Fly Fishers — How to Wet Wade
Did you know that breathable waders only breath when they’re underwater? Fun fact, right? The permeable membranes can only pass water vapor while submersed. Not such a big deal when you aren’t producing much water vapor (evaporating sweat), but it’s a messy, clammy situation when the mercury climbs and the water drops. Amiright?
As modern life becomes more automated, more air conditioned and less labor intensive, it seems that our general tolerance for being uncomfortable has suffered. So baking yourself crispy in a plastic suit with suspenders is pretty much out. Fair enough, but there’s no need to hang up the fly rod for the summer either.
What to do, then? Wet wade
For many years my summer fishing took me to mountain brook trout streams, exploring narrow canyons nestled into the State Forests of Pennsylvania. The water was low and clear, and accurate casting was at a premium. I covered miles of water in a day, the trout were skittish and small, and the experience of exploration was unmatched. It was also hot as hell.
It didn’t take long before I realized that waders were the wrong choice for this type of summer trout fishing. I dug out my rubber hip boots from another life, but the poor traction and foot support were not up to the required hiking. I then went to a pair of standard hiking boots and jeans. Meh. It was better but still lacking, and I’m not one to settle when things aren’t quite right.
So after a few more seasons of trying the wrong things, I finally figured out what many anglers already knew — wet wading is a joy when done right.
What is right? Who’s to say? But I’ll happily share with you a few key elements to a good wet wading system that works for me.
Wet wading makes even the hottest days comfortable. With the lower half of your body acting as an air conditioner for the upper half while it absorbs the sun, everything balances out. Just yesterday, I fished in ninety-five degrees all afternoon. But, up to my thighs in cold water, I didn’t break a sweat.
In a lot of rivers, summer trout fishing sucks. If the water is too warm, the trout are off the feed. And it is, in fact, unhealthy for a trout to be dragged around in warmish water with a hook in its mouth.
Sixty-nine degrees is my cutoff. You might have your own opinions about all that — your own number where you won’t fish for trout — and that’s cool. Regardless, trout hooked in water anywhere north of sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit should probably be played fast and returned to the water even faster.
On many western trout streams, summer is the peak of trout season, with runoff finally passed and the hatches in full swing. But in the east, our major hatches are over, and the fishing gets a lot more challenging with lower water and a higher, hotter sun — usually.
Point is, there are plenty of places to find good trout fishing opportunities, but it starts by using a thermometer and finding cold water.
When to wet wade
I wait for air temperatures above eighty degrees. That’s my mark. So if I know I’ll be on the water for a while with hard sun and temps above eighty, I usually break out the wet wading gear.
You’ll find your own mark though. Personally, I’d rather be a little too warm than too cold.
It’s also important to consider the temperature of the water. I sometimes fish a tailwater that releases at about fifty degrees in the summer. And no matter the heat of the air, I can’t tolerate that kind of cold on my lower body for long, so I just wear waders with the tops rolled down.
Alright, let’s do this. Here are the elements of a good wet wading system. (And here’s a bonus — comfortable wet wading is cheap.)
Neoprene Wading Socks
This is the only thing you really need to spend money on. Neoprene Wet wading socks are about $25-40, but they are pure gold. These neoprene socks take up the space in your wading boots which is normally filled in by the booties on your waders. The neoprene also serves to keep your feet protected and comfortable.
The socks have built-in gravel guards that fold down and keep sand and pebbles out of your boots. That’s nice, huh?
Honestly, I avoided buying these for too many years. I used to wear extra thick wool socks to take up the space in my wading boots. I used insoles and other things. And it all added up to being heavy and uncomfortable. Spend a few bucks here and love your life.
The neoprene wading socks allow you use your own wading boots, and that’s a good thing. I’m a little nuts about good river traction, and I want boots with studs that I walk in day after day. I want the foot and ankle support of my own familiar, solid wading boots.
I’ve worn my buddy’s wading sandals and oh my, it was terrible. Small rocks and sand constantly slipped between the bottom of my foot and the sandals, the traction was bad and unfamiliar, and the open nature of the sandals left much of my foot unprotected. I had to change the way I waded and therefore the way I fished. Did not like.
I know guys who give a hearty thumbs up to some of the new(ish) wading boots on the market designed specifically for wet wading. Most have a neoprene liner inside of a light-framed boot. If that sounds good to you and you like spending money on fishing gear, try the boots on first, get a good fit, and I’m sure you’ll be happy.
Some guys slide their bare feet right into the neoprene wet wading socks and roll with it. For me, that results in a chafed foot at the end of the day. I strongly prefer using a regular sock and then the neoprene wading socks. You could buy a polypropylene liner sock, but I just use my regular mid-weight hiking socks from Darn Tough (a great company from Vermont).
Of course, both pairs of socks get wet and must be dried out after fishing. Big deal.
Wear a light, polyester blend, moisture-wicking underwear.
For a while, I didn’t think this mattered much. I just wore my regular Hanes boxer briefs and dealt with the consequences. What are those consequences?
Cotton underwear takes a long time to dry out. So once you wade up to your waist, you’ll likely be wet down there for the rest of the day. At best it’s mildly annoying, and at worst, your body might rebel with more chafing and a rash.
Wading above your man parts is already shocking enough, so take care of yourself, dude. (I don’t know about lady parts, so girls, ask around.)
Lightweight, quick drying pants are the key. You want pants that don’t hold water so they aren’t heavy while wading the water or walking the trail. (Basically, the opposite of jeans.)
I’m also not a fan of shorts for wet wading. They really don’t keep you any cooler while in the water, and bare legs on the trout streams I fish are not a good idea. I like having some protection against jagger bushes, stinging nettles, ticks and other insects. I wore shorts to wet wade once. Literally, just once. And like the sandals, the shorts left me unprotected.
Go with long, but light pants.
These last couple things in a wet wading system are less obvious.
On the hottest days, I often dunk my ball cap in the river and put it back on. The cold water cools my head, and runs down my back while evaporating. Good stuff.
Just as important to me is the thin knit cap that I take along. Why the winter hat for the summer? On hot summer days the weather can change quickly. Just yesterday, a powerful thunderstorm cooled our hottest day of the year into the mid-sixties with cold rain and a cutting wind. I was at least a mile from the truck, deep into a great day of fishing when the thunderstorm passed through. And I was thankful for the knit cap; it helped hold in some heat when that suddenly became a priority.
Here I’m not talking about long sleeved, quick drying shirts designed for sun protection — although, they’re a good choice and arguably better than applying sun block.
But like the knit hat, I often carry a light, long sleeved fleece in my pack when I know I’ll be wet wading far from the truck. We think of wet wading as an effort to stay cool, but it’s easy to get too cold when the weather changes. Many days, I’ve been thankful for long sleeves after the sun went down, and I stayed comfortable well into the dark hours.
Likewise, if I’m starting at dawn, I know that without an extra layer on top, I’ll be way too cold for the first couple hours before the sun crests the mountain. I often start by wearing the light fleece shirt and stowing it away around mid-morning.
I’m still surprised by the number of anglers I find who are opposed to wet wading. They fear waterborne pathogens and incurable diseases. Inevitably, they have stories about staph infections and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Fair enough. I’ll concede that wet wading with an open leg wound may be unwise. And for anyone dead-set on the dangers of wet wading, I respect your decision.
But I grew up jumping in creeks and ponds whenever I could, and I guess I don’t have a fear of what might be in the water.
So I wet wade because it keeps me fishing all summer long. And just like winter angling, there are ways to beat the elements, to stay comfortable and keep the rod bent.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N