Just the title alone sounds like an oxymoron. I’ve pretty much become a wuss since moving south some years ago. I get cold at about sixty degrees nowadays, so much for my Canadian heritage. But we do get our fair share of actual cold weather here in the south. Maybe it’s not enough to freeze our lakes over but it does drop the water temperatures into the high or at times even the low forties. The fish do get a little lethargic in those temperatures but they still eat every day. So in the south it’s not a matter of if the fish are biting but rather just how much of the elements are you willing to endure?
I guess one of the biggest things to remember in winter fly fishing is to dress in layers. You can always take something off if it gets a little warmer but you can’t add on what you don’t have. Wear thermal underwear, preferably the wicking kind that draws the moisture away from your body to keep you dry. Moisture is the biggest problem with staying warm so do everything to avoid get wet in the first place. Put a tee-shirt over those and add a sweat shirt or flannel shirt next. Follow those up with an insulated vest then a hooded jacket.
Be sure to have at least one pair of gloves with you. There are two kinds of good gloves for fishing. First there are the neoprene ones that are water proof and keep you from getting wet and hold in heat like a wet suit. Then there are the wool versions. These you can get wet yet they still retain heat keeping you warm. Just wring them out if you do immerse them in the water and they’re as good as new.
With both of these types there is then the consideration of full fingered, half fingered and ones with removable mitten tips. While they’re the warmest, with the full fingered gloves it can be difficult to handle fly line making the half fingered more casting friendly. With half your finger expose you have both feel and dexterity. But at times you can get cold with these and may want the full fingered ones to warm you up making the removable mitten ones appear just right. Yet the folded back mittens are magnets for catching fly line coils or at least they are with my casting abilities. Any glove beats no glove and then there’s always your pocket with a butane heater in it to warm you up no matter which glove you choose.
A good wool cap or Gore-Tex hat will go a long way in keeping you warm. Most body heat is lost through the tops of our heads so keep it covered. Some of us have more of a problem with this than others if you know what I mean. A wind stopping neck/face gaitor is great on windy days or when motoring down a lake. Wind chill is a big deal when the temps are already near freezing.
Don’t neglect your lower body when dressing for the cold. Again, thermal underwear and/or insulated pants will keep you warm and happy throughout the day. Even if it isn’t raining or snowing, wear your rain suit as a wind break to keep the heat in and the cold out. Sometimes I just wear my waders in the boat as a wind, rain and snow deterrent. Bib overall type rain suits are awesome for cold weather fishing. Just add a good pair of boots to keep your feet warm and dry. Staying dry is one of the keys to staying warm which will go a long way to keeping you happy on the water on a cold winter’s day. The fish cooperating can almost make up for being cold…almost.
And part two of a successful time out on the water is to make sure you’re using a cold water fly line and not a tropical one. Having the wrong line will aggravate you to no end as the tropical line will behave as well as a frozen garden hose being stiff and wound in little curls as it comes off the spool making it incapable of shooting through the guides at all. Even with a cold water line, after you pull it off the spool, stretch it. This one minute act will save you from tons of frustration. Stretch out three feet of line at a time and hold it tight for several seconds before slowly releasing the tension. This will ensure that you have a straight and limp line that will shoot through your rod guides smoothly.
If I were to add one last bit of advice from the, I wish I would do this myself file, it would be to pre-rig flies BEFORE you get to the lake. By this I mean to take several of your favorite fly patterns and a couple of spares and tie them to a length of tippet material with a loop to loop connection on the other end. Coil these in loops and put them into individual Ziploc bags for storage. Now when you want to change flies, colors or sizes, or even if you break a fly off, all you have to do to re- rig is loop the tippet to the matching loop on the end of your leader. This way you don’t have to try and tie multiple knots with stiff fingers. I always remember that I should have done this after I’ve been trying for ten minutes to make just one blood knot on a blustery day. You’ve been told.
It’s getting into the heart of winter but the diehards among us never stop fishing. In fact, many of the largest warm water fish are caught at this time of year! So prepare yourself and your gear for the cold and get out there and do me proud! Anyone else out there winter fishing, send me a photo of your catch (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll get it out there for all to see. Good luck!