Captain Mike’s Guide To Beating The Cold
(A brief note from Captain Justin: Captain Mike sent me this a bit ago and I have postponed posting this for when it gets cold. Now as it gets cooler I thought it would be more appropriate. I don’t think there is a more qualified human being than Mike to do this. Thanks man! You are one of the best humans, fishing guides, and writers I know.
Your Wet You Don’t Have To be Cold
Raise your hand if you like to be cold.
(Brief scuffle ensues.)
Alright, now that the one madman is out of the room, we can have a reasonable conversation.
Reasonable is probably a relative term; I hate being cold. I loathe it. I would rather be waterboarded…
OK, that’s too far. (Also, I imagine any torturer worth their golf-cart battery would use ice-cold water.) But yeah, I really do not like to be cold. That being the truth, I have also spent 40+ years (20+ of those years professionally) pursuing sports which require frequent wettings, often in less than warm conditions. I have swum out of whitewater rafts in November and once guided West Virginia’s New River Gorge on a day when the high was 17°F. Was I chilly? Yes. Did I call off the day because it was cold? No, because I know how to dress so to be relatively comfortable in the wet and cold. OK, yes, also because it was February and I really needed a paycheck after starving through the winter… but that’s beside the point.
We Fish In Cold Water:
Individual bravado aside, here in the Pacific Northwest we fish in cold water, often with more cold water hanging in the air or falling from the sky. Perversely, those latter conditions can make for better fishing than we might find on a bright bluebird day. So we don’t get rained out; when we wake in the morning and see those clouds and wet air rolling in, we smile and our hopes begin to rise.
But then we walk outside and remember: It sucks to be cold.
It’s even worse to be wet and cold. Unfortunately, clambering through wet second-growth to get to a trout stream or chasing cutthroat from a boat in the driving rain means wet, or at least damp, is inevitable.
So, what’s the answer?
Step 1: Stay home on less-than-ideal-conditions days.
Just kidding, just kidding…
The real answer: Accept the inevitable, prepare, and remember that being wet does not mean that you have to be cold.
Eat right and stay hydrated:
(Disclaimer: Few reputable nutritionists would recommend as a daily diet the plan I’m about to lay out.)
Start with breakfast. Hell, start with dinner the night before. Make sure the engine of your metabolism has the fuel it needs to burn warming calories all day. A lot of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Maybe twice what you would eat in a normal meal.
Drink water. Drink water before, during, and after your meal(s) and while you’re on the water. Without this step, all that food is just going to sit. Give your body the fluid volume it needs to carry all those calories and nutrients you’ve consumed.
Dress in layers and NO COTTON:
Old news, I’m aware, but news I see ignored on a daily basis. Cotton absorbs and holds more water than your body can effectively heat. And your goose-down jacket, when it gets wet, is going to lose loft, effectively negating its ability to keep you warm. It is the 21st century, though, so you have a ton of clothing fabric options that will retain heat when wet. Most of these are the newer synthetics, but there are a couple natural fibers that will also serve. Just, again, NO COTTON!
Think of your clothing as a capsule. The idea is to hold warm air in a bubble around your body while limiting the amount of moisture against your skin. If you can do that, even if you’re wet, you will stay warm.
Take a good look at the weather (both current and forecasted). The clothes you pick for that day should require no more than three layers, not counting rain gear. Fewer layers mean fewer options for regulating your temperature. More layers means… We all saw A Christmas Story, right? If you can’t put your arms down, how will you double-haul?
OK, so the forecast for the day is a high of 50°F, rain, no sun, and when you wake up at 4:00AM it’s 40°F with heavy fog. Time to lay out your clothes.
Your three layers consist of base, mid, and outer.
Your base should be tight to your body and of a material that will wick moisture away from your skin. This is where those natural fibers really shine: I like both Smartwool and silk. They’re both stretchy, very warm, and comfortable against the skin. There are also many synthetic choices of base layer. These have all the best properties of Smartwool and silk, but they also share one serious flaw: They retain, and maybe even magnify, smell. Just something to keep in mind for that end-of-the-day stop at the local eatery. Whichever you choose, make sure to tuck your shirt into your long underwear when you dress. Skipping this step will mean lost heat every time you bend over.
The mid-layer should be tight but a little less-form fitting than your base. On the upper half, this is the layer on which I like to have a hood. Also, if the day warms, this is often the layer you end up wearing as the outer-most layer, so consider a fabric with some wind stopping ability.
The outer layer is the big warm air reservoir. Patagonia’s Nano jackets and pants come to mind. When you are first trying on this layer at the store, make sure it fits properly over the layers you plan to put underneath. Too tight, you’ll actually squeeze out some of that warm air; too loose and you will get too much air movement, like a drafty house.
Typically, on a day like I’ve described above, I would wear two layers on the bottom (long underwear and my Patagonia Shelled Insulator pants) and three layers on the top (long-sleeve undershirt, medium-weight hoodie, and a synthetic-down jacket). My rain bibs would go under my outer jacket; my rain jacket would top everything. If I was stream fishing, the outer jacket would go inside my waders to avoid it getting soaked if I waded deep. Then my rain Jacket over everything.
Ultimately, what you want is to be able to regulate your temperature by adding or losing layers. With that in mind…
You Do Not Want To Sweat!
