Fall and Winter Steelhead Gear
One of the more difficult challenges we face in the Midwest during Steelhead season is staying warm. This leads to many questions when preparing for your fishing trip. What do I wear? What cold weather fishing gear do you bring on your trip? With over 30 years of fall/winter steelhead fishing under my belt, I thought I would share how I layer myself before each steelhead trip.
I live by the philosophy that if I get hot I can always take it off. I’ll also share a few bonus tips, tricks, and some new technology along the way. We found some new tech last year that we used with great success and I’ll share that as well.
Once I determine wether the day is going to be wet or dry and what the overall forecast is, I can make my base layer choices. I have two layering systems that I can choose from based on what the weather forecast might be for the day. If I believe it’s going to be wet I prefer my base layer to be a Merino Wool based material. Having tried almost every other type of layering fabric, wool is my go to choice for wet days. No matter how cold and wet I get, wool based materials still keep me warm. The majority of my favorite wool base layers I purchase have been from Patagonia and now Duckworth. Duckworth is a new company for me, but to say I’ve been impressed is an under statement . Make sure to check out the Mens Powder Hoody, you will not be disappointed.
One more quick tip here, no matter if it’s a wet or dry forecast, I will NEVER wear cotton based materials! Even on the unseasonable warm days I still go with a synthetic base layer on dry days. Synthetics are always my go to base layer, wether the forecast is wet or dry. I always start with some sort of wicking layer for my base. Some of my favorite wicking layers range from our hoodie less sun-shirts to any of the Simms fabrics.
To complete the base layer system I choose for the day, I may double up on my base layers depending upon the low and high temperatures for the day. It’s not uncommon for me to start with lightweight layers and then add a mid or expedition weight base layer before adding one of my favorite layers of all, the Puffy Jacket.
If you have not purchased your first Puffy Jacket from Patagonia you are missing out! This is a must have cold weather fishing gear essential. Back when I first started experimenting with a few different Patagonia models, which I still have, I absolutely fell in love with this particular jacket. I have since expanded my choices to include both Simms and the Gill Brand as well, allowing me to fill all of my layering needs.
All of them are great, all are a must have, and I always wear one while including an extra with me in the boat. I like to buy one that is a perfect fit and then I buy a second that is one size too big so I can layer with the two Puffy Jackets. Yes, I double up on the puffy! It’s like a big comfy sleeping bag so don’t judge until you have tried it.
One of the best lower body layers and guide secrets is the puffy pants. Wearing puffy pants under my bibs or waders is simply a game-changer once I figured out that layering system. While kind of expensive, but well worth it if you fish in the cold a bunch. Check out this list of the top 8 brands of puffy pants . I have the Patagonia Nano Puff Pant, and noticed it did not make the list so might need to invest in a new pair and compare.
Big and Heavy Layer
Now for the big boy layer. Wind, rain, sleet, and driving a jet boat 30 mph every day requires a big Protective layer. This is normally my heaviest layer and can either be a big dog down jacket or the best rain jacket you can find. This locks everything in an no matter what, this layer has to be indestructible on most days. My go too big and heavy layers after many years of trial and error is the Gill Brand. Sailors need to stay dry and face some of the harshest conditions and Gill has been catering to sailors for years. Gill started a fishing department and has been producing some incredible products.
For the Gills Brand I’m a big believer in the tournament series or now called the Meridian-X in 2022 , I have been highly impressed with the Bibs. For a Fall Steelhead jacket I went with the Apex Pro Jacket and its bomb proof for wet weather, I order this a size big FYI so I can fit my other layers under it. This is one of the best wet weather jackets I’ve ever worn.
For Bibs as I mentioned wore the Tournament Trouser, for 10+ years, now called the Meridian X-Bib. An upgraded version and the highest grade of waterproofness Gill makes. Again this is another wet day bomb proof garment. Hands down Gill makes the best bib I’ve ever worn in 30+ years of wet weather steelhead fishing. While the only negative was the lack of pockets the new Meridian has changed that. Again I order a size bigger so that my puffy pants fit underneath on those cold December days.
Pants Under the Bibs
So being a big fan of the bibs layering, most bibs come uninsulated , so you need to purchase a layer to keep you warm. I prefer my bibs uninsulated so I can change my pants under the bibs based on the conditions. Here are a few of my favorite choices.
