The Quest For Bullet Proof Tough Waders
October 25, 2013
In the morning, the trail is downhill. It almost always is. Rivers create valleys. The evening trail, back to the car, is harder, with less energy to spare after a day of walking, wading, and going toe-to-toe with steelhead, salmon, or smallmouth bass. In the dim light before dawn, you might step off the path. Brush drags across your waders. Sharp beaver cuts lurk in the shadows. Barbed wire comes out of nowhere. Leaning on a tree, you finally break through and step onto a gravel shoal on the river's edge. The pool appears, the one you've been thinking about all morning while drinking coffee, driving, and walking. Anticipation rises as you set up your rod. The rushing water slides around your boots. Dry feet. You smile. Two more steps and casting angles to the head of the pool open. You slip into the flow up to your hips. Then it hits you. It feels like a needle filled with liquid nitrogen as icy water numbs the back of your leg.
The uphill trudge comes far earlier than expected. Live long enough and it will happen...several times. But what's being done about it? When he learned I was writing this article, a book publisher in the fishing industry prompted me to ask manufacturers why his waders never last more than a year before beginning to leak. After all, we have GPS in car and boat. We can pull down satellite images of our driveways and favorite lakes. Two spacecraft have left the solar system entirely, still functioning. We're logged into a jillion gigabytes of data by little boxes that fit in our pockets. Why can't somebody make tough waders that won't leak?
My L.L. Bean waders have been folded into duffel bags, tossed onto float planes, and worn in canoes, kayaks, planes, and boats in every province of Canada and almost every northern state over the past 20 trouble-free years. That's right — 20 years of abuse without a patch or a single daub of Aquaseal. These waders are warm, tougher than a Gurka warrior, and very light — alleviating stress on my legs and back.
The model is no longer available, but they've been busy making improvements. My new L.L. Bean Men's Breathable Emerger II Boot-Foot Waders ($259) are constructed of waterproof, breathable laminate sandwiched between an outer layer of polyester microfiber and an inner layer of nylon tricot with 400 grams of Thinsulate in the boot. Wearing these in heavy snow and icy conditions on the steelhead tribs of Lake Superior last winter, a pair of light, microfleece wading pants and one layer of thin long underwear kept me warm all day. Bean makes waders ranging in price from $79 (Men's Flyweight II) up to $319 (Helix II) for every kind of application. Are they as durable as my last pair? Ask me in 20 years.
Apparently, the common complaints of die-hard river anglers haven't fallen on deaf ears. Technology is addressing the leaky-wader syndrome on all fronts. Several tactics show real promise: Sonic welding, which eliminates seams on the outside; and new materials that can turn aside bullets. Well, almost.
Rich Hohne, Simms Public Relations Manager, says the new G3 Guide Wader ($499.95) coming out in 2014 is constructed with five layers of the most pliable yet tough Gore-Tex fabric ever made. "We worked with Gore-Tex to make materials more supple for comfort and 25 percent more breathable, so we could go 5 layers thick," Hohne told me. "These are the most abrasion- and puncture-resistant waders we've ever had." Which is saying something. Professional fly-fishing guides the world over swear by Simms, which makes a lineup of waders for various climates — but G3 ups the ante for durability.
"Our GoreTex Pro Shell is nylon-based," Hohne says. "Not only are these the most durable waders we've ever produced, you can repair Gore-Tex easily in the field. They can be maintained to last a long time. A spray of alcohol makes any leak turn gray and you can seal it wet with the Aquaseal product provided with the waders."
Continued after gallery...
