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Proper Clothing for Winter Fly Fishing

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Recently, a good friend and I engaged in an interesting discussion about clothing and fabrics that are optimal for warm, dry and safe performance during extreme cold and wet conditions. We agreed and disagreed about the many factors of this subject, but one thing we agreed on was that the OA Forum readers and participants would probably benefit in a variety of ways from a discussion topic on "Proper Clothing for Winter Fly Fishing".

In the Ozarks, we are very blessed to live in a beautiful region that not only boasts wonderful trout streams, but a moderate climate where we can fish them on all but the most severe days throughout the year.

The key to enjoying the coldest, wettest days is wearing the proper layered clothing along with your wading gear.

There are a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions about fishing clothing for wet and cold weather.

It is my hope that some of you will benefit from the following dissertation, which is based on today's availability of wonderfully designed and manufactured outdoor clothing and some of my experiences fly fishing in cold and wet weather over the past 35 years.

I don't work for any clothing company or fly shop, but have had a passion for many years to help fellow fly fishermen understand the importance of proper layering in extreme weather and what specific fabrics and garments are best for the job.

First of all, my comments will assume the fisherman wants to take the most comfortable and safest approach to winter fly fishing.

Another assumption is the reality that any time you wade there is the possibility you may fall in and get partially or completely soaked.

This can be very dangerous in cold weather if you do not have a warm place to retreat to like a heated vehicle or building. If you hike some distance to your fishing spot or are floating a river, it is highly probable it would take significant time to reach safety.

After the following explanation of clothing, I will also take you through how to survive a drenching, should you be unfortunate enough to experience it.

A well-prepared winter outdoorsman should always be prepared with a variety of supplies, including a complete change of clothing.

Let's start from the inside layers and progress to the outermost layer:

Note: In the following text, "fleece" is referred to as synthetic fleece like Polar Fleece or Synchilla, even though we all know real fleece comes from sheep (wool), and even heavy cotton garments are sometimes referred to as fleece. If you are shopping for garments to be used in extreme conditions, buy the best quality you can afford whether it is fleece or breathable rainwear and waders. Don't expect the best performance from economy priced garments, unless you're fortunate enough to find the good stuff on sale.

Base-layer next to your skin.

A quality lightweight base layer (pants, shirt and sox) of synthetic fabric that will "wick" the moisture away from your skin, out to the next layer. There are many good ones that are sold by specialty fly shops, other outdoor specialty shops, and the larger outdoor equipment merchants. Here are a few by brand name that are excellent, but only a handful of the many: Simms, Patagonia, North Face, and UnderArmour.

For your feet, a pair of liner sox of similar fabric is highly suggested.


This layer is an insulating layer for creating and maintaining body heat. The best overall fabrics are good quality synthetic fleece or pile. Usually, I pick a garment that does not have a wind or water-proof shell, but it's generally OK if the shell is breathable fabric. There are lots of quality garments available in this category, but here are a few by name brand: Simms, Patagonia, Mountain Hardware, North Face; and most large outdoor retailers like Cabela's, Bass Pro Shops, L.L. Bean, and Orvis, that sell their own private-labeled garments, too.

Mid-layer #2? In extreme cold, an additional inner-layer is sometimes helpful and what I like to add is a good fleece vest. Generally, the extra insulation is most needed in the core body area, so a vest is usually ideal. I also highly suggest that one of the above items have a nice tall, snug neck on it to help retain heat.

Be sure these layers are not tight fitting, allowing plenty of dead air space to hold warm insulating air.

For the lower body, the best mid-layer is a mid-to-heavy weight fleece pant over your base layer.

The above garments also efficiently transmit (wick) excess moisture toward the outer layer. Very important.

Back to the feet, my favorite is a heavy sock of merino wool blended with capilene or other synthetic for durability and moisture wicking ability. Very comfortable.

Also, remember not to wear so much bulk in your wader feet that your feet are restricted in movement (tight). The down side of having restricted movement is that it reduces the amount of available extra warm air space that helps your feet stay warm.


