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Four Season Fly Fishing Survival

Fly fishing through fair and foul weather.

Four Season Fly Fishing Survival

Winter on Montana’s Madison River can be a glorious time for fishing because the crowds and the hoot owl restrictions are gone. But the weather can chill you to the bone if you’re not prepared with the right layering system. (Brian Grossenbacher photo)

More than folks in any other outdoor pursuit, fly fishers must deal with every possible extreme weather conditions. If you’re skiing, you can count on snow and cold. If you’re a duck hunter, it will be wet and cold. If you’re a golfer, you likely know how to stay cool on a hot summer day.

But unlike other seasonal outdoor pursuits, there is no “fly-fishing season.” Fly fishing happens 12 months a year and in every season, whether it’s tailwater trout in 100-degree weather at Lees Ferry, winter steelhead in Michigan, April hatches in New York’s Catskill Mountains, or fall fishing in Yellowstone National Park. No matter the time of year, it’s always a good time to go fishing, but if you want to make the most out of a full day on the water, you need an appropriate layering system to keep you fishing and comfortable.

Fall Fly Fishing Clothing

People who spend a lot of time indoors hear the word “layering,” and think layers are used to take off and/or add clothing to deal with changing weather conditions. Well, that’s true, and very likely it was the original etymology of the word. But today “layering” also refers to a modern, breathable moisture management system that moves moisture away from your skin and from one layer to the next so you don’t feel hot and sweaty. Because you’re not damp down under those layers, you don’t get cold either, when the temperature drops. If you layer correctly, you can deal with a much wider range of temperatures so you don’t put on and take off clothing throughout the day to deal with fluctuating temperatures. And that’s important in the fall when the mornings are cold, the afternoons can be sunny and warm, and precipitation can come in the form of rain, sleet, or snow.

In every season, the layer next to your skin (top and bottom) needs to be tight or at least form-fitting. This is partly so things don’t bunch up on you, but it’s mostly because a thinner, stretchy layer of the right material helps distribute and then wick moisture away from your skin.

The two best base materials for actively moving that moisture are polyester and Merino wool. For example, Patagonia’s Capilene Air baselayers are a mixture of 51% RWS-certified Merino wool and 49% recycled polyester fibers. Merino wool fibers have a small diameter so they are soft and not itchy like larger wool fibers. They also naturally are coated with lanolin, a wax produced by sheep glands to protect the wool and the animal from rain. This water-repellent hydrophobic coating helps move water molecules away from the fibers and away from your skin. Wool is also naturally antibacterial.

Simms Lightweight Baselayer bottoms are a mix of 92% spun polyester and 8% Spandex coated with HeiQ Fresh odor control. Most companies have their own mix of natural or synthetic materials chosen based their performance, comfort, and durability characteristics.

On top of the base layer you’ll also need an insulation layer for the top and bottom, and you’ll need to choose the warmth and thickness based not just on the ambient temperatures you expect through the day but also your exertion level. If you plan on hiking into Cheesman Canyon on the South Platte River in November, you will choose lighter layers than if you are floating in a drift boat or standing in an icy steelhead river.

A common layering strategy for me in late fall is Patagonia Capilene Air Bottoms and Hoody, with a Simms Thermal Midlayer Bottom, and on the top, a ExStream BiComp Fishing Hoody. I like this jacket in the fall because it’s got PrimaLoft Silver ThermoPlume insulation on the upper body, but stretch fleece fabric in the inside arm panels so you can cast and move easily, and also low-bulk stretch fleece fabric on the bottom of the jacket to tuck inside your waders.

Most places in the fall, rain is possible, but not guaranteed, so a packable outside shell like the Patagonia Ultralight Packable Jacket is the way to go.

Winter Fly Fishing Clothing

Winter can provide amazing fishing, particularly on tailwaters in the Rockies, steelhead in the Olympic Peninsula, and on most Great Lakes tributaries, but you have to be prepared for the cold. In the winter you need to be especially smart about your layers—not just because you want to stay warm, but because too much bulk can restrict your movements and make you uncomfortable.

Anyone can stay warm in the winter, but the goal is to stay warm and still be mobile enough to jump in/out of the boat, step over logs, and navigate rocks in and along the river. You can’t throw on thick snow pants, or your thickest winter jacket, and hope it will work. On the other hand, five layers of summer clothes won’t work either. Most of the time, three layers under your waders and your outside shell should do the trick to keep you warm, regulate moisture, and allow the range of motion you need for fly fishing.

