6 Tips For Flying To Fish

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Photos by Louis Cahill

Photos by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

When fly-fishing means flying to fish, there are a few simple things that can make it a lot more enjoyable.

Let’s face it, air travel is an ordeal these days. Even more so when it involves traveling with a bunch of fishing gear. I should know, I do it all the time. While there is no silver bullet to turn back the clock to the days before baggage fees, air rage and the dreaded TSA, there are some things you can do to make it easier and even work the system.

I’m pretty OCD about air travel. I minimize the stress of the situation by over preparing and being early for everything. I know, however, that my personal travel habits don’t work for everyone so I’m going to cut out the minutia and give you some tips which I think can apply to most traveling anglers.

Here are 6 tips for flying to fish.

Know the rules

IMG_0308The rules for air travel change from place to place and even by airlines or tickets. While most airports and airlines have relaxed quite a bit since the knee-jerk security reaction to 9/11, there are still times when carrying fish gear onto a plane just won’t fly. For example, Argentina does not allow any fishing gear on planes. No rods or reels, no lines or flies. Everything must be checked right down to your 6X tippet. You can fly into the country with your gear in hand but it will have to be checked when you leave and if you didn’t plan for that, it can be a real challenge.

In general, checking gear is not that risky. You’ll want your rods in tubes inside your luggage or in dedicated travel cases. It’s smart to put reels in their original boxes or stuffed into wading boots. The biggest issue you have to worry about is lost bags. The best way to avoid that is to fly direct whenever possible. If you do carry gear onboard it’s best to get yourself into an early boarding group and be at the front of the line. The difference between a good day and a bad one is an open overhead bin. Be polite to your flight attendants as they have some discretion on what happens to carry-ons.

Pack light and smart

Checked bags

IMG_5491Extra fees for overweight bags can kill your budget and who needs to carry all of that weight anyway? You probably need less than you think. I start saving weight by carrying a duffle bag rather than a heavy rolling bag. Less weight in the bag means you can carry more gear. If you are headed somewhere remote, you may find yourself on a flight with weight restrictions well under those of major airlines. If that limit is in the 30-pound range, a rolling bag eats up a big chunk of that. I like waterproof, roll-top duffles for when I find myself in some remote location and bad weather.

If you are checking a bag with gear, planning to wash out some clothes on your trip will make room for things like waders and boots. You can save weight on rod tubes by swapping tubes. For example, I have several rods with carbon fiber tubes. I don’t always fly with those rods, but those tubes carry plenty of rods that came in heavier tubes. I’ll also use a large tube from one of my saltwater rods to carry two trout rods.

Anything with zippers, especially zip-front waders, should always be packed unzipped! If a zipper gets folded while zipped, and then is subjected to pressure from stacked bags, it will fail and you will be sad. Trust me, I spent a week of winter steelheading in open waders. No fun.


I have a couple of carry-on bags I truly can’t live without. Both happen to be made by Fishpond. The rod and reel case is a game changer when you’re traveling with standard length, single-hand rods. I regularly load this case with six rods, four reels, two fly boxes, sunglasses and and my audio recorder. There are plenty of zippered pockets for odds and ends. In addition I carry a roll-top backpack, which is waterproof. This carries my camera, in its case, my computer, headphones, snacks and anything else that doesn’t fit in the rod and reel case. Once I get to my destination, this bag is repurposed as my boat bag.

Managing wet gear

IMG_1640Flying home from a fishing trip almost always means you are traveling with wet gear. Not only is this messy, it adds a surprising amount of weight to your bags. That bag which was a few pounds under the limit going out, can be over coming home. I’ve learned a good trick to deal with wet wading boots. I tie them on the roof of the car for the drive to the airport. This usually has them pretty dry when I arrive. Ring out wet clothing in a towel and be sure to have some plastic bags for gear that has to be packed damp. Always unpack anything wet as soon as you get home. Mildew kills expensive items like waders.