Orvis, another perennial favorite among pros, patented a new technology called sonic welding to produce some of the most comfortable, functional waders we've tried — the 2014 Orvis Silver Sonic Guide Waders. "Traditional wader-seam technology overlaps the fabric where you stitch it, and that creates holes," says Orvis marketing director Tom Rosenbauer. "We patented a technology for sonically welding waders: You bring two pieces of fabric together and they tent up in a V on the overlap. We weld those two together with a material that bonds when hit with a certain frequency of sound. You can't do it with polyester, so we had to develop a new, abrasion-resistant material. It's not more puncture resistant than the really heavy waders on the market, but they're more abrasion resistant. If the fit isn't absolutely perfect, you get drag. If anything sags, it gets dragged and abraded. We've removed the seams from the inside, and the sonically welded seams have a low profile and are more flexible than traditional stitched seams, so material doesn't abrade there."
Orvis makes a lineup of waders and wading shoes, and makes highly puncture-resistant waders as well, including the Silver Sonic Guide. "It's a matter of using a different fabric with a tighter weave," Rosenbauer adds. "It's slightly heavier than our other Sonic waders, which are so flexible and light, they're like wearing blue jeans. People who walk through brush need a heavier weight. Our Guide series has four layers of thicker fabric — made with a proprietary nylon in a special weave that resists punctures by not allowing one to start."
Last winter, I watched a young fly angler land a 6-pound steelhead. He then immediately scrambled over the ice shelves and went back to his car to warm his feet. Wading shoes can cut into fishing time in winter. Though it includes no sonic welding, the new Bass Pro Shops White River Eco-Clear Lightweight Boot Foot Waders ($219) are extremely durable, due to the new five-layer upper, laminated with a 100-percent breathable membrane, yet very light and comfortable.
With today's new materials for wader pants and under garments, lightweight waders with a boot foot can be worn more comfortably in winter in water temperatures approaching freezing. The boots are lined with neoprene for added warmth, with new Eco-Clear soles (made with crushed walnut shells and a new rubber compound) that grip better than felt and won't harbor invasive species. And these babies have lots of pockets that include deluxe handwarmers.
Frogg Toggs also has a new "super tough" wader line coming out in 2014, according to Will Fowler, Director of Marketing and Public Relations. "Our new Pilot II stocking-foot waders ($225) with 6-panel protection pads are very tough," Fowler says. "We have several new products this year, including a new lineup of raingear, but the Pilot II stocking-foot, chest-high wader is evolutionary.
"It will be a hit with anglers because nothing is left to fail in the field. The lightweight shell is made with material exclusive to our line. It's breathable, in classic Frogg Toggs fashion, and has 4-ply construction but no interior thigh seams. The inside is one piece and the seam is on the outside. Reinforcement is on the inside of the wader, on the seam. There's nothing to fail. And the way the material is cut, we created an articulated knee that makes walking and bending more comfortable, even though the knees now have 6-ply protection. We could make waders bullet-proof — but they wouldn't be comfortable. These are the toughest yet most comfortable waders you can make."
The Durability Debate
Dr. Bryan Burroughs, who heads the Michigan Chapter of Trout Unlimited, took his wife and father out catfishing one night and brought some waders along. "We set up, caught a few, and were just getting to prime time when a huge thunderstorm began to roll in," Burroughs says. "My family wanted off the water immediately. Getting back upstream wasn't easy. I threw my waders on, knowing I'd have to get out to drag the boat across some shallow spots. With the storm approaching, I began to row feverishly. I hit a shallow sandflat and the boat ran aground.
"I dropped my oar in 3 inches of water and stepped out right behind it. In my haste, I didn't realize a sharp drop-off was below my seat. I stepped out confidently and my foot never found bottom. My other leg, still in the boat, got caught on the oar lock, almost ripping one leg of my new Cabela's Gold Metal Waders off at the crotch while I was swept under the hull head-first. By the remaining shreds, the waders had me trapped.
"I was upside down and sucking in water, unable to come up for air. I felt like I was going to drown, so I started thrashing violently and finally tore my leg free. I came up for air, gagging, water draining out of my air passages." After asking if he was ok, his family told him to stop fooling around. "I was ordered to immediately get back to the task of getting them off the water quickly. When I got back to the landing, cooled down, and dealt with the fact that our fishing day was over and I'd destroyed a pair of brand new $150 waders, I opened the back of my truck to find my lab puppy had a bad case of diarrhea, all over his crate and himself. I sat down and was overcome by an episode of hysterical laughing-crying, like in the movie European Vacation, when Chevy Chase can't get off the rotary by Big Ben. Point is, I still haven't decided whether I wished the waders were more durable or less durable."
