Getting out after sport fish or ducks is a lot of fun, but it does involve being near – or on – the water; often you’ll be in a small boat, on your own or moving around at dawn. That means there’s always a risk, and to eliminate that you need a good fishing vest. If you’re having your canine buddy tag along, be sure to also have him wear a dog life jacket. The good news is that if you pick the right one you can gain some handy extra storage for your gear.
Are you wondering if the Stohlquist Fisherman is up to the task of stalking muskies, or even some early morning duck hunting? Don’t! This vest looks like it was designed by the Navy SEALs making it our pick for best fishing life vest. It’s neat, low profile and tough – the shell is heavy duty Cordura, with a softer oxford lining for comfort – and packs in plenty of buoyancy. There are two generous chest panels and a back panel that’s set high to keep it clear of seat backrests in a boat or the cockpit of a kayak. Open sides leave you with full arm movement, and plentiful adjustment straps – two each side plus one on each shoulder – make it really easy to get a perfect fit.
It’ll keep you afloat, but will it hold all the tackle you need close to hand? Yes, definitely. There are two large front pockets, with stiffened front panels that unzip and fold down to form work surfaces – retaining straps will hold them horizontal, so you can work with hooks, shot or other terminal tackle without needing extra hands. It’s a real bonus for fly fishing. They’re not just plain pockets either. Each of them has an open inner pocket and a zippered mesh pocket, plus looks to hold hemostats, pliers or other tools. As a final neat touch the front panels are lined with a Velcro loop surface, so you can stick fly blocks to them. Each of the pockets has plenty room for small tackle boxes, compact radios and other essentials. Then each chest panel has an elastic loop for a whistle or compact flashlight, and a slotted hardpoint with an elastic strap ready fitted. There is absolutely no shortage of places to stow your gear.
The Fisherman comes in two color options. The most popular is a discreet cactus green that won’t startle any wildlife. There’s also a bright yellow option with reflective strips front and back; that’s probably your best choice if you’ll be on open water.
Most fishermen like a vest with lots of storage, but if you’re a minimalist or need something ultra-sleek for working in really tight spots, something like the Fisherman might be a bit too bulky. The Onyx could be ideal for you in this situation. It’s simply a lightweight harness with a waist belt, back straps and two chest straps like the ones on a rucksack. However inside the right strap is a canister of compressed carbon dioxide; pull the T-handle at the bottom of that strap, or fall in the water, and it will instantly inflate into a Coast Guard-approved flotation vest. If you hunt or fish in hot weather this will keep you cooler than any conventional vest. Because of it’s compact size, the Onyx almost makes for a great kayak PFD and sailing PFD as well.
The NRS “Chinook” fishing PFD is one of the most comfortable fishing life vests you will ever put on. Available in 3 sizes and having 8 adjustment points, this PFD will fit almost any person. It’s great for fly fishing, kayak fishing, canoe fishing (pretty much any type of fishing), and even white water rafting. Using waders? The Chinook can be worn over them just fine. The mesh high back is designed to sit above a kayak perfectly. This is one well designed life vest for fishing since all pockets (there are 7) seem to be placed at the optimal spots. The only negatives we’ve seen are that some users think the pockets are a bit on the small side and it has a tendency to get a bit warm behind the front panels. Also, while the vest actually feels a bit more comfortable than the Stohlquist, the material doesn’t feel quite as durable. A fantastic vest nonetheless.
The Osprey doesn’t look like a life vest at all; it has a really military look, with a total of seven pockets and a row of shell loops on the left breast. It’s also only available in camo or khaki, over black mesh. Underneath the tactical exterior it’s a fully functional flotation device, though, complete with zip, two-buckle straps and plenty of adjustment. Like the Stohlquist it’s also shaped for comfort when sitting in a kayak. If your main priority is gear storage this one is hard to beat – although the pockets aren’t as flexible as the Fisherman’s there are more of them.