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Dressing for Winter Steelheading

Winter-Steelheaders appear to be a strange crew. We stand in the worst weather conditions: cold driving-wind with rain or snow, blizzards, freezing temperatures, icy water. We do this for fun!?!

In order to withstand the elements of winter steelheading, you need to be properly dressed and prepared for whatever the weather throws at you.

Obviously, dressing in layers is key. What the layers are made of and how many layers is usually determined by several factors, including your budget. The best materials are expensive, but they usually do not need replacing often because they are designed for these conditions and will make your trips more enjoyable and safe. Buy the best you can afford, you'll save time and money in the long run.

Let's start with the base layer. This should be a moisture management layer. Simms, Patagonia, Orvis, and other companies, make products specifically designed to move moisture away from your skin where it can evaporate. Staying dry is one of the first rules to staying warm. You want this layer to fit snuggly against the skin, so the product can do its work. Cotton for this layer is a no go. Cotton holds water and will not allow it to evaporate, resulting in that clammy feeling. Don't forget your underwear either, they are usually cotton. Plus, the first layer of socks should be thin, blister-managing, moisture wicking materials as well. This layer sets the stage for the other layers on top, so do it right.

Ok, on to layer two, top first.

This layer will greatly depend on the outside temperature. Anything below 25-30 degrees should indicate that you're going to need a thicker layer, or multiple thin ones. I suggest a 100-200 weight polar fleece 1/4 zip mock neck. When the weather is warmer, sometimes I use a 100 weight vest, so there is less bulk, but my core area stays warmer. Having the zip top controls the amount of heat you will allow to escape, especially if you are hiking into a spot. Or try wearing a 100 weight pull over and the vest.. the vest offers a lot of flexiblity, without the bulk.

The bottoms will be more dependent on water temperature than ambient temperature. Water 50 degrees and colder, will require 200 weight fleece in order to stay warm for extended periods of time. You can get away with lighter weights if you only plan on being out a couple hours, but after that, the cold water will begin to sap the heat from your legs, bringing a cold feeling to your lower back, knees, and feet.

In the dead of winter, when the water is in the 30's and you are basically sticking to a particular section of water, I recommend 300 weight fleece pants. The 300 weight captures your body's warmth and radiates back to you. Even in the 85 degree summer temperatures on the West Branch Delaware, where the water can be in the low 50s during a release, numb feet and kness are common. Water can really put a chill in you, much faster than colder air.

This lower layer is also dependent on your wader selection. We always wear breathable waders, even in the coldest temperatures. The appropriate under garments lets us wear the more comfortable and moisture managing breathables. Neoprene, while providing an insulative layer, doesn't breathe and captures prespiration between you and your clothes, resulting in breaking the "staying dry" rule. Plus they are bulky and restrictive, and frankly, we find them uncomfortable and out-dated.

Speaking of waders, we recommend a boot foot wader, usually sized one to two sizes too big in the foot size. You'll want an air space in the boot, plus the room to wear up to three pairs of quality socks. The extra air space acts like a barrier between your feet and the cold water. Stocking foot waders in the winter result in frozen feet, which is actually quite dangerous for two reasons. If you are wading with numb feet, your chances of falling are greatly increased, plus frost bite and numbness in the toes is never a good idea. Also, the boots should not be felt soled, unless you are wearing Korkers, because the felt freezes and gathers snow in the winter months.

Let's discuss socks. Other than the base layer to wick moisture, the next layer, or multiple layers, should be well padded, wool or other insulative socks. Don't skimp here. Cold feet are a drag. Just be certain that with however many pairs of socks you wear, there is room for your feet in the boots and you can still move your toes. Circulation down there is critical to warmth.

Next, a top layer jacket will keep the worst elements out. The top layer, should be a wind-blocking, water-proof shell. Gore-Tex and other breathable water proof jackets are essential.. a jacket with a hood is good idea for those sudden squawls and downpours.

Wear or pack-in a warm hat that covers your ears and fingerless gloves made of fleece or wool. A pair of mittens is a good idea too.. not to fish with, but for hiking in or just taking a break. Sometimes, no matter how much you prepare, your hands and feet get cold.

One last thing to staying warm, eat a quality breakfast. Going out on an empty stomach won't provide your body with the fuel to stay warm. Packing food and drinks for a day will help you stay warm throughout the day.

This is a suggestive guide and the middle layers can be added or deleted based on temperature and your body's natural resistence to cold. Dressing comfortably can make or break a trip. Also, having an extra pair of dry clothes in the car, "just in case," is also a good idea.

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