- By: Ted Leeson
KField TestL by Ted Leeson
Armed with the newest technology, you can wave a rod in the face of
Old Man Winter.
The expanding popularity of winter fishing, even among anglers who don’t habitually throw around the word “extreme,” is beyond dispute, as is its chief obstacle—the weather. To stay on the water, you have to stay warm. The alternatives—hypothermia or existential despondency—are unpleasant to contemplate and potentially lethal.
Coping with the cold essentially involves supervising the behavior of water and air. You want perspiration to migrate away from your body, since water leaches away your personal heat up to 25 times faster than air. And, conversely, you want to hold a layer of dry, dead air next to your skin for warmth. The most reliable approach to dispersing perspiration while preserving body heat is to dress in layers, which means something more deliberate than just piling more clothes on top of other clothes. Here’s the layering logic:
Worn next to the skin, the base layer is primarily responsible for moving moisture away from your body. Depending on the type and texture of the fabric, it may also provide some insulation. The middle layer continues moving moisture (liquid or vapor) outward, but its main purpose is to provide warmth by trapping body heat in dead-air pockets, either between the base and mid-layer or in the structure of the mid-layer fabric itself. The outer layer lets perspiration evaporate to the outside, and it protects the insulating air trapped beneath it by blocking the wind. Depending on the fabric weight and construction, it may also provide a second layer of dead air for additional warmth.
Usefully applying this general idea depends upon your level of physical exertion in cold-weather angling. In high-activity angling, where you cover water and rarely stop moving, breathable layers and body mobility are at a premium. A close-fitting base layer with a smooth fabric finish maximizes skin contact area for efficient moisture transfer. A mid-weight mid-layer with a quilted, waffled or knobby interior finish provides some insulation but still moves perspiration. A breathable shell (or windproof fleece in colder weather) protects against the wind.
Stop-and-go fishing involves periods of physical exertion—hiking, for instance—alternating with extended intervals of near motionlessness while you fish. Dress to be warm when you’re standing still (a mid- or heavyweight wool base layer, top and bottom, is good), but the key to me is a warm, compressible mid-layer followed by a wading jacket or windproof shell. When you hike, stow the mid-layer in a rear cargo pocket, pack or inside your wader tops (hence the compressibility), and put it on when you’re ready to fish. It’s far better to be a bit chilly when you’re moving than drenched in sweat when it’s time to stand still.
In low-activity angling (not to be confused with low-action angling, where you don’t catch anything), you’re pretty much stationary all day, a common situation in winter fishing, and that calls for maximum insulation. There’s nothing sacred about three layers; don’t hesitate to go four deep if conditions call for it—a close-fitting, lightweight base layer, followed by a heavyweight base layer, then a quilted synthetic or high-pile fleece mid-layer, topped with a wading jacket, or an insulated jacket in very cold conditions.
The quantity and variety of cold-weather clothing available these days is boggling. I field-tested a small mountain of gear that has appeared on the market since I last covered this category in 2004. Here’s what kept me comfy:
E.C.W.C.S. Thermal Zone Polartec Power Dry Base Layer System
Noteworthy Features: Uses three weights of Power Dry High Efficiency fabric, from polar weight for body core insulation to silk weight in wrists and cuffs (for low bulk) and in crotch and armpits (for fast wicking). This base layer moves moisture very effectively and offers excellent body mobility.
Drawbacks: While grid-back fabric provides some insulation, it offers only moderate warmth in cold conditions when you’re not exerting energy.
Best Uses: Moisture movement makes this a natural for high-activity angling—among the best I’ve used. This base layer kept me comfortably dry in the extreme damp of Pacific Northwest winters, which impedes the evaporation of sweat.
1/4-zip top, $89.99; bottoms, $84.99.
Polartec Power Dry Union Suit
Noteworthy Features: An old-school idea updated with warm, fast-wicking fabric. One-piece design minimizes shifting, bunching and gaps that sometimes accompany separate tops and bottoms. It offers surprisingly good overall body mobility and under a non-restrictive mid-layer promotes some interior air circulation for more uniform warmth.
Drawbacks: Getting the right fit can be dicey since you can’t choose separate top and bottom sizes; answering nature’s call requires a certain amount of determination.