Check in early

Most folks use mobile apps to manage their flights these days. This gives you the opportunity to check in for your flight as soon as possible. This is a good idea for a couple of reasons. In the event that passengers are forcibly bumped from flights, it usually happens to the last folks to check in. This isn’t always bad, and I’ll get into that soon. The other reason is that, if you are eligible for an upgrade, checking in early puts you at the front of the list. I get bumped to first class fairly often this way.

Get your perks

I’m a big believer in loyalty. It pays off for me. I fly Delta for almost all of my travel. Not because I think they are necessarily the best airline, but because it works for my needs. Living in Atlanta, I can fly almost anywhere on a direct flight with Delta. They aren’t always the cheapest but I make up for it with miles. My wife and I have taken some pretty nice vacations with our Skymiles and they do get you some marginal status with the airline, like those upgrades. I use the Delta credit card, which gets me two free checked bags and guarantees that I board in Zone One.

Plan to get bumped

Not everyone has the stomach for this one, but I have seriously stretched my travel budget by being bumped from flights. I went to the Bahamas five times on one ticket. That’s worth a little inconvenience to me. At first it might seem a little scary to give up your seat on a flight, but once you understand the system, and your rights, it’s easy to plan for and can really pay off.

IMG_3984The first thing you need to understand is the difference between volunteering to give up your seat and being taken off a flight against your will. I’m not talking about being beaten and dragged off a plane, although that’s a goal for me, but simply not having the option to take the seat you have paid for.

I was forced off of a flight out of Jackson Wyoming a few years back. There was a film crew booked on the flight with a lot of heavy equipment. Jackson was hit by a brutal heat wave. Being a high altitude airport with a short runway, as temperatures rise, weight limits for aircraft drop dramatically. By the time the flight boarded fourteen people were bumped off of the flight for weight restrictions. As I had not checked in early, I was one of them.

A representative of the airline came out to speak with us as our airplane taxied away. She gave us two options. Option one was to volunteer to give up our seats. We were assured that as volunteers the airline would take the best care of us, seeing that we went out on the next available flight, were given vouchers for $20 worth of airport food, and a flight voucher for the cost of our original ticket. If we were not able to fly out that day, we would be put up at a hotel.

Option two, we were bumped against our will. We would be flown to our destination, but we were on our own. No meal vouchers no hotel. We were each presented with paperwork and asked to choose and sign. Everyone volunteered but me. What was the difference? I read the paperwork. Here’s what they didn’t tell anyone. Being bumped against my will, the airline was legally obligated to pay me three times the cost of my ticket, up to $1800. Not Delta dollars but US dollars. They were also legally obligated to fly me out on the next available flight.

IMG_1528You should have seen the faces of the other thirteen passengers when the representative came back with their travel vouchers and my check for $1800. Even better, you should have seen their faces that afternoon when we all boarded the same plane. The moral of the story? Read the paperwork.

Volunteering to give up your seat can be a great deal too. I do it all the time. I book popular morning flights, but I keep my travel schedule flexible. Flights are commonly overbooked and, especially after the United debacle, airlines are eager to pay to free up seats. On my last flight out of Key West I gleaned a $1000 travel voucher for five hours spent in the Key West airport. I used the time to write three articles and the voucher toward a flight to Argentina. Everybody wins. What’s more, I was only offered $800 for my seat. So where did the extra $200 come from? I was polite to the gate agent and made his job easy. More flies with honey, you know.

Sure, air travel is a hassle but with a little planning it can be a lot easier and even more fun.

I hope these tips help you make more of your travel budget and your travel days less stressful. there are lots of ways to work with the system rather than against it, and while I’d never tell you to purposefully destroy the magnetic strip on your credit card, I will say that if the flight attendant’s PDA will not read your card, you will get free drinks. Or so I’m told.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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13 thoughts on “6 Tips For Flying To Fish

  1. I carried fishing tackle on a flight for the first time in 1970. During my working life I travelled up to 30 weeks a year for seventeen plus years and worked in seven countries out side of Oz so I have done a few million kilometres in aircraft. I have been retired for 19 years and most years I have done three trips which have ranged from seven hours to twenty plus hours in the air.

