Fly Fishing in the Winter — Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

by | Nov 21, 2018 | 20 comments


** NOTE: This is Part Two of a Troutbitten series on fly fishing for trout through the winter months. The full series is found HERE. **

Yesterday afternoon topped off at thirty-eight degrees. That’s warm for a winter fisherman. I had five hours until dark, and I knew the temp would drop a bit at the end. There wasn’t much wind, no sun, and I had a long walk upstream to start my day. I thought about all those factors when I lifted the hatch of my SUV. Staring at the big bag of winter gear that goes with me everywhere, I knew exactly what to wear.

What follows below is my own system for staying comfortable (enough) while fishing the winter months. Soft, snowy days in the silent forest, with the solitary song of flowing water passing by are my favorite. I prefer January over July. I welcome the first crisp days of fall and the wool gloves that come with me.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing in the Winter — Your Hands

The cold-weather gear in my big gray duffel got there by trial and error — years of it. I learned from others, and I listened. But I also needed time on the water to discover what choices matched my own goals. You’ll find your own system too. Maybe you already have. And maybe a couple of these tips will help you stay a little warmer for a little longer, so you can catch a few more fish.

The Struggle

It gets rough out there. That’s the truth. You can pretty easily ward off cold and wind in the thirties. It’s more challenging in the twenties. It gets hard to stay warm in the teens, and it can be damn miserable in single digits.

The winter angler has (or develops) something inside the soul that longs for these moments. It’s a chance to meet Mother Nature and exist together. We survive. And we enjoy the struggle.

Around here, most winter days are easy enough if you dress for the weather. But I’ve fished into the single digits too, and that requires a desire to overcome and outlast something difficult — to persist. It becomes more than just a fishing adventure.


Wear More

My grandfather said it, and yours probably did too: “It’s not too cold. You’re just not wearing enough.”

Simple, right? And so true. There’s no point in being under-dressed. Wear more than you believe is necessary. Start there. Then take off and stow away a layer that you may not need — you may be happy for it later.

I wear a fishing vest with a large pocket in the back to store extra layers. Some guys choose a backpack. I also roll up fleece shirts lengthwise and store them inside my waders above my belt, at the small of my back.

Whatever it takes, right?

The Reserve

I keep an extra-dense fleece shirt with me on the colder days. I press it tight into a Ziploc bag, and it packs light. Just knowing I have that extra layer available keeps me warmer.

It’s the same with an extra pair of gloves and a spare hat. These things go with me all the time. Dry gear and extra layers keeps me fishing when the next cold front blows in.


On a wintry river, nothing keeps you warm for long unless you move.

Maybe you think it’s best to fish close to the car. No one is fishing that water today, so why not wade in right by the parking lot? Instead, do the opposite.

Start the day with a brisk walk upstream to build up some body heat. And any time the chill starts biting at you, get out of the water and relocate. Take a walk upstream. If there’s any snow on the ground, you won’t have to go far before your body core is warm enough again to send warm blood to the ends of your limbs.

Really, that’s all it takes. Move more.

Photo by Austin Dando

The Gear

I’m not the guy who spends $500 on a fishing coat. So you’ll see here, that I often find a more economical route.

That said, there are some things to spend a little money on. Outdoor clothing tech has come a long way, so take advantage of it. The right layers are a good long term investments in your fishing life. Just look for sales.

The Links

There are links to products below. When you purchase through any of these links, your price stays the same, but Troutbitten receives a percentage of each sale, So thank you for your support.

All of these are good deals. And it’s gear that I’ve used extensively and believe in. That’s how it always is here.

Learn more on the Troutbitten Recommended Gear page, where you’ll find every product linked to, site-wide.


I wear three hats.

The trick to all of this is to allow your body to cool off when it needs to, but to preserve that built-up heat when you aren’t producing it.

I walked in about a mile yesterday. So I wore only the ball cap. When I arrived streamside, I put a thin fleece hat under my ball cap, and I fished that way for about an hour. By the time a cool breeze picked up, I’d been slowly working a deep flat for a while. As soon as I felt the chill, I put my stocking cap over top of the ball cap. That was enough for the rest of the day.

Here’s the thin hat. I like it because it also cover my ears (unlike most thin liner-style caps) and because of the micro-fleece lining.

Thin, with a micro-fleece interior, and it covers the ears. The perfect hat for layering.

Buy TrailHeads Winter Beanie HERE


When three hats isn’t enough, I wear a balaclava.

This is my best friend in the winter. I know, you probably have a Buff with a skull face on it or something, or maybe a pretty brown trout pattern printed on it. That’s great. But I’m talking about a thick fleece balaclava to keep your head, neck and face warm all day long.

