—By Bill Buckley
Planning your wardrobe is an important consideration for any outing, but dressing for a late-season waterfowl hunt can be especially difficult. Low temperatures, wind, humidity, activity level, and even sleep deprivation can affect your ability to regulate body temperature. Luckily, much of today's outdoor clothing has followed a trend toward greater warmth with less bulk, both of which are huge advantages for effective wingshooting in the cold. Choose your gear wisely and you can beat the cold this season.
The All-Important Layering System
We've all been taught to dress in layers, but layering alone won't keep you comfortable. It's how you layer, and with what, that counts. Professional fisherman Bill Lowen relies on intelligent layering for business and pleasure. As a Bassmaster Elite Series angler and hard-core waterfowler, Lowen spends many of his waking hours in the elements. "Warmth while keeping bulk to a minimum is the key to being comfortable," he says. "That's why my base layer, no matter how cold it is, is thin fleece. It's warm, wicks moisture away from my skin, and lets me move freely. If I'm in waders, I wear a thick fleece wader pant over that base layer.
"For my upper body, the second layer is either a fleece or synthetic down vest, over which I'll wear my Drake Guardian Elite 3-in-1 Systems jacket. This jacket is form-fitting for good gun mounting and lets me shed layers when I'm active and likely to overheat. Also, its outer layer is windproof and waterproof—two features a duck hunter can't be without."
Like many waterfowlers, Lowen has traded his neoprenes for breathable waders, which are lighter, more flexible, and roomier, making walking through mud and vegetation significantly less strenuous. Lowen recommends waders with at least 1,200 grams of Thinsulate in the boots, and preferably 1,600. To avoid restricting blood circulation, make sure boots have ample room to accommodate whatever sock system you like. If your feet are prone to getting cold, try fleece wader socks over wool or wool-synthetic blends. For field hunting, Muck Boot Company's Arctic Sport boots are tough to beat.
Neck, Head, and Hands
Your single best accessory could be a fleece neck gaiter. If you've never tried one, you'll be surprised how much heat you've been losing from your neck. Make sure your gaiter is long enough to pull up over your cheeks on blustery days without exposing your lower neck to the elements.
For your head, a ball cap with a fleece beanie over it is a great option for most late-season weather. The beanie should be long enough to cover your ears and not constrict your temples. For extreme cold, it's hard to beat an insulated windproof hat with ear flaps, although, like neck gaiters, they tend to get hot when you're active. Face masks can also take the sting out of brisk weather as well as help to conceal you.
Hands are a waterfowler's Achilles heel. Bulky gloves are not always safe for shooting, as most shotguns have little room between the trigger and trigger guard. And nobody sounds good blowing a duck or goose call while wearing a puffy glove. You can try one of the fingerless and palmless gloves designed for waterfowlers, but often the best solution is to go gloveless, keeping your hands tucked away in an insulated jacket pocket, wader pocket, or hand muff when you're not calling or shooting. Hand warmers are huge assets here. For handling decoys and boat rides, insulated waterproof gloves are indispensable.
Staying warm is important, but not all warm clothing is shooter friendly. Analyze every piece for mobility and gun mounting. If your gun hangs up, your jacket might be too bulky, loose, or stiff. If a collar, hood, or neck gaiter impedes your ability to acquire a clear sight picture, your shooting will suffer. A jacket that's the perfect length to wear with waders may be too short for field hunting, and it might ride up when you sit up to shoot from a layout blind. A little forethought and testing can mean the difference between a comfortable hunt and an arctic endurance test.