For many years, I fished with felt-soled wading boots because I thought they offered the best grip in the kind of rivers I like to fish.
But I switched to rubber soled wading boots a few years ago for several reasons, which I outline below.
I still believe felt offers the best grip on big, wet slippery boulders, but rubber soles have closed the gap and have several advantages over felt.
Let’s review the two types of wading boot sole.
Grip with Felt Soled Wading Boots
Felt soled wading boots have a soft layer of fabric glued to the sole. This offers (in my view) unparalled grip on rocky stream bottoms. I don’t why it works so well or what the physics involved here is, but if you are standing on an algae covered boulder about the size of a basketball, it’s pretty much a guarantee you will be wearing felt sole boots.
The only issues with grip you have with felt sole wading boots is they are very poor on dry land because they don’t grip well on gravelly slopes, wet leaves, slippery grass and many other surfaces. Many’s the time I have slipped down a grassy slope with felt soled boots on and wound up on my butt, but I was willing to trade that off for better in-stream grip on bouldery river systems.
Of course these felt soles don’t last as long, but when I started out in fly fishing and didn’t have much money I would glue bits of felt and pot scourers to my rubber soled boots to replace the worn felt.
Grip with Rubber Soled Wading Boots
Wading in rubber soled boots in the early days was a bit like trying to stand up on a steel plate with ball bearings scattered on it – not easy. They improved gradually over the years and today we have the Vibram rubber soles that offer very good grip.
Rubber sole boots also offer excellent grip on dry land – on dry rocks, slippery grass, mud and all other surfaces.
Why I have switched to rubber soles
The main reason I switched to rubber soles, though, was the rise of aquatic pest species such as whirling disease, didymo, New Zealand mud snails and proliferative kidney disease. This has led fishing authorities in some regions (such as New Zealand) to ban felt soles because the soles stay wet and anglers can inadvertently spread from one watershed to the next.
US states or regions to have banned the use of felt soled wading boots for fly fishing including:
- Rhode Island
- South Dakota
- Yellowstone national park
The other main disadvantages of felt sole vs rubber sole wading boots is the durability of the soles is far worse and they are much more slippery in all but specific situation of standing on stream bed rocks.
Plus the newer generation of rubber sole wading boots are very good in terms of grip.
But I still choose to add studs to the bottom of these wading boots to enhance grip in those situations. Studded boots in my view aren’t quite as grippy as felt sole boots and wet rock, but aren’t too far behind and are a good compromise. Falling in can be painful and inconvenient and I just prefer to avoid it.
I am told that the latest generation of Simms Flyweights have a new sole material, also developed by Vibram.
These Idogrip soles are much softer and more flexible than the previous rubberised Vibram soles and offer a level of grip truly akin to felt.
Anglers I have spoken with say these are a game changer in terms of grip levels, but I am yet to hear word about their durability and whether they can be replaced if they wear out.
Should I Use Felt Soled Wading Boots or Rubber?
In this final section of this article we go through a number of different scenarios where we think one choice is better than the other. Of course, only use felt soles in states and locations where this is permitted and dry and disinfect your fly fishing gear when changing from one watershed to the next.
Wading in tailraces and large freestone streams: felt soled
My view is that anglers spend too much time in the stream and that they scare fish unnecessarily when they are fly fishing by wading too much. But in these large rivers, wading is unavoidable and they often have slippery bottoms and fast currents. Felt sole wading boots offer excellent traction on slippery stone and can really help you to wade safely, particular in rivers where crossing is difficult. Use a wading staff for added protection on river crossings.
Headwater streams with big boulders: felt soled
Those boisterous mountain streams we all love to fly fish with a three weight and handful of dry flies can often feature some pretty sharp gradients and some big and slippery wet rocks. Felt soles offer good traction here are often an advantage in this kind of territory.
Lowland and meadow streams: rubber
These lazy, meandering trout streams often have a sandy or gravelly substrate and there is just no need for felt soles when fly fishing in these conditions. Rubber sole wading boots are much better in this environment. Modern Vibram rubber soles will give you all the grip you need in the stream and far superior grip to felt on the river bank.
Wading in lakes is generally much less hazardous than wading in rivers from the point of view of slipping. The lake bed is usually softer and sandier and you don’t have currents to contend with. Best stick with rubber sole wading boots when you are fly fishing in lakes for their durability and grip on dry surfaces.
What About Interchangeable Soles?
Korkers offer wading boots with interchangeable soles that some anglers like. I have owned one pair of Korkers boots and had both felt soles and rubber soles to swap in and out.
They weren’t too bad, but not up to Simms in terms of comfort and durability in my view, so I went down the route of buying the Simms G3 Guide boots and then the Simms Flyweight boots and putting studs in the bottom of each to make up for the reduced grip of the Vibram soles.
I can’t wait to try out the new Isogrip soles, but I will wait for the current ones to wear out first (note to self, do more fishing!). These are quality boots so it might take a while!