How Stuff Works: Packs and Vests

Guided Fly Fishing in the Smoky MountainsAs with most things in fly fishing, fishing packs and vests have come a long way over the years.  The great thing about that is you now have a seemingly endless array of ways to carry and organize your on-stream tools and accessories.  The bad thing is those seemingly endless choices can be a bit overwhelming.

There is certainly no right or wrong pack or vest.  The best option for you will boil down to how much stuff you plan to carry. Where you plan to carry it (backcountry or more roadside) is another factor. And how do you want to organize things? As with fly rods, the more diverse your fishing adventures are, the more likely you’ll need multiple options. What might work well for backcountry trout fishing may not work very well wading saltwater flats.  But for most folks, you should be able to find one system that works for all of your fishing needs.

Again, what works best for me may not suit you at all. I’m not going to try to tell you the best product.  However, I have had the opportunity over the last 30 years to use most every style of vest/pack.  I’ll share below what I believe are pros and cons of each.

Orvis Fly Fishing Vest
Fly fishing vest

Vests: For decades, this has been the standard for carrying fly boxes, tools, etc. on the stream. While there have been some changes over the years, the basic concept is still the same. This is still the choice for many anglers.  One of the greatest benefits of a vest is that with individual pockets for nearly everything, it’s really easy to keep things separated and organized.  And the design of the vest is such that you can keep most of those items quickly and easily accessible.  Most vests will also have larger compartments on the back for items that you may not need to access as frequently, like a rain jacket or lunch. D-rings on the back of a vest also make a great place to attach a net where its out of the way but easily accessible with the addition of a magnetic or clip attachment.

While there have been numerous improvements over the years, the biggest complaint with vests is that they feel heavy. You carry most of the weight on your neck and shoulders.  Another downside is they do not wear well with a backpack.  If you like to do a lot of backcountry fishing, you may want to carry more safety and comfort provisions. That often necessitates a backpack in addition to your fishing gear.  It can be difficult to comfortably and practically wear a backpack when the straps are going over full, bulky pockets on a vest.

Umpqua Hip Pack
Hip pack

Hip Packs: You wear these around the waist on the rear when not fishing. Rotate to the hip to access items in the pack. Probably their greatest advantage is that they stay out of your way when fishing. This offers total freedom of movement when casting, etc. You can also add accessories (built in to some packs) to a net.

The biggest downside to a hip pack is that it doesn’t keep items as organized and it can be more difficult to access those items.  Additionally, the hip pack, by itself, usually does not have the capacity to carry larger items like a rain jacket or lunch.  However, a hip pack does wear comfortably with an additional backpack. Many will use the hip pack alone when fishing closer to the car and add a backpack when fishing in the backcountry. Finally, these are not the best option for someone who does a lot of deep wading.  Although, there are a lot of waterproof options now.

Fishpond chest pack
Small chest pack

Chest Packs: These, as the name implies, are designed to be worn on the chest. They come in a number of sizes and they organize things in much the same way a hip pack does. But items are far more accessible on your chest and high out of the water.  Many will have a D-ring on the rear of the neck strap for carrying a net. I would include a chest fly box (like I use) in the same category as a chest pack, except that there is no need for separate fly boxes.

Richardson Chest Fly Box
Chest Fly Box

Some don’t like having a cumbersome item on their chest and some of the larger chest packs can be quite cumbersome.  Smaller chest packs are very comfortable but don’t carry as much stuff.  In either case, you won’t have enough capacity to carry large items but like a hip pack, you can easily wear a backpack with your chest pack to carry more things when traveling far from the car.  Some companies even make “fishing backpacks” designed in such a way that a compatible chest pack can clip to the front of it.

Orvis Sling Pack
Sling pack

Sling Packs: These are the latest trend in fishing packs. They’re designed to be more accessible than a hip pack and more out of the way than a chest pack.  They’re worn diagonally across your body so that they can be easily “slung” around to your front when you need to get to it.  It can then be “slung” around and secured out of the way on your back when you’re fishing.  They come in small and large sizes depending on how much you need to carry.

These packs are well designed and very comfortable but even the big ones don’t have enough capacity to carry everything you might want to take on a trip deep into the backcountry. On such a trip, I typically carry a rain jacket, lunch, first-aid kit and plenty of water.  I also regularly carry my wading boots in on long hikes. You need a backpack to carry those items. A sling bag just can’t be worn and utilized with a backpack.  The other downside to a sling bag is there just doesn’t seem to be a good place to carry a net (if needed) without it getting in the way.

Orvis Fly Fishing Lanyard
Fly fishing lanyard

Lanyard: A fishing lanyard is basically a necklace for carrying your essentials around your neck.  Most will comfortably carry and organize nippers, forceps, tippet, floatant and small fly box.  By itself, this is for the absolute minimalist.  For others, it may be a way to keep essential, frequently used items immediately accessible while carrying other less frequently used items in a hip pack or backpack.

The downside is fairly obvious with a lanyard.  It has almost zero capacity.  There is no place for rain jacket, lunch, water, camera, leaders, multiple fly boxes, etc.  In my opinion, the only reasonable use for a lanyard would be in a boat or in conjunction with another pack as mentioned above.

How Stuff Works: Floatants

Parachute Adams Fly Pattern
Parachute Adams dry fly

One of the worst things you can do to a dry fly is catch a fish on it!  They slime it and submerge it and swim it around… Just in general, keeping a dry fly floating better and longer seems to be an ongoing quest for many fly tyers and fishers.

There are a number of factors that can go into how well and how long a dry fly continues to float high. Certainly the materials from which the fly is tied will play a big role, as will the skill of the angler.  The more you allow your fly to drag across currents, rather than drift on them, the more waterlogged your fly will become. Where you are fishing will make a difference, too.  It’s easier to keep a fly floating high in big, open rivers where false casting is an option than it is in a small, tight mountain stream.  In any case, an endless number of products exist for this task. We lump them all into the category of “floatants.”

