Dressing for Winter Fly Fishing Success

“Mark wanted desperately to climb the Eiger, while
I wanted desperately to have climbed the Eiger”

~ Jon Krakauer ~

Winter fly fishing in Montana is a recreational pursuit filled with beauty and solitude, a time when the angler can unfurl the wings of his soul and enjoy the untrammeled splendor of nature. Okay, so I’m trying really hard to sell this. I’m a fly shop owner with cash flow issues in the winter.

Seriously, winter fishing can be fun if you’re prepared. But please refer to the quote by Jon Krakauer because it raises an important question. Do you really want to go fishing, or do you just want to say you’ve gone fishing? Many of us have been on winter fly fishing trips that weren’t much fun because of weather conditions. But as the Norwegians say, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Of course, I suspect the Norwegians smoke a lot of weed. Only kidding. Norwegians have got winter figured out. Since the entire country has to deal with it, Norwegians participate in winter sports like skiing, snowboarding, sledding, ice skating, ice dancing, ice carving, ice macramé, and listening to Vanilla Ice. The Norwegians don’t flee to Miami during the winter because it’s too far away. They ‘man up’ and deal with winter, which is what all of us should do. Norwegians also get into great shape. The highest VO2 max ever recorded was by a Norwegian cross country skier by the name of Bjorn Daehlie. VO2 Max is a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use. Bjorn won numerous Olympic and World Cup gold medals and his VO2 max score was 96. For context, if you score 90 or above you are considered a mutant. But a good mutant, a mutant with outstanding cardiovascular health. Where was I going with all this? Oh yeah, you can embrace winter. You can stay active and be like Bjorn. And yes, you can go fly fishing.

I’ve written about this before, but I’m still surprised that most people don’t know how to dress for the cold. I recently attended a Minnesota Vikings football game in Minneapolis. My wife is a Vikings fan and thought it would be a good idea to attend a game on December 27th. Divorces are expensive so I agreed it was a good idea. The Vikings are building a multi-zillion dollar, state-of-the-art, domed stadium that will be finished next year. So as luck would have it, I had the privilege of attending a game at TCF Bank Stadium, which is an outdoor venue. Was it cold? I saw a herd of musk ox grazing on a lawn outside of the stadium and one of them was being treated for hypothermia. It was even colder inside the stadium, at least where we were sitting in the nosebleed seats. Thankfully, a fresh breeze was blowing off of Lake Superior, just 200 miles to the north, and this kept the air fresh. Anyway, my wife and I were dressed correctly for the event with clothing that allowed a minimum of physical movement. If you lost your balance, you couldn’t tip completely over. So we were warm. But some of the fans at the game were wearing only jeans and sweatshirts, or light jackets. Most of them had gloves and hats on, but very little in the way of insulation. They were soon cold, despite drinking beer to stoke their inner furnaces. Some of these people left in the third quarter while others, I presume, died. What is the lesson in this story? Sometimes it’s about insulation. We read a lot about high-tech base layers, fleece, moisture transport and breathability, but when it’s really cold you need something like goose down to keep you warm. PrimaLoft, Exeloft, Thermal Q Elite, and other synthetic insulations can accomplish the same thing. These puffy garments trap lots of air molecules in small pockets, and in doing so, create a thermal barrier. So fluffy, puffy materials, materials with “loft,” are essential when you really want to stay warm.

Nothing traps dead air better than goose down, but not all down is created equal.
The highest quality down has a lot of loft. In the industry, loft is measure in “fill power”—how many cubic inches an ounce of down displaces when allowed to expand to its fullest. If an ounce of down takes up 600 inches of space, then it has 600 fill power, 800 cubic inches equals 800 fill power, and so on. The higher fill power downs are the best. They are warmer per weight and more compressible than the lower fills. A lofting power of 400—450 is considered medium quality, 500—550 is good, 550—750 is very good, and 750+ is excellent. So one should pay attention to this rating when you buy a down garment. You don’t want to purchase a down jacket on Ebay that appears to be an amazing deal, only to discover later that it contains “300 fill down” which is mostly chicken feathers and sawdust. And just to make sure you understand this: don’t be naïve and think, “I’ve just ordered an 800 fill jacket. I think I’ll go and climb Mount Everest.” Well, the jacket will be utilizing excellent quality down, but the fill rating doesn’t tell you how much down they’re using in the jacket. You’ll have to read the specs on the garment to figure this out. There are a lot of lightweight jackets and down sweaters that utilize high-loft down. These won’t handle extremely cold temperatures. If you wear one to Mt. Everest you’ll end up as one of those frozen, desiccated bodies that everybody has to step over on their way to the South Col. You’ll be slowing everybody down. So if you want to climb Everest or Annapurna, or fish near Browning, Montana in early spring, buy something with high-fill down and lots of it.

Not everything about down is perfect. You don’t want to get it wet. It loses most of its insulating qualities and takes a long time to dry. Most technical outerwear today, especially down garments, have a DWR (Durable Water Resistant) finish on the face fabric. A DWR coating provides water resistance, causing water to bead up and roll off the fabric. This helps a lot as a line of defense for your insulating layer, but it doesn’t make the garment fully waterproof. Also, DWR finishes can lose their effectiveness over time. But now through nano-technology some companies are applying a water repellant treatment to the down itself that greatly increases its water resistant properties. DownTek, DriDown, and Quix Down (Toray) are some of the trade names of these treated downs and it appears the process is highly effective. DownTek claims that their treated down absorbs 30% less water and dries 60% faster than untreated down. Some of the videos comparing untreated down to treated down are very impressive. It appears this is the future in high-end, down garments. One other thing I should mention about down is that it is more compressible and more durable than synthetic insulation. It will retain its loft and insulating qualities for a lifetime if you care for it properly. There are also garments that mix down with synthetic insulation. While all this is great news, it’s also annoying because now I’ll have to put my old stuff on Ebay.

In wet or very humid situations synthetic insulations are still preferred. As I mentioned earlier, there are many different synthetic insulations. Most synthetic insulations are made out of extremely fine polyester filaments in various configurations, all of which have slightly different properties. The Simms Exstream Jacket contains PrimaLoft Silver insulation while the Simms Fall Run Jacket contains PrimaLoft Gold. Patagonia uses FullRange Insulation in their innovative new Nano-Air Jackets. FullRange insulation is made of several different types of polyester fibers that avoid “fiber migration.” Nothing worse than sitting down to take a break, only to notice that your fibers are migrating. Actually, fiber migration refers to the shifting and settling of insulation in certain parts of your garment, and it happens over time. Without getting into all the subtle differences and benefits of the various insulations let me say this: do your homework. Some are warmer than others. Some are more breathable. Some provide more warmth when wet. Some are all about versatility (and reduced fiber migration). And of course some cost more than others. All of them work, but it pays to do some research.

A number of people go into a fly shop or specialty outdoor store and are taken aback by the prices, but the bottom line with technical, insulated garments is this: you get what you pay for. Granted, some of you don’t need the latest, greatest technology, and if that is the case, save some money. But if you backpack into the wilderness, or take an exotic trip to a remote locale, it is usually in your best interest to buy quality. After all, we’re supposed to be having fun.