Wet Wading Gear and a System for Fly Fishers

by | Jul 10, 2021 | 23 comments

** Note **  Links for wet wading gear are in the second half of this article

Did you know that breathable waders breath most effectively underwater? Fun fact, right? The permeable membranes pass water vapor best when there’s a significant temperature difference between the inside and the outside of the wader (hot and sweaty inside and colder outside). It’s 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. The only place for much vapor transfer to happen on hot days is under water. So, hiking the banks at eighty-five degrees in waders can be pretty miserable. 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. 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, while I was up to my thighs in cold water, I didn’t break a sweat.

Careful, there  . . .

In many rivers, summer trout fishing isn’t good. If the water is too warm, the trout are off the feed. And it is unhealthy for a trout to be dragged around in warmish water with a hook in its mouth. That’s a fact.

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.

READ: Troutbitten: PSA — It’s Hot Out There

Lucky Net. I kept this one going for six years before switching to the Fishpond.

Where?

On many western 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  wear waders with the tops rolled down.

— — — — — —

The Gear

** Note **  The links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Troutbitten earns a commission if you click through and make a purchase. So, thank you for your support.

Good wet wading has nothing to do with a pair of old sneakers and cargo shorts. Don’t do that. Instead, here are the elements of a good wet wading system. (And here’s the 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 (guard socks) are about $25-50, and they are pure gold. These neoprene socks take up the space in your wading boots. Normally, the booties on your waders do that. 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 wore 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.

 

Buy Orvis Wet Wading Guard Socks HERE

 

Buy Simms Guide Guard Socks HERE

 

Both of these wading socks are 3.5 mm neoprene. That’s important, because the booties in your waders are likely 3.5 mm too (or thicker). Some cheaper guard socks out there are only 2.5 mm, and they don’t take up space in your boots the same way or provide as much cushion. Details matter.

** NOTE ** In the last few years, long neoprene socks that go up to he knee have been showing up as a wet wading socks. But if they don’t have a gravel guard, they are useless on a trout stream. Buy something like the guard socks shown above.

YOUR Boots

The neoprene guard socks allow you wear your regular 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 wore my buddy’s wading sandals once, and they were just 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 my foot unprotected. I had to change the way I waded and therefore the way I fished. For trout water, sandals are the worst solution.

I know guys who give a hearty thumbs up to some of the new(ish) wading shoes on the market designed specifically for wet wading. Most have a neoprene liner inside of a light-framed shoe. If that sounds good to you and you like spending money on fishing gear, try the shoes on first, get a good fit, and you might be happy.

I’m a big fan of Simms Freestones and Simms G3 boots. I’ve owned many pairs of these through the years. The build is super-solid, and the foot support is excellent.

Buy Simms Freestone Wading Boots HERE

Buy Simms G3 Wading Boots HERE

 

Regular Socks

Some guys slide their bare feet right into the neoprene wet wading guard 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 underneath 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.

Hiking socks under the neoprene wading socks. I like it.

These Darn Tough brand hiking socks have a lifetime warranty. (That’s kind of amazing). The socks are just about the best thing I’ve ever slid on my feet. I wear them all year long for fishing and about eight months out of the year for everything else too.

Buy Darn Tough Medium Cushion Boot Socks Here

 

Underwear

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.)

Sharing this is weird, but here’s the underwear I like for wet wading

Buy Under Armour Mens Tech Boxerjock Here

Pants

Lightweight, quick drying pants are the key. You want pants that don’t hold water, so they aren’t heavy while wading 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 are my favorite:

Buy Columbia Silver Ridge Convertible Pants Here

 

Simms, Orvis and Redington all make some nice, light, wet wading style pants as well. Although I find their sizing to be limited, they may be just right for you.

Lastly, the tight leggings that some anglers choose are a poor solution for me. Thin leggings do almost nothing to protect your legs from briars and jaggers that nick and cut your legs. So too, tight pants make you look like an elf with a fly rod in your hand. And that’s kind of silly.

Hat

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. I like to do the same thing with a sun gaiter or buff.

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.

Long Sleeves

Here I’m not talking about long sleeved, quick drying shirts designed for sun protection — although, they’re a great choice and far 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.

No Fear

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 secondhand stories about staph infections and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Fair enough. I’ll concede that wet wading with an open leg wound might 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.

