Wading Basics


One of the first purchases a fly angler makes is waders. Waders have come a long way from the heavy, rubberized canvas, lug-sole monsters that we wore in the 60’s and 70’s. Today, modern breathable membranes, lightweight fabrics, and interchangeable soles have made wading much more comfortable. In this article I would like to cover some of the basic choices one can make when purchasing waders, and then discuss some important wading issues that will help you wade more comfortably and safely.

By far, the most popular waders sold today are called “stocking foot”. That refers to the wader having a neoprene, soft, bootless foot that must be worn with a wading shoe that is purchased separately. They are most popular for two reasons. First, they can be made in a wide variety of sizes and shapes for both men and women. From small/short to XXL/extra long, modern stocking foot waders are made in sizes that will fit nearly everyone. Waders that fit properly are more comfortable and will last longer. Also, the wading shoe can be purchased in the correct size. For example, if you wear an extra large short size wader but have a size 8 foot, you can be fit properly. Secondly, because wading shoes will often last much longer than the stocking foot wader, replacing them costs less. This makes stocking foot waders more economical in the long run.

Several manufacturers still offer bootfoot waders, but because they offer only a few body sizes for each foot size they rarely fit as well as stocking foot waders. Consequently, some anglers are unable to find waders that fit properly and are thus less comfortable and get less wear out of them. Bootfoot waders are also much heavier and bulkier than stocking foot waders. That makes them less desirable for travel or long hikes to the river.

Buying waders involves two important issues: budget and fit.  The cost of waders is directly related to the number of features that they boast. Waterproof pockets, padded knees, zip-fronts, drop-down systems, synthetic wool linings… the list goes on and on. However, let your budget determine the list of features you purchase. The most important budget feature that you should consider is the number of layers the wader has. This will directly affect the life of the wader. More expensive waders are usually four layer systems while the more economical stocking foot waders are generally three layers. Bear in mind that fit is a major factor in the durability and longevity of any wader. Waders that are too short in the rise will invariably leak in the crotch sooner rather than later. Also, since breathable stocking foot waders do not stretch, they should have at least a couple of extra inches in the inseam so that one can comfortably do a deep knee bend. This will ensure that one can get out of the stream by stepping up onto the bank. This is the most common cause of seam failure and the most common mistake anglers make when purchasing stocking foot waders. Having extra length in the seam from the crotch to the foot will ensure that the seam on the crotch will not be stretched too much and leak prematurely. Make sure that the waders are roomy enough to allow the breathable layers to breathe and circulate air. Since fit is such a crucial factor for waders to last, work well, and feel comfortable, take the time to try them on and walk in them before purchasing them.

What’s the most common question customers ask regarding waders? “How long will they last?” I have to honestly answer, “If you never wear them, they’ll last forever. And if you wear them every day you’ll be lucky to get three seasons out of them.” Most anglers wear their waders ten or twelve times a year and should get many years out of them. Bear in mind that pinhole leaks are easily repaired in seconds with products like AquaSeal UV and permanent seam failures and leaks are rare unless they are worn over many years, are abused, or fit improperly.

Next consider the soles of your waders. Today, invasive species such as zebra mussels, didymo, mud snails, and other highly damaging species are potentially carried from one watershed to another via wet felt soles, neoprene booties, laces, and other items. To avoid this, one should always fully dry items such as wading shoes, and waders before using them in a different river or lake. But if drying such items is not possible, throw them into a garbage bag and freeze them overnight. Freezing will kill the invasives.

Now that you have your waders, get in and wade. So let’s talk about some basic guidelines that will make your wading safer and drier. First, do not wade in water unless you can swim. “Thank you, Captain Obvious.” Make sure you have your polarized glasses to see how deep it is and if there is a rock waiting to trip you. Consider where you are getting in. Is there a silt bed where you are getting in? How deep is it? When you first get into the river, get organized and acclimated. By that I mean, “manhandle” the river a little. Don’t let the current push you around. Bend your knees and be athletic. You’ll soon feel stable if you resist the current with some effort. Then, as you move downstream or upstream, move your feet slowly by sliding them and “feeling” your way to the next step. Always set your foot solidly before moving the other.

One misunderstandings about wading is that if you fall into a deep hole and your waders fill up, you’ll sink to the bottom like a stone. Actually, when the waders are full of water in a pool or in a deep hole, the pressure inside and outside equalizes and they weigh no more full of water than they do completely empty on dry land. We all think our waders will drag us down because when we get a couple of gallons of water in them (at 8 pounds a gallon) and try to get out onto the bank, they are heavy. To minimize taking on a lot of water if you fall, we recommend wearing a wading belt. Wading belts will prevent a simple fall from becoming a wet, cold, day on the river. (Tip: When you put your wading belt on, kneel down and clip it. This will force air out and make you less buoyant and give you a more solid connection with the river bottom.) Normally when one falls in and gets water in their waders, air is trapped inside and they become buoyant. If you’re in deep water and you’re waders become buoyant and you lose touch with the bottom, arch our back and do the breast stroke to the bank, get out, and feel embarrassed. If you should fall and go down into the water, try not to panic. (Oh yeah, right.) Let’s face it, without exception, we all panic when we go down. However, even in the worst river, it’s unlikely that you will go shooting downstream like Brad Pitt for a half a mile. Rather, you will likely travel downstream about twenty feet and tail out into quiet water where you can stand up and get out to dry things. But that is a generalization. I won’t minimize that there is danger when one is in a fast moving riverthat is deep. Anglers can get tangled in their fly lines, hit their heads on rocks, or get tangled in debris in a river. Yes, accidents happen and we need to be careful.

If you need to cross a river, look ahead. Pick a place to wade across the river and get upstream of it. Then, wade down and across.  Never try to wade directly across the river at a right angle. As you wade downstream the current pressure is reduced and it becomes much easier to get to the other side. Just make sure that the depth across and downstream is shallow enough. Keep sideways in the current so you don't offer a wider profile to the current. Also, remember that the outside of a bend in the river is the deepest side of the river. The inside of bends is shallowest and easiest to wade. Knowing this simple rule will enable you to wade downstream on almost any Michigan river safely, even at night.

If you need to cross and think it’s possible you might lose your footing, hook up your fly on a guide, put your hand between the line and rod handle, and wrap the line several times around your wrist. This will keep your rod with you if you have to swim to the shore. Nothing is worse than getting a little wet, but losing your favorite rod.

Wading staffs, preferably collapsible, are also a helpful tool then wading fast moving water. One tip about using a wading staff in fast water is to lean upstream against the staff. Many anglers lean against the staff on the downstream side. However, if the bottom or rocks shift, the current can easily push you over downstream. When you lean upstream and the bottom or rocks shift, the current will help keep you upright. Additionally, studded, or aluminum bar soles grip algae covered boulders, logs, and rocks that feel like greased bowling balls.  Consider using these soles when fishing rivers like the St. Maries rapids, or large western rivers that have stove-boulder or cobblestone bottoms.

Since breathable stocking foot waders offer little insulation, you’ll need to dress for the weather and layer up to be warm. The waders will keep you dry, but that’s about all. If it’s warm out, be sure to wear a lightweight nylon pant that will release any moisture so the waders can breath. Denim is not the best material to let go of moisture and will be uncomfortable inside modern waders.

When the season is finished and it’s time to put the waders away, wash them gently by hand both inside and out and dry them thoroughly. Then roll them carefully from the feet to the top and put them away in a safe, dry place.