Regardless, Burroughs swears by Cabela's waders. "Over the last 10 years, I've stuck with Cabela's mid-range ($150), breathable waders," he said. "They've been good to me — comfortable, relatively cool in summer, and effectively durable."
For 2014, Cabela's is introducing new Guidewear Dry-Plus Chest Waders ($399.99). Marketing Director Chuck Smock says, "these are our toughest waders to date. They're made with five layers of breathable Dry-Plus on the lowers and four layers on the uppers. The durability is due to research. Dry-Plus is our most rugged, abrasion-resistant material yet. And we've added a waterproof security pocket for cameras and cell phones, and big cargo pockets for storing extra fly or jig boxes."
Last but never least, Caddis (Seasonal Marketing) has introduced a wader with a built-in jacket. The new Caddis All-In-One Breathable is like wearing a wading suit. The jacket folds down into a convenient back pocket. Mike Myers, president of Seasonal Marketing, said the new Caddis Deluxe Boot-Foot Waders ($150) are as durable as it gets without using Kevlar. "Nobody's doing anything like what you're asking about," he replied when I asked about improvements in durability and puncture resistance. "The kinds of materials you can use to make waders are limited. We use a heavier polyester fabric these days, but — again — the fabric itself is a limiting factor. Three-ply polyester is the fabric of choice.
"We use a soft polyester. Like hunting clothes, our waders are quiet, soft, and supple. About 85 percent of all defects in waders, historically, have been around the boots. The seam connecting the boots to the uppers is the culprit. We now tape, stitch, and glue on the inside. That leaves nothing to fail on the outside. But that process is almost seven years old. Nothing new about it. We have developed things other wader companies don't have, though — like full-length, water-proof zippers on the front."
Like the Bass Pro Shops' Eco-Clear sole, Caddis has addressed the transportation of zebra-mussel veligers (microscopic larvae), mud snails, and other invasives with new EcoSmart II soles. "The EcoSmart II is every bit as grippy as felt," Myers said. "But it provides better support and you can add our Super-Grip, replaceable studs for traction on slippery rocks. Most of the new technology in waders has been on the wading-shoe side of things because diseases and invasive species can be transported from one body of water to another. We're starting to see laws addressing that, so advances like Eco-Smart II are timely."
In the evening, when the trail is uphill, back to a vehicle shrouded in darkness, it's nice to know you're not carrying unwanted visitors to the next river you visit. It's even nicer to be dry, with no muscles or joints screaming after a day of restricted movement over fences and rugged terrain, knowing this just might be the last pair of waders you need to buy for a long time.
Waders Workers Use
Dr. Bryan Burroughs, who heads the Michigan Chapter of Trout Unlimited, knows a few things about waders. Not only does he fish a lot, he participates in bank-improvement projects, tagging studies, and electroshocking forays. "If you have pin-hole leaks in your waders when electroshocking, it hurts," Burroughs says. "I know that for fishery biologists and people who work in waders (guides excluded), Cabelas 3 Forks waders are standard issue. They aren't breathable, but have boots attached, making them highly durable, and only cost about $60. I can't tell you how many of those waders are out in the world at work, but I see them a lot. All in all, I like the comfort of new high-tech waders, but prices have soared and the comfortable ones don't last all that many years for the price. If you pay $100 for wading boots, plus $150 or more for mid-range waders, you certainly hope you won't have to shell out another $150 for new waders in three years. The upper-end models that go for $400 or more last forever, but I can't bring myself to spend that for electroshocking — not without knowing they'll last five years without leaks."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor, Brainerd, Minnesota, has spent more time in waders than most anglers have out of them. He contributes on many topics to In-Fisherman publications.