A lot of time is spent talking and writing about winter fishing and how to go about it. What is not talked or written much about is, how to stay warm. Staying warm and comfortable is the real challenge to winter fishing. Over the years of winter steelhead fishing I have spent a lot of time standing in some really cold water. I have experienced some of my greatest days and some of the most miserable days during the winter.
As a guide I have spent a lot of time talking to clients before we fish, during the winter about being prepared for the cold water. Fishermen new to this type of fishing do not realize how intense the cold water is, or how fast it can drain the heat out of their bodies. It is hard to concentrate on your fishing when you are so cold that you cannot see straight. Not to mention when you are running and jumping on the riverbank to warm up. I have found it a lot harder to fish properly while doing all of those calisthenics on the riverbank.
A good friend of mine put it best: "it is all about the insulation". As simple as this is, it is all about the insulation. A common mistake that I see all the time is that fishermen are dressing for the air temperature instead of the water temperature. This mistake is made especially during a winter warm spell. The warm sun can trick you into venturing out on stream a little too lightly dressed. The air temperature may be in the mid 40s degrees, but these winter warm spells will mean snowmelt that will cause the rivers to rise. That can make a lot of cold water. It will take a few good layers of clothing, to keep the cold water from draining the heat out from lower body.
The key to keeping warm is in the layering of clothing and how that layering is done, from the long underwear to the socks and out to the waders and wading coat. It is not how much clothing, but what type and how it is incorporated into a layering system that will keep you warm.
Keeping Warm - First layer:
The first step is to stay dry. I am not talking about the river water but the moisture that is always coming from your body. The moisture from your body can make you just as wet as those lovely holes that we keep finding in our waders. Moisture wicking long underwear is a must. I like the long underwear made from Polar-Tex the best. Use the expedition weight in both tops and bottoms. You will want the heaviest you can find. I have put on two pair of lighter weight, to get the warmth I need. Remember to keep your feet warm. You must keep the rest of your body warm and that means your legs. Your feet can become blocks of ice and your legs can still feel fine. The problem is that all the heat in your blood is used to keep your legs warm, and your feet will freeze. Just like a non-insulated hot water pipe, all the heat is used before it gets to where it is going. As for the feet, I like the new smart socks that are now available. One pair of smart socks followed by a larger pair of wool socks over the first pair. I will sometimes use two pair of wool socks over the smart socks if I have enough room to do so. I do not want my feet packed in to the boots too tightly.
Polar-Tex fleece is the ideal choice for the second layer. Once again tops and bottoms and go for the heaviest that is available. The fleece is also a good layer for wearing under the waders. When it comes to the extra layers on top a fleece coat or a wool shirt or even a wool sweater is a good choice. I will add layers or take off layers on my upper body, depending on how cold or warm the water or my activity might be. It is still important to be using clothing that will wick moisture away from the body.
This is where the waders and wading coat will come into play. When it comes to the waders, forget about the light breathable waders. This is boot foot neoprene time of the year. There is no way you can cram enough clothes into a pair of breathable waders, to keep your feet warm. When it comes to keeping your feet warm, boot foot waders will help to keep the water pressure away from your feet, and add a little air space. For really cold water 5 mm neoprene is always the best. However some fishermen like three or four mm neoprene. Waders with removable boot liners are a big help with staying warm. Remember to dry the feet thoroughly after each day of fishing. There is nothing like putting on a pair of wet cold waders first thing in the morning.
There is nothing like Gore-Tex, when it comes to a wading coat. It is breathable, waterproof and wind proof. I like a coat that has large pockets, so I can carry a box or two of flies and a few tools and some tippet; I like to fish light during the winter. There are a few good wading coats that are not made from Gore-Tex that are available. They are less expensive but they are not as breathable as the Gore-Tex, but they do work just fine.
Next to the feet, the hands are the hardest to keep warm. They are always getting wet and the wind is constantly blowing. Some days it seems almost impossible to warm your finger. One trick that I use is to carry a towel around my neck to dry off my hands and I will always carry a pair of extra gloves with me. I like to use gloves that have a long wrist the long wrist helps to keep the fingers a little warmer. For most winter fishing fingerless gloves made of wool or fleece will work just fine. Another thing that you can do is to stick a chemical heat pack into one of your pockets. These heat packs can be a big help on a day when your hands are constantly getting wet.
As I have said the real challenge to winter fishing is to stay warm and comfortable. If you are not comfortable there is no way you can concentrate on your fishing. Winter fishing, is supposed to be fun and not something to be endured. Just remember the old saying, you can always take it off if you get too warm.