Spring runoff hasn’t muddied all of the water yet so I can clearly see where I’m placing my foot in the freestone river. Pebbles and a smudge of silt swirl around my wading boots turning the new, white-felt sole into a sponge absorbing green hues and gunk. I take another step. The sole on my other foot is designed dark so it doesn’t change color. It doesn’t grab as well either. It’s rubber. Rubber is on my right foot. Felt is on my left. I’m wading in mismatched boots testing the grip ability of rubber versus felt. Grip is where angler arguments start, but the backstory on boot bottoms and where that puts anglers today has even more grab.
“Felt was first in popularity,” says Josh Prestin, Redington brand manager. “ Rubber gained popularity in 2008 to 2010 because of invasive species talk. Before that, felt was the way to go and time, energy and thought wasn’t put into rubber.”
Now time, energy, thought and money are put into rubber, but its biggest drawback is still lack of grip. Felt ran the river until 2008 because it sticks well in slick conditions like wet rocks covered in moss. It was the standard by which all anglers stayed afloat, then invasive species invaded waterways and rubber started sliding into rivers.
Idaho tried to ban felt-soled wading boots in 2011 because of the sole’s potential to host and transfer invasive species to other watersheds. It didn’t fly in the Gem State, but it did in Maryland, the first state to ban felt. That was in 2011. Six other states followed: Alaska, Missouri, Nebraska, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont. Vermont reversed its ban in summer 2016. The rest of the bans are still in effect with Yellowstone National Park considering a jump on the ban bandwagon in 2018.
Hatch Magazine reported on a section of the Yellowstone River in Montana that closed last summer after a whitefish die-off due to Proliferative Kidney Disease (PKD). The disease didn’t go belly up in Yellowstone, but that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. Banning felt would be considered part of the park’s effort to combat aquatic invasive species.
“We wouldn’t want to ban a boot style if there wasn’t an alternative, but now there are alternatives,” says Todd Koel, Yellowstone National Park native fish conservation program leader. “That’s why, as a part of bolstering our overall aquatic invasive species prevention in Yellowstone, the park will probably be going to a ban on felt soles in 2018.”
Because felt grips and rubber slips, the theory is rubber grabs less invasives, but angler stability is compromised. To counter that, the fishing industry started producing cleats, spikes and screws. Rubber started sticking, and selling, better.
“It took me a while to warm up to it, but now I like rubber better than felt,” says Jimmy Gabettas, Jimmy’s All Seasons Angler owner. “Especially Vibram rubber soles. When you step out of water onto mud or grass, it’s better than felt and snow doesn’t build up on rubber like felt.”
Two hours west of Jimmy’s is Silver Creek where anglers must soak their boots in soapy tubs before and after fishing. The creek already has invasive New Zealand mud snails in it, but they’re not spreading. Boot baths may help with containment.
“Protection, that is my biggest mission,” says Sunny Healey, Silver Creek Preserve manager. “And anglers don’t mind at all. Soaking stations for boots are just like sinks for washing your hands to get debris off, but this is for mussels and snails.”
Gabettas sells rubber and felt in his Idaho Falls, Idaho fly shop, but outfitter John Huber of Picabo Angler near Silver Creek doesn’t give customers a choice. He stopped selling felt soles in 2014. He sells rubber only and he’s eager to explain why when customers question him.
“Better safe than sorry,” Huber says. “Our living is dependent on the health of our ecosystem. Why put that at risk if you can prevent with something as simple as switching the soles of your boot?”
Invasives are the reason for rubberizing a fishing trip, but the debate isn’t as simple as changing soles. Soles attach to boots. Boots wrap around waders. Waders have gravel guards. All of those layers are good places to hide bad stuff. The invasive argument goes further soles and anglers, and the states they fish in, are realizing that. That’s why the list of states banning felt isn’t getting longer. If the rubber versus felt debate did anything in the name of water, it raised awareness for properly cleaning your equipment, boots soles and beyond.
“Take responsibility and clean your gear,” Prestin says. “If you care for your stuff in an appropriate way, you’re not going to have a negative impact on the places you fish.”