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.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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23 Comments

  1. Domenick, thank you for a great article. I have been wet wading in North Georgia for 7 years. Mostly in smaller streams. Coincidentally, I have been using your system except I wear shorts & short sleeve shirts. It is absolutely wonderful and each year I count the days until summer. I also roll up an inexpensive rain jacket & stuff it my sling pack. It’s great if the temps fall or rain pops up. Thanks again & see you on the water!

    Reply
  2. Your dog; River is a full-time wet wader with nothing on…except a bandage collar. BTW thanks for the info.

    Reply
  3. Good system Dom.

    I use something a little different that works well for me, and that I think might be generally preferable for people who want to cover a lot of ground (5-10+ miles a day), especially where a lot of the walking is on gravel bars, meadows, or trails rather than cobbles in the water. I wear light Darn Toughs inside some light, quick-drying trail running shoes with pretty grippy soles (but still only rubber), and lightweight gaiters (Kuiu Scree) to seal the long pants against the low-cut shoes and keep out ticks, sand, etc.

    The advantage of this system is it’s a lot lighter on the feet, and it drains and dries really quickly once you’re out of the water. It’s much nicer for a long hike out. The disadvantage is that it’s not nearly as grippy in the water, but it shines when you’re mostly walking out of the water with occasional crossings or wading in to cast.

    Since somebody else mentioned your dog River, I’m curious if you’ve thought about posting an article about how you trained River to be a good fishing companion, and how you operate on the river with a dog exactly. I want to take my young Belgian Tervuren shepherd in that direction and have some ideas, but I’m always looking for tips & tricks.

    Reply
  4. I have gone to either 2 or 3 mm neoprene wet suit pants for wet wading. Just right for Colorado 50-60 degree water temps and great protection from rocks and sticks.

    Reply
    • Hi Tim.
      That’s a different idea.
      What do you use for gaiters, then?
      And neoprene pants are designed to insulate and provide warmth, correct? Don’t they make you hot, especially when walking?
      Dom

      Reply
      • guys.. Ive been doing this for years. Winter in the gulf coast bays while kayak fishing and now in the rivers of Central Oregon for summer. The light neoprene wet suit bottoms provide protection, and just enough warmth on the cold water streams. Tailwater, the Crooked stays around 45-50 and the spring creek Metolius stays in the low 50’s. I use the Simms, Korker, and Orvis wading socks with my normal boots. I too wear a liner sock of some sort under the wading socks. I usually wear a pair of fishing shorts over the wet suit to provide pockets and to look not so geeky…. this idea was first shown to me by guys from New Zealand. I prefer the wet suit and shorts to the long pants. I need the extra warmth on the cold water streams I fish.

        Reply
      • Hi Dom,

        If you like wet wading but want something slightly more insulated and advanced, there is some great stuff coming out of the adventure/obstacle racers like tough mudder and stand up paddle-boarders.

        Before, the best thing you could get was a 3mm wetsuit pant, but the wetsuit traps and warms a layer of water. So your carrying water when walking upto the next pool. Also the 3mm is ok but not great for a hike in, still more resistant than I would like.

        The new stuff is amazing, great insulation, hydrophobic, stops wind chill, dries super quick and is easy to move in.

        Check out
        Lavacore
        Sharkskin (aussie brands)
        Frogskins
        Adrenalin 2p

        Adrenalin 2p pants are my favourite as they provide the most movement and cheap at $20usd.

        The frogskins have more insulation but felt too warm. Unlike an adventure racer, I’d just go to waders when it’s colder.

        I haven’t tried the other two.

        It’s worth checking what’s available where you are, there might be different brands available in the US, but search the SUP and adventure race communities.

        Cheers from Australia.
        Great articles btw, I enjoy them immensely.

        If I ever find myself in your part of the USA, I’d hope to book a lesson with you.

        Sean

        Reply
      • Dom, As Ronr says, the wetsuit does more cooling than warming on a summer day. Also, unless I’m only walking less than a half mile when I start the day, I carry my wetsuit pants in a backpack and gear up when I get to the river. Same thing at the end of the day- I put my walking shorts and hiking boots/shoes on and carry the wetsuit and wading shoes in my pack. During the day I rarely am out of the river and walking unless it’s just a few yards around an obstruction.

        Reply
  5. PS to my comment… since the wet suit is wet when I get out of the river… the walks to the next spot are comfortable as the evaporation is cooling. Best solution for me!

