Cold Winter Fishing

winter is coming

We all do it, boat fisherman, rock fisherman, fly fisherman when it gets chilly, we tend to back off – fish are a cold-blooded creature they appreciate temperature, but they do not react to it as significantly as we do, but like many people, fish 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, then they can be caught – simple.

We spoke to a range of cold weather experts; fishermen, search and rescue, alpine guides, and ski patrol, and this is their input.

The simple key to enjoying the cold is staying warm.

That is it simple.

If it gets cold and you want to stay warm, the first rule is you need to keep dry. Fishing and keeping dry may not be as easy as it sounds. The simplest solution is to keep a dry towel to dry your hands with after catching a fish or drying your legs with when launching a boat. 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, so no leaks. In winter, on our boat, I keep a dry towel in a dry bag just for towelling off, a second towel to keep drying your hands after catching fish.

The second must-do; is keeping 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 in that they are versatile; if you get too hot, you can pull it down to your neck; if it gets real cold, you can use it pulling up over your ears and head, they just give you more options. But buy a good one. There are loads of cheap synthetic ones on the market that are next too useless. A beanie and a buff can also be a good combo if it is chilly. Word of advice, if you pull the buff up over your neck then over your mouth, your breath will cause condensation, which makes the buff wet; remember keeping dry is the key.

After making sure your head is warm next, you need to look after your other extremities. Starting from the ground up, in waders, 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. Merion is light weight, breathable, merino manages moisture by a process called wicking – in that it will pull moisture away from your body which if chilled with make you cold. Merino is also anti-bacterial and odour resistance. Never use synthetic or worse cotton, as it is quick to suck up water, slow to 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. 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.   For ears and nose, they can be looked after by your buff.

There is 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 really if it is that cold, maybe stay home. To locate these, if you cannot find them in your local fishing store, look to any ski outlet. Reusable ones are more expensive, but with repeat use become a far better deal.


The art of layering. There is an art to layering: essential rule, no cotton, only wool, some fleece, and microfleece. Over the last ten years, there has been an explosion of quality layering products. What used to be just an itchy thermal layer and a woolly jumper that has all changed. There is now a full range of base layers, mid-layers, and top layers. It is simple- when it is cold, put more on. Fishing, unlike, say, tramping, where you are constantly moving, you need to be warm from the get-go. This includes fleece-based legging or pants. I have two different thickness fleeces legging I wear under my waders depending on how cold it will be. Top, I wear a RAB microfleece, super lightweight, short-sleeved; this is my go-to product for winter and summer. Mid layer long sleeve merino, and if it is going to be cold, I add another layer on top, but making sure there is heaps of movement (not too tight for the last layer) – then jacket on top of that. An obvious observation is that you can always remove a layer; you cannot 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 that temperature control.

When it’s cold, drink plenty of water. Hot tea and coffee might seem 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) – save that wee dram till you get back home and make it part of the boasting process, my winter suggestion is Fireballs.


New Zealand is renowned for having four seasons in one day so be prepared – check the forecast but do not 100% believe it. On the other hand, if it says all is good, be prepared for the worst.

In winter, it pays to fish with a friend. Then should you take a tumble into the water, someone is there to help out, and in the worst-case scenario, go for help or at least be able to see the first signs of hypothermia.


When we think of hypothermia, we think about people trapped on a mountainside in a storm. That is not the case. Hypothermia can quickly occur when you are exposed to cold air, water, wind, or rain. Your body temperature can drop to a dangerously low level at temperatures of only 10° or higher in wet and windy weather, or if you are in 16° to 21° of water, you are at risk of hypothermia. It can happen quickly; I once got hypothermia waiting for a bus in winter.

Symptoms and signs – (Not all may be present).

  • person feels cold to touch and maybe 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 to do?

The best treatment for hypothermia is prevention.

But if you suspect hypothermia, the aim of helping the person is 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.
  • If isolated, body contact reduces heat loss and slowly warm – e.g. huddle around the patient in a sleeping bag.
  • Get help.

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 and aware. In winter, it pays not to go as far from your safety access – your vehicle, accommodation etc. However, if you are going further, you need to make sure you are prepared. Prepare for the cold, prepare for the worst, and you will be comfortable, safe, and prepared for winter fun.


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