What to Wear Fly Fishing: Tips for Selecting the Perfect Pants, Clothing, and More

Published on 11/20/2023 · 9 min readThe right outfit adds comfort, safety, utility, and a little bit of style to catching fish. Fly Fishing Expert Andy Sparhawk overviews what you need.
Andy Sparhawk, Fly Fishing Expert
By Fly Fishing Expert Andy Sparhawk

Photo by Martin Rudlof Photography

I had that dream again.

You know the one—the dream where you're late for an important meeting or event. As you rush to your engagement, you suddenly realize that you forgot to dress.

Everyone has that dream. It's usually a sign of stress. I'm no dream therapist, but who wouldn't be a little stressed if they found themselves at an important meeting in their PJs? Feeling uncomfortable and unprepared adds to an already high-stress situation.

What a nightmare!

My dream doesn't involve an important meeting or being late for a test. Mine involves fly fishing without the proper clothing. The worst part is that this bad dream can sneak into reality and ruin an otherwise great day on the water. Avoid this by making a plan and having an understanding of what to wear fly fishing. Doing so will maximize comfort, safety, and utility while keeping you dreaming about what you should be, trophy fish.

Choose Your Base & Mid Layers

Photo by Cannon Colegrove

Analyzing dreams can be complex. Like onions or donkeys, they have layers. So is fly fishing apparel.

Complexities come from misunderstandings. Those who have never fished before don't understand the amount of exertion that fly fishing can require. They also may not be aware of how quickly conditions can change. That is why the best way to start getting dressed for fly fishing is to consider layers.

Layering your clothing allows the angler to fine-tune their outfit for comfort and insulation. When the weather is cool and brisk in the morning, a few layers between the skin and the cold will wick moisture and insulate. As the sun rises, shedding a mid-layer or jacket is easy and packable.

A well-thought-out layering system is built-in climate control for your body. They are in charge of your moisture management, allowing sweat to escape as vapor while being an insulating layer for warmth. Additionally, the garments help avoid blisters for those of us who chafe.

First, the long sleeve base layer or long underwear (long johns) layer is your first defense and worn against bare skin. Breathability is important and the right gear will help conserve body heat.

"I have customers think about the anatomy of an egg," says John Sherman. Sherman is the Western Sales Manager for fishing wader and apparel company Simms.

"An egg has a yolk, whites, and an outer shell. The yolk layer represents your synthetic base layers against your skin. The base layer, like polyester fabrics, primarily works to wick or pull moisture away from the skin, keeping you cool in warm weather and warm on cold days."

The egg whites are the middle layer, says Sherman, who cautions against jeans in this layer.

"In the mountaineering community, the phrase is ‘cotton kills’."

Even if your base layer wicks sweat away from your body, it will stop at the jeans, making you wet and cold, a serious combination in the elements. Instead, Sherman suggests materials that channel and capture the warmth, like fleece, wool, and thermal materials.

Finally, Sherman describes rain jackets and waders as the shell, protection from the elements allowing the other layers to be effective. Durable materials like GORE-TEX have been leading on this front for years.

Check out these top choices for the best fly fishing jackets.

Base layers generally come in three weights: lightweight, medium, and heavyweight. The season and forecast should dictate which weight is best for your trip. Heavier base layers may be too much for the spring but desperately welcome during winter fishing.

After adding a base layer, a mid-layer is an insulating component that protects fly fishermen from the cold. Like base layers, choosing a synthetic blend material is more effective. Look for fleece and synthetic Primaloft to keep warm, especially in the colder months.

Don't forget to wear socks! Add a mid-weight, wool wading sock to offer the best of both worlds: wicking and warming cold feet when wading through the icy waters of a river in the winter or spring. The layers can be shed quickly, stowed away when not needed, and dry fast if they get wet.

Checklist for What to Wear Under Your Fly Fishing Waders

Photo by Good Luz

  • Base layer or long underwear (various weights) provide wicking
  • Mid-layer fleece or synthetic insulated jackets and pants offer warmth and protection against cold
  • Wading socks are mid to heavyweight merino wool socks that offer wicking, warmth, and comfort

Dress for the Weather

Keeping an eye on the weather forecast is a good habit to have fly fishing. Anticipating that the forecast can change quickly is even better. Even if you only encounter sun on your fly fishing trip, there is no reason to think you shouldn't dress for it. On the flip side, those of us who brave the elements for winter fly fishing, the risk of hypothermia and frostbite should not be disregarded. You never know when bad weather will crop up.