As with many products in the fly fishing world, if you ask ten different anglers which one is the best, it’s entirely possible that you will get ten different answers. Sometimes those answers will come in the form of a specific brand of floatant. Others will come in the form of a specific style.  When it comes to brand, I believe that is a matter of personal preference and you’ll just have to try a few different ones to see if one in particular earns your loyalty.  But when it comes to different styles of floatant, the specific task at hand may determine which will be best.  In fact, you may want to have more than one style of floatant to perform different tasks. Listed below are a few different common styles of floatant and a description of how and when they might best be applied.

Loon Hydrostop Fly Floatant
Liquid floatant

Liquid Floatants
While many anglers use them in different ways, liquid floatants are probably most useful before you ever get to the stream.  Whether dry flies that you tie yourself or buy from a shop, you can use a liquid style floatant to “pre-treat” new flies in much the same way as you might “Scotchgard” your sofa.  Exact application may vary. Read the recommendations for the specific brand you purchase. You typically soak the flies in the liquid for five minutes or so and dry them overnight.  In theory, after application of the product, water will better bead and roll of the fly material rather than absorb into it.

Orvis Hy-Flote Fly Floatant
Orvis gel floatant

Gel Floatants
Gel floatants are probably the most common and popular style of floatant.  They come in a small, very portable bottle and, like the liquid floatants, are designed to be a pre-treatment to an already dry fly.  The big difference is gel floatants are designed to be used streamside, immediately before fishing the fly.

It is important that you don’t “over apply” the gel.  Rub a small amount  into the fly and any remove any excess.  Gels are also frequently mis-applied – after a fly has already become waterlogged.  If a fly is already saturated, applying a gel floatant will essentially trap moisture into the fly and make it worse.

Loon Fly Spritz Fly Floatant
Spray floatant

Spray Floatants
Also normally applied while the fly is still dry, spray floatants are basically just a variation on a gel floatant.  Spray floatants come in a bottle with a pump top and apply much like you would spray an eyeglass cleaner.  They are not as messy as the gel but are sometimes more challenging to completey coat the fly.

Loon Payette Paste Fly Floatant
Paste floatant

Paste Floatants
These are basically just a thicker version of a gel floatant.  They really create a mess on smaller dry flies. Use paste for larger dries like hoppers and stoneflies.  A lot of people prefer a paste floatant to apply to yarn strike indicators or even on a leader to keep it floating better.

Shimazaki Dry-Shake Fly Floatant
Powder floatant

Powder Floatants
Use these less as a pre-treatment and more as a means to revive a saturated fly.  As mentioned above, when a dry fly becomes oversaturated and begins to sink, applying a gel or spray can often make it worse by trapping moisture in.  Powder floatants absorb and remove that moisture from a fly.

Typically they will come in a bottle with a wide, flip-top lid.  Keep the fly, on the tippet, put it in the bottle and close the lid.  Shake the bottle a few times to remove moisture from the fly.

At this point, there is a lot of debate on whether to re-apply a gel or spray type floatant. You’ll just have to find what works best for you.  I usually don’t re-apply another floatant unless I’m using a synthetic (like foam) dry fly.

Frog's Fanny Fly Floatant
Brush-on floatant

Brush Floatants
Brush floatants are essentially another version of a powder floatant.  Rather than shaking the fly inside the bottle, use a small brush to apply the powder to the fly.  Again, it’s personal preference but with brush floatants, expect a little frustration on windy days!

There are countless styles and floatants on the market today and all have their place.  And unlike the homemade lighter fluid and paraffin concoctions of days gone by, they are typically odorless and environmentally friendly.  You just need to find a system that suits your needs.

Personally, I carry a gel floatant for pre-treating dry flies and a “shake style” powder for reviving them and get by just fine.  But I offer the disclaimer that I often offer in these newsletter articles… This is just one man’s opinion!

How Stuff Works: Forceps

Forceps
Forceps

In the world of fly fishing, there is an endless array of gadgets designed to serve every purpose, from threading a fly, to removing a fly from a tree, to tying knots… If you have any task to perform in fly fishing that you find the least bit frustrating or unpleasant, chances are someone has invented a gadget to make it easier.  But I’ve never been much of a gadget guy. I try to keep the number of items I carry on the stream to a minimum.

It’s funny how different folks have different priorities when it comes to what they carry with them.  For instance, I never go into the backcountry without a daypack that includes a first-aid kit and the basic necessities (fire source, water purification, etc.) to spend the night if I have to.  99.9% of backcountry fishing trips go off without a hitch, but things happen. And I like to be prepared for the unexpected.  I learned long ago that there is a name for people who go into the woods unprepared: “Statistics.”  Yet, I regularly encounter fishermen deep in the backcountry with no such provisions. But they have fifteen different knot tying tools hanging from their vest!

I’ve taken a really long way around the barn to say that there are only two fishing “tools” that I routinely carry with me when I’m fishing: nippers and forceps.  I’ve talked about nippers in another article.  They are responsible for most of the work I’m doing with my line.  Forceps handle pretty much everything else.

If you get in certain circles, mainly the medical community, someone might correct you and say, “Those aren’t forceps.  They’re hemostats.”  Another might refer to them as clamps.  Maybe there are subtle differences in the three – I don’t know.  But in fly fishing, the three terms are interchangeable and refer to a tool that looks kind of like a pair of scissors but with a nose more like a pair of pliers.  While they come in slightly different shapes and sizes, most are fairly long and narrow and have a locking feature.

Forceps have a number of different uses but I mostly use them to perform three common tasks.  If I need to crimp the barb on a hook, whether required by law or simply preferred, I use my forceps.  If I need to squeeze a split shot on a leader, I use my forceps.  And if I happen to hook a fish a little deeper in the mouth and the fly is difficult to reach without harming the fish, I use my forceps.

The locking feature is frequently used for hook extraction.  I clamp the forceps on the hook and carefully remove it from the mouth of the fish.  I also use the locking feature to clamp the forceps to my pack or shirt when they’re not in use.  For these reasons, I greatly prefer a pair of locking forceps to pliers.

Medical Forceps
Common “Medical Forceps”

I also prefer to have forceps with flat jaws.  Many forceps offered to you by your friend who works in the ER have grooved jaws.  Those grooved jaws are great for many of the intended tasks in medical applications, but they can be a hindrance when trying to crimp the barb on a hook.  Trout hooks are often so little that they work themselves into those grooves making it difficult to meet the barb with enough metal to flatten it.

