When I first heard the saying, "boats (note boats - not boots, but we will get there...) are a compromise", the idea was instantly understandable. Each boat is good at different things - and generally miserable at other applications. This is no perfect boat. I have a "fishing kayak" with tunnel hulls (Native Ultimate) and a very comfortable seat. It is a wonderfully comfortable and stable fishing and duck hunting platform. It also tracks for shit, is slow, unresponsive, and is prone to hang up on rocks and wood just below water's surface. It was a great choice for the small bay of the lake I once lived on, not such a great choice for larger lakes or for water that is flowing much faster than my home waters of the Crawfish River which provides some of the premier brown-water canoeing and kayaking in the world.
I had no intentions of writing a post about wading boots but after posting the image above to my Instagram and Facebook drew a bunch of interest nearly instantly, I realized that others maybe thought about wading boots as much I do. I had no idea, but I guess I should have known. Boots are an incredibly important piece of angling gear!
To be honest, I am not much of a "gear guy". I appreciate stuff that does what it is supposed to do but I have little brand loyalty. Other than the Orvis Pros that I just got, I do not think I know the names of any of the others boot's models - all Simms - that are in that picture. I have owned boots from Simms, Korkers, Orvis, Cabelas, Patagonia, Weinbrenner, and others, I am sure. And none of them are "perfect". From a conversation with Mat Wagner, co-owner of the Driftless Angler and all around good guy, he said that the industry standard is to expect about 100 days of use. I get two years out of a pair most of the time but I am cheap and will wear them well past the time to replace them. You may not be as hard on your wading equipment as I am - or fish as much - and you may get more use than I do.
Similarly, wading boots are a compromise. Weight, durability, soles, tightening system, etc. are all specific to the application. Most of my wading is in the Driftless Area which is probably some of the easiest wading anywhere. However boots need to hold up to a lot of bank walking, not clump up with snow and ice in the winter, and not gather cow crap in their soles. Go to the Wolf or Namekagon Rivers in Northern Wisconsin and your boots have to be much better at gripping rocks. Fish a really slick, fast moving stream with less than adequate soles and you will quickly learn how much boot soles matter. I remember my first day on Pennsylvania's Big Fishing Creek's Narrows and I swear every rock was perfectly round and basketball-sized and full of "slime". I fumbled and floundered my way along the stream, never much sure of my footing. When we did field work in West Virginia's Shavers Fork and hiked for miles carrying gear, light, more hiking boot-like boots were necessary. Different boots for different applications.
Boots are a compromise and there is no "perfect" boot, just boots better suited for particular applications than others. I have little interest in reviewing particular brands and models and really only have experience with the ones I have worn. And as a scientist I understand that a sample size of one is pretty useless. I am more interested in features of boots to make the perfect - or at least good enough - boot for how I fish most of the time. This is not the perfect list but as I am thinking about it, here are the major trade-offs that are encountered in buying a pair of wading boots. I am sure this is not a fully comprehensive list - I would be interested in your additions in the comments.
The "perfect" boot would be inexpensive, durable, lightweight, comfortable and quickly broken in, provide excellent ankle support and grip on the bottom, and I would get many, many years of use from them. In the best case, I could inexpensively and quickly change the soles to match the conditions that I am fishing. In other words, chasing the perfect wading boot is like chasing unicorns or Hodags.
First, I am going to tackle weight and durability as there are compromises between weight and durability that affect most of the other things on the list above. The lightweight boots in the image above is a good example of that compromise. Want to keep weight down? You need to use lighter materials and in this case, it meant using fabric for the lace holders which is much less durable than metal or even plastic. Likewise, reducing the amount of plastics and synthetic leathers and increasing the amount of fabric on the boots reduces weight and increases comfort but reduces durability in most cases.
