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What’s Up with Waders

By Gene Bourque

As far as I’m concerned, being someone who does most of his fishing in the surf or in freshwater rivers, my waders are my next most important piece of fishing gear after my rod and reel. I’ve owned dozens of pairs over the last forty or so years and have followed most of the trends beginning with old-school heavy rubber numbers, right up to today’s latest generation of breathables. One thing you should know right from the start: All waders must be looked at as a temporary investment at best. In other words, sooner or later, all waders will leak. While it’s true that very inexpensive ones will give you a cold, nasty surprise sooner than the fancy ones costing hundreds of dollars, you can be sure water will find its way in at some point with all of them. So the question is, how can you get the most from your investment? Of equal importance is making an educated guess about how and where you’ll be using them. The best you can hope for is your waders will give you the maximum amount of use before they are tossed, and you have some degree of control over that. More about that later.

But first, let’s look at the options out there, both in terms of style and type. The good news is that today we have more choices than ever and many of the waders on the market are far superior to what was available just a few years ago.

Boot Foot or Stocking Foot?

Your first decision in buying waders is whether to go with models that have an integrated boot foot or what are known as stocking foot waders, which require the use of a separate wading boot or shoe that is put on over the light foot portion of that type of wader. Both types have advantages and disadvantages.

Boot foot waders are easier and quicker to put on and take off, something that was (and is) very appealing to me when the fish are blitzing on the beach and I want to get in on the action as soon as possible. They are also generally less expensive than getting set up with the stocking foots, which require the purchase of the wading shoes, a good pair of which can cost almost as much as the waders themselves. But the ease of use comes with another sort of price. In order to slide in and out of an integrated boot, that boot must be either fairly wide in the ankle area or very soft. Neither of these options is desirable for long walks in soft sand or when climbing around on slippery rocks. For many anglers, however, the ease of use inherent to boot foot waders outweighs the disadvantages, particularly if you’re only going to use the waders on an occasional basis or don’t anticipate long walks.

Stocking foot waders with separate wading shoes are usually the choice of hardcore fishermen. Wading shoes that fit well are a huge improvement over sloppy fitting boot foot designs; good wading shoes are a pleasure to wear, offering the support of a hiking boot – hugely important when negotiating slippery rocks and rough terrain on the way to your fishing spot. Also, one part of the equation (waders or wading shoes) usually wears out before the other, so the replacement investment is lower, at least in the short term. But selecting the right wading shoe is a chore. Always buy wading shoes that are atlest one shoe size larger than your street shoes because the foot portion of stocking foot waders is somewhat bulky. Some come with laces, which must be cinched up under just the right amount of pressure or they can be extremely uncomfortable, requiring frequent adjustments as the boots stretch when they are wet. Some come with Velcro strips – a great idea on paper but Velcro wears out over time and the ends of the straps have a propensity to snag on underwater weeds or submerged vegetation. A few companies are making wading shoes with stretch neoprene tops, another good idea conceptually but I bought a pair of these a season ago and they were virtually impossible to get on over the stocking foot, which tends to bunch up as you’re trying to pull the wading shoe on. That, incidentally, is another thing to deal with in using stocking foot waders – a bunched up stocking foot makes for very uncomfortable walking. Another thing to be aware of is that almost all wading shoes are designed for use in fresh water. When used in the corrosive saltwater environment, clasps and hooks that hold the laces will rot out in less than a season of use if you’re not religious about rinsing them with fresh water when you return from fishing. I even go so far as to spray the clasps with WD-40 after mine are rinsed and dry. Even so, rot happens, and I have yet to get more than two seasons from a pair of wading shoes.

Overall though, I feel that the superior support of the stocking foot/wading shoe combo is worth the time it takes to put them on and adjust them for comfortable use. I am certain that my wading shoes have saved me from banged up ankles, or worse, and I will continue to use them most of the time.

Hip Boots or Chest Waders – Or Something In-Between?

The old Norman Rockwell paintings showing a crusty old fisherman in hip boots, fishing vest and hat adorned with flies or lures is quite quaint and nostalgic, but my guess is that Norman never did much fishing. If he had, he would have known that hip boots are just about useless in most serious fishing situations. Sure, they are easy to put on, cost less than chest-high waders and work OK if you slip them on to launch and retrieve your boat, but you can take this to the bank: If you use hip boots, you will wade too deep sooner or later and find your boots half filled with water. I’ve done it, and so has every angler I know who’s used them. Stick to chest waders, not because you will ever wade that deep but there will be times when you want to go deeper than your upper thigh. Hip waders also have the maddening habit of trying to pull down your pants as you walk because they are attached with straps to your belt, leading to much hilarity among your fishing buddies. Don’t ask me how I know this.

