Underground GearTalk: Winter Fly Fishing & The Soft Shell Revolution

Category:
Fly Fishing
fishing
fly fishing gear
fly fishing jacket
fly fishing soft shell
fly fishing stuff
gear review
Review
soft shell
Added Date:
Friday, 19 Dec, 2008
Summary
OK, I'm stretching it a little. The headline suggests the "Soft Shell Revolution" has already happened - and it has in highly aerobic sports like skiing and mountaineering - but it's less clear we'll see the same in fly fishing.
 
Content
OK, I'm stretching it a little. The headline suggests the "Soft Shell Revolution" has already happened - and it has in highly aerobic sports like skiing and mountaineering - but it's less clear we'll see the same in fly fishing.

Why? What's a soft shell jacket? And why would you consider wearing one? You ask, the Underground answers...

What Are Soft Shells?
In simplest terms, soft shell jackets occupy a useful middle ground in the outdoor world. Typically, they're a highly water resistant knit shell bonded to a light interior layer of fine fleece. They're not insulated or "puffy" like a down jacket, yet they're warmer than hard shells (most high-end wading jackets are essentially waterproof, windproof hard shells).

Yet it's not their construction that makes soft shells so attractive - it's their in-the-wild performance.

They're not wholly waterproof or wholly windproof like a hard shell - nor is a soft shell as warm as a down jacket - but they can handle everything short of a really pouring rain, insulate nicely across a wide range of temperatures, and absolutely shine when the wearer is generating heat (and potentially sweat).


That's critical to skier or mountaineers; working up a good sweat in a cold alpine environment is a one-way ticket to hypothermia - the wilderness athlete's biggest enemy. That's why - questions in hand - I found my way to one of the best backcountry skiers on Mount Shasta (and owner of the leading local mountain guide service).

His take? He wears soft shells pretty much all the time, saying his hard shells simply gather dust in the closet.

An unabashed Patagonia partisan, he wears soft shells climbing and skiing the mountain - often in rainy and snowy conditions - though he carries along a lightweight-but-warm Patagonia "Micro-Puff" jacket (a kind of synthetic down jacket that still insulates when wet and packs down to almost nothing) to keep him warm during those periods when he stands around in sub-freezing temperatures (pretty much always the case up there).

It's the kind of practical insight from a working pro that makes a strong impression on me, and I admit to wondering about the application of soft shells to fly fishing.

It's hard to overlook the utility of a jacket featuring the best working qualities of a four-wheel drive pickup truck, but fly fishermen aren't as active on a river as skiers or climbers. Are soft shells really needed?

The Test (Or the Beginnings of One)
Because I'm willing to make even the big sacrifices for the Undergrounders, I forced myself to go fly fishing on the Upper Sacramento wearing Patagonia's fly fishing soft shell (the Insulator).

Patagonia Soft Shell

Soft shell exteriors often feature a tight-knit, almost rubbery look, while the interior is a very fine fleece.

I'm only three trips into the test, but results have been good. The most "extreme" trip was my photograph-heavy snowy day on the river with Wayne Eng, where in upper-20s temperatures, I fished through the snow and wind wearing only a lightweight wicking t-shirt, a thin long-sleeve base layer, and the Patagonia soft shell (plus fleece hat, fingerless gloves, and fleece pants under the waders).

While I was always covered with snow, I remained dry inside the jacket. I was never too warm (the walk to the water was short), and I was also never too cold. In short, I was pretty damned happy with the results, though this hardly represents an all-encompassing trial.

The Good, The Bad, and the Waffling
Pluses? The lack of bulk was freeing; casting, retrieving gear, tying knots - all the basics - were easier to accomplish than if I was wearing the usual winter gear, which includes a bulletproof wading jacket over fleece. Patagonia's Insulator soft shell is nicely streamlined, and includes covered anchor points for zingers, something I doubt I'll use, though it's a nice detail to see.

The experience was one of working closer to my skin than with bulkier clothing, a sensation I heartily endorse.