Go back and read that line again, it’s important. What is the purpose of sweating? To cool us. If you dress so warmly that you sweat, you will eventually get cold. This is more a concern when stream fishing, where the day often starts with a hike to the river. On these days, you should be almost cold when you start out; you’ll warm as you walk. If you get out of the guide’s truck and feel comfortable standing there at the trailhead, shed a layer or two.
It’s a different story on the boat. Running in an open boat at 35mph creates a 35mph wind. If you are comfortable when the boat is sitting still, the wind chill is going to make you cold once the throttle is wide open. I often find that the best answer to this is just adding my rain jacket over the clothes I’m already wearing. This creates an effective wind block and lets my clothing hold onto the air that my body worked so hard to warm.
As to that raingear… Jacket over bibs or waders. This is the layer that keeps us from getting soaked by cold rain or melting snow. It is also the outer layer of our warm-air bubble. A breathable, waterproof, (Gore-Tex, etc.) fabric keeps the rain off while also letting out the steam made by our working bodies. Nylon and rubberized fabrics do well keeping the water out, but they hold in the steam. Eventually, this will make you wet, which will make you cold.
Forget about staying one hundred percent dry:
I have yet to find any outfit—including a custom-made drysuit—that kept me fully dry. What we want is an outer shell that keeps the great majority of rain or snowmelt out while allowing the bit that does get in to run back out. While the shell is d
oing its job, our inner clothing should wick moisture away from our skin, not hold onto excess water, and fit in a way that allows air to be held and warmed by our metabolism.
It’s The Accessories That Really Make The Outfit:
We’re talking about those little touches here.
Hat. Your head, face, and neck have a large surface area, roughly two square feet, about the same as your back. Would you want to be outside in the cold with your entire back exposed to the elements? No? Then wear a warm hat.
A buff or scarf. In the boat, as I said, you get cold while running. Your neck is a big hole in the top of your upper layer, letting that 35mph wind get in and steal your warm air. A buff or scarf makes an excellent baffle in that hole and can be pulled up over your lower face while running.
Gloves. Can you stand them? If so, wear them. I wear them, but I also buy the best-fitting, fingerless, gloves that I can find. If you’re going to handle a fish, take them off first. The gloves will stay dry, your hands will stay warm, and you won’t pull slime off the fish. This is good for the fish, and for the way your gear bag smells the next time you open it.
Justin was mocking my socks-under-sandals look just the other day. Side note: My feet, which were in and out of the water all day, were toasty warm. In the winter, I’ll wear rubber boots, but only once it’s miserably cold out and only when guiding. If I’m actually fishing, I’ll still rock the wool socks and sandals, the latter of which will get kicked off once I have a rod in hand. I hate to be cold, but I refuse to bomb a perfect cast only to find I’m standing on my running line. If you do wear rubber boots on the boat, make sure you can kick them off with minimal work. This is a matter of safety. Swimming in rubber boots is, well… let’s just say difficult.
Alcohol dilates your distal blood vessels, allowing heat loss through your skin. (That being said, once I’m back in the warmth, nothing chases off the inner chill like a glass of Redbreast neat, just in case anyone is thinking of tipping with anything other than cash. Justin, I hear, likes Don Julio.) Leave the beer in the cooler and drink some more water instead. On that note…
Pee When You Feel The Urge:
You’re drinking water, right? Well then, your kidneys will make pee. If you hold onto it, your body will lose heat into your bladder. Yes, man or (especially, sorry) woman, it is a chilling, difficult, task in cold weather while wearing all that clothing, but after you’re done, you’ll be warmer.
Like undressing a little to urinate, eating will actually make you feel colder (This is due to the food being less than body temperature, compounded by your body’s shunting of blood to your digestive tract to deal with this new load of food.) but you have to keep the engine fueled up. If you ate enough for breakfast, intermittent snacks will probably get you through. I like Clif bars. High energy, portable, and if you keep them in a mid-layer pocket they’ll be warm and gooey, which makes for a nice treat on a cold day.
This is what happens when you get too cold. Despite all our preparations, it can happen, and it can be life-threatening. Know the signs (clumsiness, confusion, slowed breathing, shivering or, worse, cessation of shivering without being warmed) and be willing to call it a day well before things reach this point. Fishing is awesome, but it’s not worth dying for.
River or boat, there are a few things you should add to your cold-day gear list. Mostly these come down to safety. I like to have a way to start a fire (You should beach and get out of the boat first, btw.), extra water, extra food, emergency warming blanket, and one more layer than I think I could possibly need. In the boat, I also suggest wearing an auto-inflating Personal Floatation Device (Mustang makes several excellent options.). I wear one even on warm days, but on a cold day, wearing ten pounds of clothing, with ocean temperatures often in the high 40°F’s, life-expectancy in the water can be measured in minutes. A PFD is, literally, a lifesaver in this situation.
Being prepared for a cold day will not only let you get on the water more days, it will make those days safer and much more enjoyable. Winter brings some truly large fish up out of the depths into fly fishing range. It also chases a lot of people off the water, which results in less pressure on those big fish. And when you’re home, showing people the pictures of the netted monsters, you’ll get that question: “You were out on the water today?”
And you won’t be lying when you say, modestly, “Aww, it really wasn’t that cold.”