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November 19, 2001

Thinking Out of the Box - How To Manage Your Tackle in an Unmanageable Age

Sooner or later, the writer Ambrose Bierce once warned, most of us become possessed by our possessions. Nowhere is that more evident than in saltwater fishing...

Sooner or later, the writer Ambrose Bierce once warned, most of us become possessed by our possessions. Nowhere is that more evident than in saltwater fishing. The world has become smaller, but our choices greater. In a month, we can fish for a myriad of species in a variety of places that our grandfathers could only dream about. Years of economic boom and technological advances have given us an arsenal of tackle unheard of even a few decades ago. Information overload? How about tackle overload? Don’t Moan - OrganizeFortunately, tackle-box manufacturers have risen to the occasion - though the term ''tackle box'' just might not cut it anymore. Today’s term, appropriately high-tech-sounding, is ''tackle management systems.'' These gaudy bags and boxes, loaded with pockets and flaps and straps and all sorts of extras, have supplanted the homely tackle box - you remember, those rectangular, hard things that looked something like overgrown lunch buckets. ''Tackle management systems'' may be a reach: When all is said and done, they remain just souped-up bags and boxes. But it’s not all spin, either; manufacturers have made some serious changes and innovations in the past decade. The heavy wooden tackle boxes once common on partyboats have practically become museum pieces; simple metal and plastic boxes that did yeoman service on jetties, oceans and bays 10 or 20 years ago begin to look like campy antiques. The keystone of modern tackle storage is the clear, plastic utility box originally developed by Plano Molding Co., the Illinois granddaddy of American tackle-box companies. Now a host of other companies also offer the utility box in a variety of sizes and styles. No apples versus oranges or Apple versus PC problems here: All the manufacturers offer standard sizes that can be used interchangeably. The workhorses of the fleet are the 3700 (sometimes called 370), 13 ß inches long by 9 1/8 inches wide by 2 inches high; and the slightly smaller 3600 (or 360), 11 inches long by 7 1/4 inches wide by 1 3/4 inches high. These, like most other utility boxes, have compartments that can be configured in a number of ways to hold various-sized lures, rigs and terminal tackle. Combined with soft-sided tackle bags, they have revolutionized the dreary but necessary business of tackle drayage, much as modular, containerized freight changed the shipping industry years ago. Different types of tackle can be stored in different utility boxes, which can be switched in and out of a soft bag to customize each trip. What’s Your Bag?Although modern hard-plastic tackle boxes and soft-sided bags have their pros and cons, soft-sided bags have skyrocketed in popularity on salt water in the past decade. ''Nowadays we’re just blessed with having the convenience of the new softpack-type bags,'' says Bill Boyce, a professional photographer (and frequent contributor to Sport Fishing) from Southern California who spends about half the year traveling and fishing around the world. ''Because the bags have drawers [boxes] that slide in and out, if you’re going to go fish the flats, you just pull out the drawers of all your offshore stuff and throw in the drawers with all your inshore stuff. It’s almost like having a customized tackle box for each trip. You don’t have to have a huge tackle box that holds everything. You can have one of these softpacks that hold three or four boxes, and just grab what you need. I’ve always got one utility box filled with my terminal tackle - hooks, swivels and weights - that pretty much stays with me the whole time because you can use that stuff inshore and offshore. I typically have heavy jigs in one box and light jigs in another box, and then a Rapala-type box for crank baits.''Other things besides versatility and quick-change artistry make soft-sided bags attractive. They’re light and easy to carry, especially with the shoulder straps that nearly all have. A couple of new ones - from Angler Sports in California and G.Loomis in Washington - can be worn as backpacks, completely freeing an angler’s hands whether traveling, wading, surf casting or hopping on a boat. Compact, they’re easily stowed in tight quarters and readily accessible, although they hold less than most bags, of course. ''Some guys carry way more than they