The Universal Pack is a new minimalist bag from fledgeling UK brand Bear Fly Fishing. As the name suggests, this multi-purpose pack can be used in a variety of ways. You can wear it as a waist pack (or fanny pack, if you're American) using the belt provided; you can attach it to your wader straps, or you can sling the belt over one shoulder and wear it as a chest or sling pack. Refreshingly different from other packs on sale in the fly fishing market, even my hard-to-impress teenage daughter thought this was a cool product with its rugged and retro styling.
Simple, minimalist, a bit different and made to an impressively high standard.
What size is this bag?
The Universal Pack has a 3.7-litre capacity. It's quite compact and measures just 25cm long, 15cm high and 10cm deep. Conveniently, that's just the right size to hold the essential bits of gear that most of us carry when out fly fishing. It is, of course, intentionally small and designed with minimalism in mind, but there's still plenty of space to house a few slimline fly boxes, your tippet and all the other gubbins you're likely to be carrying.
What storage features does it have?
There's a single main pocket large enough to hold three or four slimline fly boxes or a single large one, plus leaders, tippet and other things. On either end there are two strong elasticated bands into which you can insert powdered floatant, silicone gel floatant, a pair of forceps and a pair of nippers. There are no retractor points, but you can easily pin standard retractors through the strong and tough fabric.
There's also a large velcro patch on the front to which you can affix a fly patch or fly patch box, like the C&F Design Micro Slit Foam Chest Patch, albeit by attaching a sheet of adhesive Velcro to the back of your box. This gives faster access to your flies and lets you air-dry them on the outside so you don't need to put them away when wet.
What's it made from?
The bag is made from waxed canvas and has a rip-stop water-resistant lining and a weatherproof zip. It's not advertised as a waterproof product, but it certainly looks like it would cope with heavy rain and the odd inadvertent dunking without too much bother.
While many other makers probably produce their gear in the Far East, this bag was hand made in Newmarket, Suffolk, by a lady called Amy. She's even signed and numbered the bag on the inside.
The quality of materials and stitching are second to none. There's great attention to detail too. Even the weatherproof YKK zip on the main pocket is finished with a little leather puller which is debossed with a little bear logo.
How big is it?
It's quite compact and that's the point. While many fly fishers choose to take loads of gear with them, you don't really need to carry so much stuff. The Universal pack is deliberately minimal and designed to let you carry just the essential gear you really need for a day on the river.
Does it come with a belt?
Yes. The Universal Pack is provided with the Bear Belt, which has to be the most robust and solidly-engineered belt I have ever seen. The buckle is mechanical and has to be seen to be believed. The craftsmanship is incredible. It's designed to withstand forces of 12-24 kN (1233 to 2447 kg), which is strong enough to tow the average car! This is also sold separately and is a steal at £15 if you need a new wading belt.
What colours are available?
Mine is burgundy but the Universal Pack is also available in black, saltwater blue, gold, green, grey and khaki. All of the colours look really smart and have that weathered look you get with waxed cotton that really only looks better and more rugged as the product gets older.
What's it like to use?
We've used the Universal Pack on our river fishing trips and it's worked really well. It feels very robust, it's proven resistant to heavy rain (and mud from inadvertent bankside slides) and has had room for all the essential gear we've needed. I don't think it's supposed to be waterproof but after a good drenching from the autumnal Welsh weather our stuff was still dry inside, so I don't think it's far off.
The bag is compact and comfortable and you quickly forget you're wearing it. Perhaps slightly less ergonomic than a dedicated sling pack and without the padded supports you find in other bags, the Universal Pack is still comfy to wear and feels like it will last for years.
Who is Bear Fly Fishing?
Bear Fly Fishing is a new UK brand from former England Youth international Oscar Boatfield and partner Nell Wharton. Their brand, which reminds me of a British version of Patagonia, produces a small range of bags, clothing, and nets designed for fly fishers. They're due to launch a range of UK manufactured fly rods shortly too.
How much does it cost?
We borrowed ours from Bear Fly Fishing and it sells for £54.99 including delivery. I guess that might seem like a lot for a small pack, but it's arguably superb value given the quality of materials and workmanship and it's not massively different in price to products from the bigger brands. It oozes quality, looks a bit different, is made in the UK and should last you for many, many years. We like it.