Get a grip: a new generation of studded rubber-sole footwear is replacing felt-bottom wading boots. We checked out five types for comfort, traction, and support
Traditional fabric-soled wading boots, usually made of felt or polypropylene, tend to soak up and transport microscopic invasive species that can be extremely harmful to trout streams. Yes, other parts of a steel toe boot can carry alien organisms, but only the soles are mashed into the bottom all day, and that's where the bad stuff lives.
At present, felt soles are prohibited in New Zealand and parts of Alaska. Other states, including my home state of Vermont, are considering following suit. Trout Unlimited has asked all manufacturers to stop making them by 2011. While getting rid of yours is increasingly regarded as the right thing to do, it may be that the law will soon require it.
Rubber-soled boots are easier to clean and dry between fishing trips (I clean mine with a stiff-bristled brush and a garden hose), and many gear makers have introduced various designs claiming to give underwater traction similar to felt. In testing boots, I arrived at this bottom line: No matter what brand of rubber-soled boot you get, make sure those soles have metal studs. Otherwise, sooner or later, you will fall and hurt yourself.
Drift-boat anglers hate studs, which can chew up a boat's floor. To get around this, you can protect the floor by installing a sheet of plywood. Using studded rubber soles, meanwhile, will give you the utmost security in wading--better, in most cases, than the felt soles they replace.
1| CABELA'S GUIDE-WEAR PRO RUBBER SOLE ($100) cabelas.com
THE LOWDOWN Studs are included with these rubber-soled boots, making them a good value, but you'll have to screw them in yourself. Unfortunately, the pilot holes on my samples were poorly formed, and I had to redrill them before completing the installation. If you're willing to work to save a little money, these otherwise competent boots can be worth it.
HITS The price is right, and the construction is durable. Studs are included.
MISSES The rounded rubber-sole lugs provide somewhat less traction in slippery situations than those that are sharply cut.
2| CHOTA CANEY FORK ($150) chota outdoorgear.com
THE LOWDOWN New for 2010, these are excellent boots, very comfortable, with heavy, soft-rubber-lug soles. The 10 stud positions on each sole are formed of hard rubber for better stud retention. Steel studs are included but not installed. Carbide studs are optional. Removable double insoles allow fine-tuning of fit.
HITS Great comfort, and putting in the included studs is simple.
MISSES The multitextured upper is difficult to clean.
3| KORKERS GUIDE ($180) korkers.com
THE LOWDOWN The big deal with Korkers is interchangeable soles that include a studded, Kling-On (rubber-soled) version. You can wear nonstudded soles in the boat and switch to studded bottoms before getting in the water. The easy change takes a few minutes. A "mossy rock" option with carbide spikes is ideal for saltwater jetties and raging steelhead rivers.
HITS The Boa cable-lacing system (twist to tighten) works great.
MISSES The boot is harder than some to clean.
4| ORVIS RIVER GUARD ULTRALIGHT ($160) orvis.com
THE LOWDOWN This new boot has an easy-to-clean, smooth-surfaced upper and a Vibrato sole that comes with sharp studs that are already installed. There are 10 studs per sole, and well-formed pilot holes for adding more should you wish. Although these boots are light in weight, they offer more than ample foot protection.
HITS They're comfortable, and the studs are sharp.
MISSES The bellows boot tongue is too stiff.
5| SIMMS GUIDE ($200) simms fishing.com
THE LOWDOWN Simms' award-winning Stream-Tread rubber-sole design is available on a variety of models, of which the comfortable Guide Boot is near the high end. You'll also want to get a set of optional Simms metal Hard Bite Star Cleats ($40 for 18) that you'll install on the soles with a screwdriver. You will then wade into the river with all the security of an Abrams tank.
HITS This well-designed, padded boot offers lots of foot protection. The high-quality studs are easily installed and provide very solid footing.
MISSES They're more expensive than the other boots tested, but you get what you pay for.
I've been testing various studded, rubber-sole wading boots since last summer, everywhere from the slimy rocks of Rhode island's saltwater surf to the algae-covered cobbles of northeastern trout rivers. Fit, comfort, and ease of use were all considered, along with the difficulty of stud installation (if necessary) in the soles.--J.M.