Waders and boots... a humorous look back and forward
A tongue in cheek look at advances in fly-fishing tackle and what was overlooked
The last 40 years or so has seen a plethora of new and better designs in equipment that allow us anglers to enjoy a day on the stream with much less fussing than before. We now have breathable waders, large-arbor reels, plastic no-maintenance fly-lines, rods that cast further and are more powerful, etc. Sometimes, as we leap into the stream of innovative new products, the older technologies slide by and fade out of memory, so it might be fun to set the way-back machine for laughter, and take a trip down parallel paths in time and take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly in fly-fishing tackle, or what was innovated and what was eclipsed. First in a series…
Waders have come a long way from rubber covered canvas and nylon to new breathable laminates such as GoreTex. They are lighter and now actually keep you dry… imagine that.
Old style waders kept you dry too… from the stream… The inside was another matter. Often you had your own water source on the inside… in the form of sweat, which soaked your clothing and quickly turned so rancid that fly anglers of the day took up pipe smoking and cigars not for enjoyment, style, or even to keep insects away, but instead to mask the smell of old rubber and wet dogs.
However, like silk fly-lines, these things lasted forever, and could be repaired with a patch kit from a bicycle inner tube or even one from a Model T Ford. Chewing gum could plug holes in a pinch too. They came in only a couple of sizes: too big, and ‘could double as a tent’. They had an irritable habit of causing you to float since they fit so loosely and trapped air, and you had to fit them to yourself with a tight wading belt so as both to not look like the Goodyear blimp, and to prevent them from filling with water in case of an inevitable dunking. (You actually looked like the Goodyear blimp wearing a girdle anyway.) They sometimes worked better when suspending the angler upside down in the water.
The only plus was that they were somewhat functional (they were the only game in town) and durable as hell. So durable in fact that they lasted for years or decades, often providing the angler with unseen benefits as when the fetor that emanated from them attracted their own hatch of bugs… Even if despite the added benefit we wished they would die already so we could have the excuse to start over with a new pair…
The breathable revolution
Modern waders are constructed of laminates containing millions of micro-holes that let water vapor or perspiration out, but will not allow liquid water in. They are truly breathable and a great innovation saving us on warm days and on hikes in to the rivers. They are arguably the greatest innovation in fly-fishing since the advent of hooks with eyes.
Unfortunately, these micro-hole waders soon develop macro-holes in downright mysterious places that do allow water in. I seem to get about a year out of a pair before something begins to go wrong, but then, as a bonus, they only cost an arm and a leg. Seriously, $700 for a pair of waders? Do they come with a free trip to the Cascapedia?
Sometimes the seam tape falls off, allowing a nice showerhead to form inside. Sometimes the neoprene booties come apart or follow Erik’s first law of stream physics: Those things that are laminated tend to delaminate…
Holes often appear out of nowhere and disappear just as fast, especially when you are searching for them using the factory recommended technique of filling the waders with flammable alcohol in a bathroom with the lights shut off while holding a tiny flashlight and standing on your head crouched under the sink.
I once had a new pair of waders from a noted top manufacturer that actually lasted two weeks. I took them out of the box to pack them for a trip, used them successfully for the 14-day excursion, and then when donning them again a week later, noticed that both legs were soaking wet. I filled the legs with water and they leaked like a sieve down both seams. I sent them back to the manufacturer, and a short time later a new pair arrived in replacement. Hooray! Until…
I wore the new pair the next spring and they seemed a wee tight. I looked at the label: size large… same as the old pair. I struggled to get into them vowing to stay off the doughnuts and then realized that it wasn’t me, but the manufacturer had changed their sizing. They gave way on a steelhead trip out west when I split the crotch wide open from the front to the back while wading. The resulting cascade of cold water onto the family jewels caused me to do a rather credible imitation of walking on water as I levitated to shore spouting invectives. The company replaced them again for free.
