Fishing and PFDs: Life savers — Part 1

Today's neck-saving wearables aren't the bulky, ungainly things of yesteryear
The Ronny Fisher PFD from Astral Designs
The Ronny Fisher PFD from Astral Designs (photo: Todd Tanner).

A few years ago, while I was wade fishing Montana’s Missouri River on a windy January day, I was struck from behind by a huge, slow-moving ice flow and pushed out into a deep channel maybe a hundred yards from the nearest bank. I went under a couple of times as I tried to swim in my waders and a heavy, sodden insulated jacket, and if not for the help of a fellow angler, it’s unlikely I would have survived.

Looking back, I made a couple of major mistakes that day. Perhaps the biggest was that I wasn’t wearing a personal floatation device. A PFD, or “life jacket,” can help keep your head above water in a survival situation. Having been there myself, I can honestly say that keeping your head above water is incredibly important. After all, it’s far less likely you’re going to drown if you’re breathing air instead of water.

Sadly, most anglers - including yours truly - are hesitant to wear PFDs. A lot of us, and especially those of us with a little gray in our beards, have memories of really crappy life jackets from our younger days. I’d no more fish in one of those ungainly orange PFDs with the tangle of white straps and D-rings than I’d take a Zebco push-button combo on my next fly fishing trip to the Beaverkill or the Henry’s Fork.

The good news, though, is that there are some truly excellent PFDs available for anglers right now and they seem to fall into two major categories — fishing vest/life jacket hybrids and inflatables. Part one of this story will look at the hybrids.

Part One: Hybrid Life Jackets

Hybrid life jackets are a cross between a fishing vest and a traditional PFD that you’d wear for canoeing, rafting or water skiing. They’re simple to use and ready to go once you’ve adjusted the straps to fit your body size and type. In addition, they offer storage for on-the-water necessities like flies, tippets, nippers, forceps, etc. Here are three different fishing-specific life jackets that make the cut.

The Ronny Fisher from Astral Designs
When I asked my buddy Tim, who is both a world-famous angler and a serious white water enthusiast, which PFD he would recommend, he immediately pointed me towards the “Ronny Fisher." It has built-in floatation front & rear, a mesh interior, a beefy front zipper, and a bright yellow hood with reflective patches that stows in the collar until you need it. Two large vertical front pockets with drain holes can each hold a medium sized fly box, and they also open into handy little work platforms. There’s a flap-protected area for tool storage (nippers, forceps, etc.), a small drink holder, a couple of thin exterior pockets for leaders & tippets, and several small D-rings and attachment tabs/hoops.

I fished and rowed my drift boat while wearing the Ronny Fisher and found it to be lightweight, comfortable and extremely well-designed. It’s available in three sizes and it’s easy to fine tune the fit with the shoulder and side straps. The divided foam in the back definitely increases the comfort, and the materials seem sturdy and top-of-the-line. All in all, the Ronny Fisher from Astral Designs is a stellar life jacket/fishing vest. Highly recommended.

The Lure Angler PFD from Old Town
The Lure Angler PFD from Old Town (photo: Todd Tanner).

Lure Angler PFD from Old Town
I grew up paddling around in Old Town canoes so it wasn’t really a big surprise to learn that Old Town also makes PFDs for fishermen. The “Lure Angler” sounds like it’s designed for gear folks, but it also works well for those of us who fly fish. There’s floatation in the front and back - the back floatation is up high so it doesn’t interfere with a kayak or drift boat seat - along with a cool mesh interior, a heavy front zipper and an additional quick-release snap closure. The pockets are large and useful, with drain holes and mesh containers for leaders & tippets, and you’ll notice a deep vertical pocket where you could stash a waterproof cell phone or GPS. There are also a ton of little tabs for forceps, and a D-ring for your nippers.

I had no problem at all casting or rowing in the “Lure Angler.” It was easy to adjust to my personal dimensions and very comfortable to wear. Oh, and if you prefer to use an exterior fly patch - which I do - this particular PFD comes with a replaceable foam fly patch. The Old Town PFD is available in three different sizes and it should satisfy even the most demanding angler.

Calcutta PFD from MTI
MTI’s Calcutta is a one-size-fits-all hybrid life jacket/fishing vest that should be a particularly good choice for budget-conscious anglers. It comes with floatation front & back, padded neoprene shoulders, easy-to-adjust straps on the sides, and quick-release buckle closures on the front. There’s a large zippered pocket with drainage and pliers storage on the left front, a fold-down platform with a small zippered pocket and a mesh pocket on the right front, several large D rings, and a couple of un-lined handwarmer-type pockets with velcro closures. The Calcutta also comes with an integrated whistle that you can use in the event you find yourself floating in the water and trying to get the attention of a potential rescuer.

It was easy to row, and fish, while wearing the Calcutta. It was comfortable, simple to adjust, and it had enough minimalist storage in the front to be useful. All in all, this is a solid choice for folks looking for a well-made and well-designed angling PFD that won’t break the bank.

This is Part One of Life Savers, in Part Two, we take a look at inflatable PFDs.


A few years ago, I was fishing the Moose River at ice out wearing an inflatable life vest. I waded deeply and the vest was activated. It floated me enough to lift my feet off the bottom. Off I went. While drowning wasn't going to happen, hypothermia certainly did, and between the difficulties of climbing out over the ice and snow and struggling the half mile or so back to my truck, it was damn near fatal. I won't wear an inflatable while wading again.