The Global FlyFisher
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GFF partner Martin Joergensen has owned quite a few wading boots in his time. None of them fit his bill for a perfect pair. Actually most of them fell apart and were trashed within a few seasons. His hunt for a perfect pair continues.
To paraphrase a line that I have seen used many times in magazine's articles about wading boots: "These boots were (not) made for wading..."
For some reason I seem to slowly eat myself through wading gear: waders, jackets and boots. This part of my wading gear trilogy will take a look at wading boots. The first one looked at jackets and my last section of this epic will be on the centerpiece: the waders themselves.
But this is about boots.
I have since my very early fishing days been a strong advocate for stockingfoot waders and separate boots. At first this was no decision of mine. My first few waders were boot foot ones. Cheep plastic ones.
But it came to be that my first neoprene waders ever were a pair of Orvises that I bought in Stroud's Tackle in San Diego many, many years ago. The waders are long gone as are the cheap Chinese fabric boots I selected to go with them. The memory of the excellent shop and its great service still lingers... but that's a whole other story.
The first thing I realized while bargaining for the Orvises was that waders had suddenly became more expensive. Acquiring both waders and boots means coughing up more money. I tended to focus on the waders and forget the boots.
Loose boots cost
It suddenly dawned to me while sweating in the neoprenes in the small shop in Southern California: I had to select - and pay for - a pair of boots too!
Not surprisingly I opted for a cheap pair, and wound up with some Chinese canvas boots with velcro closing. The boots were quite nice, lightweight and compactable because of the soft upper fabric.
The combo worked very well for a couple of years and created my lasting taste for loose boots.
I have since then worn more than ten pairs of wading boots to pieces, which - considering the time span of about twenty years - might seem as many to some people and few to others.
Personally I think that an average of about two years is way too short a lifespan for a good pair of wading boots. I have hand sewn leather shoes that I bought before that, which still look almost as new... almost. I also own a pair of Scarpa leather trekking boots that are almost unmarked from about ten years of use, and the last pair of outdoors boots I trashed were inexpensive super market boots that had lasted me at least five years and had cost me about 40 US$ in a local mart.
There are obvious reasons why my leather shoes last longer than the wading boots. First of all I don't wear my leather shoes in water. Or at least I try not to. The odd shower may want it differently.
The boots are sometimes wet for days on end. They just don't have time to dry up, and no doubt that the moisture can kill them slowly.
Secondly I usually walk on even and smooth surfaces with my shoes while the boots go into any type of landscape including brushery, stones and rocks.
Last but not least, most of my wading is done in saltwater or at least brackish water. I do rinse the boots as well and often as I can, but the salt is an added factor.
But still, I do expect wading boots to last more than a single season, which is all that some of my wading boots have managed.
The first problems
Back to my canvas shoes from Stroud's. I was soon to discover that these boots were not perfect. First of all they were soft. An advantage when you pack them in a bag, but not good when you are walking or hiking - or wading rough, rocky bottoms.
I walk a lot when I fish - both in the water and of course on the shores and banks.
Of course they would not last forever. Velcro and canvas is not the perfect recipe for durable boots. And they contained metal. Metal and my salty home waters is a bad combination.
These cheap boots did have very little metal, but the metallic rims on the holes where the velcro straps passed through the fabric, were bound to rust. And they did.
The fabric itself would eventually wear and rot, and in the end the boots fell apart.
Surprisingly enough the felt soles were the last things to give in. But in the end they also let go, and the boots were ready to trash.
My next wading boots were a pair of Grub Creek boots. Really, really nice boots. Leather and suede, perfect fit, stiff soles, nice design. Altogether a very nice pair of boots.
Their one immediate disadvantage was the curse of suede: stiffness. When suede dries after a day soaked in water, it stiffens quite dramatically. Next time you want to wear them it's somewhat a fight to squeeze your feet into the tight space.
I devised two solutions for this problem: either dry the boots with crumpled newspaper inside to block them out, which will leave them stiff but roomy, or soak the boots before leaving home. That will soften them sufficiently to let you slip into them with no effort.
The last and best advice is more radical: go fishing so often that the boots simply don't dry fully between your trips!