The new ones leaked after only six weeks, and the seam tape turned to ribbons. I gave up and bought a pair from a different company that were half the price. These were the best designed waders I have ever had, even if after one year the tape began to fall off the booties and I had to get the aquaseal out and begin repairs. They developed small leaks about the foot that despite covering with enough glue to make me look like the blob, continued to ship water. So… I bought another pair, and another, and another. At one point I had three pairs of these identical waders in various stages of sputtering leakage. I would rediscover the source of the leaks from time to time while juggling the pairs. I finally had had enough when one entire shelf in the refrigerator was set aside for opened aquaseal tubes. There was no room for beer. That did it! I threw them all out and started the process all over again.
Since then I have owned: Ultra light convertible waders that were the most comfortable I have ever owned, until I met with thorn bushes that turned them into ribbons… the laminate seemed to be made from some kind of Chinese toilet paper.
A pair of integrated boot-foot waders someone gave me where the boots collapsed rendering the waders unusable.
Waders with a zipper in the front… (The zipper leaked and then broke)
And finally…. Located in the basement in an old box of junk… A pair of old nylon waders from 20 years ago, all patched up. I took a tentative sniff and wrinkled my nose… nothing ventured, nothing gained I thought… ‘Forward into the past!’
They were more awful than I even remembered and smelled like a garbage dump in Bangladesh.
That is when I discovered wet wading. After all, if one is going to wet anyway, might as well be comfortable!
And then there are… The Boots
Boots are an essential part of a wading system. They provide that rather vital contact with the earth and stream bottom, and support and protection for your feet. They also protect the soft bootie of the wader. Boots should always wear out before waders do.
A friend has a pair of old Russell leather wading boots that he has used for over 30 years. They are still in fantastic shape, but then he does care for them a bit. After all those years they form to his feet perfectly and are as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. The felt is still in great shape, and they have been resoled once by the manufacturer. Back in the day all fly-anglers had to choose from was a leather brogue. These often had canvas and rubber parts as well and were secured to the feet first by straps, and later by laces. The leather absorbed water and had to be carefully dried and treated with oils and waxes. One often wore a stout pair of socks under them and over the wading bootie in order to preserve the integrity of the wader against abrasion and leakage. They needed a lot of maintenance, but lasted forever.
Modern materials such as nylon and plastic replaced these older leather wading brogues and offered several advantages mainly in drying faster and being much lighter. The modern materials did not absorb water as readily. They also seem to be built to fall apart.
I have another friend that has a pair of Weinbrenner wading boots that are going on 15 years… not me though… my odyssey has been one of puzzling failures. I worked in the fly tackle industry for over 15 years, so I have seen some downright strange things.
Take sizing for instance. Shoes and boots are formed around lasts. These come in different sizes so that the appropriate size boots can be formed over them. Back when I made medieval footwear, I had every customer form a molding of his or her foot by wrapping duct tape around their foot while wearing an old sock. This assured a good model. American boot manufacturers had standard sizing for boots with only slight variances. When wading boot manufacturer was farmed out to China some odd discrepancies became apparent. I always stocked a few larger sizes in the fly shops I ran: size 14 and 15 to be exact. On several occasions I had professional basketball players as customers. They would attempt to try on the boots, but usually could not get them on. The larger sizes were too narrow. The Chinese it seemed, had no experience manufacturing footwear this big, and as I imagined it, used a local tall teenage kid for a foot model. Admittedly, most of those sizing problems have since been rectified, but years ago, buying a wading boot for anyone with wider or longer feet was an adventure.
