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What goes on underneath the breathable wader?

Wearing breathables? Don’t forget your under-layers

Yesterday was one of the coldest May days on the river I have ever experienced. As we drove to the river, the thermometer read 3.5°C with sleet, and I believe the highest temperature we recorded all day was six degrees. As we cast for salmon, the constant, fine, icy drizzle occasionally turned heavier, and we welcomed this, as it usually meant that the brisk easterly wind that was blowing upstream eased, to let the heavens open. Whenever that wind returned, the resultant wind-chill factor must have been well into the minuses.

As I sat in the bar, at lunchtime, trying to dry my numbed and soaking hands by the fire, the rest of my party couldn’t help but notice my trousers, which I wear underneath my breathable waders. My sister, Sarah, and her friend, Lizzie, had been on the river for three days, in biting northerly winds and were, by now, wearing various, multiple layers of clothing, but I noticed my quilted Patagonia Nano Puff pants had become an object of envy.

Sarah and Lizzie’s experience of the past few days had alerted me to the fact that, whilst we spend an inordinate amount of time debating the merits of various breathable waders, we actually pay very little attention to what is worn underneath them. Poor Lizzie had begun her fishing by shivering further down the Tay with just a pair of jeans underneath her waders. Nobody had told her that breathable waders offer little in the way of insulation against the cold. With every day that passed she’d increased her layering to try and combat the inclement weather and the extra-cold Tay. If you fish the Tay, in spring, for salmon (or trout, for that matter), then you are more than likely going to be in the river for long periods, and wading fairly deeply, too. The thing about the Tay is that it is never warm, especially in spring. I always wear an under-layer whenever I fish in the Tay, irrespective of the season. Apart from making sure your waders don’t leak, you also need a toasty under-layer and warm socks to keep the chill of the river at bay. In the past, I’ve worn a variety of thick fleece pants or long-johns under my breathables, the best of the bunch being a pair of thick Helly Hansen ones, which I’d still wear today, had the elastic not failed eventually. Any of these layers, coupled with thick, walking/skiing socks is my preferred mode of insulation.

Thing is, we never had this problem with neoprene waders. Neoprene is inherently warm, so warm that it makes me think that returning to it for spring fishing might be a good idea. Our autumns have been so uncommonly mild over the past few years that we soon forget how chilled a river can become after the winter… even well into May!
Breathable waders were really only invented for warm weather (and they are brilliant for walking in, and in summery conditions), but they have now replaced neoprene wholesale, and become the ‘go to’ wader for fly fishers. However, if you are ever thinking of deep wading in late-autumn, winter or spring, then don’t forget the under-layers if you opt for breathables. You’ll find they are just as important as the waders themselves just about the same time you get thigh-deep in the river.

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