Pro Tips: How to Gear Up for Winter Fly Fishing

Written by: Chip Swanson, Breckenridge Outfitters

The author guides year round in the mountains of Colorado, so he knows how to stay warm and safe.
Photos courtesy Chip Swanson

When we’re out on the river during the winter, my clients usually have a lot to say. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“My feet are like bricks!”

“Aren’t your hands cold, too, Mr. Chip?” 

“I should have dressed better”

“This is great! Can you just guide me to the bar instead? I’m frozen now.”

Since I guide year-round at 9,000 feet of altitude, I don’t have much choice about guiding in winter conditions. But other anglers do. And many people choose not to fish in the winter because the thought of standing in water when the air temperature is below freezing is miserable. Not to mention that many people who have attempted to winter fly-fish in the past may have not been prepared because they didn’t know what to expect. This is the biggest reason that people quit early or find winter fishing extremely daunting.

It doesn’t have to be! There is no bad weather, just bad gear and poor preparation. Okay, -15F does suck, but we can still catch fish . . . if that’s really what you want to do. So, to begin this series on winter fly fishing, let’s talk about what to wear. Below, I have compiled a list of layering pieces that you can add or subtract based on weather conditions. Following that, I will touch on some ideas of how to mentally and physically prepare yourself for winter torture . . . I mean fly fishing.

You’ll usually find solitude in winter, for better or worse.

Inside Out and Head to Toe

Remember that layering is key and to leave ALL cotton at home.

Base Layer: Start with a thin polypropylene or wool layer for your top and bottom.

Mid layer: This should be a slightly thicker fleece top. Followed by a very thick fleece/insulating pant. If your second pair of socks can cover this fleece layer a bit, I think it helps. 

3rd layer: soft shell, light/thin insulated jacket, or a vest can be added here

Optional 4th and 5th layers: Puffy down or Primaloft jacket and waterproof shell, depending on weather.

Socks: I wear two pairs. The first pair is a very, very thin pair of wool or synthetic ski socks. The second pair should be a very thick wool mountaineering or hiking sock. No cotton athletic socks!  Anglers from Southern states, I’m kinda looking in your direction here. No hate. Just sayin’ that it’s cold up here at 9,400 feet, y’all. Love you folks, but seriously, just get some wool socks.

Gloves: This is the big one people always ask about. To start off, I prefer using fingerless gloves, or the ones that fold over to create a mitten or glove but still allow your fingers to be exposed. I also use a pair of liner gloves with the very tips of the thumb, index and middle fingers cut off. I will often end up using both pairs during the day, so that when one pair gets wet or when I’m clumsy and drop one, I have a dry pair of gloves waiting for me. Next, having a good pair of mittens or a thick pair of ski gloves in your pack or tucked inside your jacket is essential for warm-up sessions. For advanced tactics, latex gloves offer lots of benefits when you handle fish with your bare hands or are doing a lot of line-stripping.

Notice the layering here: waterproof outer, softshell vest, fleece, and shirt. The layers trap more heat than a single garment would.

Neck gaiter, Buff, or balaclava: Keeping your neck warm is crucial. All of these options can be pulled up or down to add warmth as needed. They can also collect moisture and freeze, so having multiples can be nice, allowing you to switch them out as needed. 

Hats: Hats are fun! A simple knit hat works just fine; however, a baseball hat with a knit hat over the top of it will give you the benefit of the brim to help with sun glare, as well as keep you warm. I’m a huge fan of hoods, which can always be deployed quickly to add or remove heat.

Sunglasses: On very cloudy and overcast days, stick to non-mirrored polarized glasses (especially on waters where fish are easily spooked). On sunnier days, a mirrored lens isn’t bad, but be aware of your “stream presence.” I know I’ve spooked fish just because of a bright, mirrored lens. Just be aware. In general, stick to polarized lenses in brown, amber, or low light yellow/pink (for very overcast days).

Sunscreen: The sun can still be very intense, even on winter days. As a bonus, sunscreen can also prevent windburn. Try to apply your sunscreen in the morning as you’re getting ready at home, not stream-side. It’s too cold for that!

The Orvis PRO Collection features layering products to help you stay warm.

Wading boots: Spikes or cleats on your wading boots can be a big help. You may want to consider carbide spikes that are easy to add and remove. Leave the felt-soled boots at home because they tend to gather snow, mud, and other freezing stuff on the way to the river, making it very difficult to walk. Remember that you should be able to wiggle your toes with all your socks on; don’t cut down your circulation, which will make you cold. Choose the right size boot-wader-sock combo.