Minuses? None yet, though I don't how I would have fared if the snow had turned to a pouring rain. Some go so far as to use soft shells as rain jackets, and my own experience (years ago) wearing a soft shell while skate skiing on a drizzly day suggests they're far more water resistant than I'm giving them credit for. (The second I tell my readers to "heck, wear 'em in the rain" I'll be sued by an Undergrounder for emotional (rain-soaked) distress.)


In addition, soft shells typically don't include a hood, and the Patagonia soft shell's cuffs didn't include a provision for cinching them tightly against water infiltration, so in a truly wet, hostile environment, a hooded hard shell might still offer the best protection.

Clearly, more rainy day testing is called for, so I'll be back on the river soon (at the Underground, the giving simply never stops).

Last year, I skied/snowshoed to the river on several occasions, and expect the soft shell to shine in those high-output environments. I also want to put it through the winter wringer on a couple hikes to remote sections - the hikes that always left me annoyingly sweaty and fogged in my hard shell past.

The Limits of My Testing
The mountains of Northern California aren't what you'd call a truly arctic environment; temperatures here don't often fall into the single digits, and those in sub-zero environments might find a soft shell in inadequate to the task - or at best, only one part of the solution. Then again, the realities of icy guides and a frozen fly line means hardly anyone actually fly fishes in single-digit temperatures.

Those who consistently fish in very cold conditions (those zany steelheaders) might want to look at a warmer jacket - something like the above-mentioned Patagonia Micro-Puff, which though it sells in the bazillions to backpackers, climbers and skiers, was invented on a steelhead river by folks who liked fleece's warmth and wet-insulating capabilities, but couldn't abide by its bulk.

Caveats
If you're interested in trying a soft shell jacket, don't order the first one you see. Soft shells are manufactured in a fairly wide array of sizes and weights, and the thinnish soft shell jacket designed for a monster cross-country skier might not be ideal for fly fisherman who stand in the water.

In addition - and I'll attempt to put this delicately - the soft shells designed for extreme mountain types often reflect their whippet-esque physiques - not exactly the perfect fit for the slightly more (ahem) pear-shaped fly fishing constituency. For example, Patagonia's mountain-oriented "Guide" jacket didn't fit me very well, and while the fishermen-oriented "Insulator" was too big in the middle, it made more sense.

Thus, if you're not a member of the 5% body fat club, consider buying a soft shell from a fly fishing company. This is hardly an exhaustive survey of jackets, but I know that fishing-oriented soft shells are currently available from Patagonia, Orvis, Simms and Cloudveil, and I'm not about to start recommending one over the other absent testing all of them.

As you can see, there's more to come on this subject. And yes, I'm starting the conversation here instead of later simply preaching at you guys about what to buy (it's Power to the People Friday here at TU).

Any thoughts from the Undergrounders about soft shells? Recommendations? Failures? Whines?

See you on the (cold, cold) river, Tom Chandler
 
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Destinations
 (1)
Nestled in the north end of the Sacramento Valley, Shasta County and its three Cities - Redding, Anderson, and Shasta Lake - are 545 miles north of Los Angeles; 162 miles north of ... moreSacramento; 433 miles south of Portland, Oregon; and 592 miles south of Seattle, Washington.

In 2004, as an effort to increase tourism in the area, the Sundial Bridge, designed by world-renowned architectural designer Santiago Calatrava, was completed. The Sundial Bridge casts its gnomon shadow upon a dial to the north of the bridge accurately once a year during the Summer Solstice. With the objective of providing pedestrian access to the north and south of Turtle Bay Exploration Park, the Sundial Bridge has not only lived up to its purpose but has also become an icon for the City of Redding in the present day.

Redding is one of the best places to launch for Trophy Rainbow Trout & Trophy Steelhead Fishing in Northern California. A number of great rivers are within an easy drive and local guides can on any given day help you figure out where the fishing is great.

