Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review: Elkhorn Side Bag, from Emerger Fly Fishing

I love bags. No, you don't understand,  I really, really love bags and I like to think my obsession translates into expertise. I've long since given up on the vest as a viable fly fishing accessory, waist and chest packs don't really do it for me, and while the backpack certainly has it's place, the sweet spot for a normal day of fishing is a sling or side bag. I tend to like bells and whistles like attachment points and pocket dividers, and handmade, rugged products are always a plus, so at first glance, the Elkhorn Side Bag seemed like a good candidate. But how would it work on the water? Every fly fisherman knows that ideas that seem great on paper sometimes don't work so well in practice, so the only way to really know is to get your hands on something and (ab)use it.

So that's what I set out to do. Two years ago, out of a desire to provide lasting, handmade gear, Chris Freeman started producing handmade fly fishing bags from their home in Colorado. The son of a seamstress, Chris sews the bags himself and then does the leatherwork by hand.

My first decisions were either a dark olive green or a brown, and left or right side. The side you choose determines not only the placement of the net sleeve, but also the orientation of the optional leather creel-style strap. After some hemming and hawing, I chose a right side bag in brown. It wasn't so easy to decide, on the one hand, I wanted to get the bag away from my casting arm, and on the other, I didn't want it to interfere with stripping streamers, something I like to do regularly.

A few weeks later, the bag finally arrived. The first thing I noticed was the thickness of the canvas. I didn't even realize they made canvas this thick, and it was treated with a waxy coating that Chris later explained was Martexin Wax. The straps are a beautiful buttery brown vegetable tanned English Bridle leather, the clips and fittings are all solid brass, and the zippers are high quality YKK brand. The craftsmanship is very impressive, and clearly no corners were cut. The bag isn't lightweight by any means, but a classic bag like this isn't meant to be. It features one large compartment with 2 pockets on the front and the back for a total of four smaller pockets, perfect for a phone, small fly box, streamer wallet, leaders, etc. The separate front pocket was a perfect fit for my Umpqua Day Tripper fly box. Two versatile leather attachment points and two grommeted canvas on both sides of the bag allow for plenty of creative options to attach zingers, tippet spools, and the like.

I didn't have to wait long in order to put the bag to the test, albeit a somewhat unfair one. I was headed up into the Swiss alps for a scouting trip with a bit of fishing thrown in, a total of around 8 hours of hiking with 5000 feet of altitude gain, all in relatively lousy weather. More of a trip for a conventional backpack with a hip belt and padded straps, but I was eager to try out my new bag.

I filled the Elkhorn to the brim with a fly box, spare reel, leader wallet, phone, camera, wading jacket, an apple, sandwich, a 700ml water bottle, an aluminum net, EDC knife and my ever-present first aid kid/necessities bag of considerable size, slung the bag over my shoulder, and was off. Four hours of uphill marching later, I was pleasantly surprised at how the bag didn't shift while scrambling over rocks thanks to the creel-style strap and frankly amazed that my 28-inch long net never poked my legs or got in the way. It got the point where I kept reaching back to see if it was still there. The bag stayed nicely out of the way behind my back until I needed it, and when I did, I just unclipped the creel strap and swung the bag around to access tippet and flies. The creel strap also prevented the bag from swinging around while bending over to land a fish. (The creel strap is an optional upgrade to the bag, but I can't imagine not having it). We spent the entire day in a light drizzle, and the outside of the bag was soaked after a few hours. Inside however, was a different story. The  main compartment was dry while the outer compartment with the fly box was a little damp. I wouldn't be surprised if the water worked its way through the top zipper instead of the canvas. Had the bag been conventional nylon, I imagine my things would have gotten substantially wetter. My shoulder was a bit sore at the end of the day, but that was to be expected considering how much I packed into the bag. A week later I took it on a weekend guiding trip back up into the alps, got caught in a torrential downpour, and used it to shield my head from golf ball sized hail. Normally I baby new stuff a bit, but that simply wasn't possible on these last few trips with all the climbing and hiking and inclement weather.
Bags swinging around the front of my body when I lean over drive me nuts.
The creel strap kept the bag where I wanted it.

One of two attachment points for zingers and forceps and a closeup of the leather and the canvas.

The net sleeve in action, keeping the net out of the way until I needed it.

The bag on a sunnier day in the alps.

The complete package.
Fishing in a downpour without needing to worry about my phone inside the bag

Head protection from gold ball sized hail? Check.
And the matching streamer wallet....

Without a doubt, it's my new go-to fishing bag. It's comfortable, beautifully made, and I love the fact that it's a unique, handmade bag of impeccable quality. I can't wait to see what it looks like when it's well and truly broken in, but that'll take many years and even more fishing trips, so I had better get started....


  1. Very interesting read and great pictures!
    I didn't even know that handmade fly fishing bags are even a thing. If I read that right, it actually replaces a classic fly fishing chest pack for you. It definitely looks great and is a stylish accessory. Did I miss it or didn't you mention the price point of such an item? I might even getting myself something similiar! Since some time has passed, could you do an update of how it performed the last months?

    1. Thanks :)

      I used it pretty heavily for the past season, it's held together well. It's been a pleasure dealing with the guy who makes the bags. They start at around 190 and go up depending on desired extras.


    2. I have had one of these bags in Olive Green for well over a year now and fish a lot of rough, hard to get to spots for Native Brookies in WV and VA. This bag is well worth every penny and is made with outstanding craftsmanship. It is my go to bag with out question. If you buy one, you will not regret it. Many years of great fishing with this bag ahead.
      Tom K.