Most chest waders sold today are made with adjustable shoulder straps attached to the wader tops. These have snaps, which you disengage and snap on again after you put on the waders. Some cheaper waders still come without suspenders and if you opt for those you’ll have to buy the suspenders separately. If that’s the case, buy suspenders specifically designed for use with waders (Red Ball makes some good quality inexpensive ones) and don’t use any suspenders with metal clasps, which will surely rust. Chest waders are just more practical, safer, and allow you to access more water.

There is one alternative to hip boots and chest waders. A few companies make waist-high waders (only in stocking foot, as far as I know). This seems like a good idea for use in the summer when chest waders may be just too hot. They may also be a good way to avoid getting wet in a kayak, when using chest waders can be dangerous if you capsize. I have not tried waist high waders yet but I think they may very well be my next wader purchase.

Fit, Finish and What’s On The Bottom

Here’s another reason to opt for stocking foot waders. For some reason, manufacturers of low and moderately prices boot foots think that someone who wears a size 8 shoe is svelte and short, and someone with a size 12 shoe must be rotund and tall. I guess they have to do it that way, but there are other factors to consider like how much clothing you’ll be wearing beneath the waders and how much you’ll be bending over. Looser is better of course but waders that are too loose with baggy knees and straps that cannot be adjusted to keep from falling off are a pain in the neck – and elsewhere. If possible, try on waders you’re considering buying. More expensive boot foots will have more size options (short, stocky, tall) in various boot sizes. The better manufacturers even sell waders designed for women and children. Buy them by shoe size though, and hope for the best.

With stocking foots, you’ll usually have a lot more choices in seam length, width and how high they come up on your chest but don’t be surprised to find the less expensive ones are only sold in generic small, medium, large and extra large.

The most debated subject among fishermen is the merit of various sole materials on waders. Most if not all waders used in fresh water (both boot foot and wading shoes) come with a smooth felt sole. I know many freshwater anglers who love the stuff because it gives good purchase on slime-covered submerged rocks. It’s been my experience however that felt soles are worse than useless out of the water – on a wet, slippery grass covered bank they are about the equivalent of wearing ice skates and they’re not much better on the cannonball sized rocks we deal with in lots of locations along the New England shore. Some boot foot waders and a few brands of wading shoes come with a sole that’s similar to what you’d see on hiking boots, which is an improvement over the felt out of the water but can be quite dangerous in the water, especially in fast-moving rivers where you want the maximum amount of grip. Some felt soles come with metal studs embedded in them, which improves the out-of-water slippage factor but the studs can become quite painful on the bottom of your feet if you must walk long distances on hard surfaces.

My favorite sole material these days is something called Aqua Stealth, a hard plastic surface with small, round protrusions. The stuff holds well in a variety of conditions. Unfortunately, right now it is only available on waders marketed by a few companies but it’s worth looking for. I recommend it highly.

Some features you’ll find on the more expensive waders are worth the price of admission as far as I’m concerned. Top of the list would be a front pocket where you can stick small items to keep them in easy reach and for use as a moderately effective hand warmer in the cold weather. A wader belt is supplied with many of the better waders too, and although I confess I don’t use mine as much as I should, cinching the thing around the waist of the waders is very smart from a safety perspective as it will keep most of the water out if you take a spill. I’ll talk about safety issues a little later.

In extreme situations some anglers strap on hard rubber soles with large metal studs made by companies like Korkers. I don’t use them because the things weigh pounds each and it is very fatiguing to walk any distance with them on. But I will grant there are places (like the unbelievably slippery rocks in Rhode Island) where they are almost a necessity. The things are rather pricy, but so is a trip to the emergency room.

The Big Question – What are they made of?

Many of us “of a certain age” probably remember the heavy rubber waders that were the best you could get a few decades ago. Produced by companies like Red Ball and Hodgeman, some of these are still on the market today. The advantages of this type of wader are they are pretty tough in terms of abrasion resistance. Many of the shellfishermen in our area still use them for this reason. They are also pretty inexpensive and can be found in the sporting goods departments of most big box retailers and some tackle shops still keep them in stock. You’ll need to buy suspenders to go with these.

The downside is that they’re very heavy, only come in boot foot design and are prone to cracking as the rubber gets old. It is the lowest cost option however.

A few companies still make canvas/rubber waders and this type is also good in the abrasion resistance department but they are heavy like the all-rubber type. Suspenders must be purchased with these too and they are a little more expensive than the rubber waders.