Best Uses: Combination of mobility and moisture movement makes this good for mixed-activity angling if worn under a heavier mid-layer.
Capilene 4 Expedition Weight
Noteworthy Features: Cap 4 gives a highly practical balance of moisture movement and insulation (provided by soft, brushed-fleece interior); this is among the toastiest base layers I’ve used. Exceptionally stretchy fabric yields as you move, and shoulder seam design wears comfortably under pack or vest. Smooth fabric slides easily against other layers or into waders.
Drawbacks: Fleece pile interior doesn’t wick quite as quickly, in my estimation, as fabrics with greater skin contact area—a tradeoff for the insulation. Cuffs could fit more snugly.
Best Uses: Overall warmth suits this ideally to low-activity angling, but it still moves perspiration efficiently enough for intervals of physical exertion in mixed-activity fishing.
Full-zip top, $119; bottoms, $69.
■Forget cotton fabrics in winter, especially in clothing worn next to the skin. The heat retention is unremarkable, while the water retention is superior. And wet cotton sucks the heat out of you with shivering speed.
■When layering, avoid putting high-friction surfaces, like napped, textured or pile fabrics, next to one another. You get greater arm and body mobility if the layers slide against one another, as with two smooth-surface fabrics, or a smooth finish against a pile or textured surface.
■One of the big advantages of the whole layering concept is that you can add or remove layers in response to the weather or your activity level. But this only works if you actually do it. Take the time to adjust your clothing before you’re dripping in sweat or numb from the cold. —T.L.
First Ascent/Eddie Bauer
Microtherm Down Shirt
Noteworthy Features: Down offers a superior warmth-to-weight ratio, and these one-inch baffles reduce fill shifting and decrease bulk for a trim-profile mid-layer. Smooth, water-repellent fabric slides easily against other layers, and under a shell, this shirt traps heat comfortably. Good performance for the money.
Drawbacks: Down is a miserable insulator when wet, takes forever to dry and, in my experience, doesn’t wick as effectively as many synthetics. It can “leak” feathers—not uncommon with down.
Best Uses: Low-activity fishing in dry conditions; admirable compressibility makes it practical to carry when on the move in mixed-activity use.
Targhee Full-Zip Fleece
Noteworthy Features: The Polartec Thermal Pro fabric has a shallow interior grid that gives a useful balance of heat-retaining air pockets and contact area with the base layer —very good warmth and high breathability in a low-bulk package. Seamless shoulder is good under vest or backpack; shell dries very quickly.
Drawbacks: Fabric is stiffer than some fleeces; elbow and shoulder design could provide a little more mobility. Cuffs could fit more snugly, and a softer material would make high-zip collar more comfortable.
Best Uses: This is compressible enough to stash when on the move in mixed-activity angling and also sufficiently warm for low-activity fishing. It also looks good—a nice choice for those seeking a general-purpose fleece.
Nano Puff Hoody
Noteworthy Features:Quilted, PrimaLoft One construction offers excellent warmth, even when wet, in a super-lightweight, low-bulk shell. Smooth finish slides easily against other layers for freedom of movement. Elasticized hood with superb throat/neck coverage is a huge plus in cold wind. A wonderfully versatile piece.
Drawbacks: I had intermittent trouble with the zipper snagging; fairly expensive.
Best Uses: Any. Windproof, highly water-resistant shell with elasticized cuffs, handwarmer pockets and drawstring hem makes a good outer layer in high-activity use. Extreme packability is good for stop-and-go fishing, and heat retention suits it to low-activity angling. Can also double as street wear.
R3 Hi-Loft Jacket
Noteworthy Features: High-pile shell is exceptionally warm, while flat mesh lining provides additional insulation and increases base-layer contact area for very good breathability. Stretch arm and side panels and supple, superbly lightweight fabric allow unrestricted movement. Snug high-zip collar, and super comfort throughout.
Drawbacks: Sleeves are a little narrow for easy fit over heavy base layer; stretch panel areas are a bit less warm than the pile surfaces.
Best Uses: Highly compressible, this jacket packs easily during vigorous hikes for anglers of mixed activity levels, and it warms up quickly when you put it on. I like it equally well—maybe more—for insulation in low-activity fishing. This is one of my go-to pieces.
