Bone-chilling cold weather is just around the corner, but that doesn't mean there is no fishing to be had! Having the right winter fly-fishing gear is important for a safe and enjoyable experience.
Many anglers take advantage of the winter months to get out on their favorite stream or lake for some fly fishing without the crowds. There's nothing quite like experiencing the snowflakes falling as you cast your line into a slow-moving mountain stream and wait in anticipation for a strike from a big winter trout.
Winter fly fishing can be a lot of fun but you need to have the right gear to take care of yourself in the cold. While there may be nothing better than fly fishing in the cold, there might be nothing worse than not having the right winter fly fishing gear!
Some anglers don't really like to fish in the winter because they don't like the cold. If you aren't dressed warmly then the cold can ruin anyone's fishing trip, even if you like winter fishing. The key is to be as prepared as possible.
Frigid cold, iced-over streams and lakes, finicky fish, and sometimes treacherous driving conditions on backroads through the mountains can all be looked at as an adventure by some. You know who you are!
The allure is that you can have part of a winding freshwater stream all to yourself. Winter is the perfect time for anglers who like to fish uncrowded waters and who just can't wait until summer.
To ensure you have the best cold-weather experience on the water possible, we're recommending 17 cold-weather fly fishing gear items we believe everyone should have.
In This Guide
- Essential Winter Fly Fishing Gear (17 Must-Have Items)
- 1. The Right Socks
- 2. Gloves
- 3. Fingerless Fold-over Mittens
- 4. Long Underwear
- 5. Waterproof and Windproof Jacket
- 6. Fleece or Nano-Fiber Pants
- 7. A Good Base Layer
- 8. Neoprene Waders
- 9. Fly Rod Guide De-icer
- 10. Hand Warmers
- 11. Small Nymphs & Egg Patterns
- 12. Fresh Leaders & Tippet
- 13. Fingerless Or Half-Finger Gloves
- 14. Balaclava and Wool Hat
- 15. Hair Dryer With Car Socket Adapter
- 16. Thermos
- 17. Plasma Flame Lighter
- Expert Tips for Staying Warm When Winter Fly Fishing
- Proper Layering for Winter Fly Fishing
- Tips for Choosing a Merino Wool Layer
- Wrapping Up
Essential Winter Fly Fishing Gear (17 Must-Have Items)
After Thanksgiving, many of us clean and lube our rods and reels, take inventory of our gear, and put everything away in a closet or in the basement until the spring thaw. After checking out this list of items that will help you level-up your winter fishing game you might just get motivated to get out there in a snowstorm! Fly fishing in the U.S. should be a year-round activity!
The clothing we tell you about below is great for keeping you warm and dry in winter. The fly fishing gear we recommend has been proven top-of-the-line. You owe it to yourself to get the best that money can buy so it lasts and becomes a lifelong asset, not something you have to purchase again next year.
With proper gear, you'll have even more reasons to smile than just catching amazing fish!
1. The Right Socks
Wearing the right socks is crucial to having an enjoyable fishing trip because cold feet can really ruin the day. You've probably had an experience like this and it isn't something anyone wants to repeat.
If you plan on wading into the water, you're going to need good waders. We describe some below. Wearing neoprene waders will cause your feet and legs to sweat, especially if you hike into an area with them on. The best socks in this case are polyester and fleece. Wool is also always a good choice.
Wearing layers of socks, just like you wear layers of shirts and jackets on your upper body is always a good idea. If your feet are too warm and you remove one layer, you still have one left and don't need to stand around in your bare feet inside your waders.
It's also a good idea because you'll bring more socks with you on your trip. Don't skimp on socks, bring what you have and expect to use them all. Dry socks in the forest are not a luxury, they are a necessity! We show you one ideal solution for quickly drying out your socks below in #17 on the list. Don't miss it. You'll probably be grateful to have one of these at some point.
If you can, carry your neoprene waders to the water you'll be fishing in. Don't hike any real distance in them because that will mean a high probability of sweat. Sweating before you arrive to fish is a good way to ruin the day. Putting on your waders just before you fish is a much better idea. In fact, carrying more gear is a good idea to increase your comfort level.
Wearing two layers of socks will help you stay warm and dry. You must stay away from cotton socks because they don't dry quickly. If your feet get wet in cotton socks, they stay wet all day. Obviously that's a worst-case scenario, but one that's easily avoided. Never wear cotton!
