I’ve tried a wide variety of fly boxes over the years, and I still haven’t found one that I think is the perfect dry fly box. Being a dry fly fisherman, keeping the fly from being crushed in some way, shape, or form while maintaining easy access to each fly is my priority when selecting a fly box, and these two criteria are not always conducive to one another.
I’ve found that the foam boxes (ripple, slotted, flat, etc. – I think I’ve tried them all) generally provide for plenty of space and ready access to the flies, but they can be very hard on the dry flies (hackle in particular) and this is especially true as the fly gets smaller. The problem is there isn’t “free space” underneath the fly, so the foam “flattens” the hackle on the underside of the fly. You can reduce this “crushing” by placing the fly as shallow into the foam as possible and/or placing them so the eye of the fly is pointing a little upwards. But that will only go so far for you, and again, the problem gets worse as the flies get smaller.
Fly boxes with magnetic “bottoms” or compartments (like on a Cliff Days Worth, or an Altoids tin I’ve placed a magnetic sheet in the bottom of) have met with some success for me if I take care to place the fly in these boxes with the hook-point down. I love the fact that once placed, the fly generally doesn’t take-off with a gust of wind, and that I can easily see all the flies I have, and the sizes I have them in. So selecting a single fly is a very easy thing to do. I can also just drop a fly in the box and it will stay put, albeit, not necessarily hook-point down. In many ways I like some form of magnetic box the best, and if I could keep them from damaging tails and hackle, they would be a no brainer for me. Such is not the case though, because irregardless of what I seem to do, eventually the flies will get pushed (or pulled) onto their side and hackle gets crushed. Furthermore, even if the fly stays upright (hook point down) the magnetic pull on the hook has a tendency to bend the tails of the flies. Which is definitely not a good thing for getting the fly to float as it was designed to do.
This brings me to the “plain” (non-magnetic) compartmented boxes, which I believe are the best for holding dry flies and not damaging them. Now a compartment is a compartment, and as long as it is the appropriate size for the flies, one compartment doesn’t do a better job of holding flies undamaged than another. So I don’t think it really matters if it’s a simple plastic “pill box” you get from the pharmacy section of some Big Box store, or a $200 Wheatley box made of aluminum that has little spring-loaded windows for each and every compartment. In fact, even a “tackle box” that you might typically associate with spinning lures, etc. will do the job just fine if the lid fits tightly enough to keep flies from migrating from compartment to compartment. That lid can be a single lid that covers every compartment, or each compartment can have its very own lid. Which brings me back to those Wheatley (or similar) individually windowed compartmented boxes. These certainly do an excellent job of holding flies, and they have been around forever. But aside from the pride of ownership, and possibly the quality of construction, the only real advantage that these boxes have over other compartmented boxes is the ability to open only one compartment at a time. Now this may or may not be a big thing for you. But recognize that this ability prevents an unexpected gust of wind from clearing out a whole fly box, instead of just a single compartment.
In my own experience, compartment boxes (individually windowed or otherwise) also come with a few other downsides. First, each compartment never holds as many flies as I think it will. At least not if I don’t crush the hackle or bend the tails. Second, selecting a fly (or seeing what is available to select) isn’t as easy as with other types of boxes because multiple flies are piled into a single compartment. This problem is compounded even further if you place multiple sizes of a fly in a single compartment. It just isn’t easy to sort through a few flies in a compartment and find the one you want, especially using your fingers. In fact, my hemostats have become just as handy for getting a fly out of my fly box, as they are for getting one out of a fish’s mouth. Third, with the individually windowed compartments, a hackle tip can get “caught” in the window/frame, and when you “flip” that window open, the spring loaded window efficiently launches that fly (and any other flies “hooked” to it) into the air, creating an instant “hatch”. Fourth, the individually windowed boxes can be “fragile” with windows/frames getting bent out of alignment and not “seating” properly, or latches getting temperamental. In short, individual windows add a level of “complexity” that isn’t present on other boxes, and with that complexity comes some advantages and some disadvantages. Look at it this way, if nothing else you’ll have to open two “lids” just to get to a fly. (The fly box lid and a compartment window.)
Now for my money, the individually windowed fly boxes are worth it for boxes I’ll take fishing, and are not worth the trade offs for boxes I’ll simply store flies in. And speaking of money… complexity adds cost, so boxes with a bunch of individual “lids” are typically more expensive than boxes with a single lid. But even so, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good box with separate lids for each compartment, and like I stated before, they don’t have to be sold as a fly box, or even a sporting goods item. There are plenty of anglers using old Altoids tins or plastic “nicknack” containers with little compartments.
On the other hand, a nice metal fly box with individual compartments and windows is a wonderful addition to your gear. Wheatley is probably the best known (and most expensive) of the metal boxes with “windows”, but Okuma, and even Orvis have produced a line of windowed metal boxes, and you can find these types of boxes in a variety of price points and qualities. Just look around and watch for sales. If you want an individually windowed compartment box, you’ll likely be able to find one (or more) in an acceptable quality and price point for you.
If your taste is more toward having a single lid for all of the compartments, then you’ll find you have an absolute plethora of options available to you, including all of the options mentioned above.
In my opinion a dry fly fisherman really can’t do better than a compartmented box. So find yourself any compartment box to your liking. Spend a lot or spend a little. Just be sure the lids fit tightly and they won’t allow the “migration” of flies (or fly parts) to pass from one compartment to another. Aside from that, the only real requirement that needs to be met is the size of the compartments. If you ensure that the compartments are large enough to hold the flies you want to put in them, then you’ve found your box.
The question then becomes, how many fly boxes do you need?