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.