Wool, fleece, and nylon are good choices. Wool would be my first choice in any cold-water situation.
Buy long socks that reach to your knees. You'll want to try out whatever clothing combination you plan on wearing while fishing from your home first before you hit the road. Go stand outside in the cold for an hour or do some very light activity to simulate what you might do while fly fishing. See if you're too hot, too cold, or what happens. Adjust before you go.
Always plan on having some extra clothing - including socks - in case mother nature throws a bit more cold or wind than you expected. Rain? Ugh! Be prepared for anything because it costs money and time to get out there in the wilderness. Make sure you're ready to fish in any type of weather short of a white out!
Wear socks that are slightly bigger than you think you need them. Tight socks cut off blood circulation, especially when jammed into tight boots. There's a fine line between too tight and too loose. Figure it out before you go!
It might seem crazy to you to buy a pair of socks that cost more than $30. But think about what is most important as you fish. Comfort and dryness are the two most important criteria because with both, you'll be able to fish for longer periods without needing to return to the campsite or camper. Compare the cost of socks with the cost of shirts or a jacket. You'll need to spend a little money to get warm, quality gear for fishing in winter.
There are some good brands of specialty socks that can keep you warm on the water under waders or hiking boots but our favorite thermal sock for cold season fly fishing is the Farm To Feet Ansonville Wader Socks.
If you've never had the experience of fishing with gloves on, you're in for a real treat! Rest assured that nobody likes it, but what are you going to do when it's cold and you have a wind-chill factor? When fishing, it's inevitable that your hands get a little wet. If you are trout fishing on a lake and can set your rod down and warm your hands in your pockets, then fine. If you're on a stream and moving around fly casting, you're going to need gloves at least part of the time in cold weather.
One trick I used for a while in winter is leather racquetball gloves. They let you finely manipulate anything you need to on the rod, but they're going to be worthless once you grab your first fish in the water and get them wet. Bring them along anyway because you can always pull them off as you grab a fish, then dry your hands and put them back on.
The only way to really stay warm is to use neoprene gloves that are made to look like diving gloves. They are a bit thick and cumbersome, but you can still do some of the essentials with them on.
They are better than racquetball gloves because you can put them on and take them off much faster!
3. Fingerless Fold-over Mittens
Fingerless mittens that fold over your exposed fingers once you've casted or tied a fly on your line is a great way to fish in cold weather. There is a flap that exposes your four fingers and another one for your thumb to make it easy when you need finger dexterity for something.
When you're holding your rod, your hands stay really warm. Everyone knows mittens are the best for keeping hands warm in really cold weather.
Look for mittens with velcro or other mechanisms to keep the mitten from coming off your hands while fishing. Ideally, you can bring gloves with you as well to see which ones feel better at the time. The waterproof gloves above can be better if you're constantly getting wet.
4. Long Underwear
Winter fly fishing means you're going to be fishing in layers when the temperature or wind gets bad. Long underwear is a great way to ensure your core and extremities stay warm under your other clothes.
Your base layer should be a warm layer of wool long underwear. Just like you can't wear cotton socks, mittens, or really anything, you should stay far away from cotton long underwear.
Our highest recommendation for warm long underwear is Ibex Merino Wool long underwear. Like socks and other warm-weather clothing, you can't cut corners when standing outside in winter and exposed to the elements.
5. Waterproof and Windproof Jacket
Depending how cold it is and how wet it is outside, you may want to have this rain and windproof jacket over a sweater and your other layers. There's no better material for this than Gore-Tex as you probably know. It's still expensive, but the difference is remarkable. You'll be happy to have it when you're out in the elements. The best hooded jacket we've found is the Sitka Jetstream Jacket featuring GORE-TEX INFINIUM with WINDSTOPPER® laminate to keep you warm and dry.
6. Fleece or Nano-Fiber Pants
Cold-weather fleece pants worn over warm long underwear works fine for most people if you don't need a third layer. If you need a third layer, you're probably fishing in the great white north or Alaska!
These fleece pants should keep you warm even after fishing in cold water with waders for a couple of hours. These pants are 'mid-layer' pants which means they can be worn on the outside, or have another pant overtop of them if needed. We strongly recommend a pair of toasty Simms Fleece Pants to help you stay nice and warm even on frigid days.