Over time other and more severe problems would appear with the Grub Creek boots. The worst was the inner heel, where the lining dissolved and was worn through, revealing the heel cup - a plastic contraption which within days ate their way through the outer fabric on the neoprene in the heels of my waders, and eventually gnawed out chunks of the neoprene itself.
Not good for the waders, as you might have guessed. I wound up just pulling out the heel cups, thusly saving the waders before they were completely ruined.
The boots were also equipped with metal eyes and hooks for the laces, and of course they would also rust and dissolve.
But it was the leather that caused the boots' death: one day it was so soft that big holes opened and the boots literally fell apart.
What kills my boots
Before I head on to the next few boots, let me pause and ponder a bit about what kills my boots.
I can't remember having a pair that looked like themselves after a year. The worst case has been severe problems within a few months. The average has been total collapse after a couple of years. The best case is a pair, which I have used on and off for almost four years now. They just had a change of felt and now have some hard-to-close zippers. More on those later.
I can see several reasons why the boots die:
- basically bad constructions, poor material choice and poor workmanship
- the wet-dry-wet-dry or soft-stiff cycle that the wading boots must go through
- rough use, wading and walking on rocks while the boots are wet
- poor maintenance, not thoroughly rinsing the boots after each trip
- drying natural materials (namely leather) too fast
I will return to the first items, but certainly take my part of the blame: I do misuse my wading boots and offer them few chances to survive with my combination of rough use and lack of maintenance.
But on the other hand I have had the aforementioned pair of leather hiking boots for more than ten years, and even though they haven't seen salt water, they have seen a lot of action, rain, snow, rocks, dust and long hikes - and still look very much like the day I bought them. And I never did much to maintain them.
I want my wading boots to be able to do the same.
My Chota era
I inherited a pair of already well-worn Simms boots as a replacement for the disintegrated Grub Creeks. They had been repaired a couple of times already, and were just a passing phase until I had to get some new boots.
The Simms' were also leather and as you know: leather will crack. In the end the rings and eyes for the laces could no longer be replaced when they rusted. There was no leather left to punch the replacements into.
In this period a new brand had emerged on the market: Chota. These new boots had some very pleasing specifications, and I got myself a pair that was specially designed for walking and wading. The prime characteristic of those boots was a combined rubber and felt sole. The felt was rimmed with a narrow rubber edge for better traction on non-rocky surfaces.
This very rim was the first thing to let go. It simply loosened from the boot and wound up as a free-floating ring of rubber. I returned the boots as was informed that there had been an error in the gluing in that batch from the factory.
The best it seemed
I traded them for a pair of unstudded full felt soled Chota boots, which were among the best wading boots I ever had.
These boots had several things working for them: the leather was treated in a way that left it soft even after having dried after a trip. They were lightweight, yet sturdy enough for some medium hard trekking.
The boots had no metal parts that would rust - or so it seemed. And the laces were a brilliant system of elastic speed laces - a system that my fishing friends and I have adapted for many other boots since then.
But the trees don't grow into the sky it appears, because there were problems "under the hood" in these boots.
First of all they also had a construction problem for people like me, who glue new replacement soles on their boots. The felt soles were worn down after a year or so, and I removed the worn down soles and glued new ones on. Which only meant that more severe problems had a chance to emerge, the worst being that I had cut some pretty important stitching while changing the soles, meaning that the main sole and upper leather separated. The second worst being that the leather finally started to crack. The boots fell apart.
Coming apart, the boots revealed some fundamental problems: the metal parts placed inside the soles to stiffen the boots, were rusting. And not only rusting like in stained, but literally dissolving and breaking up into pieces.
It also seemed that not only the leather was weakened, but the rubbery parts in the boots were also cracking up and falling apart. The boots died a very dignified death after some intense use, and were amongst the best I've tried.
Flats boots style
I have two pairs of wading boots, which a radically different: a pair of Bare neoprene flats boots, and a pair of Vision copies of the Teeny style wading shoe.
The first ones are really great for their purpose, which is wading tropical flats, but also have their limits. They will not work as boots for waders.