Noteworthy Features: High breathability and moderate warmth provided by the Polartec Thermal Pro fabric, which stretches with body movement. The design is simple, clean and functional. Soft facing on high-zip collar is comfortable, and elasticized cuffs deter wind entry.
Drawbacks: Pullover style is less convenient to put on and remove than a jacket, and 1/4-zip design allows only limited heat venting if you get warm. Loose-fitting hem can ride up inside waders.
Best Uses: Moisture movement suits this particularly to high-activity angling, though anglers who tolerate the cold easily may find it warm enough for any activity level. Stylish enough for casual occasions and street wear.
Shelled Insulator Pants
Noteworthy Features: Three-layer polyester softshell fabric, grid-back interior, water-repellent finish and windproof membrane make these warm and wonderfully resistant to the elements. Hook-and-loop cinches on gusseted cuff keep this in place under waders.
Drawbacks: Fabric is somewhat stiff and only slightly stretchy for mobility; less comfortable than fleece pants.
Best Uses: Warmth here is a strong point in mixed- or low-activity angling, but I like these for versatility. Windproofing and water resistance make them excellent for use without waders—cold-weather camping, for instance—and overall appearance suits them for street wear in harsher weather.
Convergence Fleece Pro Pant
Noteworthy Features: Fast-wicking fleece is brushed on interior for comfort, smooth on the exterior for easy sliding into waders. Extremely stretchy fabric doesn’t inhibit body movement. Three zip-closing pockets keep contents secure. Very comfortable.
Drawbacks: Cuff cinches or stirrups would be a nice touch here. These seem a tad pricey for basic fleece—you pay some for the zip pockets.
Best Uses: High-activity angling, where only modest insulation is typically needed but breathability and mobility are at a premium.
Noteworthy Features: Midweight 200 Microfleece makes for warm under-wader wear that breathes well. Narrow-fitting ankles keep pant cuffs in place when donning waders. Two side-seam pockets are deep for security. Good overall performance in a basic, functional design and proven material; sensibly priced.
Drawbacks: Leg length seems a little short for a given size. Drawstring is too slippery to be held in place by cord-lock; waist opens annoyingly as you bend or move.
Best Uses: Alone or with a light base layer, for stop-and-go fishing. Use with a heavier base layer for low-activity angling in cold conditions.
Noteworthy Features: Generous use of PrimaLoft One makes this jacket magnificently warm but surprisingly light. The shell is windproof and highly water resistant. Supple, compressible materials and roomy cut allow good upper body movement. Great insulated hood coverage and handwarmer pockets that actually warm hands.
Drawbacks: As with all high-loft clothing, this one feels a bit like you’re wearing a marshmallow. More substantial, adjustable cuff closures would be better for fishing than these elasticized ones.
Best Uses: For low-activity fishing in nearly inhuman conditions—think Great Lakes steelheading in January. For the ultimate in toastiness when wading, pair this jacket with Patagonia’s Micro Puff Pant ($179), constructed of the same materials, with full-leg zips and snap cuffs. Mobility is somewhat reduced, but a worthwhile tradeoff in bitter cold.
Quest Softshell Insulated Hoody
Noteworthy Features: Primaloft in the jacket body keeps your core warm, while extremely stretchy, uninsulated fabric in the arms permits excellent movement—like an insulated vest under a stretch shell that’s also highly wind and water resistant. Intelligently designed for angling with Napoleon pockets, tool patch and adjustable cuffs. Quite comfortable and practical.
Drawbacks: Lack of insulation in arms and hood make this less suitable in extremely cold weather. Arms could be cut fuller for layering underneath.
Best Uses: With lighter under-layers, this is practical for high-activity angling, but I thought its best application was in stop-and-go fishing, where the insulating power was put to good use.
Windstopper Softshell Hoody
Noteworthy Features: Roomy cut through arms and shoulder promotes very good casting mobility without making the jacket loose or baggy. Light fleece interior provides more warmth than standard wind shell. Clean, trim, uncluttered design and three zip pockets are well suited to onstream use. Superior wind protection.
Drawbacks: Shell fabric, though stretchy, is a bit stiff. Not terribly high in insulation value; warmth must come mainly from layers underneath.
Best Uses: High-activity fishing, where freedom of movement trumps warmth. Nicely styled for everyday wear, this a practical choice for those seeking a jacket that does duty onstream and off.