Northern Minnesotans know a bit about cabin fever. Winters here are long and dark. So we go fishing. It’s normally done through the ice; you have to bring the cooler to keep the beer from freezing and the bait alive, in that order. But a fly angler willing to drive a bit south will find lots of late-season open-water fishing, including lake-run steelhead, late-season muskies, and even a few all-year trout fisheries. In fact, most wintery regions of the country have liquid water and feeding fish available year-round these days.
That said, winter fishing can be frustrating and uncomfortable and even dangerous. You already know this, and probably already know the the basic rules cold-weather fishing: dress in layers. Avoid sweating. Wear a hat. Don’t lick the oarlocks. PAM your rod guides. Et cetera.
But the basic rules only keep us fishing in basic cold. What about fishing in extreme cold? In that Hoth-like wind that sucks the breath out of you, sets your teeth on edge, makes your eyes water and then freezes your lashes together? Sometimes that’s the only day you can fish. Sometimes you just have to get outside.
Ice anglers do it, and not always with the luxury of a heated icehouse. At least I’ve never had one. Take it from this northern Minnesota ice-to-fly convert: it’s doable, with some basic gear that you probably already own, and a little practice.
You don’t need a massive winter parka or high-tech thermal underwear. Experiment with stuff you already have. The polyester sun shirt that you wear all summer makes an excellent baselayer that keeps the itchy wool sweater away from your skin; same is true of your Buff. Next comes your tech fleece and puffy down jacket, and lastly a basic rain shell, which blocks the wind. Think of it like a parka kit. Below the waist, my favorite long johns are eBay army surplus polypropylene, but any good wool or synthetic wicking ones will work. These go underneath a pair of cheap fleece pajama pants. The key is a system that is thick enough to hold some air and not compress. Finally, in addition to thick wool socks, get some silk liner socks. They’re a wicking baselayer for your feet. Even on warm days they keep your feet feeling dry and comfortable. And they’re inexpensive. Buy two pairs.
Consider circulation. Your feet and hands can’t stay warm if warm blood from your core can’t get to them. This is where too many layers can do more harm than good. Think of chokepoints: elbows, knees, wrists, ankles. Loosen your cuffs and your boot laces. I think this is why bootfoot waders are often preferred in the wintertime: there’s just a ton of room in them.
I’ve tried high-tech waterproof angling gloves, but the knit flip-top fingerless ragwool mittens still work the best for me. When they get wet you can wring them out and they’ll still offer some warmth. Make sure they have leather or rubber grippy material on the palms, so you don’t have to squeeze your rod/oar handles, which constricts blood flow to your fingers. Bring two or three pairs and switch to dry ones at lunchtime. I also use a handwarmer muff. Yes, like the ones quarterbacks wear at Lambeau Field. They are so warm it feels like cheating. Most hunting retailers usually have them on clearance this time of year, though you might get stuck with camo or blaze orange.
Speaking of cheating, throw a couple disposable chemical handwarmers inside the muff. Get creative: stick one behind your neck, under your hat, in the flipped-up top of your mitten. Keep in mind that they need oxygen to work, so a loose pocket is best. If you put them in a ziploc bag and squeeze the air out, they’ll go dormant until you expose them again to air.
Many anglers switch to thick neoprene waders for cold weather, but I prefer wearing my breathables, and buy them a little large just for this reason. Properly layered, I am plenty warm, the Gore-tex keeps me drier, and I feel safer. I don’t like the way that buoyant neoprene diminishes mobility and traction when wading deep, and the bootfeet don’t offer the support and traction of quality studded wading boots. Speaking of studs: that soft grippy Vibram rubber gets very hard in the cold and doesn’t grip. Stud your soles if you can, and pay attention to the slush/ice collecting on the bottom of your boots.
If in a boat or wading big water, consider wearing a PFD. Cinch your wading belt and your jacket’s waist band. A surprise swim at zero degrees Fahrenheit is really bad, and you want it to be as brief as possible. A friend of mine went headfirst out of the front of a driftboat last January. He popped back up almost instantly and almost completely dry, because his waders and jacket were configured correctly, and he fished out the rest of the day. If he’d been soaked, the fishing would have been over, or worse.
Your metabolism can’t keep you warm if you don’t stay hydrated and eat a real breakfast and high-calorie snacks all day. If you bring protein or candy bars, keep them in an inside pocket. Ever tried to eat a frozen Clif bar? It will grab your teeth and try to pull them right out of your head. A water bottle will freeze, too, so instead bring a vacuum flask (Thermos) of hot water. Stuff a pocket with instant packets and you have hot coffee, soup, and/or tea on demand; holding the cup will warm up your fingers.
It gets dark early. Bring a headlamp/flashlight that you know works and is waterproof or stored in a waterproof place. Bring two. Keep them in an inside (warm) pocket or use lithium batteries. Same for your camera, GPS, phone, etc. Standard batteries lose their charge or can even rupture when they freeze. If your camera’s too big to keep in a pocket, stuff a chemical hand warmer into your bag next the camera’s battery compartment.
A Bic lighter and some paper in a ziploc bag weigh and cost almost nothing, but might come in very handy. A good windproof lighter and some paraffin firestarters are better. Go read Jack London’s To Build a Fire and maybe even practice in the snow. If you can’t do it, rethink how far from your car and how late you plan to fish. In your car, keep jumper cables and a good battery. Extreme cold can kill an otherwise-working weak battery quick. Not good at five-dark-thirty at a remote river access, especially when you and your cell phone battery are already cold.
Everyone’s physiology is a bit different. Personally, I have to work hard to keep my hands and feet from freezing, but rarely feel physically cold. Meanwhile, a buddy of mine runs so hot that he doesn’t wear gloves and steam literally pours out of his collar and cuffs, but by afternoon his teeth are chattering. So experiment with layers, bootlace tightness, snacks, and activity levels, and see what works best for you.
And keep in mind one other thing: you know that crinkly feeling in your nose when you inhale super-cold air, and your mucous membranes freeze? That’s your sinuses taking the hit, warming the air before it gets to your moist, delicate lungs. Which you need to live. Think about that whenever you lift a fish out of the water in the extreme cold. Flash-frozen gills gotta hurt.