Another advent of farming out the production was that of quality control. It is easy to spec the materials and construction design for a pair of boots, but if one does not have on-site quality control in China, strange things can happen. Take the case of a group of friends who found a deal on a major manufacturer’s wading boot (one of the best designed boot ever) at a discount outlet that sold overstock at cut-rate prices. They all thought they were getting a great deal. They each bought several pairs. I remember warning them that there was going to be something defective about those boots, and that the manufacturer had dumped a whole numbered lot at cost for a good reason. The reason was soon discovered. On a steelhead river in Washington State my friend donned his boots for the first time and walked into the water to make his initial cast. He never made it. He wondered what that white thing was that was floating slowly downstream of him, then he began to slip on the rocks. Yup…. The felt soles had fallen off after less than a minute in the water. Seems that the Chinese factory ran out of ‘#1 American expensive glue,’ and substituted something such as Elmer’s glue… which is water soluble.
Another innovation that is amazing is the replacement of felt by vibram and studs, or by soft rubber that grips the rocks. Felt is still the best all-around material for wading, but it has a few disadvantages. For one, it absorbs water and invasive organisms, and taking forever to dry, provides the perfect vector for spreading those unwanted flora and fauna. Felt is also awful for hiking on slippery mud banks or clay. They almost guarantee that at some point the angler will end up ass over teakettle and covered in mud. Snow adds another dimension as I discovered one day while walking across a field to a lake in late December, the snow packing on the soles and collecting exactly like making a snowman, and finally forming two foot high and two foot wide blocks on my feet which made me walk like the Frankenstein monster before I collapsed into a snow bank.
The process of getting to vibram soles with screw-in metal studs also saw some inevitable failures. Most of these quickly vanished from the market after the wild marketing claims didn’t live up to their hype. One boot had a neat sticky rubber sole that was used aboard ships to provide traction. They even worked on oil drilling platforms. What they didn’t work on were rocks. The sticky rubber shredded from the boots like eraser peelings. They never made it to market.
Lacing systems are another area of experimentation. Who of us wants to try to try to fumble and struggle while bent over with boots that require us to thread and tighten laces through 12 pairs of holes and catches? It might still be the best system, but some people who are overweight or elderly can’t manage. Enter Velcro the wonder system. It works great at first, allowing easy entry and exit of the boots, but when it becomes clogged with sand and dirt, will no longer function at all. Another great idea was a zipper in the side of the boot. I had a pair of these for awhile… thank god they also had laces, for the zipper seized up when it froze or got muddy, and soon just stopped working altogether. That leads us to the latest automatic lacing systems. These use wires permanently attached to the boots and a neat little circular winch that tightens them and loosens them on demand. They really work well. Until they don’t. Then one is facing the prospect of walking out of a canyon in the dark over sharp rocks for a mile back to the truck with one leg. Good luck finding a replacement system too. If you didn’t bring one with you, the Ma and Pa store in town won’t carry them, although they do carry boot laces!
This might be a good time to introduce Erik’s first law of equipment failure: It will never fail until you are in the middle of a rapids in 100 degree heat or a blizzard or a tornado, chased by meth addicts or a cougar, and have run out of water.
Most of the modern synthetic boots are marvelous and durable, but even I can’t tell the longevity and durability of a pair of boots by just looking at them, and given the quick time from development to market these days, caveat emptor. I don’t know whether going cheap and having low expectations or getting the most expensive and expecting them to last is the best plan. It all seems a crapshoot.
I give you my experience:
- The soles fell off
- The soles fell off and the top surface dissolved into toilet paper
- They shrunk in the sun and I could not get them on again, even after soaking them
- The soles fell off
- The soles are fine, but the lace holes all pulled out and I had to use duct tape to keep them on
- The stitching seemed to be made from some sort of water-soluble material. They fell to pieces
- The soles fell off
- The zipper stuck and the soles fell off
- Invaded with fungus for some reason. Threw them away
- The jury is out…. Still wearing them and crossing my fingers.
- Go on ebay and look for leather 1970s era used boots. Take care of them and pray every night…
Yes… it is worth it to laugh at ourselves a bit and at our struggles with gear, and when it all comes down to push and shove, I love the innovation and choices out there as well as the ability to stay dry and sweat free, and the ability to wade with confidence without smelling like a garbage juice… I just wish with all the innovation… well… you know…
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