The other downside to forceps made for the medical community is quality.  I know, it seems strange that a fly fisherman’s forceps would be superior quality to a doctor’s.  But medical forceps are often designed to be “single use,” so the metal used to construct them is inferior.  They bend and rust easily.  Forceps built for fly fishing are usually made of high quality stainless steel and built to last.  And assuming you don’t lose them, they should last forever.

Beyond that, the only real differences in fly fishing forceps are shape, color, and features.  Some designs have a variety of add-ons, such as scissor blades, which are great for anglers who use yarn for strike indicators.  Color is sort of personal preference but there are also practical considerations.

Orvis Trout Skin Forceps
Trout Skin Forceps

When fishing for spookier trout like those in the Smokies, I prefer not to have the bright silver or gold forceps. I think they “flash” too much when the sun hits them, potentially spooking trout.  But flat black ones are sometimes difficult to locate when you inevitably drop them in the water.  I personally like the the “trout skin” colored forceps.  Not only are the cool looking, but they’re dull enough not to reflect much light, yet light enough to see in the water.

As always, a lot of it boils down to personal preference. How do you want to carry them? How do you plan to use them? Do you care how they look? In any case, pick up a pair if you don’t have some already.  You’ll use them a lot.

How Stuff Works: Fly Boxes

Various Fly Boxes Full of FliesI’m a bit of an oddball. This is not exactly breaking news for most folks who know me.  But to paraphrase John Gierach, “If, from time to time, people don’t walk away from you shaking their head… You’re doing something wrong.”  I could certainly dedicate an entire article, or even a book, to my oddball qualities. But I am referring to one specific oddball quality.  I fish and guide with a set-up that combines a pack and fly boxes all in one contraption. You’ve seen it.  It’s my chest fly box, custom built by the Richardson Chest Fly Box Companyin Pennsylvania.  It’s awesome and I love it.

Richardson Chest Fly Box
Chest Fly Box

So, that makes it a little more challenging for me to give advice on individual fly boxes.  But I have over the years used about every kind of box and pack known to man.  And along the way I have learned a few things. Hopefully, they’ll be helpful to you when purchasing or organizing your flies.  At the least, it might get you thinking about it.  And who knows?  Maybe one day you’ll come to your senses and buy a Richardson!

While chest fly boxes like mine are more common in the Northeast, they are hardly common.  Most folks go a different route.  They have a variety of different fly boxes that they stuff in a vest, hip pack, chest pack, sling bag, or some other carryall.  No matter how you decide to carry them, fly boxes are essential organizational tools in our sport and it helps to know a few things about them.

Fly Box with Slotted Foam
Medium Box with Foam

First, they come in a number of different sizes. There are large, briefcase size boxes for boats to ultra slim boxes not much bigger than a smartphone.  When choosing a fly box size, you have to consider how many flies you need to carry. Also consider how you’re going to carry them, how big the flies are, and how you want them organized. For instance, a big, briefcase size box may hold every fly you have but it won’t be very portable when wading creeks.  Or a small, ultra slim box might be convenient to slip in a pocket, but if you plan to store bass bugs in it, you’ll only be able to carry a couple and you won’t be able to close the lid.

In addition, you’ll have to consider how you want to organize your flies within your box. There are countless options for securing your flies from slot foam, flat foam, and nubby foam to compartments, clips, and magnets.  Some boxes might even have a combination of both. A box might have foam on one side of and compartments on the other.  Certainly personal preference plays a big role in you box interior of choice, but there are practical matters to consider as well.

Fly Box with Compartments
Compartment Box

Compartments tend to lend themselves well to beefier patterns, or large quantities of the same fly. For instance, if you fish a lot of Pheasant Tails and carry a lot of them with you, it’s far easier to dump them all into one compartment rather than trying to line up three dozen Pheasant Tails across multiple rows of foam.  I find foam more useful when I am trying to organize a lot of different patterns but small quantities of each.  It’s easier to see what I have.

Ultra Thin Fly Box with Magnetic Compartments
Ultra Thin Magnetic Compartments

The type of fly may also determine the best way to store it.  Thin foam or magnetic boxes can be great for midges and nymphs. But they can crush the hackles on many dry flies.  On the other hand, trying to carry midges in deep compartments can be a waste of space. It can also be difficult to grasp them with your fingers when removing them from the box.

Finally, when you’re on the stream, you don’t want to spend your time hunting for flies or digging through your pack for fly boxes.  Try to have a designated area of your pack or vest for boxes rather than burying them under a rain jacket somewhere.  And if you carry five fly boxes on the stream, try to make them five different, or at least different looking, fly boxes.  This will save you all kinds of time when trying to locate a specific box of flies.

On the Fly: Putting on Waders

Tucking Pant Legs into SocksPutting on waders hardly sounds challenging enough to warrant advice. But there are a couple of things you can do that will make you more comfortable during the day. More important, there are things to do to protect and extend the life of your waders.

Prepare your boots and waders before putting them on.  Walking around on the neoprene feet of your waders looking for boots and other gear is a good way to damage them.  Have your boots ready to step into as soon as you slip on your waders and consider having a mat to stand on.  Also, tucking your pant legs into your socks ahead of time will prevent them from “riding up” your legs when you  put on your waders.

“On the Fly” is a feature in my monthly newsletter offering quick fly fishing tips to make your life on the water a little easier…

Fly Fishing Gear Maintenance

Repairing a Leak in Waders
Repairing a wader leak

I recently saw a post on Facebook from a gentleman who had broken two fly rods on one trip. Another person commented about “having the record” for taking the most broken rods back to his local fly shop. They proceeded to boastfully go back and forth about this as if it was some sort of badge of honor. Accidents happen and rods do break from time to time, but I had guided one of these gentlemen and it was no secret why he had broken so many.

Animation of a Fly Rod BreakingWhen we first met, I cringed as he pulled his rod from the trunk of his car. It was not in a tube and there were a variety of items piled on top of it. I’ve seen a lot of rods break over the years, but I’ve never seen a single one break while it was in the tube. If you knew him, it would come as no surprise that he forgot to bring a reel for the rod, so he ended up using one of mine.

