Of course sometimes the choice is to not make a choice. It is entirely possible to go fly fishing in a pair of old jeans while the catalogues brim with zip-off, quick drying, SPF 50, multi-pocketed alternatives. An old vest will work but maybe not as well as a late model sling pack. But admit it… the real page turner for the latest fly fishing magazine is not so much the fishing stories as it is the search for some new gizmo that will be substantially better than whichever gizmo you have currently settled upon using.
Things do change, and better items do arrive, and many times the way new things are discovered is through the shows, media, marketing or word of mouth. Far better, it seems to me, is to come up with my own ideas through experience, whether it be first hand or via the observation of others. I’ve always thought that my personal type of fly-fishing, which is a blend of angling and canoeing spiced with a hint of wilderness survival, is a quest to reduce everything down to only the essentials. My somewhat unconscious goal has long been to determine what is minimal but necessary, versus what is fluff that only takes up space.
When someone recently asked about “the best” fly fishing shoes it touched a nerve. I’ve been experimenting along the same quest for quite some time. For me, one of the primary requirements is that the shoe does not have laces or weird buckles that will snag the fly line at my feet. Likewise, I look for a toe where the sole does not angle up from the deck and beg the fly line to sneak under. Deck shoes for sailing have these attributes but few have any sort of arch support and I need that. Some trips I spend almost the entire day standing and poling my canoes (mine are not your grandkid’s canoes). For a while I also wanted a shoe that was waterproof. Some places I launch I have to portage the canoe over a good distance of ankle deep mud. Waterproof shoes made that more comfortable. Even more useful was the fact that I could simply submerge my foot into the water to rinse off the mud and therefor not slop it onto the floor where my fly line was going to spend most of the day. My choice for a long time was a shoe apparently quite popular in more northern climes. It looked like a Native American Indian moccasin, but it was formed from rubber. I gather they work well for snow or ice covered ground.
Then, a few years ago, the experience of another came to my attention. One of my friends who guides out of Everglades City was heading home from a busman’s holiday out on the Gulf of Mexico, and decided to return through the back rivers. As he approached a wilderness river mouth some movement on the shore caught his attention. A human was on the shore waving tree branches! When he approached, the shipwrecked castaway waded out to meet him, and without a word, dove into my friend’s boat, where he laid in the fetal position, sobbing and bleeding, throughout the entire boat ride back. My buddy radioed ahead to the ranger station and they were waiting. At the ranger station the person said very little, refused medical attention, then got in his car and drove away, never thanking my friend nor returning for his abandoned equipment, as far as we know.
What we do know is this person, supposedly an experienced wilderness paddler, swamped his canoe at the mouth of the river, for some reason abandoned the canoe and all his equipment, and then spent two nights on the shore, wearing only shorts and one shoe. Imagining the sun and bug damage makes me cringe to this day, but my friend’s description of the one mangled and bleeding shoeless foot is what really caught my attention.
That made me realize two very important characteristics of the shoes I should wear for my canoeing / fly-fishing. I must be able to swim with them on, and they must stay on. The ice proof shoes I mentioned above were absolutely wrong! Having steel shanks for support made them quite heavy and they would be like trying to swim with bricks on my feet. Also, the fact that they would fill with water like waders on a fallen stream wading angler made them even worse. So I would probably drown. Ejecting the shoes and making to shore shoeless may be an even less appealing thought. Between water softened feet and the barnacles that adorn every submerged branch, or the oyster bars that coat the shorelines it would be like trying to walk on broken glass while wading in the nutrient rich saltwater soup of the Everglades. If you did not bleed to death it seems there would almost be a guarantee of infection and even possibly amputation if you survived.
I no longer wear those rubber moccasins. Instead my choices now are leaning toward the water shoes that are a hybrid of running shoes and sandals. They are not waterproof in the sense of keeping your foot dry, but instead they are waterproof in the sense that they survive being dunked. They are designed to drain the water away from the foot efficiently. They are light and they stay on when I swim. I test-drive (test swim?) them! A new wrinkle is that the use of mesh on the more shoe-like ones, or the open areas of the more sandal-like ones allows direct access to my feet for the mosquitoes and deerflies. So they now have to be bug repellant resistant also. Something that most manufacturers apparently do not consider as the spray seems to dissolve the glues quite rapidly.
Currently I’m wearing a waterproof sandal made by Keen. They are very comfortable but a bit heavy and the toes invite the fly line a frustrating place to hide and snag. They are very nice shoes however and will probably become a favorite for urban wear when I replace them as fishing gear with whichever I try next. Like much of fly-fishing, it appears that shoe shopping is a never-ending journey for the next “best” thing.