Gear Reviews Tips/Tactics Winter Fishing

Fly Fishing in the Winter — Your Hands

on
November 11, 2018

 

** NOTE: This is Part One of a Troutbitten series on fly fishing for trout through the winter months. Part Two is here.

 

When the water emerges from the ground at forty-five degrees, it takes a while to equalize with the surrounding air and surface temperatures. In fact, it takes miles. The blessed waters of Central Pennsylvania rivers come mostly from huge underground lakes (aquifers). It trickles into the creeks at small seeps and it gushes up from major springs. The clean, cold spring waters of this limestone region are the lifeblood. And the wild brown trout are the backbone of our fishery.

This area is special. And I live here because I’m surrounded by state forests. If you drive a short distance in any direction, you bump into state lands, with public access and protected waters. Gifted with these limestone springs, our rivers stay cold enough in the summer to harbor wild trout, and warm enough in the winter to keep flowing. Only the largest of the rivers develop ice — only in the most extreme weather — and only for a short while.

Meanwhile, the wild trout . . . feed all year long.

Winter is my favorite season to fish for trout on a fly rod. It’s challenging, but the rewards are there. It’s quiet, barren and peaceful out there in the winter woods. And my favorite memories are of days under soft falling snow, where my boot tracks are the only ones in and the only ones out.

READ: Troutbitten | Winter Welcome Home

But winter trout fishing isn’t easy, either. And through the years, I’ve learned these lessons the hard way.

Over time, I realized that trout can be more predictable in the winter than in any other season. They lock into a pattern and stay there, day after day and week after week. My fly selection has become limited over time, making choices easier. My range of productive techniques have also narrowed, providing me with the confidence to focus on a handful of tactics and make targeted adjustments in my approach.

The winter system is something I look forward to each year. It’s a chance to simplify and fish hard. It’s also a chance to catch some of the largest trout in the river.

Weather

The toughest thing facing a winter angler is not picky trout. It’s the weather.

Beating that weather — being comfortable out there — is half the battle. Even mild winter days can seem pretty extreme without the right gear and a well thought out approach.

It’s colder on the water than it is at the parking lot. It’s windier too. And if you’re lucky, you’re hands are wet from catching trout. It’s all enough to send most guys walking briskly back to the warm truck and into an easy chair after just a couple of hours.

I fish with some very tough, die hard trout fishermen. But cold wind and colder water gets the best of everyone who isn’t prepared.

It’s not that cold for most of our winter here — average high for January is thirty-four. But thirty-five degrees and rain is harder to fight than twenty-five with dry snow. And when we do get temps down into the low twenties and teens, that’s when the guy who stubbornly wants to wear a ball cap and no gloves simply doesn’t make it.

There’s a good solution to every winter condition we encounter. And all of those solutions require your hands to operate.

Fingers necessary

I won’t tell you that my way is the best way or the only way. But I will promise that if you follow this short guide, your hands will be warm enough to fish effectively. I’m sure there are other ways. But here is mine . . .

I need my fingers available for changing flies, tying leader knots, stripping line, unhooking trout and doing a hundred other tasks on the water. So standard gloves are not a solution.

Fingerless wool gloves are my favorite. And here’s why . . .

Fox River Mid-Weight Wool

We all know wool stays warm when wet. And your hands will get wet throughout the day. Other materials can provide a similar insulation when wet, but it’s hard to beat what natural wool can do.

Fox River offers two thicknesses of their wool gloves. You might think that thicker is better, but in this case it isn’t. I find the heavyweight ragg wool gloves more cumbersome. They take away much-needed dexterity. I do have them in my road bag for the coldest days. But in the last few years, I’ve discovered that I’d rather double up with two pair of mid-weight wool gloves rather than wear one pair of the heavyweight. Live and learn.

Truth is, the mid-weight gloves do the job down into the low twenties. If you dress the rest of your body properly and you keep moving, your hands are fine in these gloves until it’s time to break out the heat packs. (More on that below.)

The wool gloves are inexpensive, but they last a long time. They’re also easily washed and dried in a regular laundry cycle.

I pair them up, wrapped with two rubber bands. Bunched like this, they are easily stashed away, and I carry an extra, dry set in the back of my vest.

Buy Fox River Fingerless wool gloves here (and support Troutbitten)

When I put on the gloves, I take the rubber bands and wrap them around my palms. This isn’t critical, but I like what the rubber bands do there. Since the gloves are not left of right handed, a bit of extra material can bunch up a little in the palm. The rubber bands serve to tighten up the fit. I like that. The rubber bands also give back a little grip to the palm that the wool takes away. Again, this is minor. But it’s just a good place to store the bands while wearing the gloves too. Lastly, the rubber bands sometimes help hold a heat pack to the back of my hand.

