Over the last several years, a debate has been raging in the fly fishing world that comes up so frequently, I thought it better to write out my position on it so I can link to it rather than explaining myself time after time. The debate centers around felt-soled wading boots vs. rubber, with the detractors of felt claiming that it is responsible for the spread of invasive species across watersheds. The argument is that since felt absorbs water, it can harbor larvae and veligers of detrimental species such as Zebra Mussels, New Zealand Mud Snails, and a variety of aquatic plants. When the concern first surfaced, many anglers thought that merely drying out their wading boots would kill the invaders, but this proved to be ineffective as many species can go dormant for long periods of time under dry conditions. In another attempt to mitigate this, some tried freezing or bleaching their boots. But this proved to not have a 100% kill rate. Then, the glorious solution appeared (generously offered to us idea-starved product dev departments across the fly fishing industry): rubberized soles. They wouldn’t absorb water, and therefore, would prevent stowaways being transported between watersheds. Seems logical, right?
A Flawed Premise
Well I say it’s fallacious, i.e., “false cause”. For two simple reasons:
- Frequency of migration. Think about this … let’s take a simple scenario. There are two streams that get fished fairly often. In one year, let’s say 500 anglers migrate between them with “the worst case scenario”: wearing only felt-soled wading boots. Now, in that same year, how many animals migrate between them? Surely, there are tens of thousands more migrations of animals than humans: snakes, birds, insects, frogs, deer, turtles, muskrats, beavers, otters, mountain lions, sheep, etc. And many of them have fur or feathers–far superior modes of transportation for larvae than felt with far more surface area to take on a larger number of passengers than a size 9 Simms. Even if a human never set foot between the streams, cross-contamination would occur naturally. It wouldn’t need our help. So if you look at the role humans actually play in this invasion, it’s probably a fraction of a fraction of a percent compared to what nature does by itself, even if you multiply it out from stream to stream, pond to pond, and lake to lake. Statistically, felt plays such a minuscule role in this, frankly, it’s absurd to have ego-driven debates over it, panic-based bans, and the creation of entirely new marketing segments based upon a premise which is flawed to produce a counter-measure product which is ineffectual (which see) …
- Rubber is a fake solution to a fake problem! It might give you a warm, fuzzy feeling, thinking you’re doing something positive for the environment by wearing rubber soles, but don’t get too complacent. Remember that all models of rubber-soled wading boots are also constructed of other porous materials–laces, insoles, linings, etc. So while the bottoms of the boots might not be larvae-friendly, other parts of the boots are–thus making the materials of the soles moot. Then there’s the fact that there are other cozy places within the boot itself for larvae to settle into such as the gaps around the edges of removable insoles, stitches, and between the folds of the tongue. Such tiny organisms are crafty at survival. If they want to find a place to hide, they will.
In short, not only is human impact so minimal on the spread of invasive species compared to the the role other animals play, but our seeming “holy grail” solution is inherently impotent.
So you might say my first contention is that there is no need to wear rubber soles. But my second is that you should wear felt. The reason is simple: safety. Whenever the question arises with my customers in the fly shop, I always tell them there are pros and cons to each: rubber is great on the trail, and terrible in the water. Felt is great in the water, terrible on the trail. Personally, if I were going to slip somewhere, I’d rather have it be on solid ground than in fast, rushing water. This is coming from someone who nearly drowned while fishing in the Niagara River (while wearing rubber soles).
Of course, many companies claim to have formulated proprietary types of rubber designed specifically to grip well in the water. I’ve tried many of them and none of them gripped any better than my everyday sandals that I wear for wet wading. I once had an expensive pair of Patagonia Rock Grips that were so slippery, I might as well have been wearing ice skates. I nicknamed them “Patagonia Rock Slips”.
Don’t get me wrong, rubber lug soles can be good depending on the bottom (gravel, silt, etc.) but on slick rock (especially algae-covered rock) they’re useless. In my experience, felt is the only material that seems to grip well on every bottom type and so I believe it’s the safest choice.
Of course, it really comes down to the type of substrate in the streams you normally haunt. If you only fish in streams with a gravel bottom, then you could probably do fine with a rubber lug sole. But I fish a wide variety of stream types (and some streams whose substrate changes every 20 yards), so I need something that grips universally, and for this reason, and the reasons above, I will remain an unapologetic felt-wearer. Or, as I like to call it, a “felteer”.
Felt is good. Change my mind.
Well said, I have both. Depends we’re I am fishing which pair I take.
Hi Jason. Everything you have said is all well and good but anglers need to check their state fish and game regulations to see if they are still allowed to fish in Felt Wading Boots. A number of states have outlawed felt.
Karl, yes, currently, there are 6 states that ban felt: Maryland, Alaska, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Rhode Island. And of course, there are stream-specific bans throughout the country. They usually post pretty conspicuous signs at the access points.
A moot point for me – felt is illegal in Missouri, where I do most of my fishing. In any case, when fishing tenkara, I normally wet-wade wearing either water moccasins – aka aqua socks – or Magellan neoprene wading boots. When I do use waders – usually in our pond, which has a mostly mud bottom – they’re old-style rubberized canvas with hard rubber soles. I’ve never used felt and never seen the need for it. You can slip and fall no matter what you’re wearing. Developing and maintaining one’s balance (something us older guys tend to lose and which I work on daily) and situational awareness (just watching where you step) are far more important IMHO than what’s on your feet.
