Backcountry Fly Fishing Essentials

What should you have on you when fly fishing the High Sierra backcountry? Even if going out just for a day, here are some suggestions.

First, assume you are going to get wet. So start off by wearing clothes that dry quickly. Quick dry long pants and long sleeve shirts will keep you cool, help protect you from the sun, and, of course, they dry fast. Also, your undergarments should be quick dry as well. Avoid cotton and other materials that dry slowly. A wide brim hat and sun-buff will help keep the sun off of you. Always carry your ID and, of course, your fishing license. And wear polarized sunglasses with good UV protection.  If venturing off more than a couple of miles from the trailhead, I'll carry a rain jacket and beanie just in case.

I generally wet wade in the backcountry. I prefer lightweight rubber-sole fishing boats over thin neoprene booties that also serve as gravel guards. No spikes needed. I avoid felt soles as they can be quite slippery on trail and on grass banks. I almost always carry and use a wading staff when creek fishing.

Kurt fishing an alpine creek in the eastern sierras. Photo by Jeff Evans.

Carry plenty of drinking water! A camel pack full of water will last you all day. In hotter months, fill it full of ice cubes and top it off with water... keeps you nice and cool. My camel pack offers just enough storage for lunch and more. Aside from bringing your lunch and snacks with you, put in a few energy bars for extra fuel.

Carry some suntan lotion, sun protect/medicated chapstick, bug repellant, and tush wipes. I like single-use packaging for these but travel size would do. I also carry a few aspirin and ibuprofen tablets.

Carry a small 2-way satellite communicator with you, preferrably one which automatically sends your location to a tracking site at regular intervals. I recommend sending a "parked here" message wherever you exit your vehicle. This can serve as a waypoint for you to find your vehicle if you get turned around a bit. Also carry your cell phone with you... loaded ahead of time with appropriate maps, waypoints, routes, etc.. When in backcountry, be sure to occassionally set additional waypoints to not only help you return to your vehicle but to help you return to newly discovered fishing hot spots.

Carry a small LED headlamp and/or flashlight. LEDs, especially at low output settings, use very little power so last longer. Also carry an SOS whistle.

As I practice Keep Fish Wet, I carry a small catch & release net. I also carry a fly-fisher's debarbing pliers/scissors tool.  I also have a pair of nippers or two handy.

I carry two spare leaders (4x and 5x 9' trout leaders) and plenty of tippet (3X, 4X, 5X). Most of the time, 4X is fine as backcountry fish are pretty eager to take whatever throw at them. In the meadows with thin flows, you might need to pop down to 5X. I carry 3x just in case I need to rebuild a leader. I do not recommend using 6X or lighter tippet... unless you just like losing fish and flies.

My fly box typically has many different sizes and colors of just a few patterns. See my Eastern Sierra Fly Box article for suggestions. As I'm a dry fly nut, that's typically all I carry. If you plan to nymph in the backcountry, be sure to carry a few large dry flies and/or small bobbers to float them... and some non-toxic weight to sink them.

Unless you treat all you dry flies at home with floatant, you'll want to carry a bottle or two of floatant. I prefer a silicon based formulas as they are temperature stable. A little goes a long ways. I generally carry two bottles, one specifically formulated for CDC flies and a standard formula.  I also an amadou fly dryer and some shake-n-bake... that is, bottle of desiccant and power floatant.

I use a small chest pack to hold my fly fishing gear. This works well with my camel pack.

As I'm a dry fly nut, I'll be fishing with one of my full-flex dry fly presentation rods. If little to no wind, I'll likely be using my 7.5' 1-weight. If mild wind, I'll use my 8.5' 3-weight. In heavy wind, I tend to stay home... but I do have a 8.5' 5-weight as well. I use that more on local rivers holding larger fish. If you are new to the sport, you might own just one rod... probably a 9' 5-weight rod with floating line. That will catch fish just fine... just don't set too hard or you might get smacked in the face with a trout.

Before heading out, be sure to tell someone where you are going and when to expect you back! And when you do get back, let that someone know you are back.

This article was authored by Kurt Zeilenga, current President of the High Sierra Fly Casters. If you have suggestions on how to improve this article, you may contact Kurt at

Additional reading:

Need advice on what kit to buy?  The club offers free mentoring to its members.