The Klamath river, Sacaramento river, Trinity River and the Feather river are all being frequented by local guides and fly fisher.
Fishing Waters
The Sacramento River is the principal river of Northern California in the United States, and is the largest river in California. Rising in the Klamath Mountains, near Mount Shasta ... more(in Siskiyou county), the river flows south for 445 miles, through the northern section (Sacramento Valley) of the Central Valley, before reaching the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta and San Francisco Bay. It forms a common delta with the San Joaquin River before entering Suisun Bay, the northern arm of San Francisco Bay. The river drains about 27,500 square miles, with an average annual runoff of 22 million acre-feet, in 19 California counties, mostly within a region bounded by the Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada known as the Sacramento Valley, but also extending as far as the volcanic plateaus of Northeastern California.
Trips
$
275
-
$
615
/ Boat
Capacity:
1 - 4 anglers
Days:
Daily
Duration:
4 hours - 1 day
Fishing Waters:
The Merced River originates in the Southeastern corner of Yosemite National Park. Its headwaters begin at 7900 feet at the Clarke Range. It flows over Nevada and Vernal Falls, and ... morelastly, Illilouette Creek before she flows through the main Yosemite Valley. Then the Merced, picks up water from Tenaya, Yosemite, Bridalveil, and Pigeon Creeks near the end of the valley, and meeting up the water from Cascade Creek before the river flows through the Merced River Canyon and then outside the park. Its South and North Forks join it a few miles outside the park.

The Lower Merced is another river that can be drifted, water flow permitting, or walk & waded January through May.
$
325
-
$
450
/ Boat
Capacity:
1 - 2 anglers
Days:
Daily
Duration:
4 hours - 8 hours
Fishing Waters:
Destination:
The Yuba River is one of the most popular known fly fishing rivers in Northern California, and that is why it’s one of the most sought after rivers for fly fishing enthusiasts. This ... moreriver is one that can yield 20 fish one day and leave you scratching your head the next, that's why having a knowledgeable Yuba River Fly Fishing Guide is so important. The abundance of aquatic insects on this river is why it is so sought after, it's one of the few rivers in California that you can effectively fish dries year round. While the river plays host to a number of species, including steelhead and king salmon at times, the resident wild rainbows are the most sought after species throughout the year. They can be picky at times, but once you get in tune with their feeding habits you're bound to have a blast. The fishing on the Yuba is top-notch and I haven't found a river yet that is this much fun to fish. This river produces year-round spunky wild rainbow trout that can reach over 20".

Pound for pound the Yuba River trout is a species of its own. They are the toughest, hardest fighting trout you will ever hook into. If you've never had an 16" fish take you into your backing within seconds, then it’s time that you fish the Yuba River. In the fall, it is also home to a native/wild King Salmon run with some pushing 50lbs and big enough to devour any Yuba trout in its path. Nonetheless, it's the Yuba's steelhead that really puts the icing on the cake. Though not huge like the American river winter run steelhead (Yuba River steelhead range from 2-6 lbs), these half-pint steelhead are among the hardest fighting and the most beautiful fish you will ever have the pleasure of encountering. The Yuba gets a shot of them midsummer, then again from November to April. Not only is there year round fishing, but there is also an abundance of bug life as well ranging from BWO's, PMD's, Midges, Caddis, Skwalas, Golden Stones, March Browns, Hoppers and every so often a Salmon Fly, that will have these fish feeding no matter the time of year. There is even an egg bite on t he Yuba too, this happens during the salmon spawn in October, also during this time of year there is something special that happens on the river that I will show you too. Something you never thought possible and it will be our little secret. Even after all that the Yuba does, however, have something else to offer. As an added bonus from the fishing, there are a lot of wild critters roaming its banks as well, big bucks, strutting toms, beavers, otters, ducks, geese and even black bears. All that and great fishing, what more could you ask for.

-Brian
$
325
-
$
450
/ Boat
Capacity:
1 - 2 anglers
Days:
Daily
Duration:
4 hours - 8 hours
If you have ever driven over the Lower Sacramento River or even fished it, you know that due to its shear size and abundance of water, this makes it extremely intimidating. That's ... morewhy having a knowledgable Lower Sacramento River Fly Fishing Guide is so important. A great guide will not only put you on the fish, but will also show you the fishy spots accessable by land, the put ins and pull outs for boats, as well as the bug life, the flies to use and when you go on your own, how to put all that t ogether to be successful. The Lower Sacramento River is a big tailwater fishery and California's biggest trout river, and its rainbows are just as big and powerful as the river they live in. If you want big fish and year-round fishing, this is the river for you. With more food than your local all you can eat buffets (2,500 insects per square foot of river), the average fish grows to a healthy and hard-fighting 16-18", and pigs pushing two feet are not out of the question, so bring some big guns. The fishing season is year-round, and water temperatures remain fairly constant too, as the river comes out of the bottom of Shasta Lake.