Let’s get to that . . .

Hot Hands

I don’t go winter fishing without hand warmers. As soon as the temps drop below forty-five or so, usually in the fall season, I stock my vest. In the fiercest weather they’re critical, but even on mild winter days, nothing brightens your spirit of determination better than a shot of heat radiating up your arm as you squeeze a heat pack.

Have the heat ready before you need it — that’s the key. Hot Hands take a half hour or more to reach full burn, but they’ll stay warm for your whole trip if you keep them isolated in a wind protected, insulated pocket.

Buy Hot Hands in bulk here (and support Troutbitten)

On winter days I open a couple pair of hand warmers before I reach my destination. Stashed away in a deep pocket with some rags for insulation, they warm up as I get my gear together and walk in. Then at the first sign of a chill the heat is there for me.

Buy extra Hot Hands in bulk, and you can find them for fifty cents each. Even if you use a few packs on each trip, you probably still spend more money on tippet at the end of an eight hour day.

Warm pockets are one thing, but to really keep your hands warm, do this . . .

Wrist bands | Warm hands

Here is the real trick to keeping your fingers operable in even the single digits.

Take a warm heat pack and place it against the bottom of your wrist, under the cuff of the wool gloves. Yes, right against the skin.

Now use a wrist band to hold the pack in place and further insulate the heat. All of this should also be under your shirt and coat sleeves.

The blood traveling to and from your hands passes through the wrist, just under the skin. The wristband presses the warm pack into your skin, and you will actually feel the heat travel up your arm. Ahhhhhhhhh. It’s like drinking hot coffee on a cold day. It warms you from the inside. And the blood flowing to your fingers is constantly heated beyond what your body provides. So, so good.

Glomitt

Fingerless gloves with a fold over mitten (glomitt) are a solid option too. I used them in the coldest weather for a few years. The extra material in the mitten keeps your hands warmer, even when folded over the back of your hand. And it’s nice to use the mitten on the way to the next spot upstream.

But I don’t like how often my line catches on the fold over mitten. I often employ the rubber band on my palm to further lock down the folded back portion. It helps, but the line still hangs up a little too often.

When I do wear the glomitt, I often stash a hand warmer inside the mitten and lock it down with the rubber band. But depending on the design of the glomitt, a lot of heat is lost from the heat pack.

I own both the Fox River glomitt and a good pair of Simms Foldover Mittens. I like both. But I still like the mid-weight fingerless wool gloves the best.

“What has it got in its pocketses?”

Can’t help it. Great books. Wonderful movies.

 

What I’ve got in my own pocketses are warm Hot Hands and some thick rags. No matter what you do to keep your hands warm in winter, you’ll need to recharge them in a pocket once in a while. Make sure it’s a pocket that stays warm and dry, and you’re hands will stay the same, all day long.

Final stuff

It took many years to find a system for fishing all through the winter. But I quickly realized that it starts with the fingers.

— Keep them dry. When you release a fish, dry your hands immediately, especially when it’s windy. Carry a couple dry rags and store them away from the cold.

— I mentioned above that in the coldest conditions I double up on gloves. In fact, I keep those two pair together when I take them off, because it’s easier to get them back on. They kind of bond together after a while and seem like one thicker, dexterous glove.

— And when the wind is really howling, when the trout are fixed in slow pools and I can’t move much, when I need the extra heat, I slide another heat pack underneath both gloves to rest against the back of my hand. Once again, the rubber band holds it in place. With direct heat on the back of your hand and under your wrist, you’re a cold blooded lizard if you can’t stay warm.

All of that leads to the next article, about keeping the rest of your body protected and comfortable while fly fishing for wild trout all winter long.

READ NEXT: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing in the Winter — Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Stay warm, friends. And keep fishing.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

 

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Mark Denovich

Great advice. You helped me realize I am way too stingy with my heat packs. I will not make that mistake again this winter.

Alex Argyros

Great tips! Do you have any advice for keeping the rest of the body warm? Jackets, thermal underwear, etc.

hikingout

Went out today and it was only in the 40’s and realized I was way underprepared for the cold. Managed to tough it out but could barely tie knots most of the day.

Do you change your approach to netting/handling fish in the winter to keep your hands out of the water? Do you break more flies off instead of trying to un-snag them? Should I handle a fish at all with wool gloves?

I landed a few fish by hand and my arms were frozen the rest of the day once my hands and arm got a little wet.

Kevin Kane

Take an extra Hot hands and stuff it down the front of your waders. Keeping the twins happy will keep you on the water longer.