need,'' says William Soto, one of Angler Sports’ founders. ''I take this on half-day and three-quarter-day trips, load it to the hilt, and it’s much easier to carry around. I can swap out the four 3600 boxes on the bottom, and I put my jacket and boots in the top compartment.''Most soft bags and packs come with pockets for extra storage, and a few feature extra doodads, such as rod holders and water bottles. Among the most useful extra storage pockets, especially for long-distance travelers: a large compartment on top that can accommodate extra reels and spools of line. Some offer flaps for protection from the weather - something to look for if you plan to fish from an open boat. Though versatile, one bag won’t necessarily fit all, suggests Mike Huffman, saltwater and fly-fishing product specialist for Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World at its headquarters in Missouri. ''First of all, you’ve got to think about what type of fishing you’ll be doing and what size lures you’ll be using,'' he says. ''Ninety percent of the people are not doing big-game marlin fishing. It’s not real accessible. What we’re seeing a big increase on is inshore fishing - guys that have a bass boat and start taking it out on bays, and eventually they get a bay boat when they get addicted.'' Such anglers would usually be better off with smaller bags more suited for shorter trips and smaller boats, he advises.Someone who takes long-range trips would naturally want a much bigger bag than someone who frequently goes on half-day trips, adds Patrick Gee of HYI, a California company (formerly doing business as Arapaho) that makes soft tackle bags for G.Loomis, Shimano, Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, Cabela’s and others.The bags come in three basic styles, Gee says:

  • Vertical stack: Utility boxes stack vertically, which makes it easier to access individual boxes in top-loading bags. The disadvantage to vertical stacking is that small pieces of terminal tackle can slip through cracks under dividers, slide through compartments and end up in a mess in the bottom end of each utility box.
  • Horizontal stack: A popular style in which utility boxes are simply laid one atop the other. Sliding trays out of the usual front loaders can take up a bit more room in tight spaces; getting to boxes can be a little more difficult with top loaders.
  • Frame: A rigid frame, usually plastic, combines with a front-loading, zippered flap to let anglers slide utility boxes in and out of the bag like drawers. Besides providing easier access, the frame also make the bag sturdier. The trade-off: The frame takes up space that could fit two more utility boxes.
  • Material MattersWhen you’re looking at tackle bags, consider materials and construction as well as design. In general, according to Gee, manufacturers choose from three basic types of material. Cordura, a DuPont trademarked fabric, is the toughest - and also the most expensive. Polyester, a bit weaker, should be backed up at stress points with reinforcing material. Nylon, the least strong of all, can tear easily without backing all around.Denier, an industry term, indicates the thickness of the fibers in the weave. You’ll generally see numbers from 420 to 1,000 in soft bags. Look for the highest number. The only drawbacks of the higher deniers is that they tend to cost more and sometimes get stiff.When possible, choose a bag that has been sewn with rot-resistant nylon thread rather than cotton thread. Although seldom advertised, the more durable thread usually is found in higher-priced bags, according to Gee. Also, closely inspect the quality of stitching, and avoid bags with obviously sloppy work - loose stitching, frayed ends and the like.Choose bags with straps that go completely around the bottom - not just attached to the sides as handles, counsels Huffman of Bass Pro Shops. ''I’ve had bags made of good, heavy material,'' he says, ''but the straps were weak, the way they were sewn into the material was weak, and the first time you picked [the bags] up with a heavy load, the straps ripped away.'' Look for heavy-duty straps with extra stitching and backing, he adds.Don’t overlook zippers. ''The No. 1 problem with soft-sided tackle boxes is zippers,'' Gee says. To avoid problems in salt water, first, choose a Delrin or plastic zipper over metal to avoid problems with corrosion. (Some companies, like Flambeau, recently have sidestepped the problem by rolling out bags that use bungee cords and velcro rather than zippers). Also, choose the biggest zipper you can find, Gee