7. A Good Base Layer
Layers on the chest and back will keep you warm once your feet and hands are taken care of. Core body heat loss is responsible for a large percentage of hypothermia cases.
There are thousands of options for covering your torso but the best way to do it is again by layering a few long-sleeved shirts on top of each other.
Layered polyester shirts work well and you can easily add or remove one depending on temperatures changing throughout the day. They’re reasonably priced and very warm.
Keep in mind that tight shirts are not going to trap the layer of air needed to keep you warm. Wear shirts slightly loose and not skin tight. Wearing shirts too snug can restrict your blood flow and make you more vulnerable to cold weather.
8. Neoprene Waders
If you're going to be standing in the water, and that's the best way to fly fish because you won't snag on anything on the shore or structure, you'll need some good waders.
Neoprene waders with built in boots with 600 Gram 3M Thinsulate insulation to keep your feet warm like those below are just what you need.
These are 100% waterproof waders with good bonds to keep the water out. These waders have over 2,000 positive reviews so you know you're getting the right product!
Neoprene waders cover you with a warm layer to protect you in very cold environments and also give you a cheap alternative to the much more expensive breathable waders. Have a look at these highly recommended waders.
9. Fly Rod Guide De-icer
Fly rods have very small diameter line guides that are perfect for casting your floating line down a stream or across a lake to a waiting fish. Unfortunately, the guides are so small that when the temperatures drop, freshwater can freeze quickly and clog up your rod guides.
When that happens, your casting won't be smooth. The rod won't have the same feel anymore, and feel is essential when fly fishing as you already know.
You can use a home trick and put some chapstick on the inside of your guides. That usually works pretty well. Though we haven't tried it yet, there is a specialty product you can use that is specifically for this purpose but you probably cannot use it on your lips.
Depending how thick you cake it on, this can also have an effect on the feel of your rod, so we recommend to put a very thin layer on your guides if you're going to use Chapstick or this Stanley’s Ice Off Paste.
Re-application while fishing may be necessary because nothing is really fool-proof when it comes to the harsh elements!
Try some of this Stanley’s Ice-Off Paste.
10. Hand Warmers
If you're going to be fishing in ice-cold conditions, there's one item of gear you don't want to be without. Besides building a fire, there's little you can do to find instant warmth when you're out in the field. Chemical heating packs that are safe for the environment are the perfect solution.
The packs below heat up quickly and last for a long time. They are safe and disposable. You can buy a large pack of these and use them over the next couple of years.
Put some of these packets in your pockets or your vest and use them to heat up any part of your body that might need it. They can get hot so you'll have to take care not to apply them directly to your skin in that case. Take time to read instructions on the label.
These are an odorless, single-use item. Made in the USA and safe for the environment. You can store these for almost four years until using them.
These make great stocking stuffers for your fly fisherman!
11. Small Nymphs & Egg Patterns
It's always good to bring a variety of nymphs for fly fishing because you never really know what's going to attract the fish until you arrive. And, since river waters stay ice free and clear, unlike ponds, throughout the winter, you want to carry flies that will work in rivers and streams. Fish are cold-blooded and become more lazy and selective when the weather gets colder. They'll move only when they are triggered to strike. The more flies you've got to present them, the better chance you'll have of catching fish.
The case below has a selection of 24 nymphs including Bead Head Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear nymphs, Olive Electric Caddis nymphs, and Bead Head Purple Prince nymphs. This is a great assortment of classic flies you can rely on for catching fish year after year.
RELATED: How To Fish A San Juan Worm
12. Fresh Leaders & Tippet
When it comes to leaders and tippets, purchase fresh line every year. Resist using the line that you've had in your tackle box from last year or 'years ago' because it's going to cause you some grief. Trust us! Line gets brittle and cannot be trusted. Line is one of those variables you can buy new yearly and it won't really hurt. In fact, it will increase your confidence in your gear which is a great feeling to have.
13. Fingerless Or Half-Finger Gloves
If it really isn't too cold you might be able to get away with fingerless gloves (half-finger gloves). Using something like this will allow you to have the manual dexterity you need to tie lines together and flies on your line all while staying warm enough to keep a smile on your face.
If it's really cold, just get the mittens we mentioned above. You'll be happy you did!
These pull-on gloves are tighter at the wrist and fairly snug and stretchy. Each package has 4 pairs of gloves all the same size. These are cold resistant acrylic fiber that are soft and yet tough enough to wear for a season if you don't snag them on something.