This is the final but critical layer, for wind and rain/snow protection. The best garment is a wind/water-proof coat that is also breathable. The breathability factor is just as important as the wind and rain factor. Most of the best coats on the market use Goretex in the garment, but there are a few other good ones. Most of these will have a hood, which I particularly like to use in the most severe conditions.

Gloves are another important consideration for comfort and function. Fingerless-style gloves have been around for decades, and are still the choice and necessity of fly fishermen. They are available in primarily two types, fleece and wool. I used the wool type for about 30 years until a few years ago when I tried a pair of the fleece type that have Gore Windstopper (virtually wind proof), and also rubberized palms for sure gripping. I loved both types, but personally would never go back to the wool.

An additional element of comfort you can employ is a nice fleece handwarmer muff like you see NFL quarterbacks use. These are inexpensive, will fit right in the top front of your waders, and are further enhanced by the addition of a chemical heat packet. Very toasty.

Headwear is also very important. The head and neck areas are very critical to properly protect and insulate. I've read that up to 70% of the body's heat loss exits through the head/neck area. For extreme conditions, my all-time favorite is a "bomber" style hat made from fleece or pile with a waterproof/breathable shell. The bomber has ear flaps that wrap down under the chin and connect with Velcro. Very comfortable. I have fished in the cold down to zero and amazingly my nose and cheeks weren't as cold as I expected, due to the warmth retained by wearing the bomber.

Another great item for retaining heat in the neck area is a fleece scarf, or as the outdoor industry calls the stretchy round version, a "neck gaiter".

What about Waders?

The most popular wader fabric is breathable, usually Goretex in the best waders; but there are still a lot of neoprene and multi-laminate rubber/nylon waders produced and worn. I transitioned from neoprene to breathable waders many years ago when given a prototype design to evaluate. Not really expecting to be impressed or convinced, I was absolutely surprised at the real breathability of Goretex used in waders. It's hard to imagine using any other type of wader for actively walking and wading. Another no-brainer for wading safety is to always wear a wading belt. A wading belt is an extra insurance factor to keep water out of your waders.

What if you fall in and get partially or completely soaked?If this unfortunate scenario becomes a reality for you, quick action is vital for you to begin recovering lost heat to ensure your survival. Most outdoorsmen have heard of "hypothermia", which can be serious or fatal in warm weather as well as extreme cold. It is quite simply subnormal body temperature caused by the body losing core heat faster than it can produce it. Not a good situation.

If you become partially or completely soaked, it is very important that if you can't immediately retreat to a warm place, that you remove every wet garment you have on. The garments should be quickly wrung out to the best of your ability (have a buddy help if available), particularly your base layer, and put all layers back on.

Once all the layers are back on, your body heat will immediately begin recovering heat and drying the base layer next to your skin. By walking at a good pace it will help your body generate heat more quickly.

Since the synthetic fleece and pile garments can only absorb about 1-2% of their weight in water, the drying process is a very efficient one (unlike virtually all natural fibers), once the excess water is removed. And, the insulating ability of the high quality synthetic fabrics is nearly as efficient when wet as dry.

Obviously, if this happens you should not prolong your exposure to the cold any longer than necessary. You should seek a warm building or vehicle and change into some dry clothes. This could mean a shortened fishing trip for that day, but with the proper clothing outlined above, it won't be a severely traumatic or tragic experience.

Enjoy the beauty and solitude of Ozarks streams this winter, confidently, comfortably and safely, with the right clothing.

See you on the river.

Great fishing and tight lines to ya'll.


Bill Butts

Springfield MO

"So many fish, so little time"

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Hey Bill. Where ya been? I havent heard from you for a while. Hows the Hybrid fishing treating you? Any good stories to tell us?

Good topic and one I have wondered about but havent studied much on. I have heard and read on several occasions that wool is the only known material that maintains its insulation value even when it is wet. Are the newer synthetics as good as wool in that regard?

I would rather be fishin'.

