Even though it’s a balmy 12 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s almost spring and the sun is just rising above the pine trees in Northern Michigan. One of your buddies, the owner of the cabin in which you’ve stayed, silences the dinosaur-like furnace and shovels down a handful of bacon. He’s already got his waders on. Your other friend has a bagel hanging out of his mouth while he loads the cooler with a 15-pack of All Day IPAs, a six pack of tallboys, and some cold cuts.
You three, after hearing rumors of steelhead, woke up early with the explicit purpose of hitching up the drift boat and leaving the cabin (located on the banks of the upper Manistee) for its southerly neighbor: you’re headed to the Pere Marquette to test your luck on Lake Michigan chrome. As you go outside to start your late-model Explorer, you’re not sure if those things circling your head are BWOs or snowflakes, but it’s not long before you discern that these are the latter and you’re bummed that dry fly season will have to wait. The radio waves are full of early-morning talk shows and church music, and cell reception is spotty at best. Luckily you’ve got a playlist with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, and Chuck Ragan on the stereo, and now you’re pretty pumped to be a trout bum for the weekend.
As you run through your mental checklist, you should recall a number of must-haves for any successful DIY float/fly fishing trip. Some of these are obvious, and some of these are, well, maybe less-obvious but check ‘em out anyway! For starters, be sure to have regulation PFDs (i.e., floatation devices), fishing licenses, and first aid kits on you at all times. Crush your barbs, be sure to talk to folks at the local fly shop, and touch base with park rangers as needed. Now that that’s out of the way, don’t shove off without the following:
- Aquafor/Vaseline: when it’s freezing cold, the wind is violent, and any bit of exposed skin is cracked and chapped, throw on a glob of this stuff and you’re golden. Aquafor also works really well if your oars/paddles are making too much noise in the presence of spooky fish.
- Boat shoes/ankle boots: When you’re pulling up to a boat launch while soaking wet and needing to find the nearest tree, you’re probably not worried about getting out of our waders. But when you do, you’ll need something that’s comfortable, that’ll let your blood circulate (so you can FINALLY feel your toes again), and that’s easy-on-easy-off. In warmer weather, you can’t really go wrong with a busted or old pair of Sperry Topsiders. For those of us who are hesitant to look like a Kennedy who took a wrong turn Hyannis, consider a pair of rubber and neoprene boots such as those from XtraTuf or Simms.
- Double-walled Thermos: Yeti. Stanley. Hydroflask. You name it, it’ll work. There’s a premium on insulation, so having a well-insulated travel mug will do you a whole world of good. You’ll still lose some heat over the course of the day, so make sure you brew your coffee hot, and consider investing in an insulated sleeve or bringing a “dog bag” (see below).
- Gatorade Powder: If you’re like me, you’ll be so hyperfocused on “losing” a 30 lb steelhead (aka, a submerged stump) that you’ll probably forget to hydrate. If you’re like one of my friends, you’ll be so hyper-focused on beer that you’ll DEFINITELY forget to hydrate. In times like these, throw a packet of Gatorade powder into a water bottle and pump yourself full of that electrolyte-packed goodness.
- Packable down vest: Let’s face it. It’s colder than you’d anticipated, but it’s not worth throwing on an entirely different jacket. Pack a lightweight (“nano-puff”) style vest in your fishing bag, and you can pull it on in a snap when you need a few more inches of insulation. It’s been documented for nearly a century that up your core alone is (to an extent) sufficient to warm up your extremities.
- Cooler (and food and bevs): a decent cooler speaks for itself. If you don’t want to drop a paycheck on a Yeti Hopper, either a Stanley, Fishpond, or Dakine cooler (around 1000 cubic inches) will do a damn good job. Bang for your buck, people!
