Winter fishing when your guides are covered with ice and you’re standing in the bitter cold water of a steelhead river requires some serious cold-weather fishing gear to keep you warm, comfortable and enjoying every winter fishing trip you go on.
Join me as we take a look at the cold weather fly fishing gear you’re going to need and that will make all the difference on a cold winter day.
What are the keys to staying warm when cold weather fishing?
Sweating Is Deadly
One of the main things you need to avoid when fly fishing in winter weather is to avoid sweat built up. Once you’re socks or base layer are wet with sweat, your chances of being warm and dry are out the window and your body temperature will quickly plummet, putting an end to your fishing trip.
The only way to avoid this is to wear a thin base layer that will wick moisture, removing any sweat built up so you stay warm in frigid temps. Look for winter clothing made of merino wool as this actively removes moisture and keeps you warm. It is the best material for a base layer.
Multiple layers of cold-weather fishing gear are a must
You probably already know this if you have ever done any cold-weather fly fishing but I’ll say it again anyway. You’re going to need at least three layers of clothing to stay warm on the water and this includes a base layer, mid-layer, and an outer layer.
We’ll discuss the right cold-weather fishing apparel that matches each layer below starting with your feet and ending at your head and hands.
Cold Weather Fishing Gear – By Body Parts
Socks & Feet
The two most important parts of keeping your feet warm are wearing clothing that removes sweat while maintaining blood flow. If your blood stops getting to your feed in the frigid temps of a cold-weather fishing trip, you’ll be back in the car before you know it.
The right things to wear on your feet are a thin layer of merino wool socks as your base and then a mid-layer thick of thermal socks made from a mixture of wool, nylon, and other synthetic fabrics such as lycra spandex.
A great option is a good pair of Simms’ OTC Thermal Sock which are specifically designed to remove sweat and keep the blood flowing.
From The Waist Down
To keep your legs and lower extremities warm, you’ll need to follow a similar layering system as we discussed above with your feet. This is where cold-weather clothing really comes into its own with the likes of long thermal underwear and fleece-lined pants.
A great option is a good pair of merino wool thermal underwear in different weights from light to mid and thermal, then you can choose which one’s suit the could weather that faces you on the day.
Merino wool thermal underwear is designed specifically to keep you warm and dry by removing sweat and insulating you well and wearing Patagonia’s Capilene thermal underwear is a great place to start.
When you add the fleeced line sweat pants on top, you’ll be ready for any kind of weather you might experience winter fly fishing or even ice fishing. You also have the option of using nanofiber pants too, especially if the cold weather is way below freezing, like when ice fishing in the northern reaches of the USA in January.
The cold weather fishing apparel I’d recommend are Simms Fjord Fleece Pants, and for when it’s really cold, Patagonia Nano Puff Pants.
Your Torso And Arms
We are going to take things a little further when it comes to the cold weather clothing you’ll need for your torso and arms, and up the layering to 3 layers instead of two. This is because your torso won’t be fully covered by your waders and unless you’re getting rained on, may be more exposed to the elements.
To start off with, you’re going to want a base that is a long-sleeved T-shirt that also wicks sweat. This should be made from merino wool or synthetic fibers like polyester or nylon which will remove any moisture from your body so you keep warm and dry no matter the weather.
This makes a huge difference to staying toasty so be sure to get this right and to use something loose-fitting as something too tight might restrict your fishing movements and blood flows.
On top of your base, you should add a fleece as fleece material is excellent at breathing at will keep you warm in serious weather. Another advantage of fleece is that you can zip it up for some extra neck protection, which is helpful when the wind is up.
To finish off, you’re going to need to wear a down jacket on top of it all. Make sure the jacket isn’t bulky and thick so you can fish in it. Something like the Patagonia Down Sweater jacket is an excellent choice for this.
The next layer you’re going to put on for both warmth and so you can catch more fish is a good pair of waders. Waders are key to winter fishing as they provide amazing waterproof protection from wet weather, wind, and they should have a hand warmer pocket too.
A nice pair of breathable waders or neoprene waders with a hand warmer pocket will do the trick. Breathable waders are a preferable option as they are lighter and easier to fish in, plus you can use them in fall, spring, and summer without overheating but they are a lot more expensive than their neoprene cousins.
Anglers on a lower budget should look to neoprene waders as they are far more affordable and they offer more insulation but wearing them in fall or spring with have you drenched with sweat in a matter of minutes. But when the cold winter fishing is really pushing the low temp limits, they are the right waders to turn to.
You can also check out our fishing waders here. We have reviewed some of the best waders that are fit for cold waters.
The next step is to find some serious wading boots that will not only provide warmth but also make sure you don’t take a tumble while walking on ice. Insulated boots are key when fishing from a boat, as on a boat, you don’t walk much, and you should also have insulated boots (fleece-lined) when wading for steelhead.
Whichever boots you choose, make sure they have a slip-resistant outsole so you can grip the ice well, especially as it gets slippery when you’re moving from a wet river to an ice-covered bank. If you can find some waterproof wading boots, this would also be advantageous.
The joy of neoprene wading options is that the boots are built-in and fully waterproof, meaning your feet have a much better chance of being warm when you’re fishing on the coldest of days.
You can see our breakdown here of the wading boots for you to choose what’s best for you.
Now that we have you all buttoned up from your feet to your neck, it’s time to add some rain gear to the occasion to ensure you stay dry and have protection from the wind too.
The only part of your body that isn’t waterproof or windproof at this point are your shoulders, arms, and head and therefore anglers must have a waterproof rain jacket they can wear when fishing in winter to stop them from getting wet and cold.