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." Benjamin Franklin, 1759

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Thanks for your response and questions.

2006 has been a great year for Hybrid and Striper fishing, but not recently.

Most of my investment of time and the resulting success came in the first 5 months of the year. My new job has taken a lot of extra time since May, but I plan to ramp up my pursuit of those great fish very soon. Success began very early in January this past year, so water permitting it will be good again.

My essay on winter clothing outlined the very best materials for extreme conditions, including the optimal performing fabric even after getting wet. The very best fabrics are the high quality synthetic fleeces and piles. Wool is good but is not the optimal fabric even though it is still widely used.

If you read the last segment where I explained what to do if you get partially or completely soaked, the key factor in that scenario is how you respond and what your fabric(s) can do after it gets soaked. I noted the fact that quality synthetic fleece only absorbs about 1-2% of its weight in water, but I didn't mention the absorption rate of wool.

Wool industry websites, and traditional wool garment producer Filson, quote the absorption rate of wool as up to 30% of its own weight. The positive aspect of this they note is that wool will move moisture away from your skin, like synthetics; but the down side is that its ability to continue to wick moisture away from itself (dry out) is not good. I've always read or heard that wool retains about 60% of its ability to insulate, whereas quality synthetics are in the 90% plus range. It should be noted that this refers to wet garments, but not dripping wet soaked garments.

Once the bulk of the moisture is wrung out from Fleece, its resiliency (retained loft or bulk) and low moisture content allows it to be ready to accept body heat as it becomes available. As that heat builds, the very small amount of moisture remaining in the fabric is efficiently wicked outward to the next layer. No natural fiber has this efficient capability, due to much higher moisture absorption factors.

This is why the qualtiy synthetics are still the very best for extreme conditions. I talked at length with the folks at Patagonia about this specific subject and scenario, recently. I found it interesting that they had recently added a new wool base-layer to their clothing line. They made it very clear that they do not recommend any wool in a layering system for extreme cold/wet conditions. They did say the wool base layer was OK for a high output, short duration like cross-country skiing, but only if the person is returning to a warm environment (eg--ski lodge) before cool down from the activity. They reiterated again that wool can remove moisture from the skin for a short time, but does not have the efficient ability to wick outward.

A couple of other interesting facts the Patagonia folks shared with me were that wool is known to actually feel warmer than fleece when wet, perhaps due to its heavier physical weight, and that wool does not as quickly retain body odors in base layer garments like many synthetics. (Important note: Some manufacturers have incorporated a fine "silver thread" in their fabric weaves which creates an almost magical chemical block to the development of anti-microbial issues. I have several pieces of this type of base layer and they are amazing in their long term (several days without retaining significant body odor) performance. Patagonia sited potential human health and environmental issues as the reason they don't offer such garments at this time.)

This was all probably more than you wanted or needed to know, but I hope it is helpful to further your understanding of optimal fabrics for extreme winter outdoor wear.

Let me know if any of this was not clear, or if further questions.


Bill Butts

Springfield MO

"So many fish, so little time"

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:) Yep that answered my question. I have wondered about some of the newer high quality materials but have not gotten around to studying up on them. Thanks for taking the work out of it for me. :D Up to now I have always used wool but I think I will add some fleece items to my christmas list.

I have heard about the silver thread process and understand that it is very good. Having been involved in the metal industry for years it surprises me that Patagonia is concerned about health or enviromental issues arising from the use of silver. I dont know the alloy used so the concerns may be because of other metals/chemicals contained that were/are used in the alloying or smelting process. I know that some forign countries use aresnic and/or cyanide to process silver ore. There is also a very small minority of people who are allergic to silver, so perhaps this is their worry. Otherwise from what I know of the metal is that in its pure form it is a safe and stabil material.

What! You mean you havent yet caught the world record hybrid on a fly rod? Come'on man, get with the program. Us OAFers need stories of others great success and poweress to keep us inspired. :P :P

I would rather be fishin'.

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." Benjamin Franklin, 1759

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