advantage of UL arbor is faster line pickup when you want to get slack back onto the reel (transitioning from a long cast to a short one). 
  • Again, even a click and prawl drag would work if the fish are going to be small and the amount of line out the tip relatively minimal.
  • Now, if you will be wade fishing and throwing 70’ casts to 20+ inch fish on a big river, then the reel and it’s drag are likely more important. Years ago I fished the Madison in the run just below The Slide and a drag was critical in that fast water and those big and strong fish. Yet, on the same trip, I fished the diminutive Ruby River at Ruby Springs Lodge where a 4wt would be perfect. 



  • Pure preference here to meet your anticipated conditions. Our lines were a hodge lodge of older SA GPX, Rio Gold and Wulff Triangle Tapers. The two 5wts we used were a Wulff TT (son) and an older GPX for me.
  • The Wulff worked fine for my son who has never fished a freshwater fly rod before.
  • For me, the GPX taper did not do it on my 5wt Loomis GPX given some casts had less than 10’ of line off the tip. With a 7’ front taper, I barely had belly out the tip making turning over the big dry and dropper a challenge, especially into the wind. So the first night I cut 6’ off the line and connected a fresh 9’ 2X leader with a Krazy Glue splice. That made all the difference in the world under these circumstances, though that line isn’t making delicate dry fly deliveries any time soon. I have a new Rio Gold on another reel for that. 



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  • This is very dependent upon you, your plans and your use of guides. Fly fisherman are, by definition, gear guys, and if you tie, it is that much worse.
  • I overpack for EVERY TRIP when it comes to stuff as I try to be ready for every circumstance. That makes for more stuff, bigger bags, having to check luggage, etc.
  • And while I have said "I am glad I brought that." more than once, I still question why I bring so much. 
  • As with clothing, start with lists weeks ahead and then slim down the list as packing date approaches. 


  • Another personal preference as well as depending on your itinerary. Wading requires different carry options than does floating. Guided vs unguided.
  • On floats, I usually have to carry items, one for carrying clothes and one for everything else. And both bags have to be water resistant and able to sit in standing water without the contents getting wet. 
  • The clothes bag is for rain pants, rain jackets, extra layers, dry against-skin shirt, etc. I use a Watershed rafting bag that I bought 20 years ago. Fully waterproof, it is a roll-top design with a giant "zip lock" that can be 100% waterproof when all cinched up. 
  • The everything else bag/pack is for camera, sunglasses, gear items, tippet, leaders, snacks, sunscreen, meds, spare reel, etc. 
  • On most recent trips, I use a Fishpond backpack that is made of water proof material and has water resistant zippers. This bag was discontinued when the rage became sling bags which was driven by the guiding community. My pack has been to the UK, Catskills, Bahamas and on the beaches of Florida and still works great.
  • fishpond%20westwater.jpg
  • Being candid, it is a bit too technical for this use as all the straps, waist belts, attachment points and other dodads are catch points for that flyline that has been stripped into the raft at your feet. I think part of the reason FP discontinued it is that it was expensive to make. Current models (Thunderhead) are much simpler, cleaner lines and fewer line-grabbers. 
  • Generally, the backpack is a great option, except you have to pack it carefully so that you can get to items that can get buried deep. I use quart and 1 gallon ziplock bags to store related items together and to make them easier to access. 
  • On earlier trips, when I knew the guide used a mode spacious Hyde-style drift boat, I have used my old JW Outfitters boat bag, the big Tarpon model. Boat bags are great as they are designed for just this use, as long as they have a fully rubberized bottom that goes up at least 1.5” up the sides. But the raft/boat has to have the space to accommodate. 



  • As mentioned, bring them if you think you are going to wade and wet wading in 55-60* water is not your thing. I wet waded for two hours one evening with water temp around 57* and only lost feeling in my toes in the last 15 minutes.
  • The issue with waders, boots, belts, underwader ware, etc is that it is bulky and can take up half a duffle bag.
  • Again, know in advance what you will be doing and plan accordingly. 


  • Maybe the most controversial, bring, buy local or rely on guides?
  • Biggest uncertainty is knowing in advance what will be hatching during your trip. Hatch charts are nice but they don’t tell the entire story. During our stay, charts told us we could expect some salmon flies, yellow stones, PMDs and the end of the western green drakes. We did see all of those, but in small numbers and sporadically, with no major hatches in the classic sense. Very few risers on this trip, unlike prior when you could see a half dozen risers in a small run. 
  • As noted in the other thread, over five floats, we used a single pattern as the indicator/attractor and no more than four different nymphs. I did not even bother bringing my fly boxes onto the raft for the last two days. 
  • First, the locals know what works and what does not and their views are worth at least soliciting, if not following. If you are going with a guide, they should supply the flies as part of the trip cost. Trust their choices which should be in the money given they live on tips. 
  • Second, fly shops are in the business to sell stuff, including flies, so they are likely to give you a longer "this is working" list than needed. He judicious. 
  • Third, if you tie, there is next to nothing that I can tell you that will dissuade you from filling boxes with your work and bringing them. That is fine if you are DIY wading, have total control and need to rely on yourself. But would you have tied Chubby Chernobyl variants given the choice? 

