Fishing Waders

Fishing Waders

One of the chief concerns among newbie tubers and tooners is “What do I wear?” Choice of apparel is a key element to the success and enjoyment of most sports. The good news is that you don’t have to spend a fortune to be fashionable for floatation fishing. Fancy attire ain’t necessary since you won’t be hitting the “19’th hole” or “the lodge” after getting off the water. Wear what suits you best and when you’re through fishing you just pack up and go home. The primary concerns for tubers and tooners are keeping warm and dry in cold water, protection from harsh sun and remaining uncluttered, unconfined and comfortable on all trips. Since our sport is not one of thefishing waders “biggies” there are no special lines of gear or clothing designed especially for us. We accommodate stuff made for other sports and it usually gets the job done. As you put together a floatation fishing system your choices of clothing and other items should begin by taking inventory of what you already own. Start with what you have and then fill in around the edges where necessary. No reason to spend a lot of extra money if you don’t have to.
The one possible exception to the above statement is in the area of waders and footwear. During the summer, or in warmer climates, you can float and fish comfortably without waders. Simply pull on a pair of comfortable pants or shorts and a pair of tennies and you are good to go. In cold water conditions, however, you need waders to keep you dry and warm. You are also likely to need some form of protective footwear over the soft neoprene foot pockets of your waders. There are increasingly more sources for different kinds of waders and footwear. Rather than getting into brand names let’s just stick to the positives and negatives of different features and options. Readers can make their own evaluations and buying decisions. But, as a general rule the old axiom “You get what you pay for.” is a good guideline for your shopping.


There are constant changes and upgrades in wader designs and materials. It can be confusing to a first time buyer or to someone who has not bought a new pair of waders for a while. We need to look carefully at the different bells and whistles and then apply the “three N” test. Decide whether they are necessary, “nice for nice” or nonessential. Most waders are designed for anglers who will be using them to wade streams and rivers, rather than tubing or tooning. Here is a list of some of the available options and how they fit the specialized requirements of floatation fishermen.

Waders used to be sold without straps. Fishermen had to buy them separately. These straps were attached to buttons built into the waders and they often came loose. It was not uncommon to break or lose your wader straps or forget them on a fishing trip. Today’s waders usually come with “built-in” straps. There are different designs but they usually include some kind of adjustability and a quick-snap buckle arrangement. Once you have
them adjusted for your personal requirements you simply buckle and unbuckle as needed. Keeping your wader straps properly adjusted is important. If they are too tight they will restrict movement and be uncomfortable. If they are too loose they keep sliding off over your shoulder. If you sit low in the water, in a float tube without high seating, loose waders can allow water to come in over the top when you lean back. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about that while fishing from pontoons or from float tubes with the higher seats. In fact, some tooners wear only hippers…waders that come up to hip level. Those are made for wading shallow streams but they are dandy for the toon crowd too since they only need them while launching or beaching.

In recent times some wader manufacturers have been offering waist high waders. These have applications for anglers who want waders higher than hippers but do not want full chest waders. They have a lot of appeal to tooners and even to some tubers who have craft with high riding seats. If you consider buying waist waders you should try them on first. Sit down in them and make sure they come up high enough in the back to avoid shipping water in the event of “high tide” or wave splashes. Most of the models I have tried do not ride high enough in the back. Some tooners and tubers modify their chest waders. Whenever you sit high enough in your craft that you don’t have to worry about getting wet above the seat line you can roll down the tops of chest waders to reduce constriction and to provide more upper body freedom. Some floatation fans completely remove the straps and maybe remove some of the top of their chest waders too. They leave enough of the waders to insure dry fishing but eliminate the hassle of straps and buckles. A simple waist belt helps keep the strapless waders from dropping around your knees.


