Winter can be a beautiful time of year to go fishing, but it can be a dangerous time, too.
Air temperatures are cold, and water is wet.
Being dry and cold is no problem. Being wet and warm is no problem. Being wet and cold is miserable at best, deadly at worst.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of money or effort to equip oneself properly for wintertime fishing. In fact, most outdoors enthusiasts already have most of the things they need.
- Base layers — In the old days, we called them “underwear.” Nowadays, “base layers” is the buzzword. Essentially, they’re items of clothing that sit next to your skin.
The best base layers are made of wool or of modern synthetic fabrics. Unlike cotton, wool and synthetic garments maintain their insulating properties even when wet. Most synthetics also dry quickly.
When I’m going to be out in the cold, I usually wear long underwear knit from some sort of polyester-based fiber. If it’s really cold, I’ll wear synthetic stretch pants over the underwear bottoms and a light fleece sweater over the undershirt.
- Middle garments — Again, stick with synthetics. I usually wear a pair of quick-dry pants (usually woven from nylon with a little Spandex added in) and a quick-dry long-sleeved shirt (ditto on the specs) over the base layers.
- Outer garments — Again, wool or synthetics. (Sensing a theme here?) When the weather is dry and not too windy, I usually wear a light fleece jacket over the other layers. When it’s wet, windy, or both, I’ll wear a jacket or parka that has a waterproof outer shell. I’ll also wear rain pants or chest waders to keep my legs dry.
- Socks, gloves and hat — Personally, I prefer socks that combine the insulating properties of wool with the moisture-wicking properties of synthetics. Such socks are pricier than their cotton or wool counterparts, but cold-weather performance makes them worth the expense.
Most of the time when I’m fishing, I wear fingerless woolen gloves. They keep my hands warm enough, and also allow me to tie knots easily. When it’s really cold, though, I wear full-fingered gloves made of waterproof fabric and lined with polyester fleece.
A hat should keep your head warm and keep the elements out. Most of the time, I wear a baseball cap lined with a breathable waterproof membrane. In bitter cold or in high winds, I go with a knit woolen ski cap that covers my ears.
- A “falling-in” kit — Hey, it happens. There’s nothing worse than to have to cut a fishing trip short because you stumbled and got wet. That’s why I keep a towel and a change of underwear, socks and mid-layer clothing stowed in the car.
You never know when you’ll need these things. Years ago, on a damp, raw March day, I went out on an assignment with a local muskie angler. I thought I was dressed for the conditions — hiking boots, wool socks, jeans, a flannel shirt and a jacket.
We fished for a while near the boat launch, then ran several miles downriver to one of his favorite spots. When we got there, he started casting and asked me why I wasn’t fishing, too. I told him I just wanted to sit there for a few minutes.
He gave me a long, hard look, opened a compartment in the bow of his boat, and handed me a set of insulated coveralls.
“Put these on,” he ordered. “Now! And no backtalk. You’re hypothermic.”
He was a doctor. I didn’t argue.
The incident showed me just how easy it is to get into trouble in cold, damp weather. It’s a lesson I took to heart.