- Stuff for a shore lunch: If you’re one of those folks who likes a hot shore lunch with hot food, and hot coffee, and maybe a hot toddy, you’ll absolutely need fire starting materials. This includes a hatchet, some old newspaper, and (WINDPROOF/WATERPROOF) “emergency” matches. If you’re not confident in your firestarting skills, you can make (or buy) a tinder tin to take out the majority of your guesswork while on the move. What’s a tinder tin? Basically just a hamburger of flammable materials (an egg carton filled first with a few wood chips, then sawdust, then dryer lint) that you can use to hold a flame when you’re too cold to manipulate your own fingers.
- Cast iron skillet/Dutch oven: Most people can find one of these kicking around in their parents’ basement, but if you can’t, go get one of these (from Lodge brand). Keep it seasoned and don’t use a harsh soap, and it’ll last forever. They speak for themselves. I’m pretty sure that Hemingway would have used one of these to cook himself some “Trout au Bleu.”
- A good knife: While I’m a huge fan of Opinel knives, I find them to be somewhat delicate pieces of machinery and not the best choice when you can’t feel your hands. In full disclosure, I won’t hesitate to take out my Opinel if I’m filleting a piece of meat, or if I’m doing some ‘precision’ cutting, but when I’m in the outdoors and I need a knife that can take some serious torsion and abuse (read “bushcraft”), I use my Morakniv 11863 Companion. It holds an edge longer than any other blade that I’ve owned, and I have absolutely put this thing through the ringer. It’ll run you about 20 bucks at LL Bean or REI, and roughly half that on Amazon, but like a good cast iron skillet the Mora knife will last you a lifetime. I keep one on my wading belt and one on my pack, and I keep one as a boot knife when I’m in the field.
- Head lamp: Early-morning departures mean low light conditions, and this means that it’s hard to see your knots, it’s tough to see what’s kickin’ around in your trailer or truck bed, and it’s difficult to see black ice on the driveway. Buy a cheap head-lamp and keep it in your pack or glove box. You’ll use it, eventually.
- Boat bag: A relatively large (but not unwieldy) boat bag is a must-have. I recently bought a waterproof Filson duffle bag which has been an absolute game changer: for a group of three, this bag fit all of our ‘dry’ foods, cell phones, hard shells, a first aid kits, two spools of mono (which, as a lifelong striper fisherman, I’m not ashamed to admit I still use to construct butt sections), two spare reels, an extra Skagit Kit, fishing gloves, a boat box (for streamers), and a gallon of water. One of my buddies (what’s up, John), after opening up this duffle said something along the lines of “well shit, that thing is cavernous.” Yeti, Fishpond, and Patagonia make comparable models, and they’re all cheaper than having to buy a brand new cell phone because yours went for a swim. Added bonus is that they float.
- Wet bag: This goes without saying. Grab one (even a small one) by Sea to Summit, and fill it with whatever dry goods you have. These things also work great as stuff sacks.
- Dog bag: So you might be asking yourself “yo, what’s a dog bag?” It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a bag for dogs. Now, even if you don’t have a dog (as I, at present, do not), give this some consideration. Mountainsmith makes a “K9 Cube” which I snagged on a whim for a number of reasons: it’s got a waterproof liner, a zippable drop-down “work” tray in the front, collapsible waterproof bowls, dividers, mesh pockets on the side (one with bungees), an easy-access sleeve on the top, and a padded shoulder strap. This basically means that it’s an insulated travel pack for food and other fishing needs. My Thermos stays warm on the inside while my 1L Hydroflask bottle stays cold on the outside; I can partition my streamer boxes from my nymph boxes, and keep everything in order; I have a secure spot to store garbage (and garbage bags); a see-through panel lets me display my fishing license while keeping it dry in the interior; a zip-closure lets me keep all of my pre-made leaders tangle-free; I can stuff my face with food from one of the built-in bowls, while using the other built-in bowl as a cup holder-slash-work tray when rigging up.
GO GET ‘EM!
Follow Vince on Instagram at @vindianabones
New England native and PhD student at the University of Michigan. I throw heavy streamers on sinking tips. Quality over quantity, any day of the week.