Well, since we just mentioned the subject of waist belts let’s look at them as an option. A belt around the midsection not only helps reduce the potential for sagging waders. It also provides a measure of safety in the event of angler submersion. Waist belts are primarily designed for river anglers. Fishermen wading in moving water are at greater risk for taking an unplanned swim than tubers or tooners. However, even floatation fishermen can conceivably find themselves out of their craft in water deep enough to come over the tops of their waders. In such cases a tightly cinched waist belt helps reduce the amount of water coming into the waders and keeps them more buoyant. The reality is that tubers and tooners have little likelihood of being overturned or suffering from a sudden complete deflation of their craft. However, there is always the potential for losing one’s balance during launching or beaching. You can also get smacked with waves from wind or bow wakes from the “power squadron”. Wearing a waist belt won’t keep you from getting splashed but it might help reduce the amount of water running “below decks”. Waist belts are standard on some waders. However, you can easily make your own from nylon strapping and buckles. Many outdoor supply outlets have inexpensive nylon belts or kits for a variety of recreational applications. I have sometimes used an old quick-buckle diving belt.

Surprisingly, even some of the “low end” waders come with reinforced knee patches. Like a few other “enhancements” these are included mostly for the benefit of stream wading anglers who sometimes kneel while casting or while handling fish. They are largely wasted upon tubers and tooners. If they are included on your new waders be thankful for the extra measure of protection even if you never need it.

Like knee patches these are often included with stocking foot waders for the benefit of anglers who wade in streams. These flaps pull down over the tops of wading shoes to help keep sand, gravel or other stuff from getting down between waders and boots. Foreign matter is not only irritating but can also wear holes in your waders…or your tender flesh. Tubers and tooners seldom have a need for gravel guards. The exceptions might be those
who launch from steep gravelly shores or who regularly make runs down rivers. Floatation anglers who favor moving water often use their craft to get from one good hole to another and then get out and wade the better spots. Gravel guards are useful and appreciated in those situations.

You can never have too much pocket space if you are a tuber or tooner. The pockets on waders are usually one of two different designs. Some are pouches on the front, with side openings. These are mostly hand warmers. The other most common design is a pocket inside the top of the waders. Some are simple open pouches. Others are zippered pockets that provide a measure of security against dumping the contents when you bend over.
Very few waders have pockets on the side or back. Most tubes and toons have plenty of storage space for tackle and trinkets. As we will discuss later in this chapter if you need more pockets you might consider a vest and/or a chest pack.

Some waders now include front zippers. These can add substantially to the price of the waders but for some GUYS they may be worth it. Male anglers appreciate front zippers when they want to download “bilge water” without undoing the straps on their waders. Front zippers that extend clear to the top also aid in getting in and out of your waders especially if you are of the portly persuasion and/or have on extra layers.

The earliest lightweight “stocking foot” waders were made of seamless latex rubber. They were like giant condoms for anglers. These were okay for a few trips but did not hold up well. They easily developed leaks and tears in the flimsy rubber skin. Back in the 70’s, the new Red Ball lightweights were a boon to the growing tubing market. They were light, thin and could be carried in a small pouch for travel. In the larger sizes they were also cut “full” so that you could add extra layers of insulation in cold water. They were very thin but you could still use them for frigid water fishing. The biggest downside to the early Red Ball waders was that they did not hold up for morelightweight breathable fishing waders
than about one season of serious tubing. The light plastic-lined fabric developed wear-points (leaks) and the heat-welded seams pulled apart after being stressed from repeated use…especially if you wore a lot of layers under them. Tubers were sometimes treated to a flood of icy cold water in the crotch area as a seam split out after being stretched and stressed too long and too often.

Modern technology has blessed the wader industry. We now have a vast array of choices in lightweight waders. There is a plethora of designs and fabric options. Some of them are “breathable”, ostensibly keeping out the water while allowing perspiration or other moisture to “wick out” through the one-way material. As with most good ideas there are quality products and inferior copies. The trademarked Goretex is the quality standard of the industry when it comes to breathable waders and other waterproof outdoor wear. Predictably, it is also the most costly. Less expensive breathable waterproof fabrics are generally okay for rainwear or other nonsubmerged
applications. However, when inferior materials are used in “budget” waders the results are a lot of cold, wet, frustrated anglers.

