In our neighborhood, winter steelhead weather can mean rain and lots of it.
The word "rain" turns most people off, because they associated it with discomfort. However, rainy days don't have to be uncomfortable, if you dress properly.
Rainy days can be beautiful. Everything is washed and clean. Rain softens the edges of the landscape. It dampens sound and a rainy day on the river can be one of personal intimacy. But the best reason to fish in the rain is that steelhead are more aggressive on cloud-cover days.
If you dress correctly, you can be comfortable, even during long days in cold, wet weather. If you don't dress correctly, you can get cold and wet. As you lose thermal energy, your motor skills will suffer. Warm muscles perform better than cold ones. Dress to keep yourself warm and dry. Keeping your skin surface free from dampness is one of the biggest keys to staying warm.
Many people think that preparing for rain only means the addition of a rain coat and chest high waders. The selection of these items is very important, but what you wear under this outer layer is also very important. Any moisture trapped within your clothing will conduct heat away. This means that you not only have to keep the rain out, but your clothing also has to have the ability to disperse your own perspiration. When dressing for cold or wet weather fishing, dress from the inside out.
The layer of clothing next to your skin is the one you will feel all day. Maximum perspiration zones are your arm pits, groin and feet. All these areas need special clothing. Your inner layer should be made from synthetic material or wool for maximum comfort. This layer should be soft and designed to wick moisture away from your skin.
Never wear cotton clothing under your waders.
Cotton retains moisture and has very little insulation value when damp. It also becomes a medium for fungal infections. The organisms that cause infections such as jock itch and athlete’s foot cannot live in synthetic fabrics. Synthetic materials tend to "pass-through," rather than "retain" moisture from perspiration. Nylon, acrylic and polyester do not retain as much moisture as cotton or silk. Wool is the only natural fiber that will keep you as warm as synthetics. However wool is more expensive and often less durable. Dressing with layers of synthetic material can further customize the wicking of moisture away from your body. A layer of wool next to your skin with a layer of fleece over it will keep you roasty-toasty during what would otherwise be inhospitable climatic conditions. Pay special attention to the layers that cover your legs and feet. These extremities are the ones that will be immersed in cold water. When water temperatures are below 50-degrees, double layering is recommended. Water temperatures below 40-degrees demand heavier double layering. Two layers of fleece or even three layers are recommended when the water is in the 30's. Pay special attention to your socks. Water runs downhill and some of your body perspiration will collect at your feet. This happens much less with breathable waders, but is still a factor, especially if you are hiking between pools. There is no way for wader feet to breath inside your wading shoes. Wader feet are still made from insulating, but non-breathable neoprene.
We like thick wool/nylon blend socks that have a knitted loop pile on the inside which gives them the capacity to retain a lot of loft, even with the squeezing pressure of your waders around them. They act as a reservoir for migrant perspiration but help keep it away from your skin. Remember, all socks are made from knitted yarns which tend to wash-out as you launder them, thereby loosing loft and insulating qualities. Replace them often for maximum comfort.
Your outer layer is your first layer of defense. It must be water-proof, but it too must be able to dispel any moisture that might collect inside it. This is accomplished by a special membrane sandwiched between two layers of protective fabric. This membrane is porous so it can breathe. The pores are of a diameter that allow smaller gaseous molecules to escape, but will not allow larger liquid molecules to enter. Non-breathable waders and rain jackets have all but disappeared from the winter steelhead fly fishing scene in favor of newer technology superior fabrics such as Gore-Tex.
The best waders in the world are made by Simms, which is the only wader manufacturing company left in the United States. A good fitting pair of waders should mold to your body and give you the most streamlined configuration you can have. This lessens water drag in the currents and makes wading less difficult. Waders with bent knees enable a closer fit than straight legged waders. For durability, multi-layer construction is nearly mandatory from the crotch down. Five-layer construction co-developed by W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc. and Simms was designed specifically for use in fishing waders. Simms/Gore-Tex® waders feature this laminate, which results in the most puncture-resistant, most durable, most technologically advanced breathable waders you can purchase.
Wading Shoes serve three purposes: to protect your feet and to enhance your balance and traction. High top leather or man-made leather wading shoes give better support and last longer per dollar spent, than their cheaper canvas counterparts. Felt soles with silicone carbide studs have been considered to be the best traction devices during the past ten years. Recently felt soles have come under scrutiny because of research leading to the opinion that the spaces between the felt fibers transport spores and eggs from invasive species from one watershed to another. Felt soles have been outlawed in New Zealand and a couple of states in the USA. Recently Simms has teamed up with the Vibram Shoe Sole Company to produce footwear that is less likely to transport harmful species. They have produced wading shoe soles that wear longer, hold traction devices better, and are more environmentally friendly than felt. These soles give good traction on most kinds of bottom structure, especially if tungsten headed screws or star cleats are added. Cold weather anglers will enjoy Vibram soles because snow won't stick to them and build up like it does on felt soles. Some guides object to having studded shoes in their pretty boats.
If yours is that way, get a different guide. Fly-casting, like many other athletic events, depends on good traction.
Be sure that your wading shoes fit for maximum support, but have enough room so as not to impair your circulation. Always wear your waders and full under garments when fitting a new pair of wading shoes. Remember all of your casting and wading performance starts with the bottom of your feet. If you are slipping and sliding, you can't cast very well and you're bound to get wet and cold.
Your wading jacket forms the roof over all your innerwear. It must have a weatherproof parka hood. A wading jacket must be impenetrable to rain by keeping water from coming through the fabric shell and must also be designed to keep water from running down your neck or up your sleeves. A jacket that is rain proof is also wind proof. If the outer shell material will allow perspiration to pass through without allowing rain water to get in, you can remain comfortable in about any kind of weather you will encounter during productive steelhead fishing.
Don't forget to consider your hands. Fingerless gloves allow for the dexterity to tie knots, but cover the large veins in your wrists and hands, so you can stay warm.
The selection of a hat is of prime importance. It must be waterproof, even though it will be under the hood of your waterproof jacket most of the time. A baseball cap with a bill will shield your glasses from rain and help keep your face moisture free. A waxed cotton or Gore-Tex baseball cap is very practical. If the weather is really cold, a cap with ear flaps is advisable.