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Published Mar 31, 2022 3:12 PM

Fishing coolers can make or break your day whether fishing from the beach or by kayak, floating in a drift boat, or miles offshore in a charter boat. It keeps your food and beverage cold and ensures your hard-earned catch makes it home fresh.

The market is flooded, so it can be tough to wade through the sea of available options. Different sizes, shapes, and intended uses can make it difficult to decide which is right for you. And like all things, some are better than others. So do yourself a favor and read this handy guide and invest in the best fishing cooler you can afford.

Things to Consider Before Buying a Fishing Cooler

To decide which is the best fishing cooler, we need to consider our needs and limitations in terms of size and capacity, ice retention and price.

Size & Capacity

These two characteristics are interrelated. Coolers can range from 12-quart single person, single day use to 350-quart behemoths so the range needs to be narrowed down. The first question to ask is, “Where will I use this cooler the most?”

Cooler size will be determined by the answer to this question. If you are a kayak angler, a giant offshore cooler might sink your vessel. If you’re catching big lake trout for a family fish fry, you probably don’t want a small soft cooler meant for a few drinks and a sandwich.

  • Will your fishing be mostly on foot or from a boat?
  • If on foot, will you need to transport it any significant distance while fishing?
  • If using a watercraft, how much space do you have for the cooler?

Cooler capacity will be determined by your primary use(s) for the cooler.

  • How many people are in your fishing group? This relates primarily to appropriate quantities of food and beverage needed for the trip. The larger the group, the larger the cooler. Alternatively, do you need more than one cooler?
  • If you are keeping your catch, how big are the fish you’re chasing? Bluegills, crappie and perch take up less space than Mahi Mahi or other saltwater species. 
  • Are outings mostly day trips or multi-day adventures? This leads into the next point.

Ice Retention

How long will the cooler maintain an appropriately cold temperature without adding fresh ice? The best fishing coolers will maintain temperature for anywhere from three to seven days. Other, more economical options might be good for one to three days.

  • Are your fishing outings mostly day trips?
  • How often do your fishing trips extend into multi-day adventures when fresh ice is not an option?
  • There are many variables that affect ice retention in a cooler, from ice quantity and quality to outside environmental conditions. Be aware that claims of specific duration are often based on controlled testing conditions and not real-life situations. Currently, there is no industry standard for measuring ice retention.

Price

The axiom, “You get what you pay for,” holds true for the best fishing coolers. Don’t let that lead you to believe an economical option won’t work. Often, pre-cooling or adding fresh ice will do the trick, negating the need for a more expensive cooler. However, if your fishing regularly leans in the direction of epic adventure, fresh ice is often hard to come by.

Lastly, I look at gear as an investment in adventure – whether for modest day trips or once in a lifetime bucket list endeavors. I’ll spend the extra money if I think it means eliminating the need to replace the cooler due to durability issues. All the best fishing coolers in my life have been through the ringer and are still going strong.

Best Small: Engel 25 High Performance Hard Cooler and Ice Box

Best Small

Engel 25 High Performance Hard Cooler and Ice Box Bass Pro Shop

Why It Made the Cut

Small fishing coolers are my day use workhorses. The Engel 25 fits nicely in smaller spaces, whether it be the drift boat or the backseat for trips to the river.

Key Features

  • Roto-molded for toughness and durability
  • Two-inches closed-cell foam insulation for extended ice retention
  • Capacity: 18 12-oz. cans, with a 2:1 ice to can ratio
  • Exterior Dimensions: 20 ¾” x 14 ½“ x 14”

Pros

  • Silicone gaskets provide a near airtight seal and won’t lose its shape
  • IGBC Certified Bear Resistant Container
  • Integrated full length Anvil Hinge for maximum strength
  • Less expensive than YETI

Cons

  • The numeric designation does not reflect capacity (Engel 25 is 21 Quarts)

I probably own more coolers in this category than any other. Like most anglers, much of my fishing is of the day trip variety. The Engel 25 fills the bill on these outings. It fits nicely along the gunwale of my drift boat and opens smoothly to allow access while floating through slower water. The capacity is just right for holding lunch and beverages for two to four people, depending on appetites. At the end of the day, there’s still plenty of ice and cold drinks for the ride home.

When lifting the Engel 25, the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s lighter than similar sized competitors. Engel’s Unity Latch System uses marine-grade latches with stainless steel hardware, which make it easy to open and close. In turn, these high-grade latches have contributed to the overall durability of the cooler, even after seasons of use.

Best Large: YETI Tundra 65

Best Large

YETI Tundra 65 Bass Pro Shop

Why It Made the Cut

This cooler is the ultimate platform for extended adventures.