One of the best-selling low priced waders is well known for leaking “right out of the box”. The leaks in the breathable fabric material are usually not more than tiny pinholes but they are aggravating. In warmer water the leaks are merely a nuisance. In cold water they ruin a trip by soaking your insulating layers. You can’t remain on the water when you get wet and cold. This manufacturer DOES have a good 1-year warranty. If their waders leak you can return them for a replacement pair. But after about the third or fourth return trip you begin to wish that you had spent more money up front to buy better waders that don’t leak. Another line of lightweight waders is considered the quality standard of the industry. Their waterproof breathable fabric is real Goretex. Everything else about their line is also top quality; with reinforced seams, knees and other wear points. Many tubers and tooners gladly invest more for these waders to keep from spending more in the long run on inferior stuff. Quality has value. In the early years of lightweight waders most of them were fashioned of the same material
throughout…top to bottom, including feet. No neoprene. The thinner walls fit more easily into smaller size booties. And, they were comfortable during warmer times of the year did nothing for foot warmth in cold water.

Most modern lightweights come with neoprene foot sections. These increase foot comfort and cold water insulation. But, some tubers and tooners find them almost too warm for mild water conditions even while wearing only one pair of thin cotton socks. Neoprene foot pockets in your lightweight waders add bulk. That means that you need to buy slightly larger wading boots or diving booties to wear over your waders. And, if you plan to fish through cold weather with the lightweights, you need to get still larger protective footwear to accommodate extra layers of warm socks later.

strapless waders

Actually, if you plan to fish year round in lightweights you may need to factor in how much insulation you will be adding in cold water before you select a size. If a size L works for summer fishing it will probably be too tight for winter fishing after you add layers. It is better to buy a size (or two) larger, and “swim” in them during the summer, than to buy too small and suffer from constriction, foot cramps and painful cold in winter waters.

As I have admonished elsewhere try before you buy. When going to buy a new pair of waders you should carry a gym bag full of all the layers you might conceivably wear on a coldwater trip. Before pulling on the waders you think you will need get completely dressed in all your frigid water finery. You might get some funny looks from the store personnel but you just have to deal with it. If the waders don’t fit swallow your pride and buy larger ones. You need to plan for “wiggle room” in the harshest conditions.

There is one area in particular that you should focus upon when trying on new waders. That is the ankle bend. For some reason manufacturers sometimes skimp in this area and produce waders with really narrow ankle openings. I have seen waders with plenty of room in the feet but with not enough ankle opening to squeeze through with a single pair of light socks. That won’t work in cold water. If you try to force the issue, you risk tearing out the ankle seams. Not good.

Skin divers began using neoprene to make insulated dive suits many years ago. Fishermen soon discovered that this rubber foam also made great waders for cold water angling. Today we have a wide range of styles and options in neoprene waders. The first fishing neoprenes were “boot foot” with a heavy boot at the end of the legs. These were excellent for stream wading but were not good for tubing and tooning. They are not compatible with regular diving fins. If you want to use them for floatation fishing you must use fins that strap on outside your boots. Those fins work but not as well as booties and diving fins. Neoprenes with soft foot pockets are much better for floatation fishing. When used for tubing and tooning, the thin neoprene layer fits inside protective wading shoes or hard-soled neoprene boots…variously known as divers’ boots, flats boots, surf walkers, reef boots, etc. We will
discuss different footwear options after our coverage of waders.

noprene waders

Which thickness you buy is a matter of personal preference. Let’s look at some of the factors that might influence your decision. First of all, 5 mm is obviously thicker and provides more insulation than the thinner waders.
As might be expected the heavier neoprene is more expensive. But, unless you are especially sensitive to cold there is no good reason to pay more for 5 mm stuff. With proper layering 3mm “prenes” will protect you in almost any water you fish right up until it turns hard. Shop for neoprenes by following the same guidelines suggested for buying lightweights. In other words try before you buy. And, be sure to take along all the extra clothing you anticipate wearing in the coldest weather conditions. It is better to be embarrassed by “bulking up” in the store than to suffer from the cold when you can’t wear enough insulation in frigid water.

