Inside the Mind: Fishpond Thunderhead Submersible Backpack

Inside the Mind Intro

If you’ve been chummin’ for a while, you’ve probably noticed that we never do gear reviews. We get asked to do them all of the time, but frankly we’re not big fans of them. Don’t get us wrong, we love new gear as much as the next blog, but most gear reviews follow the same playbook and come to similar conclusions. So we figured we’d try something a little different…

Enter our new feature series “Inside the Mind.” As the name suggests, the goal of Inside the Mind is to take you inside the minds of the designers producing the best and most interesting products in the fly fishing world. We want to explore their inspirations, understand their intentions, dig into their design process, and showcase how companies transform ideas into industry-leading products.

Our hope is that these posts will lift the curtain on product development and allow you to glean a little more insight into the inner workings of the fly fishing industry. And if they help further your appreciation for the products you use and love that’s even better.

We’re kicking off the series with a rad new pack from Fishpond and stay tuned for more posts in the coming months…

Fishpond Thunderhead Submersible Backpack

Ask any of the good folks over at Fishpond, and they’ll tell you they were shocked. They knew they had hit a home run with their Thunderhead Submersible Backpack. But even for them it seemed farfetched that any pack, no matter how killer, could walk away from IFTD with the overall “Best of Show” award – an award almost always given to the hottest new rod or reel.

Well, it turns out history repeated itself in 2017 when the Sage Salt HD took home that trophy, but Fishpond stunned the show when their pack fell just a few votes short. But no one was surprised when the pack took home the “Best of Show” award for eco-friendly product, which was just one of the numerous awards Fishpond flew back to Colorado with.

Last year, Fishpond’s pack designer Michelle Hodulik sat down with Fishpond’s visionary owner John Le Coq at a table in their Denver headquarters. The small wooden table was covered with packs from the company’s past and a number of John’s sketches. Their goal was simple but ambitious – create the fly fishing industry’s most durable, eco-friendly waterproof fishing pack. Less than twelve months later, the Thunderhead Submersible Backpack was voted the eco-friendly bell of the IFTD ball.

To understand what makes this pack special, you have to understand its materials. For the past six years, Fishpond has been leading the fly fishing industry with products made from recycled materials like the recycled commercial fishing nets they have long used in their carry-on rod and reel cases. With the Thunderhead Submersible Backpack, Fishpond upped its game by introducing a waterproof, submersible pack made from post-industrial recycled material.

Specifically, the material is a 1680 denier industrial waste recycled nylon. The fabric is made from waste nylon from other manufacturing processes that is bound for the trash or incinerator. The fabric is intercepted before it meets that unfortunate fate, gets chopped up, turned into thread, woven into fabric, and then dyed the desired color. Combine this eco-friendly fabric with components like the uber burly German TZIP Zipper, and you’ve got the framework for a bombproof, eco-friendly pack.

You don’t see many waterproof packs made from recycled materials in the outdoor space because they’re darn tough to make. Sourcing the raw materials is difficult, but the real challenge is finding someone who can transform these materials into a well-built pack, apply the waterproof coating, and then weld it. There are only a few factories in the world skilled enough to consistently do that.

The Design Process

The design process for the Thunderhead Submersible Backpack started at the tip of John’s pencil. He transposed his vision for the pack into his sketchbook and then the Fishpond team brought it to life. For months, they worked with their factory to create numerous iterations of technical sketches and models.

The big challenge and design constraint when working with a welded product is shape. You want a fairly rudimentary shape to ensure the welded seams are waterproof. That’s why a lot of the waterproof packs on the market look and perform like a dry bag with shoulder straps attached to it. Frankly, that’s how Fishpond’s early waterproof packs looked, but through years of design evolution they’ve mastered the art of balancing sleek design and excellent performance.

You also want to minimize the number of seams and ensure you have some distance between them to decrease the number of failure points. Accomplishing these two feats enhances the intentionality of this pack. Every inch and component of the pack are carefully thought through and extensively scrutinized. When your customers demand flawless performance and when your product comes with a lifetime warranty, it pushes the design process and makes durability the highest priority.

John’s sketches were transformed into an initial technical model, which they sent to their factory. Rather than create a sample bag, the factory started by making a paper model to see how the product translated from the screen to the actual shape. The factory starts with paper models because it is far easier, faster, and cheaper than creating an actual sample. That way, you can do a revision in just a few days rather than in a few months.

Over the next few weeks, Fishpond went back and forth with the factory churning out various iterations for the pack shape. On their fifth try, they nailed down the shape and had the factory produce a sample of what is now the Thunderhead Submersible Backpack.

Once they nailed down the shape, the folks at Fishpond turned their attention to comfort. Waterproof packs are notoriously uncomfortable. And it’s not particularly fun lugging a heavy pack up a jagged mountain or across a blazing hot salt flat that doesn’t breathe well and feels like a massive turtle shell protruding from your back.

Through their shape testing, they knew they had a pack with a comfortable shape that would sit well on the back. The next step was complimenting that shape with some comfortable features. They did that by integrating a molded back panel that runs the entire length of the pack, a more built up harness system with lightweight foam shoulder straps, and a robust, versatile hip belt that allows you to carry weight more comfortably and adjust its positioning based on your torso length. And for those folks that hate hip belts, you can easily remove it by sliding it out of the molded back panel.

Then came their next challenge –maximizing angler friendly features without adding more seams. These features don’t jump off the webpage at you, but the more time you spend with the pack, the more you realize how many bells and whistles were included. Some features are simple and designed to integrate with other Fishpond products while others are just smart design that any angler can appreciate. Some of these features include:

  • Modular buckles on the shoulder and hip straps that allow you to attach a Fishpond chest pack
  • Fishpond’s innovative molded tab attachments that integrates with products like their Quickshot Rod Holder, Molded Water Bottle Holder, and Fishpond Gear Straps
  • Two coated webbing daisy chains and a D-Ring on the front panel that provide attachment points for accessories like a tippet holder or clipper
  • Two coated webbing pull taps that make the arduous task of opening the TZIP much easier
  • Two Velcro straps on the hip belt that allow you to attach a pliers sheath or other accessories.

The finishing touch on the pack was a seemingly simple yet complicated decision – the colors. For years, Fishpond packs have featured a classic, dark green shade that embodies the ethos of trout. But for this pack, they wanted a color that transcended trout country and would look killer in the salt, rain forest, and the mountains. After testing countless shades and much back and forth, they settled on Yucca Green and Blaze Orange – two versatile colors that work great in all environs for both men and women.

If you haven’t seen one of these packs in person yet, make sure to head over to your local fly shop and check one out. It’s an obsessively designed product that will provide years of great use on your local stream or in the harshest waters on the planet. And if you’re still trying to figure out what gear to add to your holiday wish list, you won’t regret putting this pack at the top of the list.

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