Key Features

  • Fatwall Design holds up to three inches of polyurethane foam insulation
  • Rotomolded Construction
  • Capacity: 42 cans of beverage, with a 2:1 ice to can ratio
  • Seven days or more Ice Retention

Pros

  • T-Rex Lid Latches
  • LipGrip Handles – streamlined and integrated into cooler frame
  • DoubleHaul Handles – durable and comfortable for two-person transport
  • AnchorPoint Tie Down Slots provide easy mount options for boat or truck
  • Vortex Drain – leak proof and easy to use

Cons

  • Price

This is my favorite cooler for multi-day fishing adventures. It holds an unbelievable amount of food and beverage and keeps it cold for days. If you’re keeping fish to take back home, the Tundra 65 has the capacity to hold both fish and ice and make sure your catch remains unspoiled. The dry good basket comes in handy, whether for holding containers of bait or blocks of cheese and butter. Beyond its primary purpose, this cooler can function as an auxiliary table, cutting board, seat for two and more. It simply does it all.

But due to the tank-like rotomolded design, these coolers are not lightweight. You’ll appreciate the two carrying options provided by Yeti’s DoubleHaul handles. The rope handles are great when sharing the load, and the deeply recessed handholds are perfect for solo work. This one is so impressive it also made our list of best coolers for camping, best ice chests, and best hunting and fishing coolers. You can also check out our roundup of best Yeti coolers for more options.

Best on Wheels: YETI Tundra Haul Hard Cooler

Best on Wheels

YETI Tundra Haul Hard Cooler Bass Pro Shop

Why It Made the Cut

Built like a tank, the overbuilt design of this cooler is exactly what’s needed for a fishing cooler on wheels. It can be pulled through hell and high water – the wheels, pull arm and handles can take it.

Key Features

  • NeverFlat wheels: solid single-piece tire construction
  • Durable welded aluminum arm
  • Rotomolded construction
  • 45 cans of beverage at a 2:1 ice to can ratio

Pros

  • Curved handle design tracks left or right for heel-friendly towing
  • Superb ice retention easily handles 3-7 days
  • Welded aluminum arm allows you to pull hard without concern
  • Non-slip surface provides useful observation platform

Cons

  • Not compatible with Yeti dry goods basket
  • Price: this is an investment

I’ve never enjoyed pulling anything on the beach, perhaps because I’m impatient to get a line in the water. No cooler has made it easier or quicker to get from hauling to casting than the Yeti Tundra Haul Hard Cooler. This is easily the best wheeled cooler I’ve come across.

When I fish the surf of the Outer Banks and the barrier islands of southern North Carolina, I’m often out for an extended adventure. This fishing cooler provides a perfect base camp centerpiece. I can easily haul it to where I want it and won’t be limited by flimsy wheels or a tow handle that’s not up to the task. Once in place, I know the ice will outlast me, keeping everything from cut bait to sandwiches and drinks ice cold.

The capacity is impressive, easily carrying everything I’ll need for four people out for a full day of fishing. At the end of the day, I can leave anything needed for the next day in the cooler and replenish ice as needed. When the last day of the trip comes, the Yeti wipes clean with ease.

Best for Boats: Coleman 316 Series 100-Quart Marine Wheeled Cooler

Best for Boats

Coleman 316 Series 100-Quart Marine Wheeled Cooler Coleman

Why It Made the Cut

Coleman coolers have accompanied me on fishing adventures since childhood. At an economical price, this 100-quart chest will get it done without breaking the bank.

Key Features

  • 100-quart capacity
  • Fully insulated lid and body
  • UV Coating
  • Rust-resistant stainless-steel hardware

Pros

  • Large enough to hold substantial catch or up to 160 cans of beverages
  • Heavy duty 6-inch wheels and swing-up tow handle make transport easy
  • Antimicrobial and stain resistant liner
  • Built-in ruler on lid

Cons

  • Handle design could be sturdier
  • Wheels are not meant for hauling over rugged terrain

Go big or go home. That sums up what we love about the marine environment – sparkling blue water to the horizon and the potential for big game and big adventures. This 100-quart Coleman 316 cooler is up to those challenges. I can fit a limit of any fish I chase, from lake trout and salmon to flounder and weakfish, and still have room left for needed cold beverage and food.

A cooler of this size can be a challenge to move so I’m grateful for the 6-inch wheels that allow me to roll it from parking lot to the dock and back again at the end of the day. Though I think the tow handle could be beefed up a bit, it has never failed and pulls the heaviest loads. When the day is done and I’m in the cleanup zone, the stain resistant liner makes it a quick and easy job. The Coleman 316 Series coolers are simple workhorses that get the job done and don’t require a second mortgage to purchase.

