Thursday, February 24, 2011

Where the Rubber Meets the River

Let’s face it, at this point, felt wading boot soles might qualify for a listing with the Endangered Species Act. 

New Zealand, Alaska, and Maryland have already said no. Montana, Oregon, New York, Vermont,  and Missouri are all considering bans. Trout Unlimited has taken a "no felt" position. And major manufacturers such as Simms and L.L. Bean have dumped felt from the line up. It seems that the writing is on the wall. 

Sure there are going to be some stubborn holdouts who moan and complain that “nothing beats felt,”- and if you are talking about straight rubber vs. felt, that statement would be accurate. But when you add some steel to the rubber, the differences become pretty slim. 

Up Armored Streamtreads. Star cleats and Hardbites.
There is little doubt that Maine’s coldwater fisheries have had to contend with a lot of insult in recent years. From illegal pike introductions, to bass in the Rapid, a collapsed hatchery strain of brown trout, to seemingly warmer and warmer trout seasons (remember last summer?)- at this point, the last thing that our streams and rivers need is to have “rock snot” (didymo) turn up. 

Last year a nasty rumor went around that rock snot had turned up in the Kennebec River near Solon. I haven’t personally witnessed it, and so far those reports remain unsubstantiated. But it certainly brought the issue home in a big way- no more stoneflies in the Petroglyph riffle in June? No more risers in the glassy tailout of the Hellgrammite pool? Thoughts of a potentially collapsed fishery were a tough pill to swallow, and it certainly brought the issue home in a big way.

I made the switch last season and retired my trusty felts for a pair of rubbers soles. I went with a pair of Simms boots with the Streamtread soles. First impression- there is no doubt that felt works better than naked rubber. Felt is soft and rough, which creates a huge surface area that can form around slimy rocks, gripping from multiple angles and directions. Rubber is harder, and there is probably no practical way to create a durable rubber sole that would be soft enough and rough enough to exactly mimic the grip-ability of felt. That’s where the heavy metal comes in- cleats and studs are the answer to better rubber sole performance.

I tested the Simms Streamtreads in 3 basic configurations. Plain-off-the-shelf, carbide star cleats, and finally star cleats with Hardbite studs. I fished them all over, from the Rapid, the East Outlet, the Dead, the middle Kennebec, the Upper Andro, Montana and some smaller streams and rivers in between. I also had a chance to use them on the Salmon River in New York this winter, a rich stream that holds a lot of slime of on the rocks even in January, and will test the limits of any type of wading boot.

Initially I waded with just the Vibram Streamtreads (naked rubber) this spring. This option is really a non-starter for me. While the soles grabbed on some surfaces acceptably well; clean, rough granite; they were miserable on rocks with any amount of slime and surprisingly poor performers on pebble-gravel in faster currents. If you were only going wade very small, clean, cold streams that required a lot of backcountry hiking, this might work for you. But if you plan to fish richer rivers with swift currents, I wouldn't recommend this option.

Next I added some carbide-star cleats, that are designed to integrate into the Streamtread’s tread design. The star cleats consist of chunks of carbide that are clumped together to form very rough, and grippy surface. Major improvement. I was again able to move around the river with ease in most situations, but to be honest, the sole still left a little bit to be desired. While cat walking on some wet/slimy granite boulders at the waters edge along the Dead River, I took a digger that was pretty scary. It happened fast, I took a step, and almost instantly I was laying in the prone, face down in granite rubble. The only thing that I can surmise is that I stepped on an area of the sole where there was no steel between the earth and my foot, and bang-  down.

The next evolution was the addition of the Hardbite studs. These are basically just carbide, hex-head screws. The Streamtread has “spots” that are designed to receive the Hardbites. I used the Hardbites to fill the gaps between the star cleats. At this point we are talking about some pretty heavy metal, up-armored, wading boots. The results are awesome- these soles grab. I ran around the Salmon River for three days on some of the nastiest, slimiest cobble I have ever seen and not once did I have an issue with slipping. As an added bonus, rubber soles do not pick up snow when you walk, eliminating the need for strap on style Korkers during the winter months.

It is inevitable, rubber soles with a lot of heavy metal are becoming the new normal. Metal studs and cleats are notoriously hard on boats and canoes. For years many drift boat guides has a “No Stud” policy in their boats to save the wear and tear on fiberglass decks. That really isn’t a realistic option anymore. If you fish from a boat or wear your wading boots in a canoe, a good option is the use of vulcanized rubber fatigue mats. Most home improvement stores sell them. The best ones have the holes them which allows water to dry underneath them. They can be cut with a utility knife to custom fit the deck of a boat or canoe. They are super durable, are heavy enough that they won’t blow out when you are trailering 70 miles per hour down the highway, and have the added bonus of keeping your gear out of the water on the deck and help to make your craft that much quieter.
Cover the major contact points, especially the edges.

Tips For "Up-Armoring" your Streamtreads:

  1. The screws on the star cleats have a tendency to loosen after a while. Simms states that the screws thread design keeps the screw from backing out, and I’m sure it works better than a standard screw, but they still are not perfect. Add a gob of Aqua-Seal or Shoe-Goo to the screw before drilling it into the sole. This will act sort of like a “locktite” and keep the screw from loosing over time, eliminating the need to retighten your screws and possibly losing a cleat in the river.
  1. The Hardbite studs come with a hex-head spanner style wrench. Don’t even bother trying to drive the screws by hand. Put a ¼” hex-driver on your trusty old DeWalt and wind the screws to her. Again, a dab of goop can help keep these from working loose.
  1. The pattern that you use doesn’t really seem to matter. Go for an even distribution of the Starcleats along the outside edges of the sole and fill in the gaps with the Hardbites.
For those interested in learning more about becoming a Clean Angler, check out the following link:

Good luck out there, and keep the top of your waders above the waterline.


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