Wading boots, as far as they've come over the years, are not hiking boots. Even if you pony up hundreds of dollars for some of the finest models on the market, you're still getting a dumbed down version of a hiking boot. They're a compromise created by the dual requirements of needing a wading boot to do the things a good hiking boot does, but also be suitable for sticking neoprene wader booties into and being submerged under water most of the time.
Quality hiking boots do many things: they feature good latitudinal and longitudinal stability, provide traction on varying terrain, offer good arch support, fit comfortably and so on. All of these aspects combine to allow the wearer to safely hike long hours, over long distances, in relative comfort. Quality wading boots strive to do all of these things as well, but the aforementioned requirement of also allowing the wearer to jam a foot wrapped in a bulky, neoprene sack comes along and essentially ruins the effort.
I don't design boots for a living, nor do I claim to really know anything about it, but the equation seems relatively simple: if a boot needs to fit a wadered foot, aspects of that boots design that make it fit well -- like a properly-sized toe box, well-sculpted mid-sole, etc -- go out the window. Wader booties are bulky and vary widely in size and density. A boot that fits a wadered foot doesn't fit the foot at all, it fits a swollen, disfigured version of a foot.
This is all well and good for the wader-wearing angler. And, as mentioned, wading boots have advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years. Current incarnations of models from companies like Patagonia and Simms have left me considerably impressed, offering vastly increased comfort and agility in considerably lighter packages when compared with boots from 10 or even 5 years ago. But, as soon as those waders come off, these best-in-class boots become a disappointment at best and a nagging pain at worst.
The reason is simple and obvious: once the waders are gone, the boots don't fit well anymore. Thick, wool wading socks help a bit, but not much. Neoprene wading socks help a bit more, but don't ever seem to approximate the booties on waders. More importantly though, the waders are gone. Why would I want to wear bulky, uncomfortable neoprene socks in an effort to recreate the bulbous, rubber-wrapped version of my foot wading boots are designed to fit?
I'm a bit unusual here in the east, where I'd guess the majority of anglers spend most of the year in waders. I ditch mine the moment the weather and conditions allow, often before, and don't look back till I have to. I never miss the waders. And while I'm not in the majority out east, I'm also not alone. There are plenty of wet-waders out there. In the west, countless anglers stow their waders after runoff and don't even think about them until summer's gone.
So, with the waders and their bulky, blocky rubber sock feet out of the way, I want a wading boot that fits. One that fits the same way my hiking boots do, but that also drains water. Doesn't everyone?
Evidently not. It's been years since a dedicated wet wading boot was on the market and the few that were didn't stay on the market long. Simms made the wet wading boot shown above for a couple of years, and owners of the boots raved about them, but they didn't survive in the lineup. There are plenty of wet wading shoes, but most -- if not all -- of them aren't studdable and they don't offer ankle support. I'm not interested in wet-wading in sneakers. Many of the rivers I fish are tough, treacherous rivers to wade and doing so in glorified sneakers is likely nothing more than a recipe for a broken ankle.
I've talked with decision-makers at some of the industry's top companies and the word seems universal: wet wading boots don't sell.
I understand that having dedicated boots for wet wading is a luxury. Still, I find it hard to imagine that I'm alone amongst my wet wading friends in wanting more out of a wet wading boot. Hell, I've considered drilling water-drainage holes in my Asolo Fugitive GTXs. Sure, they're a bit heavy, but they fit like a dream. So, if no one is going to make wet wading boots that fit for me, perhaps I'll just make my own. Ultimately, though, I haven't because I realized that I'm not keen allowing all the things I don't understand about boot design to lure me into destroying an expensive pair of hiking boots.
Simms looks like they may be looking to test the market again with their new-for-2014 Vapor boot (not studdable), which seems to be designed with wet waders and hiking efficiency in mind. I look forward to getting those on the water as soon as possible. But, with few if any other options on the market, the choices are strictly limited.
For the time being I'll continue to wear my oversized, boxy wading boots through wet-wading season, cinching my laces down as tightly as I can while cursing their lousy fit. I'll consider buying the same boots in a smaller size, but won't, realizing that those boots are only designed to fit a bulky, distorted version of a smaller foot. At some point, maybe someone will decide that there's a market in wet wading boots again. Or, maybe bringing the issue up publicly will reveal to me that I am indeed alone in preferring to hike in and out of my summer streams, up and down the banks of the rivers I fish and along the streambeds of these swift flowing waters in boots that actually fit.