Fly Fishing Shirts

Unless you're night fishing, every angler needs sun protection. The sun doesn't just burn in the Florida Keys or during the summer. Protection from the sun is a constant for all fly fishers. Be sure to cover up exposed areas with breathable fabric designed to shield sun rays or slop on the sunscreen early and often.

A hooded long sleeve shirt can help protect your neck, and many fishing-specific sun shirts are made with breathable fabric and designed with a venting system on the back to allow perspiration to evaporate on a hot day. As a bonus, they also tend to have handy zip pockets for extra fly fishing gear, a fly box, or other accessories. Your t-shirt can't do that!

For the best fly fishing shirts out there, check out the 9 Most Recommended Fly Fishing Shirts!

Fly Fishing Pants

Who hasn't had the backs of their legs fried while fishing with the sun at your back? Or burned your knees while fishing a freshwater lake from a canoe? A pair of quick-dry fishing pants are great for saltwater flats and wet-wading spring creeks. Look to purchase convertible pants which have zip-off legs compared to regular pants so you can wear shorts. By no means are they waterproof pants, rather these comfortable-fit nylon pants come loaded with zippered security pockets and other zipper closures, mesh drainage, and even fabric that deters mosquitoes, ants, and ticks.

For situations where you may need durable water-repellent pants, but don't want to commit to a pair of breathable waders or hip waders, wading pants can offer more protection. Some wader pants are designed to fit like comfy pants with back pockets despite double-layer fabric and welded seams.

Sun Protection

Neck gaiters are another great option to protect against the sun, and they come in polar versions to keep warm when it's cold. Some don't like the feel of sunscreen, so a hat with a wide brim and sun gloves can complete the task of avoiding a nasty burn.

In addition to protecting your skin, many forget to protect their eyes. Polarized sunglasses not only cut glare from the sun on the water but shield your eyes from errant hooks. Ouch!

Learn more about our 5 top-recommended sunglasses for fly fishing here.

Checklist for What to Wear Fly Fishing in the Sun

Photo by Timurpix

  • hooded fly fishing shirt
  • sunscreen
  • polarized sunglasses
  • sun gloves
  • baseball cap
  • neck gaiter
  • insect repellent
  • backpack, sling packs, or fishing vest to carry fly boxes, tippet, net, etc.

Despite the risks, I think most fly anglers would choose a day of sun during their trip over rain, snow, or wind. Blue-wing Olives might have something to say about that, but I digress.

Top Fly Fishing Clothing Brands

  • Columbia
  • Orvis
  • Patagonia

Rain, Snow, and Wind

Photo by Green River Fly Fisher

Planning for inclement weather does add to the what-to-wear checklist, but well-prepared anglers shouldn't have to be miserable. In fact, those who can dress correctly often reap great fishing rewards when others are scared off.

When considering your attire for inclement weather, always ask yourself, "Do I plan to start fishing in the rain or end fishing when it starts to rain?" By this, I mean, do you need moisture repellent and waterproof, or water-resistant? Ensure your gear is more than just resistant if you plan to spend the entire day in the rain or snow. Hooded rainwear over reinforcing layers can improve your comfort on a wet and cold day. As a bonus, a pair of waders work well as water-repellent bottoms.

Consider the Forecast for Rainwear

  • Chance of Rain: Water-resistant wading jacket, quick-drying clothes, extra pair of warm clothes
  • Rain All Day: Waterproof hooded rain jacket and bottoms, warmer layers

Wet Wading

Photo by Ray Redstone

Waders are an essential part of how you plan to dress for fly fishing. Waders covering your bottom half is welcomed in most fly fishing environments. Still, when the weather is nice and warm in the summer, they can also get hot and swampy. Luckily the summer is a perfect time for wet wading.

Wet wading is fly fishing sans stockingfoot waders. In this case, a pair of hiking boots with rubber soles for traction or wading boots and some quick drying shorts or pants are all that are needed to follow the shoreline in search of fish. All other rules apply when considering the weather forecast, but you can leave the waders at home. It never hurts to invest in some neoprene booties to keep the gravel away from your skin.

Final Thoughts

Photo by Megan Carley

Being unprepared can be really stressful, especially when it conflicts with the fun of fly fishing. Knowing what to wear adds comfort, safety, utility, and a little bit of style to the chance of getting out and catching trout. To avoid what feels like a bad dream, don't get caught unprepared—having suitable clothes when fly fishing ensures that you'll return exhausted from fishing, not from dealing with the elements.

That's living the dream! If you have any questions on finding the right outfit for your next adventure, reach out to me or one of my fellow Fly Fishing Experts here on Curated! They all have a passion for angling and can help you choose the best reel, fly rod, nymphs, dry flies, and clothing for you.

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