Learning how to make and fish hybrid sinking tips and wield a two fisted fly rod was only half the task when it came to hunting steelhead in winter. An angler had to get to the river and had to ensure that he didn’t freeze to death when he got there.
The First Nations of the far north take great pride in being able to get from one place to another without dying in the dead of winter. Their pride is not misplaced. If you work up a sweat in those frigid climes, or get your feet damp, it may be the last thing you do. The key to survival is to ration the exertion, to balance it against the demands of the current conditions.
Although our survival didn’t depend on it most of the time, we learned to think this way too. Initially we put on warm clothes, ski jackets and the like, crawled awkwardly into our rubber boot footed waders, then tramped through the snow to the river. The amount of perspiration with which we were covered by the time we arrived at our destination was directly proportional to the depth and carrying capacity of the snow.
We had only to be balanced on the edge of hypothermia a few times before we took a leaf from the outdoor catalogues and began dressing in layers. Adopting the technique of layering meant shucking off clothes on the way to the river and putting them on incrementally once we’d reached the stream. This meant we needed packs. Trapper Nelsons were best at first. Later, we acquired far lighter aluminum framed back packs of oriental manufacture. This year, I discovered that Simms manufactures dry bags with harnesses attached. The harnesses are wide, well padded, and have clips attached at waist and chest levels, a feature which significantly reduces a load. The bags come in two sizes, one scapacious enough to accommodate enough provisions for a lengthy drift, and another perfectly suited for daily outings. The utility of these bags, especially for winter steelheading, was so obvious, I bought three, a large one for Doug, and large and smaller one for me. Since then I’ve used them three times and they’ve more than lived up to my expectations.
The layers of clothing we wear for winter fishing have undergone modification over the last thirty years, but not as significantly as you might expect. Long underwear is a necessity. The cotton variety are just fine. When it comes to pants, wool is unparalleled. All the extravagant claims of their manufacturers notwithstanding, the new, light weight, breathable, pants designed with the outdoors and cold climes in mind, simply do not do the job. As any dedicated wearer of wool will tell you, even when it’s wet, the stuff keeps you warm.
When it comes to your extremities – hands, feet and head – use wool, wool, and more wool. For a number of years I wore a toque over a baseball cap, needing the bill to cut down on the glare off the water. Lately, I found a fleece lined cap with flaps that clip together with velcro strips under the chin. The cap was also designed and made by the good people at Simms, it is waterproof and warm and a bit more convenient than the ball cap/toque arrangement, so I use one of the former now.
A thin sock under a wool sock the way to keep your feet warm, a vital factor at time when a fisherman is always standing in some form of water. And while we’re on the subject of warm pedal extremities, the annoying stocking foot waders with wading boots will not keep your feet warm because the wading brogues restrict the flow of blood to your toes and there is isn’t enough air between your neoprene stocking foot and the cold river water. Only boots a size larger than your normal shoe size, offer airy insulation and room for two pairs of socks.
I’ve tried every kind of glove and mitt known to man and found them all deficient. Wool mitts, of the flap variety, are the best hedge against frozen digits bar none.
Wear a T-shirt, any kind of long sleeved shirt and wear one of those wool Henley style wool shirts the loggers wear over top it to keep your upper body toasty.
Finally put away those so-called breathable waders. For the reasons set out above, you need boot foot waders. You can still get boot foot neoprenes, and they are significantly less money than breathable waders. The cheaper varieties have substandard boots. These can be removed and replaced with a skookum pair of aggressively treaded gum boots, which will also be a lot safer than felt soled wading shoes, since ice builds up under the latter, turning them into little skies.
Outfitted as I’ve outlined above, will enable you stand in a winter river and fish comfortably, snug and justifiably smug, in what is, in some ways, the nicest season of all.