Jason Nicholas

Great advice! I’m eager to hear your tips for toes. I can keep every part of my body warm and toasty, even in the teens, but the toes are a constant battle. I’ve tried every sock I can find including battery operated socks. Nothing holds the temperature. My latest attempt is to put the heated packs on my toes but they go out after a while from the lack of oxygen. The only way to keep them working is to run some aquarium tubing into your toes and blow air down there from time to time. Drives me crazy, but… Read more »

thomas murphy

excellent, I was freezing my fingers off this weekend….forgot to toss my box of handwarmers back in the car. But I have never done the put it on my wrist trick. I have cold hands a lot of the time and been frostbitten etc. I am going to give this a shot.

chadp

I used wool early on then fleece then Sims fold-overs. I moved away from the wool because barbed (gasp!) hooks don’t play well together. i use the Sims mostly now, but they haven’t held up very well ( i’ve sewed seams many time). I like the rubber band, wrist band and heat pack tricks.
great article. thanks for sharing all your experiences

This is a great one! Cold hands are the worst…especially when you accidentally puncture a finger with a hook and fail to even realize it until you look down and see you’ve caught the biggest fish in the river (yourself). And now I’m going shopping for wrist bands, brilliant idea! Quick hack on getting those Hot Hands nice and toasty real quick: open them up at home and place them on the dash during your drive to the stream because you’ll inevitably have the defroster going full blast. Thanks as always for the great reading that pairs well with my… Read more »

michael maynard

Nice article, Dom; I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. We don’t have a winter season here but our ‘spring’ usually resembles February even into mid May. Like the comment by Chad above, I too started off with wool and switched when I thought I needed a ‘better product’. I bought a pair of the Simms foldover glomitts and immediately regretted the money spent. The quality was terrible, seams coming apart, the sizing horrendously small… I’ve gone back to wool and been happy ever since.

[…] you haven’t checked out his latest article, definitely do it. Dom goes over some tricks for fly fishing in the winter and saving your fingers. You know I’ll be all over those tips to keep my digits […]

Bill Derhammer

Dom, Do you go one size larger when using Fox River mitten, say a large then a XL over that?

Tomas

Dang, I just bought some gloves this spring and I did NOT know about the wool. Good stuff. Another great hack was the tip about the handwarmers on your wrists. I’m kinda worried about cutting off my circulation with those rubber bands, though. I guess I’ll have to give a whirl first, then adjust. One thing I just bought was a little burner that fits on top of a single propane tank. I plan to bring some water and a little pot and make tea if I get too cold! Warm up on the inside. That’s the plan anyway.

Do use cotton wristbands? Are there wristbands available in a ‘wickier’ material?

Jim Wilkie

Ditto to the previous commenters. Great article with great tips. Was just out in some morning freezing temps the other day and thinking, “Wonder how Dom gears up for this? Sure would like to see some articles on winter gear (and other gear too).” Looks like I get my wish. Karma I guess. Thanks for a great website, btw. Has been a real resource in upping the enjoyment of my nymphing game.

Jeff Gorton

I love the heat pack on the wrist idea! Thank you for that. I fish a ton in the winter and have been using wool liners under surgical gloves which is adequate and allows me to feel the fly line but not as well I am certain as your method. I will give it a try – maybe even a combination of the two. I am new to Euro Nymphing and have found your articles very helpful. Thanks again!

Clint Brumitt

Domenick, I like so much of your website, it is well thought out and presented so anyone could read and benefit from it. I would like to add one thing that I do in addition to your excellent thoughts on keeping the hands warm. Years ago I found some polypropylene liner gloves. Most of the time I will use them under the wool finger less glove. My thought here is to keep everything warm and not to let it get cold in the first place. The poly can keep warmth even when wet. (As long as the wind isn’t an… Read more »

Jeff Gorton

I am inerested in where you got the polypro liners. I am thinking they would be incredibly thin and the feel next to normal. I am interested in trying them under surgical gloves and with a heat pack on the wrist on really cold days. Can you give me a source. Mind you, I’ve not researched it as I am writing this post but would love to give it a shot!

Clint Brumitt

Jeff, I bought them years ago at an outdoor store in Medford, OR called the Blackbird. I moved from that community in 2005 and do not know if they still carry such an item. My best guess in today’s world would be to use the internet. Stores like REI and Dick’s sporting Goods might be worthy places to begin. Of course you have the Cabela’s and its similar stores as well.
Sorry I cannot be more specific but doing a Google search in this day and age should also yield some results.

Randal

Aquaphor hand lotion, petroleum jelly crates a wind and waterproof barrier

Domenick Swentosky
BELLEFONTE, PA

Hi. I'm a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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