Balaclavas like this are efficient. Keep it around your neck until the wind kicks in. Then bring it over the top like a hood. And when you really want to feel warm, put the thick fleece over your face. Breath into the fleece. The heat from your lungs circulates under the fleece and warms your neck and face. So, so good.

God bless the Balaclava.

Grim Reaper

Buy Balaclava Fleece Hood HERE


I have two styles of balaclavas now. In addition to the one above, I carry a thinner one that my Mom made for my boys. She made it smaller for them, but it turns out to be a perfect choice for when I want less bulk and a little extra warmth. If you ask nice, maybe Mom will make one for you too. But if Mom says no, these Turtle Fur Neck Warmers are very similar.

Buy Turtle Fur Fleece Heavyweight Neck Warmer HERE

We all know we lose most of our body heat from the head. We lose it from the neck too. So keep it all covered.


You probably already know about base layers and such things. Every other winter clothing article online covers that. Don’t wear cotton. You should know that too.

We move a lot while wading a river. And there are periods of time where those movements are strenuous and build up body heat. Trapping that heat is great, for a while. But trapping the moisture (sweat) isn’t. It makes you cold when you stop. And you will stop. Juxtaposed with the periods of activity are long lengths of time standing in slow water where you will get cold.

Base layers should be thinner layers that wick away your sweat so it can evaporate.

Wool clothing isn’t what it used to be. My Merino wool base layer is soft, moisture-wicking and odor repellent (pretty much).

Buy Meriwool Midweight Baselayer HERE


Insulating layers are next. I like simple fleece tops that I can layer on or stow away for later. I wear this this one after the base layer.

I have a couple layers like these. I always choose something that zips up tightly onto my neck.

Buy Marmot Sweater Fleece Pullover HERE


And I like this one to wear as a second insulating layer when it’s colder.


A very good, affordable fleece jacket. I’ve had mine for five years.

Buy Columbia Steens Mountain Full Zip 2.0 Fleece HERE


But in the coldest weather? Oh my, the new style of Primaloft insulated jackets, offered by many different companies, are fantastic.

Buy North Face ThermoBall Eco Insulated Jacket HERE


At times, I also wear an old vest that once belonged to my grandfather. It is polyester fill. Not as warm as the new stuff, but almost. And I like the nostalgia of it. I like the memories of him.

Pap’s vest

A good shell is your final layer. It should be windproof, because the winter wind is a thief. It cuts through and pulls away stored body heat from your insulated layers if you don’t keep it out.

I spent decent money on a Patagonia shell some year back. It’s the first time I had something 100% windproof like this, and I was amazed. I’ve been thankful for it ever since. Here’s what I wear:

My friends are tired of seeing me in this. I wear it everywhere.

Buy Patagonia Men's Adze Jacket Here


My other favorite outer layer is the Simms Bulkley. It truly is the perfect insulated wading jacket / cold-weather fishing coat. I did a full review a while back

READ: Troutbitten | Gear Review: Simms Bulkley Wading Jacket

Buy the Simms Bulkley Wading Jacket HERE


By now, you might be wondering why everything is black. Fair question. Mostly, because black absorbs the sun better than anything else, and I’ll take everything I can get on the cold winter days.

One more thing: make sure all these layers have zippers. It’s so easy to let out some steam by just unzipping for a while. Dissipate that excess heat, and then zip up fifteen minutes later.


The bottom layer stuff follows the same concept as up top. Only difference is you won’t be taking layers on and off throughout the day. Whatever is under you waders is staying there, so choose wisely.

I have a few different options for base layers and insulating pants. They are mostly polyester and fleece, just like up top.

However, my friend convinced me last year to buy nano puff pants. He fishes from a boat a good bit, and floating makes you cold — you don’t get the chance to build up much body heat.

Here they are.


These pants are not cut to be flattering. You won’t go out to dinner in these. But they are form fitting and the perfect insulating layer under waders.

Buy Patagonia Nano Puff Pants Here


These are so warm that I can’t wear them until temps get into the low twenties. Seriously. They are toasty.

Should you wear breathable waders or neoprene? I strongly recommend staying with breathables. Sure, neoprene insulates, but it doesn’t breath at all. You can vary the amount of insulation under your breathable waders to suit the conditions. You’ll stay warm.

In my day . . .

. . . we didn’t have all this polyester, breathable, wicking double insulated nonsense. A windproof shell was a rubber slicker. It was one size fits all and one color. It kept the rain out and the heat it. All of it — until you sweat so much that your body temperature plummeted if you slowed down. So you kept moving until you were exhausted. “That’s the way it was and we liked it!”

Seriously, though. I grew up in the eighties. The winter coat I remember most was denim, with a flannel liner — that’s cotton over cotton, man.