When he caught his first fish, he removed the hook and literally threw the rod on a rocky bank about ten feet away in preparation for a photo.   I let it slide but when it happened again on the second fish, he got the “lecture.” Not only was he damaging the rod every time he did that but also the reel. Actually, he wasn’t doing the fly line any favors either!

Whether it’s cars, tools, fly fishing gear, or anything else, I was always taught that if you take care of your gear, your gear will take care of you. While taking care of your gear often means simply handling it responsibly in the field, simple maintenance out of the field can greatly extend the life of valuable fishing gear and insure that it’s ready to perform when you need it to. And what better time than winter for inspection and a little preventive maintenance?

Rods:

Fly rods don’t require a lot of maintenance. Basically, don’t heave them into rocks every time you catch a fish and keep them in a tube for storage and travel. However, be careful not to store them wet for an extended amount of time in an airtight tube. Simple off-season maintenance includes checking rod guides and wraps for any damage. If you notice a loose guide or a wrap beginning to fail, you can send it back to the manufacturer for a preventive repair, rather than waiting for the guide to come off while you’re fishing. When you are doing this, also check the ferrules (where the rod pieces join) for a good, snug fit. If any seem loose, apply a small coating of wax to the male end.

Reels:  
Penn Reel Grease
Reel Lube

Fly reels are pretty low maintenance, too. First, check to make sure the reel is turning smoothly. If it’s not, first be sure that there’s not too much line on it. Assuming excessive line isn’t preventing it from turning smoothly, you likely have a bent frame or dented spool. If it’s minor, your local fly shop might be able to fix that. Otherwise, it will need to go back to the manufacturer.

Assuming the reel is turning properly, all it really needs is a cleaning and “tune-up.” Remove the spool and rinse it and the frame with water. Wipe away any excessive grime build-up and apply a small amount of reel lube around the gears. Allow the reel to dry before putting back into storage.

Fly Lines:  

Fly lines probably require more maintenance than any other piece of equipment. You don’t have to completely remove it from the reel, but pull out at least the first forty feet of fly line. You can pull out the entire amount if you wish, but most people don’t use more than the first forty feet and it’s what will need the most attention.

Rio Agent X Fly Line Dressing
Fly Line Dressing

Spread it out someplace other than the ground, such as between a couple of trees in the back yard. Take a small container and fill it with water and a couple drops of dishwashing liquid. Dip a clean cloth or paper towel in the liquid and run the cloth back and forth over the fly line. You’ll likely see a dark, grimy stain on the cloth after you do. Repeat this process with a clean cloth until you no longer see a stain, then do it one more time with just water and no soap.

The above method is pretty simple and effective. If you want a more thorough method, here are two videos that will walk you through it:
Cleaning a Fly Line Part 1
Cleaning a Fly Line Part 2

Now that your line is clean, you’ll want to treat it with something to keep it slick and prevent cracking. There are specific fly line treatments available at fly shops for this. Just rub into the line using the same method described above. Or something I like to use is ArmorAll. You buy the wipes and simply run the wipe up and down the line several times. Some fly line manufacturers claim that ArmorAll is not a good choice for line treatment. I have personally never had a problem with it.

These steps should keep your line floating better, allow it to shoot through the rod guides better, and simply make it last longer. It wouldn’t hurt to do this periodically throughout the year, but at least once a year. It depends on how much you fish and where you fish. Fly lines used on scummy lakes and ponds will need more frequent attention than lines used in clear mountain streams.

Waders:

 Most wader care needs to happen throughout the season and that mostly involves being careful of thorns, etc. Probably the most damage occurs to waders when people are putting them on or taking them off at the truck. I regularly see fishermen put on their stockingfoot waders and then walk around looking for the boots or other items. This is just an invitation for gravel or other pointy objects to puncture the feet of the waders. The feet of my waders never touch the ground – boots are on the ground ready, foot goes into wader, wader goes into boot. If you’re not comfortable doing the “one leg hop,” keeping a mat to stand on is a great idea.

Also be sure not to store waders wet. Hang them to dry when you get home, preferably not in direct sunlight. Occasionally washing them through the year will help with their breathability and water repellency. Wash them on gentle cycle with a mild detergent. I recommend Ivory Snow, a detergent commonly used for baby clothing.

Winter is a great time to repair any leaks and/or treat with DWR. If you have major punctures or tears in your waders, you’re probably better off sending them to the manufacturer for repair or replacement. But most folks just encounter minor leakage caused by a pinhole or seam leak, and that’s pretty easy to fix yourself.

First, try to narrow down the location of the leak. For instance, if you’ve been getting damp on the inside of your right leg from the knee down, chances are pretty good that the leak is somewhere around the inside right knee. Sticking with that example, make sure the waders are completely dry, turn them inside out, and generously spray rubbing alcohol all around the suspected leak area. Still keeping the waders inside out, fill the right leg past the knee with water and look closely in the area where you sprayed the alcohol. You should see discoloration where the leak is. Mark that spot with a permanent marker.

Now that we know where the leak is, it’s time to repair. Again, allow the waders to dry completely. Where you made the mark with the marker, liberally smear Aquaseal on the area. Aquaseal is available at most fly shops and many camping/outdoor stores. Usually a small tube of it comes with your waders. Put the treated area of the waders in direct sunlight to cure. When the Aquaseal feels “solid,” the waders should be immediately ready to go. However, I’d move them inside to a dry place and wait 24 hours before using.

Water Beading on DWR Fabric
DWR water repellency

Treating your breathable waders with a DWR is a great winter project. As a matter of fact, if you have a breathable rain jacket, grab it and treat it at the same time.   DWR (Durable Water Repellant) is basically going to allow the water to “bead” and roll off the fabric rather than absorb into it. I’ve had old waders and jackets that I never treated that, even though they were still waterproof, were absorbing so much water that they felt heavy and even clammy. DWR is good stuff. There are a few brands out there and can usually be found at camping/outdoor stores. I’ve personally had good luck with ReviveX Spray-on Repellant.

