Going commando on the flats

When wading the flats for bonefish or permit, sometimes less is more
flats wading bahamas
Photo: Chad Shmukler

I’ve always had bad feet. High arches. Hammer toes. Stone bruises. As a high-school basketball player, I had horrible ingrown toenails that hurt more than any sprained ankle or buckled knee. As an angler, my feet have always given me problems. Finding footwear to alleviate the issues with calluses, recurring heel and ball-of-the-feet pain and even a bout with plantar fasciitis has been a never-ending quest that continues to end in futility. I have crappy feet. Period.

Last spring, during a trip to fish for bonefish on the Bahamian flats, the flats boots I wore were heavy and completely burdensome. A friend offered a spare pair, and I took him up on it, only to sport several blisters on the tops of both my big toes the day after I wore them. By the third day of a six-day trip, my feet looked like they’d been through a cheese grater.

And yes, I know there are options — some affordable, some surgical. But, honestly, I’m not prepared to dive off that cliff. It’s one more step toward the I’m-too-old-for-this declaration. And damn it, I’m not too old. Yet.

So, after the hamburger toes fiasco some months back, I’m back in the Bahamas and back on the flats. I brought my own pair of wading booties, and I know, with Neoprene stockings, they’re serviceable. They’re also heavy and, when they’re wet, they take forever to dry out. Oh, and they smell like Tarzan’s butt crack. I have a roommate on this trip and I really don’t want to be that roommate.

The answer, odd as it seems, is simple.

“Do I need flats booties on this bottom?” I asked our guide on the first day of the trip. Miles of blond sand flats stretched out before me, and it looked perfectly harmless.

“No,” he said. “No way.”

So … I’m a barefoot flats commando on this trip.

Spare me the sting-ray concerns. I’m shuffling and sliding like crazy. Don’t lecture me on the hidden rocks or shells, or the random mangrove shoot. I’ve worked through all the variables, and, aside from “fetid feet,” this is my best option.

The sand isn’t painful on the bottoms of my feet—in fact, it feels as though I’ve had a modest pedicure. The odd hole or twig or … whatever … it’s not nearly enough to convince me that I need to don booties.

Today, I stood atop the casting platform in flip-flops. I could have gone barefoot, I suppose, to make it easier to detect the fly line I invariably stood upon as I watched for permit all day. But … again, high arches and stone bruises are my crosses to bear. But when the time comes to get back in the water and wade for bones, I’ll be barefoot.

Tthis trip has convinced me that, very often, less is more. Walking around the sand of interminable flats, or traversing across the turtle grass as I hunt for fish, is sometimes best done—with caution of course—barefoot.

Yes, this comes with a disclaimer. If you’re walking a flat with sharp volcanic rock or line- and foot-slicing coral, you should protect your feet by choosing the appropriate footwear for the bottom you’re treading. Or, even on safe-to-wade-naked flats, if you’re simply more comfortable with wading booties or flats shoes on, you should wear them. You will obviously be better protected against the modest dangers of wading sand flats. But if you’re like me, and your feet are constant sources of pain and discomfort, sometimes less is more.

Barefoot I go into the Bahamian backcountry for the next two days. Wish me luck.


I’ve waded barefoot in the Bahamas for 20+ years. I always ask my guide if a flat will require wading booties; 90%+ of the time, he’ll say “not here, “mon.” It’s easier on the feet and there’s less water resistant. I often take a pair of flip flops to traverse dikes or rocky places-you can easily carry them on your belt of Fanny pack.

Bad advice. Great if you never encounter coral or any other sharp pieces/objectives, but when you do, and you will, you run the risk of major infection and you will regret it big time.

As the author advises—ask your guide. If you're not with a guide, and you're not familiar with the flat in question, anglers should definitely err on the side of caution and protect their feet.

The Simms tropical wading boots are straight up garbage. Way too stiff and way too much. If you want booties for wading in the tropics, get a pair of dive booties like one from Cressi or Mares. They have a thin sole, enough to protect you pretty well. They're much more flexible and comfortable, easy on, easy off too. I even use straight neoprene socks from them (no sole) and do just fine.