14. Balaclava and Wool Hat
Keeping your head warm is crucial if you want to stay out fishing for more than an hour. A cold head can quickly put a negative spin on a day on the stream. How can you ensure your head stays warm and dry?
One of these windproof polyester ski masks with an elastic closure works really well for cold weather. It's lined with fleece so it keeps your face warm too.
Don't try to be the cool guy without a warm hat! In fact, if you want to keep the sun off your neck and forehead you can add a boonie cap over top of this ski mask and get near total protection. Oh, I almost forgot, this mask has over 6,000 positive reviews!
15. Hair Dryer With Car Socket Adapter
Accidents happen. My brother fell into an ice-cold creek while fishing for trout in the Allegheny mountains of Pennsylvania. We took him back to the Winnebago but his clothes stayed wet for days. We didn't have one of these hair dryers. You can bet I have one every time I go out for an extended fishing trip in the cold now!
Pick yourself up a hot blow dryer with a car adapter so you can dry out soaked clothes and wear them again quickly.
Something anglers out in the cold don't always give much thought to is what they're going to eat for lunch while fishing. Many people just return to camp and make a full lunch. What if you could stay out there on the water and eat hot food while sitting on the flattest rock you can find?
Thermoses. Bring a couple of them and fill them with hot soup & noodles, chunks of beef, veggies, and a little pepper. Fill another one with coffee. Fill another one with eggnog! Just kidding, the alcohol will make you feel colder eventually. Plus, you don't want to end up swimming in the same water as the fish.
Vacuum-sealed thermoses are a godsend. It's incredible to see just how hot they keep your favorite beverage or meal in the middle of freezing temperatures. But, they do work very well as you probably already know.
One of the big thermoses we like is the very popular Yeti Thermos which comes in 20 different colors and is made of stainless steel. The inside is shatter-resistant, but of course if you fall on top of it you might need a new one. If you're light enough, you might just be able to still have lunch!
Earlier I said it's better to pack more gear. The minimalist mindset doesn't work well for cold weather fly fishing. Bring everything you need or think you could possibly need to make your day enjoyable. Leave it on the bank or in the truck and walk down to your favorite fishing hole and enjoy your day. This is your life!
17. Plasma Flame Lighter
Not a jet flame lighter, but better in a number of ways! This one can be considered an essential survival tool. This plasma lighter is waterproof and windproof. It lights every time when it is charged up. No combustible fuel, just electricity! You can use it 300 times before needing to recharge.
Comes with an emergency whistle (120 db) and tinder in your paracord that lights very quickly. It even has a flashlight and USB charging port. This stormproof lighter – Survival Frog lighter could save your life in a survival emergency whether fishing, camping, hiking, or driving in a remote spot during winter. This small reliable lighter could be your most important purchase this year.
RELATED: Best Fishing Flashlight
Expert Tips for Staying Warm When Winter Fly Fishing
Fishing in the winter months is something you may not have tried yet but the opportunity is here if you're adventurous and want to experience something new. Something life changing, perhaps?
It's all about preparation. If you're highly prepared, you're going to have a successful outing.
Fly fishing in winter is about as peaceful as it gets in the forest. It's not like hunting where you're probably just sitting in a tree stand or on a fallen tree for a couple of hours and watching birds and squirrels. You can walk up and down a stream and even cross it if you have good waders.
It's a great time to bring your kids fishing with you if they're old enough to enjoy a quiet day on the water. It could be a great date if your significant other is down for a serene adventure. Combine it with camping and stay out in the forest for a couple of days at a time and wind down from the hectic world we have all experienced over the last few years.
RELATED: Best Time Of Day To Fish
Being prepared for the extended cold weather is crucial to enjoying yourself. You might be the type of person who just 'wings it' and goes with whatever is in the truck and figure you'll deal with whatever comes. That's good for a morning of fishing, but you really need a good plan for extended trips.
You'll need the right gear to keep you happy. You'll need the right clothes to keep you warm enough to enjoy standing in ice-cold water for hours.
Think about redundancy too. What are you likely to break or use up while out in the woods? Is there something you should bring two of? Three? How much food will you bring? Is there any chance your vehicle could break down and leave you stranded? Do you have a plan for that? Any chance of a bear attack? Have a plan for that?