Treating Fabric with DWR
Treating fabric with DWR

Start by washing the waders and/or jacket with a mild detergent as described above. Hang the garment(s) and spray evenly and thoroughly with DWR while the garment is still wet. I usually apply a little heavier around seams and stress areas such as the knees and crotch area on waders. On jackets, I put a little more emphasis on the shoulder area. You can then simply allow it to air dry where it’s hanging or put it in the dryer on low/medium for about an hour.

That about covers the big stuff. I also like to use winter to go through fly boxes and remove rusty hooks. Those have a way of contaminating the entire box after a while. And it’s a great time to go through your first aid kit and make sure everything is up to date. You can also put new batteries in the flashlight, etc. Then, when spring rolls around, all you have to do is fish!

Dressing for Winter Fishing

Rainbow trout in the winter
A big winter rainbow

The arrival of November usually means cold weather is not too far off. But it doesn’t mean that you have to quit fishing. Certainly the fishing for wild, mountain trout can slow down significantly as water temperatures fall, but tailwater trout and really any stocked trout will continue to feed well, even in the coldest of temperatures. In recent years, winter guide trips to Delayed Harvest streams have become a favorite of many clients. This is probably because of the potential for really big trout!

In East Tennessee, the average winter day is not unbearably cold – at least not compared to many other places in the U.S. The coldest month of the year here is January where, in towns like Knoxville and Maryville, the average high is 46-degrees and the average low is 29-degrees. However, this is deceiving in a couple of ways.

When most folks view this forecast, they don’t take into consideration that you’re only going to experience that high temperature for a couple hours out of the day. Additionally, in the case of Delayed Harvest waters, we’re usually fishing mountainous areas where there’s a little more elevation and the sun spends a lot of the day low and behind the ridgeline. In other words, you can easily shave another 5-degrees off those highs and lows and when you throw in a little wind, you’ve got a pretty darn cold day on the water.

So, a typical full day trip in the winter will go from about 9 to 5. If the forecast is for a high of 46-degrees, that will be more like 40-degrees on the stream, and you’ll reach that high temperature probably around 3pm. That means for the majority of the day, you’ll be fishing in temperatures in the 30’s. Unless you grew up someplace like Alaska, North Dakota, or Maine, that’s cold! Don’t get me wrong, it can be a ton of fun and it never feels as cold when the fish are biting. But to better enjoy your day on the water, you better know how to dress. After all, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices! Below are a few tips to prepare for a winter fly fishing trip.

  • Dress in Layers: 

    You hear this advice a lot from the weather person on your local news but I don’t think they usually understand the difference in dressing in layers and simply dressing warm. If I’m just going out in the cold for a while, I can just throw on a heavy coat and a hat and be set. However, when I’m going to spend the day outside in the cold, I’m likely to experience a variety of changing temperatures and conditions. Dressing in layers allows me the flexibility of adding or removing layers as conditions and activity levels change.

  • How to Layer: 

    There are three basic layers to consider. The first are the

    Long Underwear Base Layer
    Long underwear with turtleneck top

    garments closest to your body, and their main objective should be to wick moisture from your body. If your body gets wet, from perspiration or anything else, you’re going to be cold, no matter what you’re wearing as an outer layer. Consider wearing a thin, synthetic “liner sock” on your feet and synthetic long underwear for your legs, arms and torso. Long underwear with a turtleneck top is a bonus as it gives an added layer on your neck.

The next layer is the insulating layer that is designed to keep you warm. Depending on how cold it is, this could actually consist of multiple layers. For the feet, a thick, heavy wool or fleece sock should be sufficient. The 3mm neoprene foot on the wader is also going to serve as insulation. For the legs, a fleece pant designed for cold wading is great and I also like traditional fleece lined pants. Up top, I typically wear a mid-weight fleece pullover followed by a heavier fleece pullover or jacket. As the day warms, I might remove the heavier fleece. Again, it’s a bonus if one or both of these upper layers covers the neck.

The third and final layer is the shell. Its purpose is to protect from wind and moisture. For your lower half, the waders serve as your shell. Up top, I just add a light to mid-weight rain jacket. The hood will act as a shell layer for your head.

  • The Extremities: 

    By extremities, I’m mostly talking about your head and your hands. These can be the most challenging and most important to protect. The challenge with the head is to keep it warm without interfering too much with necessary senses like sight and sound. For that reason, I HATE wearing a hood, though sometimes it’s necessary on rainy days.

Under Armour Infrared Hood
Under Armour Infrared Hood

I layer my head with a product from Under Armour called an infrared hood. It’s the same thin-layered garment you see football quarterbacks wearing under their helmets in cold weather games. It covers the entire head, including the ears, but doesn’t interfere with hearing like earmuffs do. It also has a piece that can be pulled up to cover the face on particularly cold, windy days. Because it is relatively thin, I can wear a traditional ball cap over it on milder days or a warm stocking cap on colder days. This is one of the best pieces of cold weather fishing gear I’ve found!

Fold-back Fingerless Mittens
Fold-back Fingerless Mittens

The hands and fingers are the toughest part. Trying to keep warm while maintaining the necessary finger dexterity for fly fishing is one that I haven’t totally figured out. While there are fleece gloves and mitts with fold-back hand and finger pieces, they still leave your fingers exposed while fishing and the fold-back piece is just one more thing for your fly line to hang on. I prefer just standard wool or fleece fingerless gloves. They keep my hands warm and if the fingers start getting too cold, I take a break and put my hands in my pockets.

  • Adjusting Layers: 

    Most of this is common sense. If you’re cold, add a layer. But it’s important to pay attention to your activity level because you don’t want to be too insulated while active and start to perspire. Perspiration during cold weather can create a cold that’s hard to come back from once you become less active. It’s also a common cause of hypothermia when not addressed.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is overdressing for the car ride to the stream. Wearing too much in the car can cause you to perspire and you’re going to be cold all day. Wear the bare minimum of layers in the car and add the additional layers when you reach the stream. Pay particular attention to your feet!

  • Fabrics: 

    You may have noticed repeated references to fleece or synthetic fabrics. That’s a really important piece of the puzzle for staying warm, dry, and comfortable. Synthetic materials like fleece are not only more breathable, but offer insulating properties even when wet. Wool does the same thing though it is often heavier. This is important with all of your clothing in case you take a dunk in the stream. It is particularly important with your gloves, as your hands will constantly be exposed to water while fishing.