advises, especially for the main compartment, where zippers get their toughest workout. Another advantage to big zipper heads: They’re easier to grasp with numb fingers during frosty fishing days. ''You’ve got to have Delrin zippers, you’ve got to have rot-resistant thread and it’s got to be a quality deal, or else it’s just not going to hold up,'' Gee says.A few manufacturers have offered bags claimed to be waterproof, but most hedge their bets with the more malleable term ''water-resistant.'' Stitching on handles and other attachments usually make so-called waterproof bags less than totally watertight, according to Gee. PVC coatings generally offer the best protection for really sopping conditions. Lew’s Speed Bag, coated with PVC like a sea bag, offers protection from seawater but looks something like an oversized doctor’s bag from bygone days and likely won’t win any beauty contests. Plano offers two water-resistant, PVC-coated marine bags that, while typically filled with tools, boating gear and personal effects, will also accommodate utility boxes. Several manufacturers, including Plano, have begun selling utility boxes with O-rings claimed to make them waterproof. Plano also offers several water-resistant marine boxes with O-ring seals useful for holding tools, flares and other gear. Anglers who often fish from skiffs or other small boats should consider getting a bag that’s waterproof at least on the bottom. A number of skiff bags feature injection-molded hard-plastic bottoms, usually extending 2 or 3 inches up the sides, to protect contents from damaging seawater that can slop around in a small boat.Boxer RebellionAlthough soft bags have become immensely popular among saltwater anglers during the past several years, hard boxes still draw their share of die-hard traditionalists who like their clean lines and sturdiness. Longtime makers of hard-sided boxes, like Plano and Flambeau, have fought back the soft revolution not only with their own lines of soft-sided bags, but also with hybrid boxes that allow utility boxes to be swapped in and out. But most traveling anglers probably will continue to shun the hard stuff, which is harder to carry on long trips, especially airplane flights. Nearly all lack shoulder straps. And many anglers say they lack convenience. ''I think they’re outmoded,'' says Boyce. ''The bummer about the hard ones is that once you get your tackle in them, and let’s say you want to go inshore fishing versus offshore fishing, unless you have two completely separate tackle boxes with two completely different uses, you’ve got to take one huge box with stuff you won’t even think about using, or you’re taking lures out and putting them back in. It’s a hassle.'' Still, hard boxes can offer sturdy reliability in an often unsure world.A couple of new entrants in the field recently have unveiled innovative hard-sided boxes. SKB, a Southern California firm that is a premier maker of cases for musical instruments, recently branched out into fishing (the company’s owner is an avid angler). The box, impressively called the Advanced Tackle Transport System, is a Cadillac of boxes. It’s big and glossy with lots of bells and whistles, including space for hanging more than 40 metal jigs vertically. Just like competing soft bags, it features a stack of pullout Plano 3700 utility trays. Unlike nearly all hard boxes, it also comes with a detachable padded shoulder strap. A compartment in the top of the box, guarded with hard, see-through plastic, is big enough to accommodate a few offshore lures and other bulky items.On the other end of the country and at the other end of the complexity spectrum, a New Jersey man, Paul Markowitz of Finnovationz, has designed the Tackle Rack. Sort of a VW to SKB’s Caddy, the Tackle Rack features a simple, open design in which 70 lures up to 7 inches long can hang, thus avoiding terrible treble tangles. Its features include a folding lid that can be taken off and attached to the bottom of the box as a kind of shoe to prevent sliding and wear and tear; drain holes in the bottom of the box so that lures and box can simply be hosed down with fresh water back at the dock and left to dry; and see-through plastic construction which, when illuminated with a fluorescent lightstick in the handle, makes finding particular lures and rigs easier at night. As with bags, so with boxes, Huffman advises: Look for quality materials to stand up to hard saltwater use. Don’t buy a box without at least some metal in the hinges. Some boxes have all-plastic hinges, which won’t stand the repeated stress of opening