No, this is not about haute couture. No need to eyeball models in boots and waders clumping down a runway in Paris or Milan to see what is in style. A Kardashian might care about fashion; new anglers with limited budgets must pay closer attention to function when purchasing the first set of boots, waders, and vest. Let’s hit the high points in this post and dive deep later.
The right pair of boots will save your life. To confirm this, teeter dangerously on a slick rock overlooking a secluded plunge pool high in the Blue Ridge… actually, don’t teeter… take my word for it or just experience vertigo from the picture. Good boots must grab the slightest crack or bump because you, like everyone, will end up doing something dumb … hopefully only once … to get the right angle for a cast. In the past, anglers relied on felt-soled boots since they had the “give” to conform to rough surfaces the same way a suction cup sticks to a windshield. Sadly, several years ago, the fisheries folks determined all sorts of evil parasites snuggle into the felt fabric and hitchhike from stream to stream. As a result, many locales now rightly ban the use of felt.
Your options are simple. To cleat or not to cleat? There is a time and place for both. Every manufacturer claims to have created proprietary, pliable, rock grabbing soles that find and hold the smallest imperfections on slick surfaces as easily as a princess can detect a pea. However, a bare sole might fail on the slimy surface of a streambed while cleats punch through. A set of removable cleats like STREAMTrekkers could be the answer if you are willing to put them on and take them off as you encounter different surfaces; something you will inevitably fail to do because of the hassle. If you must choose only one type, get cleats and avoid walking on slick rock; skinny across sketchy spots on your backside and live to fish another day.
Hip or Chest? Since trout rivers typically run deep and cold with tailwaters being a frigid 55 – 60 degrees, wet wading is not an option; forcing the purchase of chest waders. A small mountain stream is another story. During the warmer months, a pair of neoprene socks works just fine to keep your feet toasty while the exertion of twisting and turning through underbrush and over rocks generates plenty of core heat. Small typically means shallow, so purchasing hip waders seems to be the logical, easy answer for the colder months. However, crystalline water makes it hard to judge depth and guarantees one, possibly several, missteps into deep pockets; allowing you to experience both the “joy” of an icy jolt as well as many subsequent hours of hypothermia-inducing misery. Save your money. Use chest waders and roll them down to the waist and cinch tight using the shoulder strap as a belt. The resulting “waist waders” provide additional security while allowing your upper body to shed sweat.
Boot foot vs. sock foot? Never use boot foot waders. Pulling on a pair zips you back a hundred years in boot technology and avoids all the advances that make today’s wading boots “grippy” and safer. Even with the correct socks, a boot foot wader is clunky and heavy, making movement difficult and walking any distance impossible.
Buy vests based on color, not pockets. Despite the experience of Eddie Dunn (aka “Whitefish Eddie”) who makes a point of wearing psychedelic clothing when fishing major trout rivers in Idaho, small streams demand stealth. Trout are alert for predators and acutely aware of their surroundings in shallow water. On a big river, most trout orient upstream, facing into the current, to enjoy a streaming buffet of nymphs. On a small stream, fish may face in any direction based on how water pushes through boulders and cuts. Therefore, anglers must blend into the background. Since the vest is the largest article of clothing highest above the surface of the stream, a poor choice can spook skittish fish.
I recommend taking a cue from the millions of years of evolution that made the blue heron such an exceptional predator. Big Blue can consume a half pound of trout per day and a USDA-APHIS fact sheet documents a consumption rate of 2.2 trout per hour – a catch rate better than many anglers on small water! An adult blue heron is around four feet tall, slate-colored with white head feathers; causing it to poke well above surrounding vegetation. Blue herons must be blue for a reason! Anglers can mimic the bird by selecting a vest in approximately the same shade of slate grey. Complement the vest with a blue shirt (light brown/orange in the fall) and a light colored hat.
Two more points on stream stealth. First, a brightly colored, shiny rod may attract attention flashing in the sun. If you have a choice, choose a dull brown or green to mimic a tree branch blowing in the breeze. Second, all the effort at camouflage is for naught if you cannot approach the pool quietly. A pair of kneepads shields knees from jagged rocks and make it much easier to stay low.
Dressing for fishing success is all about blending in. While, as Whitefish Eddie discovered, it may not be important on a large river where the angler generally fishes upstream, it is critical when stalking cautious brookies on small water.