The Visions - which are very accurate copies of the Jim Teeny Wading Shoe - are strange creatures. They are not pretty. Made from some gray artificial leathery material combined with neoprene and with no laces, but a zipper in the back - much like the flats boots, actually.
They are very comfortable, although a bit difficult to get into and zip. The zipper gets a severe beating when you wade on rocks, and that has left them both a bit hard to close. Salt residues can be kept down with zipper oil and I have managed to maintain them in working condition.
I have had to resole the boots once, but my glue job seems to have done it: the boots have now lasted me more than four years. It is not the boots I wear on every trip, but I use them at least once or twice a month.
The Visions are the wading boots which I have had the longest time. They are showing signs of wear, but seem to have many years left in them yet.
My latest boots have been a pair of Danish Scierra boots, which are classical leather boots with laces and full felt soles with spikes. They are very comfortable, but a bit on the heavy side, which might bother some people.
They only have one big drawback: during the year or so I've had them, the soles have fallen off once on both boots and twice on one of them. In one year! That is just downright unacceptable.
I can blame myself for the second time of course, since I glued on the soles myself, but the first time was the result of another initially bad gluejob from the factory.
Back to square one
My problems with the Scierras - one currently without a felt sole - has made me return to "the scene of the crime". A few of years ago I bought my third, cheap pair of Chinese canvas boots at The Danish Fly Festival. The model is exactly like the first ones I bought in California way back. These new ones were even cheaper and only set me back 200 Danish Kroners or about USD 40.-. My kind of bargain!
I will wear them and the Visions while I'm waiting for some manufacturer to produce my perfect wading boots.
As you can see from the stories and pictures on this page, I have had several types of breakdowns with my boots. I can categorize them in some rough groups.
- rust stains on metal parts
- studs wearing down
These problems can largely be ignored, and will be
- laces breaking
- rings and hooks rusting severely
- felt soles partly detaching in corners and on edges
- felt heels loosing their grips and falling off
These are minor things that can be left alone with no mentionable effect, but also can be repaired.
- rings and hooks breaking or falling off
- upper "leather" cracking
- inner fabric or leather/suede lining wearing through
- middle sole cracking
- stiching breaking
- whole soles loosing the grip or falling off
These are failures that in most cases cannot be ignored and have to be repaired in order to have the boots still working.
- upper "leather" breaking and falling apart - epecially where the boots bend and between sole and upper boot
- middle soles loosing connection with upper boot
- large sections of stitching giving up
- internal structures breaking: heel cups, steel inserts in soles etc.
These are errors beyond repair and things that in most cases will leave the shoes useless.
What would I want from my boots?
Materials that last
The wading boots do not have to breathe. The material does not have to feel comfortable against my skin. It just has to have the right combination of softness and stiffness to support my feet and yet feel comfortable.
And it has to be able to endure the dry-wet-dry-cycle that inevitably will be the fate of all wading boots.
There must be such a material out there somewhere. There must be... phuleeezze!
A good, classical shape
Now, shoemakers have been making great hiking and mountaineering shoes and boots for hundreds of years, and you should think that wading boot makers were able to draw on the experience from these traditions to make similarly comfortable and stable wading boots.
Let's see boots, which can support our ankles, be comfortable to wear and have stitching where it's needed and nowhere else. Another modest wish if you ask me...
A thought-through construction
Soles have been changed on good boots for ages. The upper part of high quality footwear will outlast several generations of soles. And felt soles will be worn down really fast - sometimes within a season.
So manufactor the boots in a way that makes changing the soles easy. Realize that this is a part of the life cycle of a wading boot, and do not sew the felt onto the boot, or make the stitching go through several layers including the felt.
And offer ample supplies of precut felt and plenty good glue for replacement - or even a factory resoling service.
Water and metal is a bad combination. Even fresh water will eventually make metal draw rust or oxidize and unless the boots are extremely well maintained and thoroughly rinsed and dried after each trip, most metal parts will stain, some will then rust and a few will disintegrate completely.
Replace them with plastic, carbon or some neat space age material, which will outlast even the longest living angler.
Anatomy of a boot
What I want
Click on the picture to the left or the items below to see what I want from the different parts of a boot.