Staying Warm in Winter

We all do it. The same is true for boat fisherman, rock fisherman and fly fisherman – when it gets chilly, we tend to back off. Fish are no different. Like many people, they tend to be less active in the cold. As cold-blooded creatures, their metabolism dips when temperatures take a dive. But they still have to eat, maybe a little less, but if they eat, they can still be caught – simple. So, with that in mind, the following is a few tips on how to enjoy your winter fishing.

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Keep dry

The simple key to enjoying the cold is staying warm. If it gets cold and you want to stay warm, the first rule is that you need to keep dry. However, fishing and keeping dry may not be as easy as it sounds. The simplest solution is to have a dry towel to dry your hands with after catching a fish or to dry your legs with after launching a boat. In winter, I keep a dry towel in a dry bag on the boat just for towelling off, and a second towel to dry hands after catching fish. The smallest hole in your waders will let in icy water,  and once your clothes are wet, especially if they are not wool, you will get cold quick. 

Keep your head warm

The second must-do is to keep your head warm. We lose 80% of our body heat via our head. It would be best if you had a woollen beanie, balaclava or buff. Of late, I have been using a buff because they are versatile; if you get too hot, you can pull it down to your neck and if it gets cold, you can pull it up over your ears and head. But buy a good one. There are loads of cheap synthetic ones on the market that are next to useless. A beanie and a buff can also be a good combo if it is chilly. A word of advice: if you pull the buff up over your neck and mouth, your breath will cause condensation, which makes the buff wet; remember, keeping dry is the key.

Look after your extremities

After making sure your head is warm, you then need to look after your other extremities. Starting from the ground up, make sure you have woollen socks; once again, do not buy cheap. Even if the product says merino, not all merino is created equal. You tend to get what you pay for. Merino is light weight, breathable, and manages moisture by a process called wicking – it will pull moisture away from your body which, if chilled, will make you cold. Merino is also anti-bacterial and odour resistant. Never use synthetic or worse, cotton, as it is quick to suck up water, slow o dry and should never be worn next to your skin. If, like me, you find wool itchy, there is now a range of synthetic/wool blends and silk/wool blends that are easy to wear. Wool dries quickly and will retain some heat if it gets wet and has excellent thermal qualities – just ask sheep.

Your other extremities are your hands, ears and nose. There is a range of fingerless gloves on the market which are great for fishing with. A well-known fishing guide showed me a trick once – he had an additional pair of extra-large woollen gloves that he wore over his fingerless gloves for travelling.  Your ears and nose can be looked after by your neck gaiter.

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There are a range of commercial hand warmers. They come in various sizes, and some are reusable. You either snap or mix them, which causes a chemical reaction, and they warm up. Do not put them in your gloves – instead, put them in a pocket so that if your gloves do get wet, you can warm your hands up. I have heard of people putting them in their socks in their waders, but if it is that cold, maybe stay home. If you cannot find them in your local fishing store, look to any ski outlet. Reusable ones are more expensive, but with repeat use they become a far better deal.

The art of layering

There is an art to layering. The essential rules are: no cotton, only wool, and some fleece and microfleece. Over the last ten years, there has been an explosion of quality layering products. There is now a full range of base layers, mid-layers, and top layers. It is simple: when it’s cold, put more on. Unlike tramping where you are constantly moving, you need to be warm from the get-go when fishing. This usually requires fleece-based legging or pants. I have two different thickness fleece leggings I wear under my waders, depending on how cold it will be. On top, I wear a super lightweight, short-sleeved RAB microfleece; this is my go-to product for winter and summer. As a mid-layer, I wear a long sleeve merino, and if it is going to be cold, I add another layer on top, but I make sure I still have my full range of movement (not too tight for the last layer). A jacket on top finishes my outfit. An obvious observation is that you can always remove a layer, but you can’t always add one. You do not want to be too hot so that you sweat, as sweat can chill off and make you colder. You want to be comfortably warm, and layering is a way to maintain this.

Drink plenty of water

When it’s cold, drink plenty of water. Hot tea and coffee might seem like a good idea, but you will need to pee, which means exposure to the cold! A good option is hot water or hot chocolate. What is an absolute ‘no no’ is alcohol in any form as it lowers your core body temperature (even if it feels warm to begin with).

Be prepared

New Zealand is renowned for having four seasons in one day so be prepared – check the forecast but do not 100% believe it. Even if it says it’s going to be warm and dry, be prepared for the worst.
In winter, it also pays to fish with a friend. Should you take a tumble into the water, someone is there to help out, and in the worst-case scenario, go for help.

Hypothermia symptoms

When we think of hypothermia, we think about people trapped on a mountainside in a storm, but it’s far more common than this. Hypothermia can quickly occur when you are exposed to cold air, water, wind, and/or rain. Your body temperature can drop to a dangerously low level at temperatures of only 10° or even higher in wet and windy weather. If you are in 16° to 21° of water, you are also at risk of hypothermia. It can happen quickly – I once got hypothermia waiting for a bus in winter.
The symptoms and signs (not all may be present) are:
• Person feels cold to touch and may be shivering violently
• Tiredness – person may fall behind when walking
• Clumsy, uncoordinated – may fall over and appear drunk
• Changes in mood with irritability, irrational behaviour
• Person may resist help
• Slow to respond to questions
• Shivering may decrease and stop – this is a critical sign
• Loss of consciousness
• Pale or blueish skin colour.

What can you do? 

The best treatment for hypothermia is prevention. But if you suspect hypothermia, try to stop further heat loss and warm the patient slowly.

Provide immediate shelter out of the wind and dry clothing. If fully conscious, give warm drinks, lollies, chocolate, etc

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If isolated, body contact reduces heat loss – e.g. huddle around the patient in a sleeping bag.

Winter fishing is all about comfort and safety. The two should go hand in hand. In most cases, there should be little risk as long as people are sensible. In winter, it pays not to go too far from your safety access – your vehicle, accommodation etc. However, if you are going further afield, you need to make sure you are prepared. 

Prepare for the cold, prepare for the worst, and you will be comfortable, safe, and ready for winter fun.

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