Wading Shoe Traction
By: Mark Bachmann
Last week I spent four days guiding on the Clackamas River, which in my estimation can be a major-league test of wading equipment and personal wading skills. The bottom is mostly large cobble about the size of bowling balls; a couple of reservoirs upstream trap all of the finer sediments. Since these bowling balls have no filler between them, every one can move when you step on it. To make matters worse, every bowling ball is greased with a liberal coating of slime. Wading in this river is an aerobic sport, even in shallow water. My clients and I went from the Clackamas to the Sandy, then to the Deschutes. Of the three, the Clackamas is by far the most exhausting to wade. Each river has a different set of wading problems. As bad as it is, the Clackamas is a cake walk in comparison to parts of the North Umpqua or the Snake River in Hell's Canyon. Every river requires a certain amount of research into what kind of shoe soles are optimum for wading.
The selection of footwear is of prime importance to every wading angler. Traction determines the anglers' performance and safety. If you're slipping and sliding, it is hard to cast accurately, and you're not very stealthy if you're falling down. A good pair of wading shoes supports your feet and protects your ankles. A great pair of wading shoes also provides a stable platform from which to cast and present the fly...and land fish.
Your choice of wading shoes and how you maintain them will determine how you perform as an angler. Traction and foot comfort determines how you cast, how well you wade, and how long you can fish. To be at your best, your wading shoes have to fit snugly for maximum support and protection. If you are sliding around inside your shoes while wading a swift stream, you are in jeopardy. Your shoes are your first line of defense against fatigue. While wading, you need soles that stick to the bottom of the river.
Lately I've been experimenting with several different traction soles. The wading shoes pictured above in brand new condition are Simms G3 Guide Boots equipped with screw-in Hard Bite Boot Studs and Hard Bite Star Cleats. Mine are now nearly two-seasons old, and it was after a poor performance in front of one of my clients that I finally examined the soles and noticed that seven traction devices were missing and six more were worn out. Studs and cleats of all kinds wear out. But if you wear Vibram soles they can be replaced easily. The next day with the faulty traction devices replaced, my wading and casting skill returned. Don't hesitate to bring your wading shoes to us for inspection. We will be glad to install or replace studs.
Pictured below are a pair of Simms G3 Guide Boots after 20-months of use by a hard working professional fly fishing guide. This picture was taken after all the worn cleats & studs were replaced.
Hard Bite Boot Studs and Hard Bite Star Cleats are tipped with tungsten carbide, which is much harder and more resilient than steel. It is commonly used in tire studs and industrial cutting tools. Tungsten carbide helps provide traction, because it is hard enough to bite into river bed structure. Tungsten carbide traction devices are especially good for rivers with smooth, rounded cobble bottoms. It is not only the submerged bottom that requires traction. River rocks are semi permeable, meaning that submerged rocks tend to absorb water, which softens the surface, and allows your tungsten carbide cleats to bite deeper.
When a river drops and the river bed is exposed to air and heat, these same rocks become harder, and are less friendly to traction devices. Some forms of basalt become case-hardened when they dry out, and exposed gravel bars can be more treacherous to navigate than submerged ones. A prime example of these types of terrain can be found on the lower Salmon River next to our store. Here, felt soles, or studded felt soles can provide the most reliable traction.
Simms AlumiBite Cleats are made from aluminum. Aluminum is soft and works in reverse of tungsten carbide. With aluminum, the rocks bite into the traction devices, rather than the traction devices biting into the rocks. For this reason, some anglers prefer aluminum cleats for wading rivers where the rocks are new and angular, such as the lower forty miles of the Deschutes River. Here a steady flow of new unpolished riverbed material is entering the water from steep dry canyon walls. AlumiBite Star Cleats, because of their extra thickness, are very good traction for areas of slick mud. Anglers often prefer a mixture of aluminum and tungsten carbide devices.
For extreme bottoms, such as the Clackamas or the treacherous, fly-only water of the North Umpqua, extreme wading devices, such as Korkers OmniTrax v3 (pictured above) are paramount to wading comfort and safety. These soles do have some complications however. The studs are a full half inch long, and for this reason give them a lot of lift, which can make them uncomfortable for anglers with weak ankles. Mossy Rock Soles are better on Korkers boots with laces rather than a Boa system, because laces allow a tighter fit between your boots and your ankles for enhanced support.
Felt soles were the original specialized traction devices for wading. The newest OmniTrax v30 Studded Felt Soles are made from nylon felt, which is remarkably durable in comparison to older wool felt soles. Felt enhances traction because it scrubs slimy plant coatings from the surface of underwater rocks. When used in such terrain, felt works very well. But felt is of little value on slick muddy shoreline or slimy logs. For that reason, a combination of felt soles with tungsten carbide studs installed have proven to be one of the most popular wading shoe soles. Felt gives enhanced traction right to the outer edges of the sole and studs grip wet wood and slick mud, as well as slippery rocks.