This river consists of long, indescribable, spring creek like stretches that are broken up by islands, deep pools, long riffles, gravel bars and undulating shelf’s, many of which are more pronounced during lower flows.

If having one of the best trout fisheries in the state isn’t enough, the Lower Sac also hosts some great runs of Steelhead and Chinook salmon too. It also hosts a variety of other fish, such as, shad, squawfish, stripers, largemouth and smallmouth bass, these populations of fish become higher the farther you get away from Shasta Lake. The highest flows are during the summer months, when snow melt is at its greatest, so a drift boat is highly recommended.

You can walk and wade during the higher flows if you so desire, but staying near the bank will be your safest bet. The best time to walk and wade the Lower Sac is going to be during fall, winter and early spring, there is very little snow melt, and the rain that falls goes to filling up the lake, so the river is low and great for walk and wading. This is the time to get out there and really learn the river's bottom and fish those slots that only come out in lower flows, either way “PLEASE WADE WITH CAUTION”. But due to the river’s size and the amount of private property along its banks, those that prefer to wade have two options. One is to fish from public parks and access points along the 16 miles or river between Redding and Anderson, or, from your boat, getting out at the riffles and fishy slots to make some casts.

Public access is fairly easy though on the Lower Sac, there are 6 boat launches, and many public parks and access points along the river that flows almost parallel with interstate 5.

-Brian
Outfitters
 (12)
We are a team of friendly and knowledgeable fly fishing guides, with a combined 40 years of fly fishing experience, dedicated to making your adventure on the water with us as enjoyable ... moreand informative as possible. We want you to succeed in all of your fishy endeavors, and we will take the time with you to make sure that you have all the techniques and skills necessary to catch fish wherever you go. Float or Walk and wade with us on one of Northern California's finest rivers and streams and we will accommodate our guiding style to meet your needs and abilities. With our extensive fly fishing knowledge and experience on waters all over Northern California, we will guide you on a fly fishing trip you will not soon forget.