and closing. Also, choose softer plastic materials over harder plastic. The softer stuff seems to hold up better in the long run, Huffman says.Those who like to travel but don’t want to leave their hard box at home might consider putting their tackle boxes inside a soft-sided bag; the bag’s shoulder straps make it much easier to carry while traveling. Larger boxes can serve as a more or less permanent box on board a boat. Some traveling anglers like to work out of a large master box stowed in a cabin or stateroom, selecting individual lures and rigs for each day’s fishing and carrying them in smaller utility boxes for daily use. A large, lidded plastic tub can be filled with utility boxes, reels and lots of other gear.Dean Butler of Australia, who fishes around the world six or seven months a year, organizes his often hectic life around utility boxes. I recently caught up with Butler during a two-day respite between weeks-long trips to Vanuatu for sailfish, wahoo, blue marlin and dogtooth tuna, and to Costa Rica in an attempt to put a client on a world-record sailfish on a fly. ''I fish for everything from mullet to marlin,'' Butler says. ''I have dozens of 3600 and 3700 utility boxes filled with all different kinds of fishing gear, and it’s just a matter of pulling boxes off the shelf and fitting them into the bag to travel with, along with whatever tools I’ll need.'' In addition to stuffing a Mark Packs Long Ranger with utility boxes, he carries a large Rubbermaid box, filled to the brim with reels, tools, line and other bulkier items - and he has used it as a livewell in a pinch. He totes the tub in another Mark Packs bag with a shoulder strap for easier going in airports, cabs and cars. Offshore lures used for marlin and other pelagics present a special problem in storage: They’re just too big for most tackle boxes and bags. Some captains still stay with the traditional if messy methods of sticking them in drawers or buckets, but most anglers prefer to put them in roll-up bags made by C & H Lures and other companies. Built with mesh on one side and see-through plastic on the other, these bags hold a half-dozen to two dozen lures in individual pockets, roll up easily, allow lures to dry and keep them visible and handy. International travelers like Boyce take along a few roll-up bags containing favorite lures for offshore trips, sticking them in a pocket in their soft bags. The mesh bags take up little space and can be easily stowed, cutting down on cockpit clutter and making Boyce a welcome guest on boats he’s visiting.No Fear of FlyingWhen Bill Boyce travels around the world, he takes a lot of stuff: not only an array of tackle to handle whatever species he thinks he’ll tangle with, but dive and camera gear as well. Boyce has found an inexpensive solution to hauling large amounts of bulky items - a big gray tote box, measuring a whopping 28 inches long by 21 inches wide by 15 inches high, called a Nestier and made by Buckhorn Industries of Ohio. The big box sports a gray industrial finish and won’t dazzle anyone with its looks. For Boyce, that’s partly the point: Its drab, gray plumage attracts few thieving magpies. Because he can lock it with padlocks at both ends, he can travel with expensive gear with fewer worries. Better yet, loaded to the gills, the sturdy box easily accommodates 70 pounds of stuff, the airlines’ standard weight limit.Kim Bain, a writer, photographer and TV fishing personality who has fished all over her native Australia and along the coasts of much of North America, prefers a G.Loomis travel bag. A central rod storage tube about 3 feet long accommodates up to six multipiece rods. She stuffs an empty Plano soft-sided tackle bag in one pocket of the G.Loomis bag and four to six 3600 utility boxes loaded with tackle in the other, plus a few smaller utility boxes and some plastic tackle wraps for leaders. Once she’s ready to fish, she breaks out the Plano and fills it with the utility boxes she needs for the day.Beyond the gear, there remains the brain. Good tackle organization remains a question of knowing what to take and what to leave. ''The key to success is always to prepare,'' Dean Butler advises. ''Think about all the possible scenarios that might happen on a given fishing trip. Work through those scenarios and make sure you pack everything you need accordingly. I often travel with friends, and we try not to double up on gear. You don’t need four sets of Boga-Grips. Just plan before you go and have a system that enables you to fish without costing too much time, which is always precious.''