Gear We Use: Best Fishing Waders

Gear We Use: Best Fishing Waders

Where I’m from, you’re not really an angler until you have a decent pair of waders. In the Pacific Northwest and many other regions, you need to be able to get comfortable standing in chilly water if you’re going to catch anything outside of July and August. Whether that’s wading deep in glacial torrents for Chinook salmon or hacking through the cattails to find untouched prespawn bass, these leg coverings are simply part and parcel of being a serious fisherman. The same could be said for hunters as well.

Out in winter steelhead camp, we basically live in our waders. It’s often nearly as wet outside the river as in it. Add mud and devil’s club and there aren’t many other leg coverings that do better. This puts an emphasis on quality and construction of the waders you choose—not to mention a need to actually enjoy having them on. Waders have improved lightyears since I was a kid, but the wrong pair will still leave you swampy and chapped. Here’s how to find a setup that works for you and your sporting needs.

What We Look for in a Good Fishing Waders

Except for the most extreme southern reaches of the United States, you can find waders in the garage of darn near every professional fishing guide. This gear may be less important for folks primarily based on boats, but lots of folks still like to have them for foul weather, trailering, or emergencies. Types of waders will vary across regions and pursuits too, but the four factors below shape how to approach the decision.

  1. Durability
  2. Materials
  3. Fit
  4. Function

The Fishing Waders We Use

What Makes A Good Pair of Fishing Waders

1. Durability

Waders leak. Get used to it. How quickly they begin to leak, however, can vary widely between models and brands. It also somewhat depends on how you treat the gear. Yes, sometimes you need to smash through the brush to reach that remote rainforest creek but bear in mind that waders aren’t built out of chainmail. An errant barbed wire spike will open up every pair of waders, every time. Washing your boots on a regular basis will also extend the life of your waterproof material and seams—not to mention keeping you from accidentally transporting aquatic invasives between waterways. It's also a good idea to learn how to simply fix wader leaks yourself. Here's a good resource.

Disclaimers aside, you will see a big difference in durability between materials, models, and brands. My dad once got me a relatively cheap pair of neoprene waders for Christmas one year when I was probably 15. By noon the very next day, I’d punched ‘em with three holes big enough to put a finger through on a morning duck hunt with my buddies. Luckily, Dad was angrier with the wader maker than me and happily chipped in so I could get a set that might last beyond a few hours in the swamp. Fishing may put slightly less stress on your boots than duck hunting, but not a lot less in my experience.

2. Materials

Anglers and manufacturers have been making waders out of various materials for a century or more. Some of the first consumer offerings post-WWII were made of rubber or treated canvas. That progressed to PVC-coated nylon and then to neoprene, which many folks still prefer due to its warmth and stretch. But in the 1980s, a former DuPont engineer named Bill Gore started experimenting with a thin Teflon coating that he and his son Bob eventually applied to clothing, making it both waterproof and breathable. It took some time for the fishing world to adopt the revolutionary new Gore-Tex material, but K.C. Walsh started making waders out of it shortly after buying a neoprene wader company from John Simms in 1993. Expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE) membranes, which have holes small enough to keep water molecules out but large enough to allow body heat and moisture to escape, quickly became the gold standard for both raingear and waders.

Today, many waders are built with a combination of materials. Many fishing models include ePTFE “breathable” uppers and legs welded to neoprene booties—known as “stockingfoot” waders, meant to be paired with separate wading boots. “Bootfoot” models tie breathable or neoprene uppers and legs to integrated rubber boots. That joint where the boots or stockings meet the leg material has bedeviled wader makers and wader wearers since the beginning. When you’re buying waders, look closely at the welding and protection at that interface.

Neoprene and rubberized nylon have largely disappeared from the fishing market, though they still have plenty of advocates in the hunting world. That said, some anglers still prize the insulation provided by thick neoprene or the bulletproofness of PVC-coated foulweather gear waders. But none of them likely want to walk very far in either material unless it’s darn near freezing outside. A lot more fishermen and women in cold climes prefer to [layer up with Merino wool](https://www.firstlite.com/products/mens-kiln-long-john), fleece, or down beneath their breathable waders, which allows excess heat and vapors to escape—but not straight up your face when you bend over.

3. Fit

Early waders were basically body-shaped bags with legs. Some hyper-modern designs run skin-tight enough to go on a jog up the riverbank. If you’ve got thunder thighs like me, something in the middle might be more your taste. Our crew likes waders that contour to your body shape without being constrictive in the knees, crotch, belly, or chest. You may want to emphasize your curves more than we do, but that only highlights the value of trying on different brands and sizes before buying.

Fly shops are great places to do this, but you may find each one only sells one or two brands, Simms or Patagonia, Orvis or Reddington. Even big box stores like Cabela’s or Sportsman’s Warehouse may only offer Hodgeman, Frog Togg, or proprietary brands. It may be more helpful to start with research online to find a couple manufacturers you’d like to try-companies with good customer service, solid reviews, and within your price range—then visit a store that sells them in order to try a few on. Some companies now offer a dozen or more sizes for the top-end waders, with specific inseam and torso measurements to match any body type.

4. Function

When most people say “waders” these days, they mean chest waders. That said, hip-boots and wading pants haven’t entirely vanished. My dad still loves his hippers for launching the boat and beach casting for salmon. That could be a decent option for some passive angling needs, especially if you don’t want to spend more than $100. But the fact remains that chest waders are the preference of most regular wader wearers. Most of the good options also include the ability to slide down the torso segment around your waist when it’s hot or you just aren’t wading to your pits.

Some waders today are so teched-out it almost feels like they should catch fish for you—especially at the prices they run. But with those amenities and expenditure, you’re often getting a better build and a lot of great and helpful features. Pockets are a big one, especially if you’re fishing the shoulder seasons and want to warm your hands. Some offer so much storage you barely need to bring a pack to carry gear on a hike around the lake. Zingers for hemostats and nippers, clips for attaching other gear, internal zip-lock waterproof phone pockets, knee pads, and more options are now common. Some waders now come with full-length heavy-duty waterproof front zippers for ease of entry and relief. Think about what function you need to fill and the features to get you there.

Lastly, I have to harp on one of my biggest pet peeves: wading belts. They all come with them, but folks forget or prefer not to strap up. That’s incredibly dangerous. Waders, when they fill with water, become heavy and negatively buoyant—meaning they’ll drag you down to the bottom before you can unstrap enough to get out. Plenty of anglers have drowned because of this. A wading belt is not meant as a corset or inconvenience; it’s so your legs don’t fill with water and deliver you to Davey Jones. Wear it every time and wear it snug. Numerous times I’ve pulled the casual leather belt off my jeans to give a friend who forgot their nice elastic wading belt at home.

Field notes from the MeatEater Crew

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