The Situation: “Cold Feet and the Perils of Winter Fly Fishing”

Posted on 18 November 2019

The Situation: “Cold Feet and the Perils of Winter Fly Fishing”

The Problem: 

The Cold weather months are upon us, and many folks just seem to stay inside and let cabin fever grow! But for the anglers that are willing to adjust to the cold water temps, many feeding fish are out there and ready to eat.

** A personal note from the author - TCO, it’s staff and guides DO NOT advocate targeting or fishing for actively spawning fish, or fish on or near spawning areas or “redds” which can be found during these cold months in Pennsylvania.**

I will explain some cold water preparation and clothing systems that will allow you to spend a few quality hours throughout the coldest months of the year while enjoying fly fishing. While there will always be times that it just isn’t worth it, you’ll find that this system will suffice for most of your winter fishing here in Pennsylvania.

This method of layering, along with a few other tricks, works most days I am guiding or personally fishing. At all times, the most important part is to realize if you are getting cold, you should use proper judgement and take a break, or even call it a day. Frostbite and hypothermia are not worth it, and can have long term consequences. This is just a guideline that has helped me enjoy time on the water from November through March. 

The Solution: (before we address layering up for cold weather fishing, let’s just talk about a few main points to consider.)

Step One: read the weather report and plan your fishing on reasonable days. If it’s windy (above 20 mph) or raining- chose another day. Here in most of Pennsylvania, we have days throughout the Winter that oftentimes will go above 32 degrees. Choose these days for optimum chances of having a good day on the water! Be flexible in your schedule if you can. There’s no need to be on the water in the early morning. Oftentimes, the best winter fishing is from approximately 1:00pm until 3:30pm.

Step Two: your fishing sessions will be much shorter that during the other seasons. Sometimes the water or air temps allow us to only be outside in the creek for a half-hour or so. Be reasonable. Most folks will find the time that they do spend outside is well worth it! 

Step Three: consider fishing in spots that are close to the car, or fishing with a buddy. Minimizing the risk is essential when fishing in the colder months of the year. Often, I’ll look for spots that I can fish from the bank, or in less than knee-deep areas. There’s no need to wade chin-deep in the Winter! And if possible, fish with a friend. It’s just a safety measure, and it can be fun! 

Base Layer:


 As you can see in my glorious picture, I am outfitted with quality gear from head to toe. Let’s start at the socks and move up! 

Socks. I choose the Orvis Heavy weight wading socks. They aren’t too tight, as to restrict blood flow. They’re also a great “weight” and still fit inside my wading boots. I don’t like to wear two pairs of socks for fear of blisters or bunching up inside my waders.  I personally have had little success with toe warmers, as they make your feet sweat and become cold. Instead I opt for just socks, and will limit my time standing still in the water, and get out and walk around to warm up. (I begin wearing my heavy-weight wading socks about the third week in October- or when the water temps hit around 53-56 degrees.) 

Base Layer Top. I have found the Simms ultra wool base layer to be the best top for fishing in the cold. Not only is its warmth to weight ratio great, it’s minimal bulk keeps it possible to “bundle up” and still be able to hike around, wade and cast.

​Base Layer Pants. Avoid ”long-johns” or sweatpants. They are heavy at best, and don’t offer the warmth that polypropylene or fleece pants do. In the picture I am wearing Simms Lightweight Core Pants. I have found this layer to be effective until the water drops to about 54 degrees or so. At that point, I’ll switch to the next heavier weight. 

 For more information on each piece of Neil's Base Layer System, click on the item:

Mid Layer


 Do you like my Captain Morgan pose?

Mid Layer Top. I choose to wear the Simms Midweight Core Quarter Zip. This piece is a warmth layer, which also looks good enough to scurry in to the local pub after a cold outing on the water. I like the quarter zip feature, as this reduces bulk or a choking feeling when piling on the layers. 

Mid Layer Pant. Once the water drops below 53 degrees or so, I switch my lightweight base layers over to the Simms Fleece Midlayer Bottoms. These babies keep you warm in all casual situations where you would head out for a little fishing on your home water. I also like the pockets in them, perfect for a quick run into the store or random errand. 