Best for Kayaks: Wilderness Systems Insulated Catch Cooler for Kayaks

Best for Kayaks

Wilderness Systems Insulated Catch Cooler for Kayaks Wilderness Systems

Why It Made the Cut

This is the best kayak cooler I’ve found, giving you the space needed to chill food, beverage, and catch.

Key Features

  • Fits the open storage well on the stern portion of most kayaks
  • Specialized pockets that keep fish and food separate
  • Main cooler compartment lined with 420-denier nylon for puncture resistance
  • Half-inch insulating foam

Pros

  • TPU coated rip-stop nylon makes cleaning easy
  • Multiple storage zones
  • Rubberized mesh outer storage on top, includes compartment for fillet knife
  • Six d-ring lash down points
  • Removable backpack straps

Cons

  • Backpack straps could be a bit more padded
  • Ice retention is adequate but less than hard coolers

If I’m fishing with the intent of feeding the family, I no longer need choose between cooling my catch or my lunch. This thoughtfully designed soft cooler by Wilderness Systems lets me do both. A large main compartment holds the fish while the smaller separate compartment keeps my lunch and drinks chilled for the day. The removable backpack straps are a nice feature for transporting the cooler, leaving my hands free to carry rods and my tackle bag.

This kayak fishing cooler is a specialized tool and I like the attention to details. D-ring lash-down points are situated at the four corners and at the mid-point on each side of the bag keep it in place even in rough seas. The rubberized mesh outer storage compartments include one designed specifically for holding a sheathed fillet knife—a nice touch anglers will appreciate at the end of the day. But if this one doesn’t suit your needs, you can check out our roundup of the best kayak coolers for fishing.

How I Made My Picks

My life revolves around fishing. From Mexico to Canada and various states in between, all my fishing adventures have included a cooler of some sort. Keeping all these experiences in mind, I looked at coolers from 12 different manufacturers. The coolers I’ve selected performed above and beyond during fishing adventures near and far. To determine the winners for each category, I considered the following points:

  • Purpose Served: Though I value multi-use functionality, I first considered primary purpose for each category.
  • Construction: I view all fishing gear as an investment. The materials, design and construction processes used directly impact a cooler’s insulating capacity and durability. Optimal performance and longevity are the goals.
  • Size/Capacity: A cooler must have the capacity needed for the fishing party it serves, whether as a vehicle for food and beverage or freezer for fresh caught fish. If storage space is limited, it needs to fit without affecting functionality of the cooler or impacting other aspects of the trip. I don’t want to leave one of my travel rods behind just to accommodate a bigger cooler.
  • Ice Retention: A cooler must be able to keep its contents cold for the needed duration of the fishing adventure. The best coolers minimize the need for frequent addition of fresh ice.
  • Transport Method(s): Coolers are great until you can’t get them to where they’re needed. In each category, I evaluated function and construction of the cooler’s handles and/or carrying straps. Where applicable, I likewise evaluated pull handles, wheels, and backpack straps.

FAQs

Q: How do fishing guides keep coolers clean?

Fishing guides keep their cooler clean by treating it like other parts of their fishing system, with regular maintenance and attention to detail. They wash the interior and exterior down after each day’s use; a hose and sponge or towel will usually do the trick when done regularly. They make sure to let it dry thoroughly before the next use.

Q: What’s the difference with a marine cooler?

Marine coolers are built to withstand often-extreme conditions experienced while boating. Key features include rust resistance, non-slip bottoms and/or tie-down points and adequate insulation. Marine coolers need to be capable of withstanding the heat of the sun encountered during a long day of fishing open water.

Q: What size cooler is good for fishing?

Various size coolers can be good for fishing. The best cooler for a fishing trip is determined by the size of the fishing party and the primary purpose of the cooler. Small coolers (up to 25 quart) are excellent for one to four anglers on a single day outing. A medium size cooler (25 – 50 quart) would be better for four to six anglers for a single day, or one to four anglers for two days of fishing. Large coolers (51 – 100 quart) allow for either larger groups or longer trip duration. For epic adventures or large fishing parties, consider the XL versions of your favorite fishing cooler—these can be found as large as 320 Quart.

Q: Do you need a cooler for fish?

The simple answer is yes. A stringer works well if the water is cold, say 50 degrees or colder. If the water is warmer, your hard-won catch will not be as fresh as it could be. In the worst-case scenario, the fish may even spoil before reaching your kitchen.

Final Thoughts

The best fishing coolers of today are well designed, offering excellent ice retention. Determining the best fishing cooler for you is dependent upon a clear assessment of where and how you will use it most. If you’re like me, no single cooler is ideal for all fishing trips. So, gather two to four different styles that each serves a separate purpose. In this way, you avoid redundancy and cover all your fishing scenarios. With a cooler arsenal like that, your food, beverage, and fish will always stay cold.