Start with something like a Simms Heavyweight Baselayer Bottom and Hoody, and add a Simms Fleece Midlayer Bib over both your baselayers. The one-piece sleeveless bib is also stretchy, and it stops your top from riding up and creating a gap around your midsection, and it has stirrups on the feet so it also keeps your bottoms in place when you pull up your next layers. I’ve also used this piece for waterfall ice climbing 100 times, and it’s crucial in the coldest wet weather.


Your final layer under your waders in the winter should be something like Patagonia Tough Puff Pants or Shelled Insulator Pants, and on top, an insulated jacket like the Orvis PRO HD Insulated Hoodie or Simms West Fork Jacket. The jacket should use a synthetic insulation that sheds water and retains loft in wet conditions. Don’t use a down jacket for insulation while fishing. And it goes without saying, you shouldn’t be wearing cotton anywhere, and that includes socks and underwear.

In many places in the winter, rain or snow is almost a surety. You need a rain shell you can fish in all day, so you’ll need a proper wading jacket with large pockets for fly boxes, and easy access to your other tools. Think about a Patagonia SST, Simms G3 Wading Jacket, or Orvis PRO Wading Jacket for your outer shell.

Hats are especially important in the winter. In the fall and spring, an insulated hood works fairly well over a baseball cap because you can put it up and down as conditions dictate. A quick and easy way to regulate your temperature when you are exerting yourself is to just take off your hat, and you’ll cool down quickly.

In the winter, however, you need more insulation for that noggin, so bring a balaclava for your neck and face, and a ski hat for your head. I prefer the Simms Challenger Insulated Hat over a ski hat. It’s got a retro Elmer Fudd look to it, but those ear flaps lined with high-pile sherpa fleece keep you warm, and the baseball cap brim helps reduce glare and keep the rain and snow off your face and sunglasses.

Spring Fly Fishing Clothing

In the spring, wading is often more challenging so it’s important to have stretchy layers and stay nimble. No one stays warm if they fall in the river.

The temperature ranges in the springtime are consistent with what you might encounter in the fall, but the spring is often wetter, with more rain and more humidity. That means you’ll have to be on point with your layering to maximize your moisture management.

Start with something thin and stretchy like Simms Lightweight Baselayer top and bottoms, and add Patagonia R2 TechFace Pants, and on the top a Simms CX Hoody. Again, breathability should be your number one goal in your spring layering system, so a lightweight shell like the Simms Flyweight Shell Fishing Jacket is a better choice than the heavy-duty wading jacket you’d wear in the winter.

Summer Fly Fishing Clothing

On hot summer days, moisture management is only an issue if you’re wearing waders. On some big tailwaters like the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, the water can be 45 degrees F. in the summer when the air temperature is 100, so you have to wear waders to stand in the water.

Bare skin against your waders can feel wet and clammy, so don’t wear shorts. Lightweight synthetic bottoms solve this problem because they help spread your sweat across a larger surface area and help turn your sweat into water vapor. Breathable waders work only on water vapor, not pooled-up sweat, so a lightweight base layer helps keep you feeling dry and comfortable in the summer.

In situations where the water is warm enough to tolerate, or when you’re fishing out of a boat, wet wading is the way to go in the summer. Shorts are great if you like bug bites, poison ivy, stinging nettles, and sunburns on the backs of your knees.

I learned from guides in New Zealand, Florida, and the Seychelles that shorts are for foolhardy tourists. They wear pants. Look for UPF 50 quick-drying pants like the Simms Guide Pant or Patagonia Guidewater II Pants. Try to pick pants with a trim fit so you don’t have excess material to catch the current and pull at you. Your shirt is critical for the summer sun and heat. A sun hoody protects your neck and ears, which are problem areas for melanoma, and it also helps reduce glare so your sight-fishing vision is improved.

You’ll also need a sun gaiter to protect your face. I like the Simms SolarFlex UltraCool Sunshield Shirt because the neck gaiter is built in, you can never lose it, and you’re likely to wear it up more often than with a removable gaiter. The hood has an envelope to secure your hat brim, and it’s made with Avra fabrics that dry faster than anything else I’ve experienced, and that enhances the cooling effects of evaporation.