    Check ‘em out here:

    Outer Layer:


     Outer Layer Top. For this layer, I rely upon the Patagonia Nano Puff Hoodie. I find this jacket is extremely versatile when combined with the correct layers. 

    Patagonia describes the jacket like this: “Warm, windproof, water-resistant—the Nano Puff® Hoody uses incredibly lightweight and highly compressible 60-g PrimaLoft® Gold Insulation Eco with 55% post-consumer recycled content, wrapped in a 100% recycled polyester shell and lining. Fair Trade Certified™ sewn.” 

    What this means to me, it's a warm jacket that can stand up to blustery winds, and can take light dry snow. I wouldn’t want to be wearing it when there’s a chance of a wet snow or cold rain, but honestly, do you really want to be fishing in those conditions during the winter months anyways? This jacket with the above mentioned layering system works for me down to about 43 degrees. 

    Outer Layer Bottom.  As you can see, my outer layer for the bottoms are my trusty Simms G3 Waders. Look around the shop, and you’ll see most shop guys and guides rely on the G3 day in and day out.  They are durable, breathable and super comfortable.

    Wading Boots. I round out the mix by using the Orvis Pro Boots. The Michelin rubber soles provide outstanding grip, and you can add metal studs for additional traction. Just a note, they are super-stiff when you try them on in the store. Don’t let that scare you. Put about 7 days on them, and the break-in perfectly. A superb blend of support, traction and weight. 


    Click on any of the items below for more information:

    So, that’s three layers- and I’m good for most of the winter here in the Cumberland Valley. `

    ...And If It's Really Cold Out:

    Here a couple of additional items to make you comfortable on the blustery days of Winter:


    Additional Outer Layer.  For this I chose to eliminate extra bulk by using a vest. The Simms Midstream Insulated Vest is one of my favorite pieces of outerwear. In early Fall it’s the first thing to go over a lighter shirt for mild days. As the season continues, the Midstream Vest still plays an important role in providing warmth without bulk (one of the biggest complaints I have and also hear.)

    Gloves.  I use Simms Wool Half Finger Gloves. Full fingered gloves drive me nuts when trying to tie knots. My hands don’t get cold that often, so I can get by with the classics. Take them off to handle fish, or your gloves will smell terrible back at home.

    Hand Warmers. I find these essential when using fingerless gloves. I put one in each pocket and warm up one hand at a time, while still getting a good drift. As a rule, I’m usually tight-line nymphing in the Winter, so my hands stay pretty dry. The same cannot be said if you are stripping streamers... just something to consider.

    Baseball Hat. A good baseball hat provides better vision by cutting out glare and also protects you from flying hooks or weight. A good trucker’s hat not only makes you look like a professional fisherman, but can keep your sunglasses spot-free if you get caught in the snow! 

    Winter Hat on Top. I get creative here, they are plenty of quality hats like the Simms Basic Beanie however, I usually choose a local hand-knitted hat from a friend that makes them. All the major companies have winter hats, and they usually work great, but I enjoy supporting a great friend and buying from my community.

    The Reward: 

    A day on the water in the Wintertime can be extremely rewarding and most likely you will have your favorite fishing spots to yourself. I have always said that one fish in January is worth six or ten in May! 

    Hopefully this has given you an idea of how to dress and layer for a wintertime outing. It gives you a reason to break away from the tying desk and get your boots wet! Have fun, and please email me with any questions you may have.


    Neil Sunday

    Relentless Flyfishing Guide

    TCO Flyshop Employee

    IG: @neilsunday


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    • Greg: November 19, 2019

      Use HOT SEAT warmers . They are unbelievable. It’s a 12 x12 warmer that unfolds and has a sticky surface so you can adhere it to the inside of your jacket. I’m amazed of how well they work. Keeps you very warm and last about 5 hours or more. The sticky surface leaves no residue at all. Fished in 35 degrees last Saturday and was very comfortable. Sold out of New Jersey

    • TIM WHITE: November 18, 2019

      Very informative – thanks for putting the info out there.

    • Lindsay : November 18, 2019

      Great info!! Thank you

    • Bill T: November 18, 2019

      Bootfoot waders are A LOT WARMER than stockingfoot waders for Winter fishing. No discussion of Winter fly fishing should omit that detail.

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