Gradient Pant by Sitka – I was turned onto this layer by Jeff Topp. This is one of the warmest layers I have ever worn. It is also one of the most comfortable wader pants. Ultra-warm, super-soft and built to move, the Gradient Pant features four-way stretch and is built with compression-resistant fleece that retains its loft all day for superior heat retention and moisture wicking. I wear the Gradient Pant when I know temps are going to be less that 32 degrees most of the day.
Powder Pant by Duckworth – nothing beats wool for keeping you warm when it’s wet out side. This also my be the coziest pant I wear. While still keeping me warm on most days, I like these pants when in the 30’s mixed with 40’s. Also my all day rain layer, as wool just works the best in the wet stuff.
Warm Feet, this is probably the hardest part of your body to keep warm. I look at this problem in two parts. First you need a good sock. One of my go to socks will have a Merino Wool blend into. One quick tip here is to look in the hunting sections when shopping for socks. Here is an example of one of the socks I wear by Smartwool.
Guide tip: make sure you give your feet room to breathe, don’t double up on socks and cram your feet into your boots! If your boots or layers are too tight you’ll be cutting off both your blood flow and heat flow within your layers. Fit your foot wear loose, but not sloppy, just like how I buy an oversized rain jacket or bib allowing my layers to work properly.
Second part to having warm feet are my boots. Normally not the most fashionable part of my attire, but functional and warm should be your priority. Because I spend 90% of my time in the winter fishing from the boat, I don’t wear waders too often. Bibs and boots are a much warmer option for me than waders. The boots need to be warm and my last few pairs of Bogs Workman 17 have done a great job. Warm and slightly taller, these allow me to get in the river and slosh around. Normally I get get a few seasons out of them, putting about 200+ days in them before I start to see cracks and leaks.
But when I do venture out into the smaller streams and I need a good pair of warm waders my first choice will always be boot foot waders. I wear the Aquaz Rogue Bootfoot. I will never ever wear a stocking foot for the winter trips. Stocking foot waders are a death sentence to your toes.
Hats and Gloves
Don’t let your “Heat” leak out and escape via your head and hands. Keeping the heat trapped in can allow you to fish all day. Having a quality stocking cap and merino wool gloves will be a great way to keep you out on the water longer and for a more enjoyable experience.
Guide Tip: My least favorite gloves are gloves with the fold over finger systems. In my opinion they are waste of material and money. I’ll try to go into more detail how I work my hands next.
I always buy multiple pairs of wool gloves. I always carry 3-4 pairs of gloves in my backpack when I go steelhead fishing. Once they get soaked I simply change them out for a fresh pair. By doing this I can fish all day comfortably with wool gloves from both Simms and the Army Surplus Brand. Again, I wear the wool gloves while fishing, but I also have a pair of over sized mittens. I can plunge my hands into these between spots or when taking a break to warmup. I buy waterproof mittens that are a few sizes too big and stuff some sort of heat chemical pack into the gloves for a finger saving treat. It’s a simple way to warm your hands up without using a large propane heater and it can keep you fishing longer on those cold days.
New Warmer Technology
Last year I found a new toy that I was pretty happy with. While I have always used the chemical heat packs that I referenced earlier, I was searching for an environmentally friendly and better way to keep my fingers warmer. I found a reusable rechargeable heater that worked really well. I ran this device from Feb-April and never had an issue with its performance. It’s made by Cocopa , they make a few different styles and sizes, but as I learned over time, the higher the mAh the hotter the unit can get.
The first brand I bought was from Zippo and would kick out 5200 mAh, this is based on the battery each unit uses. It was great for intermittent warm ups, unfortunately the battery life wouldn’t let you run it the entire day. These are great toys to have stashed in a coat pocket, but they don’t fit to well inside the extra large mittens. All in all the reusable warmers seemed to be suitable alternatives to the plastic and trash I was throwing away every day.
There is an old saying “their is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear”. While this is mostly true, I do believe on most days you can dress appropriately and have a great day of fall or winter steelhead fishing. Mother Nature can throw some of the nastiest stuff at you and truly test your cold weather fishing gear at times. Hopefully this list of cold weather fishing gear will help you dress better and stay warmer longer for your next cold weather adventure.