Regardless of the type or the number of flies you want to pack around, you need a place to keep them. That means you’re going to need a fly box, and probably more than one.
Over the years, I have progressed from one box for all my flies to one box apiece for my dry trout flies, my wet trout flies, my dry mayflies, my chironomids, and my Pacific salmon flies.
When I go out to fish, I only take the boxes I need for the species of fish, the type of water, and the time of year when I am fishing. This sounds like a lot of boxes, but it’s not. Some are very small boxes that hardly take up any room at all. Some, like my salmon fly box, are very big and barely fit in my largest vest pocket.
Fly boxes are really just simple containers to store your flies in, but depending upon the type of fly, you will want to store them in certain types or designs of fly boxes. Follow along with me and you will quickly understand what I mean.
Fly boxes are constructed of several different materials. Some are plastic, some are aluminum and others are made of wood. Some are even made of leather, although we don’t refer to them as boxes but rather as wallets.
Plastic fly boxes come in all kinds of colors and sizes. They are tough, inexpensive, and they float (which is a big advantage when you lean over, and the box falls out of your pocket into the water because you forgot to close the pocket).
Some plastic boxes come with good brass pin hinges, others go cheap and are just made of plastic pressure-fit, snap-together hinges. If you want to go cheap then it doesn’t matter which you choose, but if you want your box to last more than a season or two, check the hinge mechanism. Make sure it is sturdy and not just the cheap snap-together type, or worse yet the cheap one-piece flex hinge that breaks after a few flexes.
Some plastic boxes have clear lids on them, and some do not. A clear advantage to boxes like this (pardon the pun) is that the clear lid allows you to see in without opening the box; the disadvantage to this is that you lose half the storage space because one-half of the box is a window. The type you choose will depend upon how many flies of that type you want to pack around.
These boxes are tough and lightweight, and because they are metal, they have by far the widest array of mounting systems. Because of this and the cost of the material and manufacture, they are expensive, relatively speaking. Most also sink if you drop them in the water.
Wooden boxes can be beautiful. Some are real pieces of art in their own right and many artisan fly-fishers carve and/or engrave wood fly boxes and sell them. They are usually expensive and they require ongoing maintenance of the wood finish to prevent weathering and cracking. I own one. It was a gift for a talk I gave years ago to a fly-fishing club. It is laser engraved with my company name. It is far too beautiful to actually use, so it sits in my office. I love it, but I won’t use it.
Some boxes are now molded completely out of foam. They are great little boxes. They come in all kinds of sizes and are designed for dry flies, wet flies or have one side for each type. They float, too. Their disadvantage is that as you stick flies into the foam and pull them out again, the foam gets cut up. Sooner or later, the box gets so cut up that it becomes unusable; it just gets too damaged. You then have to throw it away because the whole box is made of foam and you can’t just stick a new piece of foam in it. The other disadvantage is that they are a bit pricey. Their magnetic closures can come unglued as well, which is a pain.
Dry Fly Boxes
Dry fly boxes are designed to hold your flies that are made to float. Floating flies very often have hackle that is tied to stand out and support the fly on the water through surface tension. If that hackle gets crushed, it will not float as well or as long. To avoid crushing the fly hackle, manufacturers have come up with a number of designs for mounting systems that allow the fly to either be held vertically in the box or float freely about.
Some boxes are divided up into many little compartments like a bait box or a miniature tackle box. Each compartment or group of compartments may or may not have a door on it. These are the boxes I prefer for my dry flies. Each compartment holds a number of flies, and they float freely in the compartment. If you go this route, make sure you get a fly box that has individual little doors that keep the sections closed. This prevents your flies from blowing away when you open the box in a breeze.
Here again, pay attention to the hinges on the little doors; get a box that has brass pins in the hinges. Do not just buy boxes that have cheap friction-held plastic knobs. Look for that feature in the main hinge of the box itself, too.
Upright Plastic Clips
Another design is the upright plastic clips box. This design uses vertical pincers (sort of like a miniature vice) to hold the fly at the bend of the hook thus keeping the fly off the surface of the box and preventing the hackle from being crushed. I find these boxes finicky and somewhat ineffective.
Similar to the plastic clips is a spring-mounted system. I haven’t seen these around in a while but I’m sure they are still out there. This design uses small coil springs (just like the spring inside a ballpoint pen) mounted at each end like a worm. You insert your fly between the coils of the spring at the bend in the hook. This is good in theory, but not so great in practice. I’d avoid these if you come across them. They also tend to rust.
This is the second-most common mounting system (maybe the most common) out there for dry flies. Simple and inexpensive, it works well. The foam sheet is glued into the box and the sheet itself looks like series of waves. You insert the point of your hook into the face of the wave and the hackle is held over the dip between the waves, preventing crushing. The only disadvantage is that over time, the more you insert and remove the flies, the more the foam gets torn up. Sooner or later, you have to replace the foam. But that is cheap to do and makes a great little off-season project.
Flat Foam Slits
This mounting system is simple and works well. As with other foam systems, the foam tears over time as hook points catch the foam. And again, the fly hackle is held above the box surface so it does not get crushed.
Wet Fly Boxes
Wet fly-box mounting systems don’t have to be concerned with crushing hackles, since the flies are designed to sink.
Some boxes (usually the aluminum ones) come with flat clips. They look like the clip on a ballpoint pen. You press the bend of the hook into the clip and the fly is held fast. This system has been around forever. It works well except for a couple of issues: the clips can be too large for really small flies, and sometimes if you aren’t careful, you can break off the point of your hook as you try to extract the fly from the clip.
Like the dry fly corrugated foam, the majority of wet fly boxes come with at least one side made up of flat foam. You simply mount your fly by pressing the point of the hook into the foam. Here again, the foam will get torn up over time and you will need to replace it sooner or later.
Some aluminum boxes have flat thin magnetic bars mounted on the box. You place the fly against the magnetic strip and it sticks. If you drop your box, closed or open, your flies will come detached and you can end up with a pile of flies in your box (or out of your box). Also, since the flies are held flat-sided, you lose a lot of space for storage, so cannot store nearly as many flies in a box compared to some other mounting systems.
I mentioned this earlier. It’s not actually a box as such, but a tri-fold wallet of leather with fleece on the inside. You hook your flies into the fleece and wrap the wallet closed. It actually works really well except that you absolutely must ensure that your flies are dry before you put them in the wallet, or they will not dry out and will rust (unless you are using stainless steel hooks). Also, if you are using barbless hooks, the wallet doesn’t hold them very well at all, since it relies on the barb to keep the hook in the fleece.
Don’t Go Cheap
One other point to note before I close is that you should not go cheap and simply buy the inexpensive clear hard plastic bait boxes you see in all the tackle shops. The hard, brittle plastic that these boxes are made of chemically reacts with the head cement that fly tiers use on their flies. The head cement melts the plastic, and you end up with a pile of flies all melted into the plastic box. That makes both useless. If you don’t tie your own flies, this can get very expensive very fast, because the average fly sells in the store for about $2.00 each or more.
So, now you are updated on the basics of fly boxes. Go browse through your local fly shop and check out all the different types and styles. Pay attention to the hinges; not much can go wrong with a basic fly box, but that is one thing that can.