Good point Joseph! But I’d like to think that in 31 years of wading, I’ve developed enough of a sense of spatial awareness to know the techniques. Even the most experienced professional Nascar driver could maintain only so much traction on snow with bald tires. So I think what’s on your feet still matters. It’s a combination of wading skill and having the right tools to wade safely.
It’s a mute argument/point in Maryland,Alaska.Missouri.Nebraska.Rhode Island.South Dakota.Yellowstone National Park and soon to be California where I unfortunately hail from. Now that I am retired I really should make the move back up to my homelands of Washington/Idaho.
Good comments and a topic we all should consider. I have both and depending where I go is what boot I wear. Mostly I do wear felt. It would be interesting if a boot manufacturer would design a felt sole boot, but have a “slip-on” rubber sole. Thanks again and keep up the good work and Templar’s scholarship.
Hey Ray, check out Korkers.
Kind of interesting read, a lot of valid points here.
I’ve “only” been fly fishing for about 10 or 11 years, and when I made the move from rubber waders to breathable waders with boots, it was just about the time when felt was being accused of causing all of the rock snot issues. As such, I never owned a pair of felt boots as it seemed as if it was the “wrong” thing to do. Thus, I’ve become a rubber bottom w/ stud guy, but I think the next pair of boots I get I’ll probably go with a pair of Korkers so I can exchange soles and have the flexibility to try all the different bottoms.
That said, I love this pair of Orvis lightweight boots I’m currently wearing. They weigh practically nothing. Great combo hiker/wader.
I agree with a lot of your points about felt soles. My needs require rubber… LOTS of hiking in my boots, and illegal in Alaska. Good post!
Perhaps, the latest Rubber Compounds are not quite as unsafe as is commonly believed: Please take a look – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSBWnYfNRPo
And, for sure, felt is not all that safe and good to use for trail hiking. I think most of us would be willing to accept some performance compromises rather thanhaving to carry two sets of soles and/or foot wear.
Karl, well as I said in the article, I’d rather slip on dry land than in rushing water. That’s the compromise I’m willing to make.
I have found the “Best Fishing” to be found in high mountain lakes there are no trails into them, located in terrain that horses and mules can not handle, requiring rugged cross-country travel for miles and many hours on end, if not days invested to get into. Obviously, this is something that felt wading boots will not last very long at doing and will put life and limb at risk if we try to force the issue with them. As far as unplanned landings go, water is a lot softer than granite, and Sticky Rubber Wading Boots can make pretty passable hiking and climbing boots, doing passable double duty in my most desired fishing locations. Your fishing desires and fishing terrains can and will differ exponentially from mine, so here is link to an article that addresses these issues far better than I can, and also speaks to which brands, models and types of wading soles (both with cleats and aluminum bars as well) work better than others do in various wading conditions: https://gorgeflyshops.blogspot.com/2016/11/felt-vs-tread-who-gives-boot.html
Absolutely moronic reasoning. People are stuck with a black and white mentality. That’s why people don’t even take a flu shot. We solutions are layered. There is NO one silver bullet answer to real world problems. Felt DOES cross contaminate watersheds. Full stop. Is it the only mode? No. We try to control what we can. The nonsense about a percent of a percent contamination due to felt is from where? Cite the source. There isn’t one. It’s like people who refuse to wear a mask to solve a problem because they believe it doesn’t help based on their opinion…not fact. If you frequent the same areas, go ahead and wear felt. If you’re the type that crosses significant boarders, help out and use cleats. It’s that simple.
Hi Louis, the thing is, even with rubber-soled boots, veligers and larvae can be transported by other parts of the boot: laces, insoles, tongues, linings, etc. It’s not just the sole that matters. In reality, no boot is immune to transport.
Jason, I think you might have missed Louis’ point above. Yes, even rubber-soled boots offer opportunities for transport of invasive species—though many laces today are non-permeable and waterproof. The opportunity to transport invasive species is minimised where boots provide increasing less real estate for organisms to inhabit or dwell. Responsible stewardship of the marine environment—and our continued enjoyment of that habitat—involves risk minimization.
We are dealing here with the subtle nuance between possibility and probability. Is it possible that any one of us could unwittingly transport an invasive species on our boots, whether felt or rubber soled? Yes. The probability of doing so, however, is dramatically different between a felt soled boot—which offers plentiful habitat for larvae—and a rubber soled boot—which offers minimal habitat. We’re throwing the baby out with the bath water if we only look at the issue of possibility.
Quite frankly, publishing this sort of article is irresponsible and dangerous. I would expect this to be written by the sort of guy that just wads up tangled monofilament and throws it on the bank. I doubt that you’re that type of person. The responsible thing to do here is to amend this article.
Hi Dave, I see your points, but I would hardly call voicing one’s opinion “irresponsible”. I don’t wield enough power to be so. The anti-felt faction is using scare tactics. They’d have you believe that felt is evil and is going to kill every stream in the U.S. If this were the case, our rivers and streams would have been decimated a log time ago. The truth is anything we transport from watershed to watershed can carry veligers. I think if one truly wants to be “responsible” (in terms of boots), then throw them in the freezer before your next trip. But that might not even kill some things. At any rate, you might be happy to know I’m wearing these now: https://www.tenkaratalk.com/2020/08/orvis-ultralight-wading-boots/