How to Keep Hands Warm Winter Fly Fishing

I love winter fly fishing to get out of the house and get active, but there is a problem.  I need to use both of my hands, and they freeze solid.  They turn numb, and it gets tough to control the line. So, here is how to keep your hands warm while fly fish in the winter:

  • Have a few extra pairs of gloves
  • Dry your hands quickly
  • Try some waterproof gloves
  • Maybe use fingerless gloves or fold over mittens
  • Move your fingers and keep the blood flowing
  • Understand how the insulation in mittens works and buy big
  • Have chemical hand warmers that go with a pair of mittens

Anybody who has done any fly fishing in the winter has been there.  Once your hands get wet, you start losing the dexterity in your fingers as they go numb.

You have trouble grasping the line with your left hand, and if you lose your fly and need to tie a new one on, forget about it.

You do have several options to keep your hands warm and still have dexterity in your fingers.  When I first started fly fishing I would just plan on one to two hours before I had to quit.  It was almost not worth going.

Then I found that having a few pairs of gloves is a good idea since they will get wet on a regular basis.  I started carrying a small hand towel with me, so I could dry my hands in between pairs of gloves.

I found that unconventional gloves sometimes work best. This includes waterproof gloves, fingerless gloves, and gloves with fold over mittens.

I also found that a better understanding of why my hands were getting numb was helpful.  I started flexing my fingers to help with circulation.  I learned that you must have a layer of air in between your skin and your insulation, so I bought a pair of mittens that were a size too big.

Finally, I found a set of fingerless gloves called SIMMS EXTREAM that had a secret pocket to place a chemical heat pack.  They get my hands toasty warm.

In this article, I am going to review all of the tips and tricks I use to keep my hands from going numb when I fly fish in the winter.

Multiple Sets of Gloves

When I first started fly fishing in the winter, I wore no gloves at all.  My hands would be cold immediately just from the cold air, but they were still functional.  Then they would get wet and things would go South fast.  They would start to go numb, and they would lose their function.

I tried to combat this by wearing gloves.  Initially I started with cheap jersey gloves, but that almost made it worse once they got wet.  I switched to wool gloves, but it still was not great.  Then I had the thought of bringing several sets of gloves, so I could replace them as they got wet.

You can take this idea a step further.  Wool is the only natural material known to man that will still keep you somewhat warm when wet.  I would suggest going with wool.  Also, you can buy some pairs larger than others to layer your gloves.  Maybe buy synthetic liners to go inside your wool gloves.  These can all keep your hands warm while allowing you to keep casting.

Dry Your Hands Quickly

I know this may seem like common sense but keeping your hands dry is a good thing when you are fly fishing in cold weather.  Your hands actually lose heat 20 times faster when they are wet verses when they are dry.

Just swapping gloves will not keep your hands dry.  Bringing a towel with you to dry your hands in between sets of gloves is a good idea.  I started out just using a golf style hand towel hooked to the strap of my waders.

However, I have found that there are other options that are more absorbent.  I actually like using a shammy cloth like you would use to dry off your car after you wash it.  A normal towel will become saturated after drying your hands a few times.  It will probably freeze solid.  A shammy cloth can absorb much more water and keep drying.  Just wring it out periodically.

Try Some Waterproof Gloves

The more I thought about, the more waterproof gloves became an obvious solution.  I used to work sales for a safety supply company that sold a lot of safety gloves to factories and construction companies.  I remembered that many of these gloves were waterproof, and some were also insulated.

These can get a bit pricey, but they are worth it. Industrial waterproof gloves are designed to give a worker maximum dexterity, keep their hands warm, and keep them completely dry.  They come in varying cuff lengths.  You can get a normal glove that just covers your hands, or you can get a longer cuff that will cover a portion of your sleeve.

If you do not want to fork over the cash for industrial gloves, you can makeshift your own.  Simply buy some good thin gloves.  These could be thin wool gloves, fleece gloves, or a synthetic liner.  Then buy some heavy rubber gloves like you might use when cleaning your bathroom.  Make sure you buy the rubber gloves two to three sizes too large.  Put on your fabric gloves and then pull your rubber gloves over the top.  Adding a layer of rubber should not affect your dexterity too much.

