Winter fishing can be a blast. Or it can be a miserable experience. And almost always, the difference between the two comes in how you dress before you hit the water. Investing in a few key pieces of clothing can make a big difference in your winter fishing, and can keep you fishing right through the season. Why fly fish in the winter? In my opinion, the lessons you learn on the water in the lean months go a long way toward making you more successful when the weather turns over in the spring. Fish will still eat a fly all winter long, and you find them in spots where they feel the safest and can expend the least amount of energy to get some easy calories. This same behavior occurs in the regular season. Figuring out how to make lock-jawed fish eat in the winter makes your success in the regular season more likely and pays off in big dividends. To really enjoy your time on the water, dressing the part is the first step.
My winter fishing starts with quality synthetic long underwear, and good wool or synthetic socks. Some people like to double layer their socks, wearing a thin silk or synthetic layer under a thicker insulating sock of wool or fleece. While this is a great approach for ice fishing, when you’re largely stationary, it isn’t ideal for fly fishing. Double layers under a neoprene wader bootie is a recipe for bunching up and folding over and generally making for a real pain in the ass foot issue when combined with lots of walking and wading. Trying to unlace a frozen boot to fix a folded sock in your waders is the worst. Rather than double layer your feet, get a study winter sock designed for fly fishing from Simms, Patagonia, or another reputable company and make sure it fits.
Long underwear is a must, and most days I’ve got a couple of pairs on. A mid-weight bottom layer and a thick fleece layer. Why? Because warming the blood going to those feet is more important, and we’re standing in the water. Sometimes those two layers are bolstered by winter fly fishing bottoms, the kind that look pretty dumb but better than walking into the convenience store in your waders. When you’re planning on standing in a river in the winter, then trudging through snow from spot to spot, your leg insulation becomes that much more important.
I don’t use neoprene waders much anymore, so my waders and boots are the same that I’ll use all season long. But I spend extra time making sure those neoprene booties and socks are comfortable in the boots before I leave the truck, and that my laces are tied well. I’ve done enough messing with frozen boots and numb fingers in the past to know that if they aren’t comfortable when you leave the truck, you’re in for a long day.
Layers are the key on the top of the body as well. I do the same on the top as the bottom, which is a thin layer of long underwear, and lots of wool and fleece between me and a nice weatherproof shell. Often we’ll roll around in a nice comfortable jacket most of the winter while we’re running errands and in and out of the house. Don’t take this one fishing, get a quality shell that will keep wind and sudden piercing snowstorms at bay. All too often a bright and sunny day that looks right for winter fly fishing can be a lot colder in the shadows of a river canyon with the wind pushing plumes of snow in your face from time to time. A good shell with a hood is the key to happiness when these situations arise.
Anything else? Yep. I want a good warm beanie, a buff, and fingerless gloves. I sometimes pack a pair of shell mittens to stuff my hands into when they’re really cold, but I’ve found if you layer right on your upper body, your hands can stay nice and warm with just a cheap pair of fleece fingerless gloves, and allow you to still have the dexterity to tie on flies, feel your line and do all those fishy things we’re hoping to do in the first place. There is a growing offering of gloves made specifically for flyfishing that are completely waterproof, and if you’ve got the budget these can be an awesome addition to your arsenal.
Lastly, a few accessories are a good thing to carry in your rig, throughout the winter. The kinds of things that come in very handy if you have the kind of emergency like dunking your waders or slipping through the ice. A fleece blanket and a couple of towels and a change of clothes can go a long way when disaster hits.
Dressing for fly fishing in the winter doesn’t have to be complicated. But investing in a good layering system is well worth the money, and can help open up the hidden season of winter fly fishing and keep you comfortable all season long.