Orvis PRO HD Insulated Jacket

Four Season Fly Fishing Survival
$330 |

Orvis expanded its PRO series with its warmest, windproof, water- and tear-resistant, 170g PrimaLoft Gold-filled juggernaut of a jacket, the PRO HD Hoodie. PrimaLoft Gold is synthetic and high-loft, with optimal warmth retention even when wet. A 20D mechanical stretch ripstop nylon exterior is built to take abuse. Zippered, fleece-lined handwarmer pockets are set high on the chest to make thawing your frozen digits while wading easy. There’s another lower set of pockets for riverbank and casual wear. Stretchable Primaloft Gold runs across the arms and back to move with you while angling. The athletic cut fits easily into waders and doesn’t create bulk. An internal security pocket holds your valuables, and two deep internal stretch pockets provide additional storage. An external zip pocket fits an extra fly box. The hood is lightweight, warm, and comfortable with superior coverage that doesn’t obstruct your vision. Adjustable waist bungees cinch up to keep out the cold. This jacket is ready for blizzards on the Madison, steelheading in the Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes, or your next Arctic adventure. Available in two colors for men, shadow and camo, and one color for women, irongate. –Dennis Pastucha

Patagonia Ultralight Packable Jacket

Four Season Fly Fishing Survival
$250 |

This is a jacket you hope you don’t need, but because it weighs 8.1 ounces and stuffs into an apple-size stuff sack, you’ll have it with you when the weather takes a downturn. The Ultralight Packable Jacket is waterproof and breathable, and has a large self-draining fly box pocket, a tool dock, a brimmed hood with quick-cinch closures, corrosion-resistant zippers, and simple hook-and-loop cuff closures that lie flat so they don’t snag your fly line. While clearly tailored for fly fishers, this is a do-it-all rain jacket that can also save a canoing, backpacking, or mountain biking trip. It’s sized right for air travel, and it’s clean and simple enough for a trip to the grocery store or a Friday night football game.

The shell is made from Patagonia’s 3-layer H2No Performance Standard fabric with a soft tricot backer and a durable water-repellent finish. It’s Fair Trade Certified sewn, which means the people who made it earned a premium for their labor.

Patagonia R2 TechFace Pants

Four Season Fly Fishing Survival
$140 |

These lightweight stretchy pants are made from a high-loft double-weave fleece material that feels soft against your skin and distributes moisture, turning it into water vapor that can easily pass through your waders.

You can wear the R2 TechFace Pants  alone, or in very cold weather as an insulation layer over top of a tight base layer. These are wader-friendly pants with durable overlays built to resist pilling where your waders rub against your pants. The trim ankle cuffs reduce bulk so they can fit easily in your waders and boots—even with heavy socks. An elastic waistband with a drawstring keeps your pants up even while you are pulling off your waders.

A good pair of pants is also made to be worn without waders, and the R2 TechFace Pants do that job well, with a durable water-repellent treatment on the outside, two zippered thigh pockets, and an accessory loop on the waistband for pliers or nippers.

Simms Fall Run Insulated Jacket

Four Season Fly Fishing Survival
$150 jacket; $120 vest |

Winter is coming, but before it gets here, the Fall Run Insulated Jacket will get you through the best fishing season of the year. The jacket is warm without bulk, making it a perfect fit for under waders or bibs. The PrimaLoft Black Eco insulation (60g body, 40g sleeves) keeps you warm even when wet, and is made from 60% recycled material. The 100% recycled polyester ripstop shell is treated with a durable water-repellent finish, with internal quilting on the top front and back body to provide a smooth exterior. The jacket has zippered handwarmer pockets and an internal chest zippered pocket. The Fall Run is also available as an Insulated Vest.

Simms Heavyweight BaseLayer

Four Season Fly Fishing Survival
$90 hoody; $90 bottom |

The asymmetrical zipper on the Heavyweight Baselayer Hoody zips up on the side of your face to create a built-in balaclava so your nose, lips, and chin stay warmer, and more comfortable. The Heavyweight Baselayer Hoody and Bottom are designed to be worn next to your skin to provide maximum warmth and moisture management. The Flatlock seam construction keeps the base layer smooth and comfortable next to your skin. You can add a lightweight layer underneath, but in extreme conditions it’s usually better to just add extra insulation layers.

The smooth, jacquard face fabric with grid-fleece backside adds stretchiness and creates micro-pockets to trap heat. The extra-long sleeves have thumb holes to keep them in place under your insulation layer, and to help keep the backs of your hands warm. The top is 96% polyester, 4% elastane; the bottoms are 88% polyester, 12% elastane. Both are treated with a powerful antimicrobial to keep the stink away.

Ross Purnell is the editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman.

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