Technical fabric has come a long way in a short time. An angler who wants to fish can stay warm in any weather. We just have to dress for it.


Just like the hands, keeping my toes warm was tough at first. It took me years before I finally did the obvious. I bought bigger boots, just for the winter months.

Buy a size larger than your normal boot size, and you can fit three pair of wool socks in them.

Boot foot waders are another option, but I prefer to stay with stocking foot waders because I hike a lot while fishing. I want the support of a solid boot. I can fit up to three pair of thick wool socks inside the neoprene bootie, and by upsizing the boot, I have the room to put it all in there.

I’m a big fan of Simms Freestone boots. They provide solid support and hold up well. Great boot for the money.

Solid boots that take a beating, with great foot support. I’ve been wearing these since about 2003. I wear the soles out before the uppers ever do.

Buy Simms Freestone Wading Boots Here


When I don’t need three pair of wool socks, I put a dense foam insole in my upsized boots to take up the extra space. Cushion is nice there too. I tried a few different insole solutions until I landed on ProFoot. These are a great insoles for boots that stay wet all the time. I’ve used one pair for four year, so far.

These are the perfect insole to take up space in your wading boot when you don’t need three pair of socks.

Buy ProFoot Insole Here


Some guys recommend a thin poly sock as a first layer. I don’t find that necessary if you buy the right sock. I wore whatever the local department store had for a long time. But after I bought Darn Tough socks from Vermont, I haven’t worn anything else. They have a full lineup, but these are the ones I wear daily.

All day, everyday.

Buy Darn Tough Merino Wool Socks Here


Lifetime warranty on socks? They aren’t kidding. I love these.

Here are the thicker wool socks I use.

Only for the coldest waters.

Buy Darn Tough Mountaineering Socks Here


For many years, my winter routine included toe warmers. I still have them in my bag if I need them, but the third pair of wool socks usually does the trick. But remember, I move a lot. If you plan to fish cold water in slow pools, you might need toe warmers.

Buy ’em in bulk.

Buy HotHands Toe Warmers in Bulk Here


Quick tip on these toe warmers: They are designed to heat in low oxygen environments. But they do need SOME oxygen. Get them warm before you apply them. And hours later, if they seem cold, take your boot off and let some air down into the foot of the waders for a second. The warmers will heat up again.

It’s important to realize that heat retention is about air space. That’s what insulation does — it traps warm air for us. So if you cram your big foot, with three socks and a neoprene bootie, into a wading boot without enough space, your feet will be cold anyway. The only way to keep your toes warm is to give them enough space and enough insulation. And then move once in a while.

Big Gray.

Buy Nexpak Tactical Duffle Bag Here

Wrap up

That’s about everything contained in my heavy duffel bag. Then there are flashlights, fly boxes, nippers, rubber bands, electrical tape and a bunch of other stuff, but that’s another story for another article.

Remember to circle back and find the Winter Hands article from last week, if you haven’t already. Nothing is more important than warm hands on the water.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing in the Winter — Your Hands

What’s the best way to keep your hands warm? Keep enough body heat around you head, shoulders, knees and toes, and the hands can survive anything out there.

Next, it’s time to dive into the tactics for winter fishing. You can find this ongoing Troutbitten series under the category, Winter Fishing.

READ: Troutbitten |Category | Fly Fishing in the Winter


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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

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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Be part of the Troutbitten community of ideas.
Be helpful. And be nice.


  1. Wow, dude, you have nailed it! Spectacularly intelligent and helpful article. Your observations are spot on.

    • Cheers, Kerry.

  2. This is the most important article ever written. Period.

    • Ha. Roger that. Can’t fish if you can’t stay out there.

  3. Right on! Layering is the key and cotton your enemy!

  4. Really enjoyed this article very much. Especially the tip about starting away from your vehicle to build up some body heat.

  5. Dana Carvey as Walter Brennan: priceless. And you’re right; back in the day we didn’t have all this great stuff, …and we liked it! No, not really. We were cold, wet, and miserable. Like Walter Cronkite said: “And that’s the way it is.” My grandfather would have used the occasion to say something about the ‘bull strength and ignorance’ of youth. This was a great article, Dom. Very well written, nicely done.

    • Thanks Mike.

  6. Ditto to what the others have said here. Love the series idea for articles, btw. And I’ll definitely use the links since it will save a lot of trial and most of all, errors. And it helps support the site as well.
    My two cents worth on this subject are that on my feet I put on a pair of knee high orthopedic compression socks first. Used to do this in business when on my feet for very long periods. They add no bulk and keep the blood from pooling, all without constriction.
    Anyway, thanks again for the great site and worthwhile articles. A rarity in the digital universe.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Jim. And I really appreciate the support.