Fly Selection – Making Sense of It All

Fly Bins at a Fly Shop
Too many choices?

If you are new to fly fishing, particularly for trout, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the number of fly patterns available. Which ones do I need? What colors? What sizes? Do I need all of them? First of all, if you carry every trout fly with you, you need a wheelbarrow to go fly fishing! While there is no way to make it immediately simple, there are ways to simplify the process. As with many things in fly fishing, find a good starting point. Learn as you go from there.

Sulfur Mayfly Adult
Sulfur mayflies can come off in bunches on the Clinch in May, and you better have a good imitation

First, There are many fly patterns that imitate a very specific bug when it is hatching. These may only be relevant on certain rivers at a specific time of year. Some only imitate certain stages of that hatching insect’s emergence. These hatches may involve hundreds of bugs coming off for hours out of the day, and maybe over the course of several weeks.

When that’s the case, fish can get highly selective. They may ignore anything that doesn’t look like what is actually hatching. You need to match the hatch. The heavier the hatch is, the more selective the fish can become. They may only focus on one stage of the emergence. For instance, they may opt to ignore the nymphs and adults, and purely key in on emergers just under the surface film.

This kind of situation can be exciting and frustrating at the same time while you try to unlock the puzzle. But these situations are rare. Most of the time, particularly in smaller mountain streams like the Smokies, you’re not going to see many heavy hatches. Rather, there will be sporadic small hatches of a few different types of bugs. And the fish rarely key in on one specific bug. They can’t afford to. Often, there won’t be anything hatching at all.   So, a good starting point with trout flies is with a basic selection of attractor patterns in their most common size(s).

Parachute Adams Dry Fly
The Parachute Adams is one of the most universal topwater trout flies in the world

Attractor fly patterns, also referred to as generals, generics, or prospecting flies, are not designed to imitate anything in particular. They will either be rather drab looking flies, like a Parachute Adams, that look similar to a lot of food items. Or they may be something with some color that doesn’t look like anything at all, like a Royal Wulff, intended to trigger a feeding response from a trout. In most situations, if you have a basic selection of attractors and you present them well, you can catch trout anywhere in the world.

Many of you may have seen, or even purchased, the Great 8 fly selectionfrom my online store. That’s exactly what it is – a collection of eight dry, nymph, and streamer fly patterns that will work on trout most anywhere in the world.   Now if you ask ten different fishermen their eight must-have fly patterns, you won’t get the exact same answer. But I guarantee you’ll see a lot of similarity and crossover. A simple selection of these types of flies is a great place to start your fly collection. From there, you just gradually add fly patterns based on multiple sources and scenarios.

Maybe your buddy told you he did really well at Tremont on a size #12 Yellow Humpy. Pick up a couple and give them a try. Or maybe the guy at the fly shop said people have been doing well on #16 Copper Johns. Pick up a few of those. Or maybe you purchased my hatch guide for the Smokies and it indicated there should be good hatches of Light Cahills when you were coming. Better have a couple of Light Cahill patterns with you.

There are hatch guides and charts for most every popular trout fishery in the country and they can be very helpful. And the folks at the local fly shops are great sources for information. When they’re not fishing, they’re in the shop talking to people who have been fishing. They almost always have the most up to date information. After doing that for a while, you start to accumulate a lot of fly patterns. And through the process, you start to find your own personal favorites.

So, now that you have all of these patterns, how do you know what fly to fish when? Fly selection is about 1/3 experience, 1/3 scientific, and 1/3 dumb luck. If you fish an area a lot, you will begin to draw from past experiences to choose your fly. If I am fishing the Smokies in June, I don’t have to actually see a beetle get eaten by a trout to make me decide to tie on a beetle pattern. For decades, I’ve done well on beetles in June. It will probably be one of the first flies I tie on.

Little Yellow Sally Stonefly Adult
Are you seeing a lot of these?
Little Yellow Sally Dry Fly
Try something like this

I might use a more scientific approach on water that is less familiar, or even on familiar water when something unusual is happening. The scientific approach could be reading something like a hatch guide and choosing a fly accordingly to match the flies that should be hatching. Or you could be on the water and see fish feeding on the surface. If you see an abundance of natural insects on the water or coming off the water, catch a couple in your hand and try to find an imitation in your box that is close in size, color, and profile. You can do the same thing with nymphs by turning over a couple of rocks and choosing a fly that resembles what you see.

The dumb luck method is just what it sounds like. The biggest brook trout I ever caught in the park came on a day when the fishing was tough. None of my usual patterns were producing and I wasn’t having much luck matching naturals. I finally dug through my box and saw a fly I hadn’t thought of, much less fished, in the last ten years. I figured I couldn’t do much worse. So, I tried it and ended up catching several fish on it, including that big brookie. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Probably the most import thing to remember is that it is more often the archer, not the arrow. Too many fishermen blame their fly for a lack of success. With the exception of super big, technical hatches, specific fly patterns are probably not as important as most people make them. Approaching the fish without spooking them and putting a good drift over them with a “reasonable” fly pattern will catch fish most of the time.

Someone smarter than me once said that most people’s favorite fly is the fly they happened to have on the first time the fishing was good. In other words, the fish were feeding well that day and probably would have hit most anything. But from that day forward you have confidence in that fly. It’s often the first fly you tie on and it’s the one you leave on the longest. There’s a lot to be said for confidence.

Most of the big brown trout, probably 75%, I’ve caught in the Smokies have come on a Tellico Nymph. That may lead some people to believe there is something extra special about that fly. The truth is I spotted most of those big brown trout before fishing for them. And I usually tie on a Tellico Nymph when I fish to a big brown. Know why? It’s the fly I happened to have on the first time I caught a big brown in the Smokies. There’s a lot to be said for confidence.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

How Stuff Works: Waders

Simms Zipper Front Waders
Zip Front Waders

October is the time of year I start wearing waders again in the mountains. For much of the year, usually from May through October, water temperatures are comfortable enough to wet wade, wearing only the wading boots and neoprene socks. But in winter, early spring, and late fall (or any time of year on tailwaters), you better have a decent set of waders if you want to stay comfortable on the stream.