About 15 years ago neoprene waders came on the scene and many fishermen still use them. I owned a few pairs and they are very comfortable to wear – as long as it’s not too hot outside. They tend to be cut quite snug, which precludes wearing too many clothes underneath. You’ll find them in both boot and stocking foot and if the weather and water is cold they make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, because they are so flexible the seams tend to wear out pretty quickly and they are difficult to patch effectively. Over time, the neoprene develops seepage and it’s often impossible to locate exactly where it’s happening. Most of the guys I know who have neoprenes view them as a limited use wader, best to save for early and late season.

About 10 or so year ago, the first “breathable” waders came on the market. This was a great idea: a material similar to Gore Tex (which some waders are still made of) that would be waterproof but have microscopic pores to allow interior moisture to wick away from your body. They were also very lightweight and a pleasure to use compared to the heavy, traditional designs. The problem was, early version did not hold up to any abrasion or stress from bending knees or sitting and leaked pretty quickly. They were also very expensive, usually two to three times the price of other types of waders. But as time went by, the wader manufacturers began addressing these problems with reinforced seams, double fabric in the knees and seat, and cuts that reflected the issues of bent knees and sitting. Before long there were many good quality breathables on the market and there are even more today. While there is a trade-off in beefing these waders up in terms of breathability, they are still the most comfortable type of wader to use on a day-to-day basis. The cost is quite variable now too – you can find basic breathables in stocking foot design for less than $100; most retail for about twice that amount and if you want the really fancy ones that come with a front zipper for easy entry and exit, hand warmer pocket and even things like fly patches, you can spend well over $500. The ones I use cost about $250 and I’ve been very pleased with them. Mine are stocking foot, and I use a lace-up wading shoe that protects my feet and ankles very well and cost about $90.

Warranty Issues, Care, and Safety

As I said earlier, all waders will leak sooner or later. You can delay the inevitable by taking care of your waders. If you use them in salt water, try to get in the habit of rinsing them off when you get home and hanging them to dry. This is especially important with breathables because salt will clog up those microscopic pores, defeating the breathability that you paid so much for in the first place. Resist the temptation to just roll them up and throw them in the trunk of the car. Folds in any waders will cause cracking and leaks when the waders sit in a hot car trunk.

Most waders come with some sort of warranty but you must realize that the manufacturers also know about the propensity of waders to leak so that warranty may be very short term, or pro-rated. You can help this situation by purchasing waders from companies that have iron-clad warranties on ALL their products. For example, LL Bean merchandise is guaranteed for life and they are very good about returns. I’ve heard basically the same thing about Cabela’s although I have yet to purchase waders from them so I can’t say I’ve tested the policy. The high end waders from Simms also feature the lifetime warranty (which they should, considering the price!). Orvis seems to have a rather arbitrary return policy on their products; I’ve known anglers who got a cheerful exchange at Orvis dealers but had problems with returning their waders directly to the company. In any case, be sure to understand the return policy no matter where you buy yours.

Lastly, a few words about safety. It’s easy to develop a false sense of security when using waders. I know I had it at one time and would challenge fast running rivers in the West and Canada that I had no business in trying to wade much above my knees. Things happen quickly in rough water or fast running rivers, no matter how careful you are. Always wade slowly and carefully, and in a river, never face into or back to the flow. If you’re going to wade out into the rollers, use a dry top over the waders. It won’t keep you totally dry but it will defeat most surf that rises up just a little higher than you expected. Creep, don’t stride through the water even if the fish are breaking just a few yards farther than you can cast, or that 5-pound rainbow is rising on the other side of the river. There is a fishermen’s “urban legend” that states if you take a spill in deep water, your waders will fill up with water, you will turn upside down and surely drown. This is patently absurd – why would water filled waders rise higher than the surrounding water? But there are plenty of documented cases of fishermen getting their wader boots caught between rocks and taking nasty falls. In one place I fish on the Bay side of the Cape, an estuary dumps with the outgoing tide at an alarming rate and anglers have drowned there when the rushing water ate away at the sand they were standing in and they sank deeper and deeper into it, only to be knocked over or fall when they tried to extricate themselves. Suddenly finding yourself in bottomless, sucking mud is no picnic either.

Wading is a skill just like casting and fishing. Waders allow you to reach places the shore-bound fisherman cannot. Use your head, know your limitations, buy the best waders you can afford and take care of them. You will catch more fish and to me, the pay off is encountering those fish on their own turf.

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