By Sam Larson
I spend my own money on the stuff that I review here and would tell you if I was given a specific product for free or for testing. Everything below is my personal opinion and experience with the gear in question.
I prefer a chest pack. I find vests to be jangly and complicated, and since I have a strong dose of Boy Scout-style preparedness running through my veins if you give me enough pockets I'm likely to fill them with something, whether I need it or not. And I find hip packs to be irksome, since I always have to spin them around my waist to get what I want. So I prefer a chest pack, where everything is handy and right where I can find it. It also places a firm limit on what I'm capable of hauling along with me, a limitation that I seem to need.
My stand-by has been the Fishpond San Juan chest pack. Tenkara Bum had some pictures and a write up about this pack a while ago and it suited my needs, especially after I modified it with a padded neck strap and a custom tippet reel. But three seasons of hard use will wear down any pack, and the hard limit on capacity meant that I had more than a few trips where I didn't have the room to carry the food or water I needed for a full day and got back to the car a shell-shocked mess of dehydration and low blood sugar.
Enter the Umpqua Rock Creek Zero Sweep Chest Pack. I went for the model that included the integrated backpack/hydration pack. I'm not a huge fan of enumerating all of the details in a review, so you can read Umpqua’s description here. I'll stick to the pros and cons as I’ve seen them.
It's slightly larger than the San Juan and offers a bit more organization. The open slash pockets on the front are quite nice and store leaders, indicators, tenkara line spools, etc., handily. It also holds two large fly boxes, features two internal pockets (one with a zipper), two external mesh pockets, and has an internal key ring. Fun fact: the material isn’t necessarily waterproof, but is highly water resistant. So if someone, for instance, dips their chest pack in the water while trying to release a fish these same open slash pockets will fill to the top and you’ll carry that water around until you reach in and find out that everything is soaked.
It has a good amount of structure. I like that it stays open and doesn't smash flat, which makes getting in and out of the bag easy.
The four-point harness is great. This alone is a significant improvement over the San Juan chest pack. Once you get it adjusted it’s a very comfortable all-day pack.
The hydration pack is the bee’s knees. I wish that it came with a retention clip for the bladder hose, but I can add that without any issue. I anticipate much fishing while still having an adequate amount of water to drink. It also has an integrated net hook and a couple of gear ladders on the sides for any extra stuff you think you may need. It is not a large pack, and I think you'd be hard pressed to get more than the hydration bladder, a raincoat, and a couple of sandwiches in there.
The Zero Sweep tool docks are really pretty cool and do tuck a lot of gear out of the way, reducing tangles and complications, as well as a lot of the swinging, jangly gear noise that I associate with vests. They also hold a Fishpond 360 Swivel retractor inside the chest pack if you prefer that kind of action over a normal retractor.
The tippet holder is a pain. It works, it holds tippet, and it's easy to reach, but it sits directly beneath the Zero Sweep forcep dock and the tippet reels and forceps tend to get caught up in each other. The tippet holder seems like it would work better if you carried four or more reels. I only carry two and they tend to get smashed sideways instead of standing up straight.
The Zero Sweep docks are finicky. The tool docks on the sides of the pack do keep your tools tucked cleanly out of the way. But the edges of the docks catch on the tools and they don't always hide away cleanly. If you just bump them with your fingertip then they settle all the way back into the dock, but it's a little odd to have to keep doing it when this is supposed to be the defining feature of the bag.
The forcep dock is fabulous as well, but you need to have exactly the right forceps. My long-time favorite Orvis forceps do not work with the Rock Creek pack. Well, they work but they’re kind of a hassle. They are too short, so you need to bury them in the forcep dock which then covers the handle, and they have an integrated barb smasher which gets caught on the edge of the forcep dock. All this means I need to get some new forceps, which is a small price to pay for the clean and uncluttered storage that the Zero Sweep forcep dock offers.
I like this bag a lot. It is different than my old chest pack, and I did lament changing packs the first day that I used the Rock Creek, but I've since gotten the wrinkles ironed out. If it were only for the addition of the hydration pack the Rock Creek chest pack would have been a worthwhile purchase, but the superior organization, Zero Sweep tool docks, and four-point harness add even more value to the pack.