  7. Good sh*t, man. Really good. Thank you. I just bought a Patagonia puff jacket about a week before this came out. So, sorry I couldn’t buy it here, but I’m pumped that you recommend it. 🙂 I had never even heard of the balaclava. I was like, “The Greek puff pastry thing?” I may have to pick one up, although the reviews say they fog up your glasses. I guess that’s only if you have it over your nose.

    • LOL. Greek puff pastry.

      Good point about fogging up the glasses. But yes, it’s easily avoided once you figure it out.

  8. Fantastic, informative article. I too love this time of year more than the crowded streams of late spring, however I am a bit apprehensive to wander deep into state game lands as hunting season kicks in. I have personal experience of being fired upon when crossing a stream because a gentleman thought I was a buck. He admitted he didn’t spot the deer, just heard him run across the water. I bring this up because I am curious if you wear orange to distinguish yourself apart from the foliage for safety, employ other tactics to avoid such run-ins, or have experienced anything like this. Maybe I’m a bit too cautious, but I tend to lean towards less remote spots just after rifle season opens.

    Huge fan of your writing and thank you for sharing your passion with us all.

    • Hi Collin, and thanks for the kind words about Troutbitten.

      I admit that I rarely wear orange while I’m on the stream during hunting season. I agree that I would be safer to do so. But I figure if I’m that unlucky, then it’s my time to go, I suppose. And I stubbornly refuse to let fear keep me from doing anything that I love. (That’s probably why I night fish a lot.)

      I guess I grew up around hunting and I know a lot of hunters. The horror stories I read or hear about are not the hunters that I know. I can’t imagine someone shooting at me and thinking I was a deer. Stray bullet someday? Sure. But again, that kind of bad luck is something I won’t operate around.

      All that said, I think we should probably wear orange while we fish during deer season. That’s good advice. My reply above is not advice, just an honest account of my own poor habits.

  9. I bought the beanie and balaclava and deployed them both on New Year’s Day. It was warm at 40 degrees so I promptly overheated and took off the beanie. Then I was just fine. The balaclava really makes a difference. Plus I look like a psycho monk in it.

  10. Dom, I just purchased a really great low cost alternative to the Patagonia Nano Puff pants that might be of interest to your readers. They are the Gen III ECWS Level 7 pants used by the US Military. I paid $25 for a new pair on Amazon vs. $179 for the Patagonia Pants. Like the Patagonia pants they are a mid-layer pant made with PrimaLoft (although it is PrimaLoft Sport vs PrimaLoft Gold in the Patagonia pants). The Military rates the Level 7 pants to -40F if you wear the whole multi-layer system. The main difference I see with the Patagonia pants are that the Level 7 pants are heavier and have thicker insulation. The PrimaLoft Gold provides more insulation per gram than PrimaLoft Sport but for fishing I am not that concerned about a few extra ounces–particularly at a savings of over $150. One tip: the pants are designed to go over multiple other layers so they are cut really big. Go down at least one size or use suspenders to keep them up.

    • Hi Rich,

      Thanks for the info. For me, those pants won’t work well under waders, because they are designed as an outer layer. I feel like they’ll be too thick, maybe TOO insulated and that will create a lot of sweat that won’t easily get to the outside layer of the pants and then through the waders. I’ve worn similar designed pants under my waders, and it’s never been very comfortable for me.

      Have you worn them yet?



      • Dom,

        I have only tried them on under my waders. It’s still too warm so I haven’t tried them fishing. These pants may be slightly different from what you have tried before. This is definitely a mid-layer with a thin slippery soft shell. I have tried on the Patagonia pants before and the shell is pretty much the same type of material. The big difference with the Level 7 pants is that the insulation is thicker and the pants are cut baggier. Worn inside my Simms waders you definitely feel like a marshmallow but I don’t feel there is any restricted mobility or uncomfortable compression. It is possible they could be too warm. In past winters I have had to wade deep and gotten very cold—possibly because of water pressure compressing insulation. Not sure the Level 7 pants will fix that problem. Simms’ new Fjord Pants specifically target the compression issue by using two layers of 300g high density, compression resistant fleece–the same material used by Navy Divers under dry suits. However like all things Simms they are very expensive at $250, so I am pretty happy to give these $25 pants a try first.

  11. Winter fishing is also my favorite time to fish. Hot seat warmers are by far the best warmers out there. They unfold to a 12×12 size and have an adhesive on one side so you can stick them on the inside of one of your jacket layers. The adhesive leaves no residue whatsoever. They stay very warm for 5 plus hours. Very comfortable in 35 degree weather last weekend. My best gear for winter fishing. Hot seat warmers .com out of Verona NJ


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

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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