The good news for tubers and tooners is that we have a lot more choices with today’s waders. Different manufacturers have expanded their size options to include not only the XXXL sizes but also short, stout and tall modifiers. Many of these waders are made “offshore” and may not be true to western sizes. That should not be a problem if you try them on. If they don’t fit in the size you think you need swallow your pride and “upsize”. If your budget allows it and if you plan to go tubing and tooning all year there is no reason why you should not invest on both lightweights and neoprenes. That will help insure that you fish more comfortably in cold weather, during the summer and also during the transition periods.

wader footwear

Tubers and tooners usually wear stocking foot waders…lightweights or neoprenes. The feet in these waders do not benefit from walking on asphalt, gravel or rocky surfaces. It does not take much to poke a hole in the soft foot pockets or to wear a larger hole by walking in them on abrasive surfaces. That means that if you want to avoid damage to the wader feet you need to wear something protective over them.

Some tooners do not wear fins at all. They can wear sports sandals over their stocking foot waders, for the protection to the soles, and they work just fine. However, if you want to wear fins sandals are not a good option. They are bulky and uncomfortable when worn inside fins. But they do work well for cushioning neoprene clad feet before putting on booties or stepping into fins without the use of booties.

There are many styles of athletic shoes that can be both waterproof and comfortable when worn as a protective layer between waders and fins. The smaller your foot the better chance you have of being able to make such shoes work for you. If your feet are size 12 or larger they may not fit well into even the largest available foot pocket fins. You may have to use the strap-on fins described in the chapter on Propulsion.

wader footwear1

If you wear something like an athletic shoe over your waders you should be sure to try them on before buying them. Cramming a load of heavy socks and neoprene into those shoes requires at least a couple of sizes larger than you would normally buy. Again, it’s best to suit up completely, with the shoes, before you buy your fins. They will need to be larger too. Tyler wearing athletic shoes over lightweight waders, in cool spring conditions on Utah’s
Willard Bay Reservoir. These shoes worked fine for the lightweights, but not as well when worn over bulky neoprenes in colder water.

Wearing heavy socks under your athletic shoes is not just for warmth. They also help to protect your feet from blisters. No matter how well everything seems to fit before you hit the water there will be pressure points and wear spots that develop after you use them awhile. The longer you keep kicking the more likely you will get a blister. It could pay to apply some “Moleskin” or other skin protection wherever you tend to get a blister…before suiting up.

These may also be sold as “flats boots”, “reef boots” or other fancy names. As with the neoprene waders, we have the skin diving industry to thank for developing neoprene boots with a thick protective sole. Dive shops and online diving supply outlets are probably the best places to shop for a wider selection of styles and sizes. But, “booties” are also available almost anywhere they sell gear and accessories for boating, rafting and water skiing too.
Divers’ boots are comfortable to wear and you can walk on almost any kind of rough surface with them. They are made from neoprene, of varying thickness, with different kinds of rubber or nylon soles. For wearing as a protective covering over neoprene wader foot pockets you can get by with less costly 2mm boots. Thicker ones are for divers that need extra insulation for diving in deeper and colder water.

divers booties

There are differences in the construction on various neoprene boots. Some have a protective toe covering. Some are just plain neoprene everywhere but on the sole. Obviously, the more features the greater the cost. Protective toes are nice for walking through rough terrain to and from the launch area but the plain neoprene is softer and more comfortable inside the fins. Some tubers and tooners buy high-topped divers’ boots and then cut them down into neoprene “moccasins”. In recent years more “low cuts” have become available. The biggest need is for the protection of the hard sole, so high tops are largely unneeded. Low cuts are easier to pull on over the wader feet. They still provide enough heel and sole to both keep the fins in place and to prevent damage to the soft stocking feet of the waders while walking in them.

I recently finished wearing out my old pair of Cabelas XL tubing booties…after only 25 years of hard use. So I had to fashion my own version. These needed to fit my size 13 feet along with a couple of layers of wool socks and a neoprene foot pocket. Believe me, I have tried a bazillion different experiments over the years to find a satisfactory replacement. I finally found an online dive shop that sold booties up to size 16. I figured that they would
probably do the job. I bought a cheap pair of size 15’s first, to try them out. I got the low cut, with no zipper. It turned out there was NO WAY I could get them on past the toes of my fully stuffed neoprene wader feet without modification. The ankle opening was just too small. So, I made an incision, about six inches long, down the top surface of each bootie. Bingo. That allowed me to pull them on and they were snug enough to hold onto my feet even during a couple of long trial hikes. But, there was about a two inch gap across the top where the sides of the slit did not come together after I pulled them over my waders.