    A thing I have done for years is have a packing list for each destination and adjust it for each trip. I price the list and it also becomes a list for lost luggage claims. Total value for the checked bag can be AUD15,000+ depending on what rods and reels I take and I usually travel with 5 or 6 outfits plus spare spools. So far I have had only one 20 minute wait at lost baggage as I put the staff into overdrive when I produced the list with the intention of making a claim. Cheers BM

  2. the “plan to get bumped” one is great, never thought of that

    Last time I was in Cayman they wouldnt let me carry on back to the USA (very explicitly stated in signage at the airport). Weirdly, TCI, also a Brit territory, had no problem with it. The Belizean security guys werent happy with the pair of scissors I left in the rod bag, but other than that they didnt care.

    those rod and reel travel bags that orvis/simms/fishpond etc make are total game changers. I traveled to TCI with basically a small fly shop as my carry on.

  3. Terrific article! Great tips. I HATE commercial air travel these days but there’s no getting around it when there’s fishing to be done. Any ideas that make flying more palatable are greatly appreciated.

  4. I’ve had surprisingly little trouble taking all of my core fishing gear, including boxes of flies, in carry-on on domestic flights. I usually have a fishpond Dakota and fishpond Westwater lumbar pack. The Westwater is great for double duty as carry-on and fishing pack — big and roomy inside. Once in Fort Myers, they took a close look at a couple pairs of pliers in the Dakota, asked what they were, then waved me through. But it’s a bit stressful until you’re in your seat with gear in the bin. I always half expect to have my gear nabbed and checked at the gate, which seems like the worst case scenario.

  5. Incredibly helpful, thank you for sharing these tips.
    Does TSA ever get cranky about having flies as a carry-on, particularly the larger saltwater hooks? I’m always worried that I will pack my flies for my trip as carry-on just to have them all confiscated.

  6. Great tips. Another thing that can sometimes work is to take an oversized/overweight bag as a carry-on. If you can schlep it to the boarding gate an attendant will insist that you check it as baggage (as they should). Because the plane is boarding and time is of the essence, no fee will be charged. I was able to avoid a $200 air freight bill (from Souix City to Minneapolis) this way.

  7. Great post as always!

    Another tip-

    If u are carrying on rods- especially spey rods- ask flight attendant if u can place the rod/s in the coat rack/closet.

    It works for me and then u don’t have to fight for bin space

    • Great tip, I’m flying with switch rods in two weeks and was trying to figure out the best way to have them stored without checking them. I will definitely remember this.

  8. After watching the ground crew unloading the plane place rod cases on the carts and then pile luggage on top of the rods (resulting in one broken rod) I always carry on the rods. We did have our rods taken away from us on a flight out of Canada – because “You could strangle someone with that fly line.” And, of course, they “lost” one of my rods for a few days. When the airlines gives the ground crew instruction (and orders) on how to pack and unpack rods, then, maybe, I’ll agree to check the rods.

  9. Great tip on putting the rod cases in the coat closet, especially when you have some favorite 2-pc rods. Don’t that many times. One caution, though. Write a sticky note and put it on your forehead, reminding yourself to retrieve the case when you deplane. Twice I was already in the airport when I realized I forgot my rods. And getting back on the plane to retrieve them was not an easy task.

  10. On a recent trip to Bolivia my buddy and I opted for lightweight duffels, due to weight restrictions on a domestic flight to the jungle. As we waited for our bags to come off our international flight, my buddy’s roll top duffel came down the carousel – with the top unfastened. Looks like security opened it for inspection and did a half-a@@ed job of fastening it up. Too many complicated straps for security people…. Lucky he didn’t lose everything he brought. My zippered duffel was fine.

  11. Great article!
    I learned the hard way about checking the rules r.e. carry-ons in any country where a connecting flight occurs. Rather than boarding the connecting flight, you must exit the airport, pass customs, re-enter, then check your “illegal” carry-on at the ticket desk. Tough sh++ if you miss your flight!

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