Orvis Stockingfoot Chest Waders
Stockingfoot Chest Waders

In the 30 years or so that I have been fly fishing, I can’t think of any fly fishing product that has improved as much as waders. Early on, your only choices for wader materials were canvas, rubber/plastic, and neoprene. All three of these materials were pretty heavy and pretty warm. And any time you were doing anything active, like hiking or just climbing around on rocks, these things would sweat you to death. Even with less active fishing, like standing in a tailwater, these materials would roast you on a warm day.

Waders made of breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex started showing up in the mid 90’s and are now the standard. Early breathable models were not terribly durable and were prone to leaking but today’s models are not only comfortable, but when properly cared for, can withstand years of heavy use. If you’re in the market for a pair of breathable waders, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Chota Hippies
Stockingfoot Hippers

First, there are a few different styles of breathable waders. Chest high waders provide coverage all the way up to your chest. Pant waders provide coverage to your waist. And hippers provide coverage to the upper part of your thigh. When wading small mountain streams, you rarely stand in water much above the knee so hippers will handle most situations. But it seems that when wearing hippers, there is always that one deeper pool of water that you have to cross to get to the other side of the stream. It’s the same thing with tailwaters. Since you rarely wade much over the thigh in tailwaters, pant waders would be adequate most of the time but there always seems to be that one deeper spot…

I don’t like my gear to determine where I can and can’t go when fishing. For that reason, I stick with chest waders to handle all situations. Of course, if the water is too deep for my chest waders, I shouldn’t be trying to wade it anyway! And on warmer days, I can always roll the bib down on my chest high waders, essentially converting them into waist highs.

One thing to consider with breathable waders (or any loose fitting wader) is the possibility of falling in deep water. Particularly with chest high waders, this is a safety concern because the waders could fill with water and essentially drag you down. Wearing a belt around the outside of the wader will create an air pocket to prevent this from happening. Pretty much any chest wader sold today will come with a belt. Wear it!

Another big difference in waders is whether they have a boot foot or stocking foot. Boot foot waders have a boot attached to the wader. They’re convenient because you can just slip the waders on and you’re ready to go. However, this is typically just a loose fitting rubber boot. They are heavy and clumsy, and they provide very little in the way of ankle support. If you’re standing still most of the day, these will probably be adequate. But in places like the Smokies where you’re moving a lot from spot to spot, usually over very uneven terrain, you will hate these. You’ll be compromising comfort and safety.

Orvis Neoprene Stocking Feet
Neoprene Stocking Feet

I prefer stocking foot waders. These have a neoprene foot to provide a little insulation on your feet. You wear a separate pair of wading boots over this neoprene boot. Going this route allows you to wear a lighter, form fitting boot that you lace up just like a hiking boot, providing far more comfort and ankle support when walking on uneven terrain. Additionally, you can wear the boot without the wader in warmer months when you may choose to wet wade. I’ll talk more specifically about wading boots in a future article.

If you’re fishing in colder weather, it is important to remember that breathable waders are designed to keep you dry but, other than the neoprene foot, provide very little in the way of insulation. You will want to layer accordingly under the wader based on your weather conditions. Just keep in mind that breathable waders are only as breathable as the fabric beneath them, so synthetic fabrics like fleece or nylon are recommended over something like denim. Find tips on dressing for cold weather in the “Winter Fishing” article on my web site.

Finally, there is the pesky little issue of price. Breathable waders are certainly not cheap. You can get a really good pair of waders for under $200 and you can spend upwards of $600. All of them will keep you dry. More expensive waders will sometimes be more durable with extra reinforcement in high wear areas like the seat and knees. Mostly though, you’re paying for extra features like pockets or zippered fronts that may be handy but not necessarily critical.

The life of any wader can be extended or shortened by how you care for them. Other than avoiding obvious things like walking through briar patches, try not to walk around in your stocking foot waders without the boots on. Either be prepared to step right into the boot when you put your waders on or carry a mat to stand on when getting dressed. Hang them up to dry after each trip and don’t store them folded. Clean them periodically according to the care label and from time to time, consider applying a coating of DWR.

Wading Boots and the Great Felt Debate

Putting on Waders by a Smoky Mountain Trout Stream
Wadering up

When I first got into fly fishing, I didn’t have any money. At that age, you simply had to get what you could get when you could get it. That usually meant holding out until birthday or Christmas. I had a cheap rod and reel outfit and a box of flies. My fishing “vest” was my uncle’s old Marines shirt with the sleeves cut off. The bellows pockets on the front were plenty big to hold my one fly box and any other accessories. And I had a pair of fingernail clippers, Trim brand, hung around my neck on a piece of fly line. My wading gear consisted of cutoff Duckhead shorts and an old pair of Asics running shoes.

Old Pair of Asics Running Shoes
My First Pair of “Wading Boots”

I slowly started to accumulate better gear. But it wasn’t until much later that I even considered buying actual wading gear. On the smallmouth streams of central Kentucky where I cut my teeth, it just wasn’t necessary. And when I did eventually start fishing the 50-degree tailwaters for trout, I guess I was just too young and full of testosterone to notice the cold. That changed when I waded the Cumberland River tailwater one rainy November day and somehow narrowly avoided hypothermia. On the top of my list the following Christmas was a pair of neoprene waders and rubber soled wading boots. I didn’t know much about felt soles and thought the rubber soled boots would be more durable.

Fisherman Falling in the Water
A Bad Step

In the mostly cobble-bottomed tailwaters where I was fishing, the rubber soles were adequate. All was right in my fly fishing world… until I went to the Smokies. That first trip to the Smokies provided me with countless views of the sky as I spent nearly every moment on my back. I’d get up, take a step, then slip again. Seems that even the best waders don’t keep you dry when they’re full of water! It didn’t help that my first Smokies trip was to Abrams Creek. It’s possibly the slickest stream on the planet. But it definitely made me begin to question my choice in wading gear.

I soon replaced the rubber-soled boots with felt, and eventually began wearing breathable waders when they hit the market. And I quickly realized why countless fly fishermen chose felt soles and had been doing so for decades. They are vastly superior to rubber when it comes to providing traction on slick, rocky stream bottoms. As a matter of fact, at the time, major fly fishing companies like Orvis didn’t even offer a rubber sole option in their catalog.