Waders: You have a couple of options here. First, buy waders big enough that you can get all your winter layers underneath, and make sure your two pairs of socks (and neoprene) fit into your boots. The other option is to have two different types of waders: Your winter set and your summer set. Spendy? Yes. Worth it if you do this enough? Yes, maybe. Even those neoprene duck-hunting waders with the attached boots can be a warm option. Other anglers (probably me) may snicker a little, but if you’re warm, who cares? This is just fishing, not a fashion show. Well, actually looking at my Instagram right now, maybe it is for some.

Hand warmers: When used correctly, these little beauties can help you out tremendously. Most people just throw them right in their gloves, but I find this the least effective method. Plus, they are always falling out whenever you take your gloves off. Want the #cheatcode that I use? Put hand warmers close to your arteries. This means you should pop them on the inside of your wrists in between your base and mid-layers. Or use a tennis wristband to hold them in place, John McEnroe style. Use the sticky warmers in other places like under armpits or behind knees if you’re really, really cold. Just don’t apply the hand warmer directly to bare skin.

There are lots of glove options out there, but the ability to use your bare fingers helps.

Towel: This is a major #cheatcode also. Use a microfiber towel or even just an old golf or dish towel to dry off your hands before placing them back in your gloves or mittens. The microfiber options are smaller and take up less space. This is also helpful for drying off gear that gets accidentally wet, like your reel or rod handle. 

Backup Clothes: Keep an extra hoodie, pair of sweat pants, pair of socks, and full-size towel in your vehicle. This can really save your butt if you take a fall into the river. If you do fall in the river and get wet, or God forbid fill your waders, you’re done for the day. Bail out immediately and get to your warm and dry layers. Hypothermia sets in very quickly.

Before heading out to fish, try on all your gear at home. Make sure all the layering selections fit under your waders (minus the big puffy and Gore-Tex layers, which will go on the outside of the waders). You might feel a little like the Michelin Man, and your wife or roommates will make fun of you, but make sure you can move around enough to crawl onto riverbanks. You don’t want to be like the kid in A Christmas Story who falls down and can’t get up because he has too many layers on, especially because you’re going to be standing (or should I say, falling) in moving rivers. 

Preparing Mind and Body

So, now that you know what to wear, how do you mentally and physically prepare yourself for this winter fishing odyssey you intend to take? 

First, get lots of sleep, hydrate, and eat a good breakfast. Eating a good, high-calorie breakfast can go a long way for warmth and longevity. Personally, I like high fats and carbs, with some sort of hot sauce or spice incorporated. Second, prepare your body by doing some stretching before you head out. In winter especially, balance on slippery surfaces is the name of the game. Give your body a fighting chance at staying upright. It’s important to know your physical limits. Remember, if wading is tough for you in the summer, it’s going to be even tougher in the winter. Consider a wading staff. And most importantly, have realistic expectations. You and your friends are probably not going to last as long as you normally would in the summer, and you should be prepared to be okay with that. You’re also probably not going to catch as many fish. Be okay with that, too.

The end goal of all this preparation is catching a fine winter trout like this one.

Do your research before you head out. Know if the water is still flowing or if it is frozen and what weather will be like throughout the day. And as part of your preparation, get organized before you leave the house. The less time you have to search for stuff or rig in cold weather, the better. That’s vital fishing time—and warmth—wasted. This can include getting your flies and bag organized, verifying you have the tippet and indicators you want, pre-rigging a couple of set-ups you think will work, and so on.

If your destination might not have cell coverage, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. The chances of having a car battery die or getting stuck are greater in the winter. There also tend to be fewer people around to help you out of the trout-induced pickle you’ve gotten yourself into on your favorite dirt road of misery. Just let someone know when and where they should be sending out the search party.

Have fun out there! Stay warm, go fish, and keep the rubber side down!

Chip Swanson, the 2019 Orvis-Endorsed Fly-Fishing Guide of the Year, works for Breckenridge Outfitters, in Breckenridge, Colorado. The next installment of his winter-fishing series will include where to find trout in the winter and different rigging techniques and tactics to find them.

3 thoughts on “Pro Tips: How to Gear Up for Winter Fly Fishing”

  1. Great info Chip. Winter is a great time to fish in Colorado. Thanks for sharing your cheat codes with us all!

  2. You are right on point. I am on the water until ice up ,here in southern Wyoming. Try waxing the eyelets to slow down the icing that will collect. A warming fire and hot soup can help extend a cold day. If possible start spending more time outside as it gets colder so you get use to it. Wear your gear and walk a snowy football field or park. Break in your clothing to see what is comfortable, free moving and warm.

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