** 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Stay warm, friends. And keep fishing.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N