Felt Sole Wading Boots
Felt Sole Boots

Fast forward about 30 years and look at an Orvis catalog, web site, etc. You’ll find almost all rubber sole wading boots with only one or two felt alternatives. Why the change? The spread of exotic organisms from stream to stream.

While there are a number of different ways these exotics can be spread, many scientists pointed to felt soles as a big culprit and one that could be controlled. It sparked a movement where some
Felt Soled Boots popular fly fishing destinations added boot cleaning stations at select river access points, a few states went as far as banning felt boots, and fly fishing companies began aggressively looking for alternative bottoms to their boots.

The result has been a variety of different tread designs, all created on a Vibram rubber sole or variation thereof. Some companies, like Simms, even went so far as to discontinue production of felt sole boots entirely, while most manufacturers chose to offer both. After a short time, likely due to a significant dip in sales, Simms returned a couple of felt sole options to their product line. The problem was, despite companies’ claims that these new soles were as good as felt, many fishermen didn’t agree. In fact, some fishermen in “felt ban states” even took the whole, “I’ll quit
Typical Vibram Soles wearing felt boots when they pry them from my cold, dead feet” approach!

Vibram Wading Boot Soles
Typical Vibram Sole

To be fair, all of these new rubber sole designs are quite different and way better than those rubber sole boots I had 30 years ago, and they’re light years better than an old pair of running shoes. They even offer some real traction advantages to felt when it comes to trail use and scrambling up and down banks.

But the fact is, they are nowhere near as good as felt when it comes to providing traction on a slick streambed. I suppose you could just call that an opinion but I like to think it’s based on more than just preference as I routinely field test many of these new boots. As part of my field-testing, I will spend some days on the water wearing the rubber sole on one foot and a felt sole on the other. Time and time again, the rubber sole slips in places where the felt does not.

Vibram Wading Boot Sole with Studs
Vibram Rubber with Studs

An alternative is to wear rubber soles with studs. This is probably the closest thing I’ve found to felt as far as traction on the stream bottom goes. However, these have a real tendency to slide and slip on dry rocks, posing another safety risk if you do a lot of rock hopping on smaller streams like we have in the Smokies. The other downside to studs is that they are noisy. That’s probably not a big deal on a larger, deeper, swift river, but if you’re trying to sneak up on a pool in a smaller, shallower headwater
Vibram Rubber Soles with Studs stream, you’re going to spook a lot more fish.

So, we’re kind of left with this whole responsibility vs. practicality debate. Most younger and/or newer fly fishermen are readily going with the rubber designs – some probably because they’re the current, cool thing, and others probably because they don’t know any better. They’ve never worn felt so have no basis for comparison. It’s the guys that have been around (like me) that are the problem. For us, trendy new designs aren’t nearly as important as staying upright!

Okay, maybe trendy designs aren’t that important to me, but being a responsible fisherman is, and that’s where it gets tricky. As an environmentalist, I take it very seriously. I certainly don’t want to be responsible for the spread of exotic organisms, but again, I do want to stay upright. As someone who wades creeks every single day, I need to be as sure-footed as possible not only for my own safety, but sometimes for the safety of my clients. Fortunately, with a little planning and/or extra effort, you can wear felt soles responsibly.

The biggest issue with felt is that it dries slowly. So, if you pick up some weird organism in one river system and go to another totally different river system the next day, you could transport that organism with you because it can stay alive in that wet felt. As soon as the soles dry, any organism you pick up will likely die. For most fishermen who are fishing no more than once a week, those soles have plenty of time to dry. Even so, it’s a good idea to clean them to be safe.

For someone like me, who is on the water every day, my soles almost never completely dry until the end of the season. But I don’t worry too much about it because I am constantly going to the same “system” of streams. I’d be picking up something in Little River and transferring it back to Little River! When it is a concern for me is when I’m going to be in the Smokies on Tuesday, the Clinch River tailwater on Wednesday, and back to the Smokies on Thursday. Then I run the risk of transferring something from the Clinch to the Smokies.

My solution for this is multiple pairs of boots. I have one pair of studded rubber boots for tailwaters and another pair of felt soles for the mountains. But if you don’t want to purchase two pairs of boots, you want to own felt soles, and you might want to fish the Clinch one day and the Smokies the next, cleaning your boots in between trips is a must. Many experts will tell you that if you’re fishing multiple river systems in consecutive days as described above, thorough cleaning is the surest way to prevent the spread of exotics, even with rubber sole boots. So it’s just a good habit to get into.

Again, some popular areas actually have cleaning stations for this purpose. There is one at Little River Outfitters in Townsend. It’s accessible whether the store is open or not. Or if you’re going to clean them at home, thoroughly hose the boots off with water and soak them for about 10 minutes in a solution of about 5% bleach and hot water. I’d also recommend scrubbing the soles with a wire or stiff bristled brush. Then rinse one more time with the hose.

Korkers Interchangeable Wading Boot Soles
Korker Boot with Interchangeable Soles

If you’re planning a multi-day fishing trip somewhere and will be fishing numerous river systems, just throw your soak bin, brush and solution in the car and you’ll be ready to go. If you’re going to a state where felt is banned, you can certainly wear felt and take your chances with the law, but that’s a pretty big risk. Yellowstone National Park just implemented a felt ban and the
Korkers Boots with Interchangeable Soles penalty can be up to 6 months in jail and a $5000 fine. All of a sudden, the cost of a second pair of wading boots doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Again, that’s the solution that works best for me. Or you might consider one of the Korker boot models that have interchangeable soles. You can quickly change from felt soles to rubber soles on the same boot.

As with everything I write, this is just one man’s opinion with a few facts mixed in here and there. Find a legal and responsible system that works for you. If you currently wear rubber soles and like them, by all means stick with them. If you mostly fish streams with a more cobble type bottom (like many tailwaters), you’ll probably be happy with rubber. For freestone mountain streams with larger, more slippery rocks, felt is tough to beat and continues to be my preference.

However, I am keeping an open mind and continually looking for that next great felt alternative. Technology and design for felt-alternative boots is getting better every year. I hope to personally be able to make the switch soon.