Comfort in wading boots is not quite like your favorite pair of shoes and is more of a relative thing. Wading boots need to provide good ankle support and have soles where you do not feel every sharp rock underneath your foot. Both of these things make them less comfortable. Like most any pair of footwear, wading boots will take some time to break in. And like other footwear, features that make boots more durable typically make them take longer to break in. So far, my Orvis Pros have not broken in, particularly the left one. (update - it is much better after another couple of days of fishing.)
I really liked this pair of Simms boots, they held up really well except for the soles which wore exceedingly poorly. Despite the fabric lace holders, they held up well, were comfortable, and provided pretty good support. Not perfect but one of the best pairs I've owned.
There have been many arguments about the materials soles are made of and how the transport invasive species. Many places have restricted felt soled wading boots. According to this story, Alaska, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and South Dakota along with Yellowstone National Park have banned them. So manufacturers have had to come up with different ways to provide the grip of felt soles. There have been hits and misses. I think they have things dialed in better than they did a decade or two ago when felt was first seen as an issue. Around the Driftless and really most places in Wisconsin outside of some of the larger rivers, felt soles are not only unnecessary but not desirable. Felt not only (maybe) picks up invasive species but mud, snow/ice, and cow shit as well and it does you no good in the Driftless Area. My suggestion, get a pair of felt or "felt-substitute" waders for the few times you may need them and you'll probably get many years out of them. Or buy one of the options for interchangeable soles or soles that fit over your boots. I know I have had variable luck with interchangeable soles, one pair help up quite well and another the soles basically fell apart and the replaceable sole fell of while I was fishing.
My preference for lacing systems are having metal or really solid plastic lace holders for the first few wraps and speed laces for the uppers. I have had totally mixed results with boots with fabric and plastic lace holders. The pair of Simms that held up the worst and the best (so far) have both had fabric lace holders. I had really bad luck with the BOA lacing system and found it to be more of a pain than it was worth. It gave way - I got tired of trying to fix or replace it - well before the rest of the boot gave way.
How much are you willing to pay for the "perfect" wading boots? Waders and wading boots probably the most expensive non-durable (in this instance, I mean product that normal "wear and tear" will require them to be replaced periodically) equipment you will have to buy. As such, anglers - rightly, I think - expect them to have some durability and last for a reasonable amount of time. Boots are a compromise among weight, durability, how they feel, cost, and another of other factors. My preference - until I am shown to be wrong - will be for somewhere in the middle of the price range. I just can't see paying $500 for a pair of boots but I generally shy away from the cheapest as I am not sure they would last for a full season. For the Driftless streams I fish most of the time, I want relatively light boots so I can over some ground and I want soles that will not pick up ice / snow and cow shit. Yes, I have brought that up three times now but if you have ever carried manure around in your felt soles, you would understand.
Below are the boots that the Driftless Angler currently (as of July 2022) carries or can order (but supply chains being what they are, you might wait for a bit). I am using the Driftless Angler for prices and models as they are my local fly shop - you should use your local fly shop. Buying in person allows you to ask questions of those in the fly shop, to try them on, feel how heavy they are, etc. Wading boots are notorious for their inconsistent sizing - typically but not always, you should wear your normal shoe size as the stockingfoot of your waders should be accounted for. However, try them on as this is not always the case or you may want a little extra room for another pair of socks if you plan to fish when it is cold.
Patagonia Foot Tractors - very heavy and very expensive ($500) but regularly regarded as the best boot out there but for $500, they better be!
Reddington Benchmark - The least expensive pair at the Driftless Angler at $120. They look like a lightweight pair of boots but I don't love the cloth lace holders.
As I stated, I am not a "gear guy" and have only tried a few of these, which by now are largely older models. Orvis PRO are what I am wearing but I have little feel for how good or durable they are yet. And even if I did, it is a sample size of one and you should be skeptical of that. That said, below I link to a number of recent gear review posts that you may - or may not - find useful.
Links to Gear Reviews
Give me your thoughts and experiences in the comments.