Gearing Up for Winter Fly Fishing



Winter fly fishing is much more gear intensive than wading up a summer stream in your flip flops with a pocket full of elk hair caddis and parachute adams.  This kind of fishing is not for the minimalist hipster with his Trucker hat and Tenkara rod.  This is gear head weather.  This is merino wool and poly-pro fleece base layers, alpaca socks and scarves, down puffy jackets, water proof and “breathable” heavy duty outer shells, wind stopping skull caps, and fifty dollar underwear weather. This is camp stove and coffee back at the car, tomato soup in a thermos, brown liquor in a flask weather.  This is grow a beard and/or pack on a few extra layers of one’s own self weather.  This is the time of year that many fly fishermen (being the chief of all gear heads) look forward to with excitement and anxiety.  The time to spend extra cash maxing out a "pro-deal" account or just maxing out a credit card at a local outfitter.  The point is not to be warm and comfortable, just to be a little more warm and comfortable than the next guy.  There will be plenty of “check these out” or “you gotta try these” conversations on a frigid river bank in the next following months.  To better help you experience and survive the wonderful world of winter fly fishing, and the inevitable contests of measurement, we here at Pisgah Outdoors, by way of the Transylvania Times, would like to offer you a bit of advice on how to prepare for and enjoy your frigid, brutal, beautiful day on the water.  

The head and the heart are most important considerations when gearing up. The head looses heat the fastest, and the heart is the organ that circulates all that heat around the body.  Your parasympathetic self will also choose to keep these two organs warm first, at the peril of your outer extremities, by shunting blood in their direction when your body temperature begins to drop.  By keeping the head and the heart warm, or maybe even a little over warm, you can help ensure that the vessels in the hands, arms, legs, and feet stay well dilated and open to the flow of blood.   

Two anglers take a smoke break on a snowy bank on the Davidson River. 

Two anglers take a smoke break on a snowy bank on the Davidson River. 


A good hat and several good layers about the chest and neck will keep you out in the miserable conditions much longer than the fella who showed up in his mesh back cap and hooded sweatshirt sporting the logo of a local craft brew.  Wool and fleece are your friend and cotton is a killer.  Down can be good too, so long as you keep it dry with a solid shell.  It should go without saying that you will need a good pair of waders that do not leak, but I will say it anyway.  


You will need a good pair of waders that do not leak.  


You may also want to oversize your boots, and wear ONE GOOD PAIR of socks.  That warm heart does no good for your feet if you have cut the circulation off at your ankles.  For your layer under your waders go with something other than a pair of jeans. Jeans are made of cotton and cotton absorbs and holds moisture and does not insulate when wet.  You don’t need alpine expedition level base layers, but if you have them or want them, you certainly could.  The thickest pair of cheap fleece pajama bottoms from your local big box, hall of consumerism, more for less, small business killing, retail juggernaut will do.  

A winter angler with a chilly rainbow trout from the Davidson River

A winter angler with a chilly rainbow trout from the Davidson River


Forget the gloves.  If its too cold for you to fish without gloves, then its too damn cold for you to fish. The feel that is required to manipulate line, tie on flies, and land fish is not possible through any glove that would offer any level of protection from the cold.   Hands get cold, gloves get wet, and pockets are a wonderful and multi-use invention.  


Beards are nice if you can grow them. Scarves are nice if you are not too self conscious about them.  A beard and scarf combination is like chocolate and peanut butter.  


Winter fly fishing is a slow and methodical affair.  If the normally slow pace of fly fishing in spring and summer were honey, there is a viscosity like molasses that surrounds fly fishing in the winter.  Things happen now at a glacial speed and the fisherman must remember to slow himself as well.  The clear thick water demands the most careful presentations and efficient drifts. No need to hurry here.  The process is the experience.  Take time to dress when you arrive rather than wearing your layers, while running the heat full blast, on the drive to the river.  You won’t “build up heat” but will build up moisture that will suddenly condense (next to your skin) the moment you open the car door.  


Your feet will get cold first.  There’s really nothing you can do about this except maybe boot foot, neoprene, duck hunting waders.  These will be a dead give away that you drove up from low country South Carolina or anywhere in Georgia, and you will fall down the moment you step on a slippery rock with those rubber bottom boots. But up until your eventual spill you may have warmer feet. If you are prone to sweaty feet that get chilled, a trick I have used is to bring along a can of aerosol antiperspirant.  After removing your driving socks and before putting on your fishing socks give your feet a spray.   There may be some placebo effect here, but dry feet are warm feet.  


Your hands will be second to begin to feel the chill, but remember those wonderful inventions we mentioned earlier.  Just put them in your pockets.  


Get out of the river periodically and walk around.  Look for fish in the inky dark water and take your time.  Take breaks to sip on a hot mug of coffee or what ever warming beverage you brought from home.  Fishing with a buddy can help break the monotony and act as a check on your core body temperature.  Shivering is the first indicator that you are getting a bit too cold. Depending on what was in the thermos, if you start to notice your fishing partner has slurred speech and is more irritable than his normal self, it may be time to seek refuge back at the truck for a bit. Hypothermia is always a real concern anytime you are outdoors, but standing in cold water in mid-winter does raise the threat level a bit.  Know the signs, look for the signs, pay attention to the signs, respond to the signs when you see them.. 


Fish the lower elevation rivers that are closer to the road, your car, and safety, and are more likely to heat up mid-day for the possibility of catching a fish or two.  Those sections that are usually far too crowded during peak season, you may have to yourself.  The backcountry streams are beautiful and special this time of year, but for this fisherman its a rare day that I walk five miles with enough gear to handle a day of winter fishing.  From December to March you can usually find me with in a short distance of the Truck.  


Be safe, be relatively comfortable, and most of all be happy, that for a few hours at least, you are not confined and captive to four walls and a Netflix binge.  Ill see you out there, and if I don’t…


more water for me,