• By: Buzz Bryson
Right Boot Sole

Q: What do you think about the new rubber alternatives to felt soles on wading boots? Do they grip and wear as well as felt? And do they achieve their intended purpose of reducing the spread of various invasive “nasties” from stream to stream?

Funny you should ask that. Just last summer, my bride took me to Montana to celebrate my 60th birthday. About 50 years ago, that seemed really old; at about 30, it was simply old. Now, I’m just hitting my stride (so I try to tell myself). Knowing my wading boots were pretty well shot, I didn’t pack them, and bought myself a new pair upon arrival in Bozeman. They were the current state of the art in the new grippy rubber-like soles, designed to replace felt and reduce the spread of various unwanted out-of-place and potentially harmful species, collectively known as aquatic invasive species, or AIS. I won’t mention the specific maker, as I believe that is less important than that they were representative of the current state of the material technology—essentially, the best alternative to that old standard, the felt-bottomed brogan.

The first test of the new soles was on Armstrong’s Spring Creek in Livingston, Montana, by no means a wading challenge. Or so I thought. I crossed the stream, in no more than knee- to hip-deep water, and was constantly slipping; not a little, but with virtually every step. I might as well have been wearing last year’s “Chuck’s” (Converse Chuck Taylor tennis shoes) that were my staple wading gear as a kid. To me, the boots were unacceptable.

I quit fishing early, drove back to George Anderson’s Yellowstone Angler (not the place I bought the boots), and George fixed me up with some carbide studs, even installing them for me on the wet, muddy boots (thanks again George). Note the boots’ condition: wet and muddy, a prime way of moving AIS. In this case, I was going directly back to the same stream.

Those studs worked extremely well. However, that does not excuse the slipperiness of the original soles, and added considerably to an already pricey pair of boots. Further, the studs added another unwanted limitation: they aren’t acceptable footwear in boats without carpet or mats, or in many motel rooms, cafes and public areas. And might we expect to see a “stud sole surcharge” from car-rental agencies? Seriously, I’d recommend not driving with studded boots on, but if you must, be extremely careful. They tend to not slide smoothly from pedal to pedal, requiring a deliberate, and somewhat time-consuming, foot movement.

Complaining aside, are there benefits to the rubber-type soles? Sure. They are great to walk to the stream in. I think they are going to be fairly durable, probably as much as or more so than felt and more so than the earlier generation of non-felt bottoms. Do they in fact reduce the transfer of AIS? While of late there has been considerable discussion about that, I believe the logical conclusion is yes. Certainly, such soles should be better than felt, simply because of the ease of cleaning.

Remember that there is not a single species of concern, and that the different species aren’t transported in a single way. AIS include such devils as didymo or “rock snot,” whirling-disease spores, mud snails and Eruasian milfoil. They can be transported on boot soles, boot laces, in various boot crevices, in boat bilge water, on trailers—the list goes on. In other words, with no single “sinner” and no single transport method, it’s a bit simplistic to expect a single perfect solution. AIS is a tough problem, which will require a multi-faceted attack. One has to start somewhere, and felt soles appear to be a reasonable initial target.

Trout Unlimited has adopted the policy of “no felt soles by 2011” and other NGOs and state agencies (Vermont and Alaska being the first to ban the use of felt in 2011 and 2012, respectively) have taken similar positions. The fight will have to expand and continue.

Join in, and take special care to prevent the spread of AIS, regardless of your chosen boot sole. And if you do go in for rubber bottoms, give the studs a try. Even if it means a rental-car surcharge.

Send your question or conundrum to Professor Buzz at [email protected].