How to Layer for Fishing in Variable Weather

In many areas of North America, the steelhead is King and can take you to some interesting places and environments.

The Great Lakes region is no exception, the drive to chase steelhead is challenging and rewarding. The seasons that we fish vary region by region but depending on where you’re fishing, they can be targeted from late summer to the following April. The ability to adapt to the weather is just part of the challenge. From the summer, wet wading to a rainy/windy day, or breaking ice. A lot of people make their living from this amazing species, what we learn and probably most important from targeting them is how to dress in any weather conditions mother nature can through at us.

In late winter/early spring may be the most difficult as the weather changes daily and sometimes hourly. A few things dictate the clothing required to stay warm, are you wading or in a boat. While wading, you are limited to what and how much gear you can carry and keep dry.

Tributary winter
Snow-covered banks and freezing temps usually greet you on spring mornings in the Great Lakes Region

The key is layers, most manufacturers have some sort of layering system, base layer, mid-layer, thermal, or a puffy, etc. The styles you fish, run and gun or stay put all day, will dictate your layering system to avoid overheating and then eventually get cold. The person that stays in the water all day may need more layers, depending on water temperature. There are no hard and fast rules (varies so much person to person) just guidelines and only experience can help you or carry extra clothing if you can or leave it in your vehicle just-in-case. It’s easier to go to the car than leave because you got cold, you don’t want to drive 2 to 4 hours to go fishing only to leave after an hour. Your friends won’t give you a hard time, or at least not as much.

The best way to start is with a base layer, it’s the most important, you get what you pay for, don’t buy the cheapest brand or type, as it won’t wick the perspiration from the skin, similar to socks. These are the most important to maintain your temperature and can make the difference to keep you dry and fishing all day. Stay away from anything cotton, as once it’s wet from sweat, it will make you cold, the synthetic or wool base layer is far superior. Socks have come a long way, a liner, then merino wool for the most parts. In the extreme cold, it would be those two socks plus an extreme wading sock. Don’t wear your clothing to the location, get dressed on-site you may get some weird looks, but at least you will be warm when fishing.

A windproof jacket is key if you plan on staying warm and dry in early Spring weather.

Clothing from fly fishing dedicated companies, Simms, Redington, and Patagonia, to name a few have their advantages. They are made to fit into waders and if you ever tried to put your waders boots on with non-wading pants, your boots either don’t fit or you have a large bulky lump you get at the base of your pants, that drive you crazy all day. You know exactly what I’m talking about, we all been there.

Most days, a good starting point would be a base layer and a fleece layer, two pairs of socks, then your waders, however, if you are in the water all day you may need to bring or wear another layer depending on the water temp. On the really cold, wet or windy days, you made need to wear up to three or four layers under your waders and 3 pairs of socks.

The torso part of the body is a little different, if you spend your time only knee-deep you may not need the same number of layers. Midsection clothes example would be a base layer and a sweater, as well as a waterproof jacket, is a must. Mid-layers pack easier just in case you need it.

Winter Steelhead
Author, dressing properly let him stay the day and land this steelhead

Also, you will need a toque and mitts or gloves, I prefer the fingerless wool gloves & toque with a fleece liner in the cold. If the wool gets wet, it will at least still keep you warm. The fleece windproof flip mitts are good for most days, however, if you get them wet, you stay wet and they are not warm anymore. There is no ultimate layer system for your hands, the best way is to carry multiple pairs to change out if wet. When you drop them (it will happen) or when you get too excited and forget to take them off when landing your fish, another reason to carry a net. Here is a good video from Tailers & Chasers to that assist in the cold weather clothing.

A good layering system, that works for you, will keep you on the water all day, these are just some of the things that worked for me over the twenty years of chasing fish during the cold months.

Pat Dorsey’s 7 Must-Have Midge Winter Patterns

Get a Grip: Achieving Superior Traction In & On the Water

Early Spring Steelhead Tips


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