    Reply
  6. Dom, I agree with the system you propose i.e. neoprene wading booties with gravel guards and your regular wading shoes. However, we recently toured the waste water treatment facility on our river and my opinion of wet wading dramatically changed. Like you, I grew up wet wading in cricks and ponds without concern and I always wet waded the Little j in warm weather. However, knowing what I know now, I would not consider wet wading in any waterway that has a “Combined storm water/sewage treatment system. We learned from the WWTP mangement that it takes only 1/2 ” of rain to trigger a “bypass event” meaning that millions of gallons of raw sewage, domestic and industrial waste are released directly (solids and all) into the river. Think about it, would you wade around in raw sewage? That is what you are doing if there is a WWTP up stream. BTW most municipalities in Pa. operaate antiquated Combined sewage/storm water systems.

    Reply
  7. Wimp! Water at 55 or higher, air temp above 60, I’m wet wading.
    I’ll get the neoprene inserts though, thanks for that. I usually just put up with gravel in my boots.

    Reply
  8. Hello Dom,
    Appropriate timing for this article. Your wet wading system is spot on. In NorCal it can get pretty hot and that promotes algae in the water ways I fish. To complement wet wading I utilize a wading staff and also carrying a LifeStraw to use for drinking water to help keep my system light. I also wear a super thin long sleeve moisture wicking shirt under my regular fishing shirt for added protection from the sun and helps with evaporation. Keeping hydrated and short little breaks where shade is found also makes for an enjoyable outing. My 2 yr old pup Charlie who sports a quality Ruff Wear floatation vest is often at my side for companionship and together we make a great team for a memorable outing. Thanks Dom for sharing your tips and wisdom!

    Reply
  9. Hi Dom,

    Great article on wet wading. And spot on! I fish in central Colorado, mainly the South Platte, 11 mile Canyon and the Arkansas and wet wade in late June, July, August and early September. My set up is Korkers boots, Sims neoprene booties, a bathing suit and Tenkarabum.com neoprene gators The gators are they’ll cross strap on and go from the middle of your boot to just above your knees. They work very well when you need to heal down in the water. Highly recommended.

    Again thanks for the great article.

    Russ Bogardus

    Reply
  10. Hello dom,
    I’m a Florida boy that goes to Pisgah NC areas … during the summer I go with Simms flyweights ( broke in and sockless) and board shorts, seal line waterproof 20liter pack and jump right in to get to those areas no one else goes to .
    Important to go with a buddy.

    Reply
  11. My girls use the same type underwear only in the female versions. No one likes a cold wet bottom for long. Available in the workout gear dept.

    Reply
  12. I wet-waded in three seasons in Wyoming for many years. Yes, I got numb sometimes, but I haaaaate waders. You describe my system, except for the fact that I have no ACL in my right knee, so I never go out to fish or x-c ski without my brace. Unfortunately, brace over top of pants just doesn’t work for me, so I use shorts and tights. The tights protect from most hazards to some degree, and the brace protects my right leg almost completely from abrasion. I guess I could use the zip-off pants with the right leg zipped off and the left leg full. The reason I have an unrepaired ACL to deal with is that I popped the autograft while fishing without a brace. I also skied 5-6 days per week with the same shorts and tights, down to -15F. As long as I am moving, tights are just fine. I moved to Oregon last year, so my wet-wading makes even more sense here. The blackberry brambles here may make me switch to the zip-off solution. At 70 years old, simple gear like this still works for me, and someone caring what I look like in shorts means nothing to me.

    Reply
  13. BTW, I wear Darn Tuffs all day every day of the year. Good in cold and hot and everything in between. And they honor the lifetime warranty with replacment. Knee-high for skiing. Medium to heavy hiking sock for everything else.

    Reply
  14. Duluth Traders (Duluth Trading Company) also makes light weight quick dry pants called “Dry on the Fly (DOTF).” They have them in a great variety of sizes, including women’s sizes, and also have them in shorts.

    Their DOTF cargo pants and shorts also have large pockets.

    Reply
  15. Thanks for a great article. I wear Columbia wading shoes. They are ok but a lot of gravel gets in. They do have great traction despite the fact that they don’t have cleats. But I’d rather be in them than dying of heat stroke in a pair of waders. Thanks for the suggestion about light, long pants. I’ve been wearing shorts and have been stung by nettles more times than I’d care to admit. I’ll be out shopping tomorrow for a pair.

    Reply
  16. Great article. Thanks.
    The only non negotiable item down here in Australia are snake gators!
    Don’t leave home without them.

    Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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