You might even consider leather gloves.  While leather is not entirely water proof, it is water resistant.  You can purchase a waterproofing spray designed for leather to keep them from absorbing water.

Fingerless Gloves and Fold Over Mittens

hands warm fly fishing

hands warm fly fishing

I absolutely love fingerless gloves.  I bought a pair of tactical style fingerless gloves a few years ago and now use them almost every day.  They protect your hands, keep them warm, and still allow you 100% dexterity in your fingers.  Fingerless gloves are perfect when you want your hands warm but have really fine work to do like tying a fly onto your line.

The only downside to fingerless gloves is a bit obvious… they are fingerless.  While your hands will be warm and your fingers will be warmer because of added circulation, your fingertips may still have issues.  If they get wet, they could still go numb over a few hours. However, I have camped out in -1F temperatures with only my fingerless gloves on and was fine.

Fold over mittens are simply the finger portion of a mitten attached to fingerless gloves.  This allows you to pull the mitten over your fingers when you do not need use of your fingers, and then removing it again when you do.  If you do not mind taking a break from time to time, they are a good option.  In addition, most fold over mittens are wool so they will somewhat repel water and keep you warm even when wet.

Move Your Fingers and Keep the Blood Flowing

In addition to being an avid fisherman, I am also an avid primitive camper.  This means it is not uncommon for me to camp in subzero temperatures with no fire or shelter.  I had to learn very quickly why hypothermia and frostbite occur.

It is all about circulation.  When you stay static and are surrounded by cold air, you will start to have problems.  Body temperature drops, and this is most prevalent at your fingers, toes, ears, and nose.  In cold weather, your body draws blood from your extremities to your core to protect your vital organs.  This is why your fingers and toes hurt and go numb when they are cold.

In order to fight this process, you must keep the blood moving through those extremities.  Take a break from time to time to bend and straighten your fingers rapidly for a few minutes.  This will make a huge difference with your circulation.  In turn, your fingers will hurt less and be less numb.

Understand Insulation and Buy Big

It was just a few years ago that I truly learned how insulation in clothing and gloves works.  Insulation itself does not keep your skin warm.  There is no warming effect built into your insulated gloves or jacket.

In reality, insulation holds a pocket of air around your skin so your body can warm it.  Then that warm air keeps your skin warm.  The quality of your insulation determines how well the garment will hold that air next to your skin.  Poor insulation will let it leak out.  Good insulation will keep all that nice warm air where it belongs.

This means that tight gloves are a bad thing.  Tight gloves leave you with no pocket of air.  I suggest you buy gloves a size or two too large.  It may be a bit hard to get used to, but your fingers will thank you.

Mittens are actually the best way to keep your fingers warm.  In gloves you have your fingers isolated, so one finger must warm itself.  With mittens you have four fingers in one compartment, so four fingers are all warming each other.  It is the same theory as two people cuddling to stay warmer in cold weather.  Of course, it is impossible to fly fish in mittens.  What I like to do is to wear thin gloves and then keep my mittens in my pockets.  My mittens are two sizes too large.  When I take a break, I just put my mittens over my thin gloves to warm up.  Then I put them back in my pockets.

My Secret Trick to Keeping my Hands Warm

If you have ever spent any time in the cold, you are probably familiar with Hot Hands chemical hand warmers.  They are great to put in your pockets, so you can periodically warm your hands.  I use them for hunting and fishing all the time.

exstream fingerless gloves

exstream fingerless gloves

Recently I ran across a product called SIMMS EXSTREAM (Link to AMAZON check the price)that perfectly combines fingerless gloves with chemical heat packs.  There is actually a pouch built into the gloves for a heat pack.  This radiates heat throughout the glove, while your exposed fingers still have 100% dexterity.  It is an excellent combination.  Just be aware that you will have to change out chemical packs if it gets wet.

All in all, I have found that coming up with these strategies to keep my hands warm has made fly fishing in cold weather much more enjoyable.  I have less pain in my fingers, and I have more feeling.  This allows me to be more effective when handling the line and flies.  It also allows me to stay out fishing longer, so I can catch my limit of fish.  I hope these tips allow you to do the same.