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Posted (edited) · Report post

Just arrived in Ft.Lauderdale. Was able to sleep four hours between SLC and Boston, but not southbound. Long trip. 

This is my loadout which we can say was for 1.5 people given I had to bring gear and some clothes for my son as well. 

Note the Fishpond rod/gear bag, excellent design and there is a knockoff on Amazon for much cheaper than FP. This is packed with five 4pc rods, seven reels, a couple of spools and several fly boxes. 

The PVC tube is for the two 2pc rods that I shipped out ahead of time and schlepped back by plane. I really need to replace my 2pc GLX with a 4Pc.....


Edited by tomkaz

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Amazing post. Just forwarded to my friend who will be heading out west with us for the first time. That run that you mentioned on the Madison right below Slide brings back fond memories (and a reason to upgrade my 5wt reel!). For flies your right, but for me personally we wade 90% of the time so when we go out (especially on the Madison) so we usually bring our own flies to augment what we get from the shop.  We go the shops to get the dries that are working at that particular time, along with any particular nymphs. So I would say we go 40/60 on flies. I do stock up on Pat Rubber legs though, for some reason I go through so many of those!

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2 hours ago, FlyfishCT87 said:

Amazing post. Just forwarded to my friend who will be heading out west with us for the first time. That run that you mentioned on the Madison right below Slide brings back fond memories (and a reason to upgrade my 5wt reel!). For flies your right, but for me personally we wade 90% of the time so when we go out (especially on the Madison) so we usually bring our own flies to augment what we get from the shop.  We go the shops to get the dries that are working at that particular time, along with any particular nymphs. So I would say we go 40/60 on flies. I do stock up on Pat Rubber legs though, for some reason I go through so many of those!

Glad you found it helpful. 


One item I did not mention:



If you are going to be with a guide for your entire trip, you do not need a net, the guide will have one. If you are doing DIY wading, you REALLY have to consider a net if you think you will tangle with any large (18"+) trout. Taking a 6-12" trout to your bare hand to unkook is not a challenge, I did it with the 4-5 dinks I took behind the hotel while wading very quiet backwater. But anything larger and you need a net. 


Regarding nets, in the Northeast, my net of choice was your typical design with a short handle and a basket that was 8" wide and 18" long. Not sure now deep the net is but that will suit most needs and it is easy to pack in a duffle. HOWEVER, the short reach of that net might make it a bit more challenging if you are fishing from the bank and the fish is large. 


Net basket material - If you still use a net with a braided or twisted dacron, consider upgrading to the newer rubber nets or basket replacements that are kinder on the fish's slime layer and do not catch hooks. I cannot tell you the number of times that a netted trout spit the fly and it got caught on the rubber net of our guide's net. No problem, it does not dig in and it is easily removed. Or, the fly remained in the fish's mouth and the other fly got caught. Real aggravation avoidance going with rubber, and it is kinder on the fish. Also, the opaque/clear nets make for better backgrounds of "keep 'em wet" photos. 


If you look at photos, the nets used by guides are much larger than what I describe above. The baskets are usually a more triangular or tennis racquet shape and have a much longer handle. Not only in a drift boat, but even wading guides will use longer handles so that they can scoop the fish without having to get on top of it and you. The longer reach also reduces the need to put a serious bend in your rod to bring it in close. 


In the UK, the ghillies use the same size nets but with extendable handles, rather than the fixed handles used in the States. If I were a traveling angler and did not want to bring a 4 foot rod in luggage, I would investigate those type of designs. 





Edited by tomkaz

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One other suggestion - if you have an extra (old) fly line around the weight you plan to use, 5wt most likely, bring it with you either unspooled or spooled on another reel from your main. As I noted above or in the Montana thread, my old unadulterated GPX did not have sufficient mass up front to throw the big indicator and nymph with less than 10' out of the tip, which was at least half the casts. With an older line at hand, you have the option of chopping that one such that the tippet is being tied to the front of the belly rather than the skinny tip of the forward taper. Yes, this will forever change that line and its usability to throw flies delicately, but if it is an old "spare", you were not really using it anyway. 


Regarding the above, the candidate for alteration does not have to exactly match the line weight of the rod, it could be a size heavier. In fact, it might even be better a little heavier for loading with short amount out the tip. 


Beyond that, I belief that both RIO and SA produce trout-weight lines that are designed for throwing heavy loads ("chuck and duck"?) Another option is to buy one of those just before the trip off of Amazon, bring it with you, and if it remains unused upon your return home, return it. You send enough of your money to Bezos, the least he can do is accomodate that trip flexibility. 


In a related matter, I also bring with me an older STH reel that uses the plastic, quick-change spools. Basically a dust collector right now, I have one spool loaded with a nymph line and one loaded with a T200 full sinker. With those I can address a wide range of water conditions, not just limited by floating lines. 