I would recommend picking a Gore-Tex rain jacket. This is perfect for fly fishing in the rain. A Gore-Tex jacket will come with a breathable membrane that provides protection from rain and lets the heat out at the same time, so you stay cool but with all the warmth you need at the same time.
The jacket should have a hood and a high collar too to stave off the elements fully while you’re fishing. A great option is the Simms ProDry Fishing Jacket which when zipped up over your waders will keep everything from your head down nice and dry.
Head & Neck
You have to keep your head warm while you’re out fishing in cold winter conditions as it’s one of the main areas the body expels heat along with your feet. Some of the best gear for keeping your head warm is a fleece-lined cap and a woolly hat. Wear the cap first and if you’re still cold, slip the wooly hat underneath it.
Another key piece of cold winter fishing gear is a face mask and one that also goes around your neck too. When I say a face mask, I’m talking about a winter buff that is made from fleece which you can pull up to your sunglasses and still fish with.
While you might not need to wear all this headgear on every fishing expedition, it’s great to have it so you can adjust to weather when it gets cool or warm thought the day.
The final piece of the puzzle and the most important fishing tool, bar your brain, that you need to keep toast is your hands. If your hands aren’t warm, the chances of you casting or holding an ice fishing rod are slim to none, and they are not easy to keep toasty either as they will be touching the cold wet line and if you land a fish, might end up in the water.
The obvious answer to keeping your hands warm is wearing some good gloves but they can’t be any gloves, they need to be cold winter fishing gloves. Simms does an excellent range of winter gloves and you have the choice of wearing fingerless gloves, fully waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex gloves, or both when the cool weather demands serious layering.
I would recommend some fingerless wool gloves as a base and then the waterproof Gore-Tex full-fingered option above. This combo means your hands will never get wet or cool, but you can always remove the Gore-Tex for fingerless when you need to tie knots.
Hand warmers are also another great thing to have in your wader pockets. These instant warming hand warmers come in packets are a great way to heat up your hands or any body part for that matter while you’re fishing. Just be careful as they can get really hot and even leave a burn mark in some cases.
You can check out our buyer’s guide to gloves for winter fly fishing here for a full breakdown.
Other Gear For Ice Fishing On A Cold Winter Day
A Guide De-Icer
A Guide De-Icer is another great tool to have when you’re fly fishing in snowy weather. When you strip your line through the guides of your fly rod, the water that comes through ends up freezing into ice very quickly.
This makes fishing impossible as you won’t be able to cast as your line is simply frozen in your guides. The last thing you want to do is stop fishing all the time and get your hands cold by clearing out the ice, so it’s best to add something to your guides to stop this from happening.
Loon Outdoors makes a great product called Stanley’s Ice-Off Paste which will stop any ice from forming over your guides so you can keep on swinging for winter steelhead without having to chip away at ice-filled guides throughout the day.
Chapstick also works well and so does vaseline, so if you forget to buy Loon’s Stanley’s Ice-Off Paste just pop into the medicine cabinet at home and bring some with you.
High Calorific Snacks
Whether you’re fly fishing in the snow or ice fishing, your body burns fuel a lot faster when you’re out being active in cold water and you’re going to want a lot of calories so it can keep working at full capacity.
Cliff Bars are an excellent energy bar and they are delicious. You can find them in lots of different flavors, they are very filling, and they keep you going while you’re out on the water.
Rehydration Salts & Lots Of Water
It’s not just calories you’ll need to keep your body working hard for warmth, staying hydrated is also key to being comfortable when snow is falling on the river. Be sure to take lots of water with you, make sure it’s room temperature (not cold), and bring some rehydration salts with you too.
I use SIS rehydration tablets whether it’s hot or cold out and wow do they keep you going and give you a bit of an energy boost. It wouldn’t have survived 3 seasons in Seychelles without them and they work just as well when it’s cold out too.
Fly fishing in winter also has an air of bringing along some whiskey in a flask, but this is the worst thing you can do. It might warm you for a second but it’ll make you colder in the long run, so leave the flask at home for when you’re done.
Fresh Leaders & Tippet
Your older leaders and tippet will become brittle as soon as it hits the icy water which will lead to you losing the fish you’ve worked so hard to catch. Put a fresh leader and tippet on every day you go out fishing in winter, or that steelhead you have sat in the snow for 5 days to catch might just break off on its first run.
If you still want to know the difference between a leader and a tippet, see our post here on Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet Explained.
How cold is too cold for fly fishing?
It’s too cold for fly fishing when the water you’re fishing in gets too cold, it’s not about the air temperature. This means carrying a thermometer is a good idea so you can judge whether it’s worth fishing the river you have chosen. If the water is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit you are ok to fish.
Are fish still active in cold weather?
Again, this comes down to the water temperature, not the air temperature. If the water gets below 40 degrees Fahrenheit then you shouldn’t fish as the fish will suffer a lot from being caught and may not survive once released.
This is because they will struggle to regain their strength when it’s this cold as it takes a lot of energy for them to keep warm. Don’t fish when the water is under 40 degrees Fahrenheit or you’ll end up hurting the fish.
What water is best to fish in cold weather?
Tailwaters and spring-fed rivers are the best to fish in cold weather as their water temperature is a lot warmer. When water leaves a dam or comes out of a spring in the ground, it comes from an insulted place making it much warmer than other waters.
This gives rise to happy winter fish that are still relatively active and your chances of catching them go through the roof. You are also likely to find a lot of midge hatches and other things going on since the water is warm enough for the insects to be active in too.