A Word About Waders

If you’ve been fly fishing for many years, you’ve witnessed the evolution of chest waders. Back in the old days—by “old days” I’m referring to the 1960s and early 70s—most people wore boot foot waders made out of vulcanized rubber. You would think waders made by Vulcans would have showcased advanced extraterrestrial technology, but these waders were heavy, fit poorly, totally non-breathable, and had rubber-soled boots with poor traction. Did I mention that they fit poorly?

Anyway, this was what was available at that time. Of course, many people wore the hip boot version of this technology, which was probably smart because you could kick them off if you took a swim. With the chest waders you were in deep doo doo.

Then came neoprene waders. I was guiding in Alaska when these came out, and I had one of the first generation of James Scott waders. These were significantly better than what was previously available, and I spent the summer making fun of my fellow guides who wore the old stuff. But all was not well with the early neoprenes. They had no lining fabric on the inside, so you had to turn the waders inside out and literally roll them on. And since wet suits were made out of neoprene, wader manufacturers assumed that waders should have a similar fit, meaning tight. These early neoprenes tended to “lift and separate” in very unbecoming ways on full-figured people. On the other side of the spectrum, slim people like me resembled elves in brown tights.

Over time, manufacturers learned that they could make neoprene waders with lining on both sides of the fabric. They also figured out that since most of their customers weren’t built like Legolas and didn’t appreciate the gymnastics involved putting their waders on, they might rework the sizing. For a time, neoprene waders, especially those made by James Scott, Streamline, and Simms were quite comfortable and considered cutting edge.

It was around this time (early to mid 80s) that lightweight, stocking foot waders appeared. I think Red Ball was the first, followed by Hodgman, Seal Dri and others. I could be mistaken as to some of these facts, as my exhaustive research included a Wickipedia search, conversations with alcohol-fueled guides, and my own hazy memory. Anyway, lightweight waders were a step in the right direction, but breathable they were not. In the heat of summer one had visions, even actual hallucinations, of Amazon rain forests, while in winter you remained mildly hypothermic since high-tech, synthetic layering and insulating materials were just being introduced, and most of us wore cotton or wool long johns at this time.

I believe it was 1993 when the first Gore-tex waders came out. Simms introduced them and they were brown in color. I had a pair and they were a big step forward as far as comfort was concerned. However, the comfort level was reduced dramatically when they started leaking, which was fairly soon. Simms had problems with the seams. Despite early problems, Simms was on the right track.

In my opinion, the first truly great breathable wader was made by Simms just a couple of years later. I think it was called the Guide Wader and it sported a face fabric of microfiber material (with Gore-tex sandwiched in between, of course) that was very supple and comfortable. By this time, Simms, with the help of Gore, had figured a lot of things out in regard to sealing seams. Also, this wader did away with the lightweight fabric foot in favor of a neoprene one that was much more comfortable. The Simms Guide Wader was popular and proved to be very durable. Once in awhile I still see somebody wearing an old pair today.

Over time, many companies jumped into the wader business. I can understand the profit motive, but personally I’ve had nightmares about being a wader manufacturer. This is because there are two kinds of waders, those that leak and those that will leak. It’s the time factor involved that proves to be problematic. Human nature being what it is, people want waders that are breathable, inexpensive, and that will last forever. People also want to go to heaven without dying. Along with unrealistic expectations, people routinely abuse their waders, bushwhacking through jungles of thorns and thistles, climbing through barbwire fences, sitting on abrasive rope seats, and loaning their size Medium Longs to their fat brother-in-law. Of course, all these folks want the wader company or retailer to fix their leaky waders immediately and at no charge. Guides, and I’m one myself, are the worst abusers and the biggest whiners. “We’re professionals for God’s sake—companies should just give us waders.” Anyway, I could go on and on, but maybe you can understand the persistent nightmares. Zoloft has helped.

Back to wader history: I should mention that not all breathable waders are made with Gore-Tex. Waders with waterproof, breathable coatings began to appear. I wasn’t too impressed with the early generations of these waders, but now they approach the breathability and durability of Gore-Tex. In some cases I think these waders are a bit more comfortable, as the fabric is more flexible. Many companies produce these waders and the price can be very reasonable. A strong case could be made that Patagonia’s Rio Gallegos wader is currently the best wader on the market, and it is not a Gore-tex wader.

Also, keep in mind that not all Gore-Tex membrane is created equal. Some is geared towards aerobic sports (Gore-Active) and is highly breathable, while others emphasize durability and are less breathable. The backer fabric used in conjunction with the membrane plays a role in all this. Waders emphasize durability over breathability, and some of the premium waders are multi-layered, especially in the legs and seat. While this creates a durable wader, the glue required to keep the layers together also affects breathability. So we’re back to the “you can’t have everything” reality. The consumer has to decide what he really needs.

Lately, we’ve seen waders appear with a variety of zippered pockets, waterproof pockets, handwarmer pockets, and tippet-tender pockets. It’s amazing what you can stuff in these (camera, potato chips, machetes), and this allows you to get rid of your vest or fanny pack if you know how to organize. While all these features are very functional and handy, they do add bulk to the chest area. If you like to wear your waders rolled down in hot weather, they don’t work too well. Of course, this is when waist-high waders are an option to some, unless you need to wade deep.

Boot-foot breathable waders are the ticket if the water is really cold. The additional room in the boot traps warm air and allows you to wiggle your toes. Plus, they are easier to take on and off than stocking foot waders. Fly shops find them problematic to stock, as there are midgets with large feet, basketball players with small, and every combination in between. So finding the perfect size is not easy, and they are expensive. All that being said, they work great, and the guides especially covet them, especially in the liquid ice of tailwaters. But for a couple of years we haven’t been able to get bootfoot waders from Simms since they SAY they’ve had problems with the Muck Boot. I’ve NEVER had problems with the Muck Boot and nobody I know has had problems, so to avoid rioting in several fishing towns, companies had better introduce boot foot models again soon, even with that crappy Muck Boot that’s NEVER FAILED ME. Thank you. I feel better now.

Much more could be discussed. Chest waders should come up to your chest. Don’t get the inseam too short. Don’t get the inseam too long. Dry them out when you’re done fishing. Guides are famous for not drying them out, and later in the summer they smell like rutting mule deer. Zippered waders are nice if you want “ease of access.” Buy a pair with good zippers—like Simms and Patagonia. When you’re not using them, unzip them. Don’t keep them zipped and rolled up, as this can cause problems with the zipper.

There are some great waders out there and they’re getting better every year. Take care of them and they’ll serve you nicely.