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I just realized that @jerseystriper asked about accommodations and guides. Accomodations first. 


Specific to Missoula, I cannot think of a better venue that the DoubleTree Hotel which is on the banks of the Clark Fork. The hotel was given a major facelift in 1Q2019 with the majority of the money spent on the rooms. Fresh carpet and wallpaper for the lobby and hallways, but a complete redo for guest rooms. New furniture, paint, wallpaper, carpet and completely new bathrooms. While the baths might not be comparable to the Ritz Carlton, they are significantly better than anything at a chain motel, and they are all new/clean. 


I you consider the DoubleTree (a Hilton brand), try to secure a room with a river view. It costs a little more, but it is worth it in my opinion. Great for the view, but also the balcony gives you a place for a drink, smoke, etc. with a view that does not suck. Beats the parking lot rooms. 


I have stayed at this venue four times and have never really checked any others. Missoula does have a range of accommodations from B&Bs, chain hotels and AirB&B. Budget should be the major consideration after location. I used Hilton points for this trip and spent less than $500 cash for six nights. 


Missoula makes a great home base for the roaming angler (DIY wading) as well as for those who will be floating with a guide. Within 90 minutes you can fish the upper and lower stretches of the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Clark Fork, Rock Creek, etc. I am not sure of the actual distance (2+ hours?) but you can fish the Missouri from Missoula, if you don't mind an early start and late return. 


In the general area (i.e. within 90 minute drive), there are some half- and full-service lodges that offer accommodations and you can find them with a simple web search. No clue about pricing. 


Trivia bit: Out west, parts of rivers are referred to as forks, not branches. While the Northeast uses "branch" (i.e. West and East branches of the Delaware), out there it is forks. My guide kept correcting me and on the 3rd day I threw a $20 bill at him and told him to shutup and let me use "branch". :box:

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Guide planning:


Word of mouth/referral

Orvis network

Travel agency like Frontiers

Calling the best established shops in your target area


I originally me the guide I used in Missoula when I was there with an Al Caucci hosted trip. Chris Stroup was one of the guides and I was in his boat the first day and we hit it off. I requested to fish with him the balance of the time but did not get every day as Caucci likes to rotate anglers and guides. I did get him 3 out of 4 drift days. Caucci used a specific guide service out there whose name escapes me but the guy who runs it is Bill something.


The advantage of a hosted trip with Caucci or anyone is that they make all the arrangements. You partially pay for that in the fee package, but that is likely partially made up by a group discount. On the other hand, the host's costs and, possibly profit, should be considered. 


If I were doing the trip from scratch, I would first find the shop/services in town and research those. Then I would cross-reference that list with the approved service providers at Orvis, Frontiers, The Fly Shop and anyone else that is in the trip management business. From that point, you call. Personally, I would narrow down my list and check our prices for the time that I plan to be there. Then I would call the trip arrangers and see what their pricing might be. 


Finding a shop/service is part of the job, the other is finding a good guide. Like many of you, I have used dozens of guides over the years, some I have clicked with and others where it never worked. Angler/guide chemistry does not mean anything for a single excursion, but if you are going to be sharing a raft/boat with a guide for several days, you need to be comfortable. Without word of mouth or referrals, you have to rely on the local shop and I would not be shy about telling them what you are looking for in a guide. Things to consider discussing:

  • Your level of angling skill? Do you want/need instruction?
  • Your desired technique, i.e. dries only or whatever it takes to get a tug (I am in the latter camp)
  • Covering lots of water or going more slowly and methodically, possibly pulling over to wade to work a seam, run, riffle, etc.?
  • Food: deli meat and cheese sandwiches with a bag of chips eaten in the boat over 20 minutes? Or do you expect a table, linens, hot food and a scenic hour's rest? (I am the former, Al Caucci was the latter) 
  • Start and end times? Are you an early bird? Or do you anticipate needing to sleep in due to your typical night before? Do you want to fish any dusk hatches or back for cocktails at 6pm?
  • Level of conversation, humor, etc. (Stroup claims he has aspergers which allows him to recall entire comedy routines - we were regaled with Eddie Murphy, Richard Prior, and Dice Clay and I was howling. My 20yo son did not get most of it, laughed a half of it. 

The guide services know all their guides and can make an attempt to arrange guides and anglers based on some of the above. 


One other consideration - Do you want to share the raft/boat with a second angler? I do, always, because I either want to share the experience with one of my sons or just for the conversation. The main reason for being the sole angler is the upside to being in the front the entire time and being the only one getting shots at fish. That is a bit rare but we did see one couple fishing in two different drift boats. My guide said they come out every year and have so much money that doubling the costs is meaningless to them. Apparently they are also competitive and have bets between them on first, most, largest trout caught as well as a bonus for completing a Western Grand Slam. 


I hope this all helps. Let me know if you have questions. 


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