NCFG practices catch and release on all boats. We respect the sport of fishing and wish to give all anglers the opportunity to experience the gratification we strive to give each of our clients.
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Fishing
20 comments
[...] That's because overheating leads to sweat, which leads to hypothermia, which is why – two winters ago – I expressed my love for Patagonia's Insulator soft shell jacket. [...]
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[...] year I became a convert to the fly fishing soft shell, a remarkably lightweight jacket that#8217;s achieved widespread acceptance among mountaineering [...]
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[...] like perfect soft shell weather, and after this trip, I may be forced to write an addendum to my previous soft shell equipment reviews, where I largely gushed about this embraced-by-mountaineers-and-outdoor-geeks [...]
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Yes, I was raised Methodist.
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Anyone remember Martin Mull's The History of White People in America. IIRC the true believers were Protestant, preferred salad dressing and marjorine and always, always paid full retail.
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Officially speaking, the Trout Underground abhors bargains of any kind, reasoning that anyone who can't afford to pay full ticket simply shouldn't fly fishing. Keep the riff-raff out, we say, though we're not above keeping our eyes peeled for odd distress sale, reasoning that's good for the economy (we're patriots too).
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If you're interested in a quality soft shell jacket, check out ebay or some of the discounters fairly often. I just scored a Patagonia Insulator (like Tom's) for $100 off the list price. I would bet that given the continuing economic woes that opportunities for discounted prices are going to get even better.
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Tom I see your point. maybe "shameless plug" or "nice endorsement" would have worked better. Yvon will be happy with either. Happy New Year
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Thom: Is it "Product Placement" when I buy the jacket? When nobody at Patagonia asked me to review anything or sent me anything? Simple questions.
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The product placement is wonderful...I suppose we will see you in quotes in the next Patagonia flyfishing catalog. Yvon will be pleased.
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Good review TC. I'm personally happy that you are finding the Insulator Jacket to be a good match for your needs. Keep me posted on your assessment of this soft shell as you log more hours in it. If interested, check out this earlier post and comments on this jacket at Way Upstream - http://www.wayupstream.com/2008/06/insulator-jacket.html.
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I bought a Mtn Hardwear Offwidth because it is one of the few softshells out there without the fleece lining. Why, you say? This makes it much easier to pull on and off for daily casual use without dragging on your sleeves and such. When fihsing I'll generally wear it over a light or midweight base layer with R1 or some similar piece in the middle. I like the flexibility it offers for sport and everyday ... more use. It is one of the snugger running jackets though. If you're on or above the average fit of a given size, I'd go up a size. Mine's a XXL, larger than my TNF Mtn Lite, though the same size as my Patagonia Deep Wading. The arms are likely long enough to fit somebody 6'6" and 260 just fine.
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I think the three best inventions of our times are: 1) Apple Macintosh 2) iPods 3) softshells I love softshells. At last count I'm up to five of them and I bought and sold two of them prior to these five. There's different mainstream materials and the only one I haven't tried is the Gore Windstopper. Most of my jackets have the Schoeller or Madden Mills Power Shield fabric and I can't say enough good ... more things about them. I even have softshell pants, hats and gloves. I own a Marmot Gravity softshell and it's too warm for average California use, but perfect for low activity or cold weather locales. The Cloudveil jackets are pretty nice, and like Patagonia, they understand fly fisherpeople's, ahem..., shapes better than Marmot or Sporthill. But see, the reason Tom bought the Patagonia in the first place is because his OTHER softshell is cut for some Olympic athlete -- which might -- just -- fit -- me. What size was that other jacket again Tom...?
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Wannabee: Yeah, I've done the Michelin man thing too, and it really gets uncomfortable when you've got to walk or wade any distance at all, and suddenly you're a sweatball. Taku: My big pile o test clothes? As one of fly fishing's leading bloggers, I've accumulated exactly three non-book freebies - the Sharkskin fly line, a Buff neck gaiter, and... well, two I guess. I paid for the jacket and my gear ... more reviews are pretty much just stuff I own. Ahh, the glamor... Don: Send us a crate of crabs and a recipe (scribbled on a $100 bill), and I'll do something especially for you. See - the Underground's wholly responsive to its readers. And give the soft shells a look - my original (years ago) gave me good service.
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The Soft Shell Revolution? A Patagonia product review? Gee, I was hoping for at least a good crab recipe or an epicurean experience that didn't include the dreaded slaw dog. Good review, although there was nothing softshell(crabby) about it. I guess I should look into these softshell things as I'm either freezing my behind off or layered up so much I can barely move. Thanks Tom.
