Dressing for winter fly-fishing
I recently found myself on my favorite water at 8am with frost on the ground and 22-degree temperatures. My companion hopped out of the car and asked if this was crazy and I thought about that for a minute before I remarked, “nah, we just love fishing”.
Who doesn’t prefer wet wading in warm sunshine over winter fishing? But the upside to winter fishing is that there are fewer anglers on the water. I also like the challenge of finding the fly that is going to entice a take when I am sure that fish would rather conserve energy and not move. My favorite water generally endures the worst of times during the winter season – a combination of low, clear water and painfully slow flow makes for challenging fly-fishing. In these conditions I find that I am changing out flies regularly, which is also a challenge with fingers that are stiff from freezing temps.
Within an hour my companion was lamenting his choice of clothes. This time of year, he is usually fishing tail waters that are considerably warmer. “I forgot how cold these Northern Virginia waters can be in winter”, he commented. I, on the other hand, am getting used to the strategic approach to layering that produces a goldilocks effect of being ‘not too hot and not too cold’ while fishing in winter.
So, how should you be dressing for winter fishing in Virginia?
Definitely dress in layers. I start with silk liners on the torso and the legs, as well as the feet. Then follow that with cotton long johns on the bottom and a cotton turtleneck on the top. Polyester climbing pants and a fleece are layered over those; with an all-weather anorak with a hood to top it off. The waders go on over all these layers and of course a hat or cap (or both).
I have fishing companions that prefer neoprene waders (my father called them thermal waders - and he wore them to fish for Stripers on the Jersey Shore in winter), but I have never worn them to fish local waters for trout. I find that I move around a lot, which I suspect would result in my getting overheated in neoprene waders. So, I prefer the breathable chest waders. I can add more layers if I am trending toward ‘too cold’ or peel off layers if getting ‘too hot’
How should you be gearing up for winter fishing in Virginia?
That day I was having a very hard time keeping my feet while getting in the water and it was only then that I realized that I brought my felt soled wading boots (those are legal in Virginia, but not in Maryland). That does not work when the ground is frosty or snowy. The soles get packed with the ice or powder and you have no traction getting down a slope. So, wear soles that grip or attach cleats.
In sub-freezing temps the rod line guides are also going to experience issues with ice accumulation. There are many ways to deal with or prevent this. If the day is on the cusp of freezing temps and the ice accumulation is light, just carefully dip the rod in the water and swish it around a bit to dissolve the ice. If you suspect there will be persistent accumulation, as a preventative measure you can rub a very light lip balm or a tiny bit of fly floatant on the guides. Alternatively, you can use a heavier weight rod with wider line guides and underweight the fly line. Whatever you do, it is not advisable to try to break up the ice on the guides with your fingers as you may break off the line guide.
A word about hand warmers – the jury is still out for me on the usefulness or practicality of these while fishing. I recently tried the disposable, air-activated pouches on a couple of occasions and put them inside my lightweight fishing gloves. The problem I found is that if I am catching plenty of fish, it is more than likely that my hands are going to get wet retrieving the fish from the net, which neutralizes the effect of the hand warmer (which is air activated, duh). I suspect I will revert to the old-fashioned warming up of the hands with the car heater trick!
In the end, I love that one can generally fish for trout most of the year in Northern Virginia.