Are we approaching the end of the era of felt soles?
We are, as far as Trout Unlimited is concerned. The group this month called on the fishing tackle industry to stop manufacturing felt-soled waders and wading shoes by 2011.
For generations, anglers have used shoes with quarter-inch thick, compressed felt soles to stay upright while on the stream. Felt provides great traction on slippery underwater rocks, preventing slips and falls that are unpleasant at best and dangerous or even deadly at worst.
But it turns out damp felt is also a perfect environment for spores and microbes that pose grave risk to trout streams — things like whirling disease, didymo or “rock snot,” New Zealand mud snails and so forth. These organisms are surprisingly hardy. If you fish a healthy stream a week or even two weeks after fishing an infested one, the microscopic bugs and seeds will join you — and after you leave, they’ll stay.
Trout Unlimited acknowledges that aquatic nuisance species are also spread by boats, fishing tackle, animals and birds, but says ending the use of felt soles will be a big first step toward containing invasive species. New Zealand has banned felt soles in trout streams as of
Oct. 1 because didymo has so badly damaged prized fisheries.
“It’s like a war on our streams, rivers and lakes, with a new enemy rearing its ugly head each week,” said Jack Williams, Trout Unlimited’s senior scientist. “First, whirling disease, then mud snails, then some invasive aquatic plant. We have to be more aggressive in our battle against the spread of invasive species.”
Wading shoes with synthetic “sticky rubber” soles of materials such as Aqua Stealth have been around for years, and while some anglers say they work just fine, others complain that they don’t grip as well as felt. (These are not to be confused with ordinary lug-soled waders worn by hunters, which are fine for marshes and fields, but are all but useless on streambed rocks.)
The wader industry seems to think the age of felt is coming to an end, and companies claim their new soles will allow us to wade with confidence.
Simms Fishing Products’ top announcement at this year’s Fly Fishing Retailer show in Denver last week was a new line of non-felt wading shoes.
“It’s very easy to clean, which is very important for wading boots from the aquatic nuisance species standpoint, and it offers exceptional grip,” Simms executive Diane Bristol told blogger and podcaster Zach Matthews. “We feel like it will be as good as, if not better than, felt.”
Hodgman, one of the biggest makers of waders, probably won’t discontinue its felt-soled products — but it is working on alternative materials that are easy to clean and provide the necessary traction, said Parrish Lewis, the product manager for waders and accessories of Hodgman’s parent company, Coleman.
“We are working with some
materials that are completely new to the wading industry. I can’t say a lot about it because we’re still in the development stage, but we’re looking at innovations that will make wading not only safe for the environment but also more comfortable and safe for sportsmen.”
Besides curbing the spread of nasty invasives, there are other benefits to non-felt-soled waders. Felt is awful for walking on mud, wet grass or pine needles. If you fish often, it wears out after a few seasons, and the replacement soles you can glue on your shoes simply aren’t as good as the originals.
I just hope somebody comes out with non-felt bootfoot waders. I switched from stockingfoot to bootfoot waders a few years ago when I began doing more saltwater fishing than freshwater, and I don’t plan on going back. Bootfoot waders don’t provide as much ankle support as wading shoes, but they’re impervious to gravel and sand, they keep your feet warm, they’re easy to pull on and off and they’re about half the price of waders and shoes.