I'm one of those guys that loves to plan for trips and contingencies. I find joy in having some control over how the trip is going to go. I also love the idea that I can be spontaneous with where exactly I go because usually I have an abundance of gear and I can do just about anything that pops into my mind. I may set off for a day of hunting bucks and then end up at the fishing hole trying to land bass or brown trout with my fly-rod.
Layers of clothes work best. Waterproof gear is great, but if you can afford Gore-Tex, get that because it's breathable too. Cotton is a bad idea for most things. Skip it and go with wool or synthetic materials.
Good shoes and boots are essential because you could be on your feet for hours at a time. A couple of ways to keep warm by starting a fire, a grill, using matches, or a waterproof electric fire starter like mentioned above in #18 is a good idea.
Don't neglect car maintenance. Do you need to store chains for your tires? Is your battery good? Should you take an extra 5 gallons of gasoline in a jug? Should you take some pre-charged USB batteries to charge your phone? Do you have enough minutes of data and voice on your phone? Do you have an emergency GPS locator? Should you?
Avoid Cotton Like the Plague!
Cotton is one textile you'll want to avoid at all costs in the cold. It absorbs water quickly and doesn't dry fast. If it is next to your skin, it will be cooling you off, not warming you. All the insulation value of cotton is lost when wet. This can lead to a very uncomfortable fishing trip!
Avoid cotton socks, sweat pants, undershirts, long underwear, underwear, hats, scarves, and literally anything else you carry with you. Your body should be able to breathe easily from your feet to your head.
Cover Your Body and Legs
Cover up in layers with comfortable, lightweight, and breathable base layers of wool or synthetic fibers. Adding clothing with fleece on top of a thin base layer makes a great combination.
If it's really cold, you can add another layer of windbreaker on top of the fleece to cut out the wind and really ensure you'll be prepared for anything.
Proper Layering for Winter Fly Fishing
The idea of layering is a critical concept to grasp and practice when winter fly fishing.
As a minimum, have at least the first two layers on top of your skin to protect you from icy-cold conditions you may encounter while winter fly fishing.
- Base layer (crucial)
- Insulating mid-layer (crucial)
- Protective exterior layer (for very cold weather)
Base layers touching your skin should be soft and comfortable, slightly loose, and made of synthetics or non-scratchy wool. The base layer's job is to provide some warmth but is also to keep the water and humidity away from your skin which will take away your warmth.
Remember, even though you are cold, parts of you may be sweating. Under your arms, your back, and your feet are typically sweaty areas. It's crucial that these areas have good coverings that can wick-away sweat.
Trapping Body Heat with an Insulating Mid Layer
On top of the base layer comes the mid layer. This one keeps you warm. You can use clothes from Redington, Simms, Patagonia, North Face, and LL Bean to keep you warm in this layer.
The Outer Shell for Winter Fly Fishing
Adding an insulation-filled jacket and/or pants can add considerably to your warmth while outside in a blowing wind. If you can wear clothes that are waterproof, breathable, and warm, you'll be set.
It isn't unheard of for snow to turn into a light rain while you're out there fishing. Be prepared with a rain poncho to quickly cover your clothing to keep it dry. Remember, no raincoat is 100% waterproof. At least I've never found one. If you know of one, do let me know!
Tips for Choosing a Merino Wool Layer
Merino wool is the standard for keeping warm for people who love the great outdoors even when a frigid wind is blowing and there's a foot of snow on the ground.
Merino Wool Tips
- The weight of a merino wool base layer is equivalent to its thickness.
- Grams per square meter (g/m2) tells you how heavy the wool is. Higher number = warmer.
- Keep the base layer light if you're going with wool. It needs to wick moisture from your skin.
- Start with Merino wool tops and bottoms weighing between 120g and 200g. Add another layer if needed, don't use a thicker one to start with.
Your choices in clothing and gear will result in a winter fly fishing experience that is either incredible, or lacking in some way. Take time to prepare and over prepare for your upcoming fishing trip. You'll be happy you did! There's nothing worse than being wet in winter. Nobody can stay warm that way, not even if you have that hibernating bear fat you keep bragging about!
Winter fly fishing is an amazing experience and we wish you the very best of times this winter. Winter fly fishing can be warm, dry, and enjoyable, or freezing cold, wet and miserable. It's really up to you! Get some of our recommended fly fishing gear and let us know how it all worked out for you!