Fly Fishing in the Winter — Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
There are links to products below. When you purchase through any of these links, your price stays the same, but I get a percentage of each sale, and you support this company, Troutbitten.
All of these are good deals. And it’s gear that I’ve used extensively and believe in. That’s always the way it will be here.
Learn more about this on the Troutbitten Links 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.
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.
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.(These are similar)
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.
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.
And I like this one to wear as a second insulating layer when it’s colder.
But in the coldest weather? Oh my, the nano puff tech is fantastic.
At times, I also wear an old vest that one 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.
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:
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.
I thought about buying these ones from Patagonia, because he recommended them.
But I ended up spending less on these. I love them.
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.
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.
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.
Lifetime warranty on socks? They aren’t kidding. I love these.
Here are the thicker wool socks I use.
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.
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.
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.
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 time, we’ll dive into a series of tactics for winter fishing. Stay tuned . . .
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N