Angler-Friendly PFDs Life jackets that won't become seat cushions

In 2002, the United States suffered 750 boating deaths from drowning. More than half of the victims died on weekend afternoons in boats that were less than 16 feet long. And 442 of them weren't wearing PFDs (personal flotation devices), although 510 of the victims had them onboard. Sounds like your average angler, doesn't it? Let's face it: We don't like using life vests for anything other than padding our seats.

But maybe it's time for a second look. Today's PFDs are nothing like those blocky orange neck braces of yesteryear. We tested seven of the latest models for "fishability" (ease of movement), floatability, comfort, "swimability" and value. We floated for long periods to test comfort, tried to swim and even dove into water while wearing each vest to see if they stayed snug. Here's what we found:

BASS PRO SHOPS ELIMINATOR

Fishability: With its Hulk Hogan--sized armholes, this PFD allows a complete range of motion. It's made from an attractive two-tone fabric and has reflective piping and a fixed padded-nylon collar. There are two straps, two pockets and a short zipper to fasten it in place.

Floatability: The Eliminator rode up more than any of the other PFDs we tested. The zipper had a tendency to scrape under the chin when we were floating, swimming or dunking. A third strap might have helped. On the plus side, your head never touches the water. However, swimming is more difficult in this vest than in others.

Cost: $29.88 (large)

Best For: Large people. Try it on before buying one.

BASS PRO SHOPS XPS FISHING VEST

Fishability: This PFD is easy to maneuver in. It has a fleece-lined collar, side pockets, a zippered cargo pocket and two mesh pockets. The XPS has three adjustable straps to allow you to get a custom fit.

Floatability: When you float on your back, your head immerses up to your ears. Treading water in this PFD is a little difficult, but swimming is easy.

Cost: $39.88 (large)

Best For: This PFD is best suited for cool-weather conditions.

CABELA'S ADVANCED ANGLER

Fishability: This was the heaviest PFD in the test, but it still allowed a full range of casting motion. It has a soft, zip-in, fleece-lined collar that's ideal for those cold, rainy spring mornings. The Advanced Angler offered the most storage capacity of the models in this test. It has two roomy breast pockets and two lower pockets that are big enough for GPS units, cell phones and sandwiches.

Floatability: With the device's collar attached, your head stays out of the water; without it, the back of your head gets wet. This was the only model we tested that has leg straps to prevent the vest from riding up. On the downside, its foam absorbed the most water.

Cost: $49.95 (large)

Best For: We recommend this PFD for spring or fall fishing; it's too warm for hot weather.

CABELA'S COOL MESH VEST

Fishability: The Cabela's Cool Mesh allowed a full range of casting motion. It has three adjustable straps that snug the foam comfortably around your torso without any irritating abrasion. There are no pockets on the vest.

Floatability: When you're floating, this PFD allows water to come up to your ears. During extended floats, it tended to ride up under the chin. However, it was easy to swim in this vest.

Cost: $29.95 (large)

Best For: This is a good compromise between traditional, heavier vests and lighter, non-conventional PFDs.

OUTDOOR LIFE EDITOR'S CHOICE 2004 CABELA'S ULTIMATE FULL-MOTION

Fishability: This was the lightest, roomiest PFD we tested. Unlike others that zip only in the front, this PFD also has side clasps to give it a tight fit. There was no bite from its neoprene shoulder straps and its scratchy nylon straps are nicely sheathed in fabric. It has two pockets for storage.

Floatability: It might look like a padded bra, but this was the only model we tested that didn't ride up when we jumped in the water. It stayed secure and comfortable and offered the best maneuverability for swimming.

Cost: $49.95 (large)

Best For: Anglers who don't like to wear PFDs.

CABELA'S PRO FISHERMAN VEST

Fishability: The armholes on the Cabela's Pro Fisherman vest are big enough for a full range of casting motion. There are two adjustable straps and four pockets with snap-close flaps.

Floatability: The Pro Fisherman floated as well as any PFD we tested, though it tended to ride up during extended floating, which caused its exposed upper nylon strap to bite into the underarms. When you float you sink up to your ears.

Cost: $24.95 (large)

Best For: This is a no-frills PFD that doesn't compromise safety.

STEARNS ULTRA INFLATABLE

Fishability: We found the Ultra Inflatable (shown undone above) to be very easy to maneuver in. Designed for blue-water sailing, cruising and sport fishing, this PFD was the smallest and lightest model we tested. It's worn like a harness and offered the greatest freedom of movement of any of the PFDs in this lineup. It has no foam and minimal straps.

Floatability: This vest could keep an unconscious grizzly bear afloat in a hurricane. It was the only PFD tested that came with "arming" instructions. Its CO2 cartridge took time to install, but it's fire-and-forget after that. It inflated automatically when we jumped in the water. It can be inflated by blowing into a tube. Swimming, however, is nearly impossible in this vest.

Cost: $149.99

Best For: Anglers tempted to use their vests as seat cushions.

Fishing PFDs

MANUFACTURER/MODEL Bass Pro Eliminator (800-227-7776; www.basspro-shops.com)

Floatability VG

Comfort F

Fishability VG

Swimability F

Value G

Final Score G

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Bass Pro XPS Fishing Vest (800-227-7776; www.basspro-shops.com)

[Floatability] VG

[Comfort] G

[Fishability] VG

[Swimability] VG

[Value] G

[Final Score] VG

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Cabela's Advanced Angler (800-237-4444; www.cabelas.com)

[Floatability] VG

[Comfort] G

[Fishability] VG

[Swimability] E

[Value] VG

[Final Score] VG

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Cabela's Cool Mesh (800-237-4444; www.cabelas.com)

[Floatability] VG

[Comfort] VG

[Fishability] VG

[Swimability] VG

[Value] G

[Final Score] VG

EDITOR'S CHOICE [MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Cabela's Ultimate Full-Motion (800-237-4444; www.cabelas.com)

[Floatability] VG

[Comfort] E

[Fishability] VG

[Swimability] E

[Value] E

[Final Score] E (95)

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Cabela's Pro Fisherman (800-237-4444; www.cabelas.com)

[Floatability] VG

[Comfort] F

[Fishability] VG

[Swimability] F

[Value] G

[Final Score] G

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Stearns Ultra Inflatable (800-333-1179; www.stearnsinc.com)

[Floatability] E

[Comfort] E

[Fishability] E

[Swimability] F

[Value] G

[Final Score] VG

What the scores mean Fair: 60-69 points Good: 70-79 points Very Good: 80-89 points Excellent: 90-100 points

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