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Great topic and review--it's good to get some soft shell info out there. I was fortunate enough to help test an early prototype of the Insulator Jacket, and the fact is, for months on end I hardly took it off. I mean, you know, to shower and such...but outside, it was pretty much a second skin. For moderate temps (as we have here in the Pacific Northwest) it works almost all year round to keep you ... more comfortable and at the right level of warmth. I wore it on the Sound and rivers on chilly summer days, into the fall, through the winter and spring as well. For moderate temperatures and precip, I think it's an incredible piece of gear. As mentioned above, it moves easily, stretches and fits closely to t he body. I think of it as kind of a combination of light fleece and light shell, in one thin, comfortable package. Best part is probably the wide temperature range it works across. Of course, in very cold weather, or serious rain, there are better options--like the puff gear or fleece under a hard shell, but in these parts, those are relatively rare conditions. For most moderate to chilly weather, I'd happily fish in this. Another bonus is the cut and fit are such that it looks great for just wearing to town or out to eat without making you look like Mr. Fish Geek. For that reason alone, I'd say this is a true multi-use jacket. I wear mine for steelhead fishing, salmon on the Sound, chopping wood, grocery shopping, working on boats, traveling, etc. Still looks exactly as it did when I first got it, too, so it's tough as nails. Anyway, that's my .02 from a long field test. In fact, I still haven't given the original prototype back and am still wearing it almost all the time. Peace, Dylan
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Nice review Tom. I (and my better half) have been using soft shells for several years (Patagonia, Marmot, Cloudveil) and find them quite well suited to a wide range of conditions. I have used a Patagonia Guide jacket for a few years now and it is my "go-to" jacket for all things outside (fishing, skiing, hunting, biking, peak bagging). I have an older version that does not have wrist closures (velcro) ... more which has been changed - it is a bit of a problem getting tight cuffs off as this jacket is constructed. And the waist/belly is too big - and I am well over 5% belly fat! But the material, construction and durability, as well as it's moderate waterproofness, makes it a winner. But, if it is going to be a long, rainy day, I find it necessary to have a Deep Wading Jacket (with hood and neoprene cuffs) to keep me dry. I wear the Guide jacket under, but for stout rain, I like a stout hard shell (especially the hood). My Marmot soft shell is one with a light pile lining and seems a little too stiff for me, but it is only a few months into wearing, so might soften up. As for other articles, the Puffball Vest and Pants are absolutely indispensable for me. Am on my second Puffball vest (the first is still around and used quite a bit, but is about 1/2 the thickness of new - lot's of hard use). And the Puffball pants are really much nicer than pile pants in waterproof/breathable waders. I was pretty skeptical of this, thinking the waders/water pressure would compress the pants and not provide much warmth, but this is not the case. Very warm, lightweight and not restrictive. Get a pair! (Although when it's really cold and cold water, I still go to my 5mm neoprenes with the 1200 gram thinsulate booties - the air bob soles on them are far better in snowy conditions.) Thanks for the reviews, when are you going to have a garage sale for the multitude of test clothes your going to accumulate?
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Nice jacket review. I used to fish on Eagle Lake in sub-freezing temps wearing bulky Cabela's Gortex Thinsulate jacket, pants and mittens, along with bulky Sorrel Pac Boots, and a wool watch cap. I was warm but I could hardly move; looked kind of like the Michelin Man. For lesser conditions, I often wear a straight fleece (not very waterproof) and carry a very thin Patagonia waterproof-breathable ... more hooded shell with wrist and waist elastic. I like the idea of the new soft shell: I had not heard of these coats but I will be checking my local REI for them. You are now my official source of useful consumer information. Hot dogs, cameras, outdoor clothing; when will you be doing a review of Scotch whiskeys?
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I wore the insulator non-stop for a week while fishing Labrador's very fickle and often cold wet and windy remote nrook trout streams and rapids this summer. It way out-performed my expectations. It kept me safely and comfortably warm, and relatively dry in very tough conditions. My wading staff faiedn and I wnet for a swim in big rapids. After the soaking, I was able to quickly get comfortable enough ... more to get back to throwing size 12 white Wulff's for 5-8lb brookies to rise to. In Labrador you're often told to never go anywhere without your rainjacket, good advise I was able to ignore. Fishing sans rainjacket in a very remote and primitive fly-out location for two days in mist, fog, light rain, heavy downpours, and frequent high winds, the Insulator kept me very comfortable, even though I was 'damp'. See the second photo-essay in this thread: http://clarksclassicflyrodforum.yuku.com/reply/95297#reply-95297 Can you tell I love this jacket? Tight Lines, Alistair
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solid. I used my Patagonia Deep Wading jacket twice this year, and both instances were late season events in mid-November where I needed a hood to combat the wind. The majority of the rest of the time I had on a soft shell or performance fleece. That says a lot for spending 50+ days a year on the water. I even found myself opting for the softshell over the hardshell at work this season. I only pulled ... more on the raingear once in an extreme downpour. I believe there will be a big movement in some locales to shift towards a softshell, but it will likely be regional, highly dependent on the climate. Hardshells will definitely have their place, but in drier climates, the softshell will likely reign supreme.
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