Over the years I’ve changed and adapted my gear for wet wading to better suit my needs in the driftless area. Wet wading here for me doesn’t mean I’m in the stream all the time, often I think most of us try to avoid being in the water for the obvious reason. With that said the driftless area presents a few different challenges when it comes to wet wading and getting the right balance between protection and comfort. I’ve tried multiple set-ups and some I still use, some I’ve abandoned all together but I will try to briefly lay out my pro’s and con’s to each so that perhaps a discussion can develop. If you have a better way of doing things I’d like to know and maybe my time fishing the streams of southeast Minnesota can help you be more comfortable the next time you go out.
Wet Wading Footwear: This is maybe the single most important consideration when it comes to gear. If you don’t take care of your feet they can’t take care of you. Initially I wore my wading boots that I used with my waders, the problem with this is that wading boots are sized to accommodate the massive amount of neoprene needed to keep your feet warm and dry when wearing waders. If you just shove your foot in the boots there is so much extra room you’re asking for blisters and chafing even if your out for only a short period so I started experimenting with options.
Option 1: Wading Boots/Neoprene Inserts. This is a viable option for most anglers. Pro: the inserts are usually pretty affordable and you already have the wading boots. With this set up you can use the gravel guard portion (we don’t really need gravel guards around here) to keep your lower legs completely safe from burning nettle, this was the primary reason I stuck to this set up for as long as I did. I still have the neoprene booties and I use them a few weeks out of the year but the major downside here is one that made me shy away from this option during the warmer months. Your feet get too hot, mine do at least and you can’t really get relief from standing in the water. I tend to fish all day and having super hot feet midday is a deal breaker for me.
Option 2: Sandals/Water Shoes. These are just one example, they held up ok but they are not designed to handle the rigors of getting wet and dry over and over again. I typically only employ these when I know I’m going for a short period and I don’t have any rigorous hiking to do. Pro: They are comfortable from a temperature standpoint. Con: They are uncomfortable from a rock/debris standpoint. They also tended to slip when wet in that once your foot was wet and you try hiking they would slip under your feet and cause the potential for mechanical injury. Ankle injuries have long been one of my biggest fears and considerations. I hike a lot and this type of mechanical injury is one I take steps to avoid at all costs.
Option 3: Hiking Boots/Socks. I have a good buddy who does this and it works for him. He just has a dedicated pair of boots that he uses for this purpose. Pro: They protect your feet/ankles better than sandals but are more comfortable in the summer heat than say the wading boots/neoprene option. Con: Hiking boots are not designed to get wet/dry repeatedly and thus this tears them up really fast. If you purchase even a decent pair you’re probably spending over $100.00 so that leads me to shy away and has firmly put me in the last category which as of today is my preferred footwear for wet wading.
Option 4: Wading Boots/Wool Socks. I know a few manufactures make a “wet wading boot” and I considered it but the reason I shy away from those are they have the neoprene liners in them and can’t be removed. I don’t want hot feet. So this year I purchased a second pair of wading boots and after some trial and error I downsized them enough to be just right with a thicker pair of wool socks. Pro: comfortable for long periods of time without getting hot and they are more supportive of your feet and ankles. By having a second pair of boots your are saving miles on your other boots meant for the thickness of your neoprene booties from your waders. Con: You have to purchase another pair of wading boots but my argument here is that I got boots for under $150. If you spend $100 on another option you’ve gotten pretty close to buying a second pair of wading boots. You’ll destroy a pair of socks over the summer but one pair for $11 dollars at Fleet Farm is worth it to me. Wool is excellent at temperature regulating and I have yet to be too warm with this set up. My feet are safe and comfortable with no blisters or chaffing, I can’t see myself switching from this setup.
Environmental Elements and Protection: As I see it there are a few big challenges to summer trout angling in the driftless area. First: the heat and the sun, you need to be cool and covered. I say this and I hate wearing a long sleeve shirt when I could wear a t-shirt. Second: the burning nettle and wild parsnip. Two environmental factors that can be uncomfortable on one hand and can cause long-term burns and skin damage on the other. Third: the bugs… Not so much mosquitoes but more the gnats, horse flies and other biting flies. I have a pretty high tolerance for all of these but I also take steps to protect myself. So what do I do about these things? Cover up. Head to toe I am covered in lightweight, usually quick drying clothing. This doesn’t have to be expensive either. The pants I purchase are from Fleet Farm and cost ~$30.00 and they’ve been rocking hard for two seasons (had to replace a button this year). I wear a long sleeve vented shirt over a t-shirt, usually the athletic kind that promotes moisture movement.
Finally my face and neck…the buff and my hat. I can fold the buff up over my ears and put my hat over it to hold it in place keeping my ears/neck safe from both the sun and bugs. Nothing like gnats getting in your nose and ears to send you packing and this does a really good job of keeping them at bay. If you don’t get enough protection from the bugs with the buff as is you can soak it and your other clothes in Premethrine (let it fully cure and dry) and nothing will want to come near it. I hate wearing sun screen and this is how I get around it. If I get too warm I usually just get wet and cool down. The quick drying clothes keep me cool and dry fast if I need them to. The only thing that gets to me still is heavy patches of burning nettle. Unfortunately the wool socks and the quick drying pants don’t stop it completely. Thicker wool socks pulled to my knees help but when it’s thigh high I typically try to avoid it as much as possible, walk around or get in the creek if I need to. If you have a better solution to the nettles I’d love to know.
Last thing I will touch on is hydration. It’s summer and you’re going to sweat. If you want to be out all day bringing water is important and it can help keep you cool. The problem is that water is heavy and carrying enough around all day is a pain. My suggestion is a portable water filter. I have used a Life Straw before (you can purchase at Fleet Farm or other stores for around $18-20) and it works well but you have to get down to the creek and basically put your face in it and you can’t really bring water with you unless you put it in a bottle and drink from the bottle. This year I picked up a Sawyer Mini water filter and so far I love it. Super light weight and portable, gives you multiple options and for about the same price as the Life Straw (picked mine up for $20) you can filter all the water you’ll need. If you stop at a Kwik Trip and purchase two bottles of water you’ll have spent the same $20 in no time. The only downside to either of these filters is the issue of farm chemicals and field run-off. In times of heavy rain when streams become turbid I tend to shy away from using these filters as they do not have a charcoal element to them which is needed to filter out agricultural chemicals. Keep that in mind when hitting the streams, if you are in a place with turbid water and need to use a filter you can usually find a spring which will have a safer source of water (I’ve been known to just drink from the springs in a pinch).
I hope this helps some of you get through the tougher elements of the summer so you can focus on enjoying the outdoors and fishing. If you have any questions or suggestions let me know. This system isn’t perfect by any means and I’m always open to improvements.