From past experience, I knew that if the booties were not on tight they could slip off in mud or snow. That prompted me to dig out some strips of neoprene left from removing some wader straps. I cut strips about six inches long and an inch or so wide. Using good old black neoprene cement…and the Velcro strips from the old wader straps…I made stretchy closure flaps for the tops of the booties. After several diligent trial trips, I decided that these new tuber booties were just what we needed. I “downloaded” my size 15’s to TubeBabe and spent a little more for some heavier duty and larger size 16’s for myself. The fifteens are slightly large for TB but she can wear them without losing them. And, the 16’s are great for me.

divers booties1


This is a generic term applied to numerous models of waterproof footwear designed to be worn while swimming, wading, walking on rocky shoreline or sharp reefs, etc. Many are ideal for use by floatation fishermen. Some name brand footwear manufacturers sell well made and high priced water shoes that are extremely nice but nonessential for tubers and tooners. You do not need to spend a lot of money on these things just to provide a protective sole for your stocking foot waders. During the summer swimming season almost any major discount or department store sells low priced water shoes for less than ten dollars a pair. Generally these are simple nylon fabric uppers with rubber or vinyl hard soles. They come in multiple colors and they are stretchy enough to be easily pulled over your wader-clad feet if you can get them large enough. If you buy these shoes to wear over neoprene waders you need to look for something at least two sizes larger than your foot size…and probably larger, depending upon the design and whether or not you will be tubing in colder water. Since most of these shoes are manufactured “offshore” there is a great disparity in size and fit…no matter what the size label says.

water shoes

Wading shoes are designed to provide good ankle support and slip resistance in rocky streambeds. Compared to diving boots they are bulky and heavy. If they have a felt sole, to reduce slipping on streambed rocks, they are even heavier and bulkier. That makes them difficult to stuff into regular fins. If you want to wear fins over wading shoes you need to buy special lash on fins designed just for wading shoes. They are usually not as comfortable and efficient as good diving fins. This issue is discussed further in the chapter on Propulsion.

About the only tubers and tooners who use wading shoes are those who already owned them before “going afloat”. It is understandable to try to get your money’s worth out the shoes you own but they are definitely better for wading than for floating. However, there is one good potential application for wading shoes. That is for tooners who may not wear fins. Wading boots provide better traction on rocky or uneven bottoms during launching and beaching. They are also good for tooners who run rivers and who stop and fish along the way.

wading shoes

Care & Prevention

Wader types and available options are covered in the chapter on “Dress For Success”. This brief discussion is limited to their upkeep and repair. Tubers and tooners use both lightweight and neoprene waders. Both types require similar care and storage. Perhaps the single greatest admonition to preserve and protect waders is to hang them up to dry and air out immediately after every use. Not only will they smell better the next time you wear
them, but they will be less likely to mildew or degrade. It is best to hang your waders up on a hook (from the shoulder straps), high enough to keep the feet off the ground. They should also be hung away from the wall, if possible, to allow the inside portion to open up completely. This facilitates air circulation for complete drying. Even better is to turn them inside out after a day or so to make sure they dry completely. Waders will dry and air out more quickly when hung in a warm dry environment. Don’t hang them outside in the sun. High heat and UV rays are not good for waders. Cold is not nearly as harmful as extreme heat. Your waders will dry okay in a cold garage in midwinter. Just don’t freeze them and then bend them while frozen.

There will be times when you need to be more aggressive in drying your waders. You may occasionally get a lot of moisture inside…from perspiration, a leak or from taking water over the top. To dry them faster and more thoroughly turn the waders inside out. If you are in a hurry to dry them so that you can go fishing again, use a hair dryer (on low heat) or hook your vacuum cleaner up so that the hose blows warm air onto the waders. Or, you can fire up the leaf blower. Both neoprene and lightweight waders are subject to developing leaks from the same causes and hazards. Just as with air chambers on your tube or toon waders can sustain cuts and holes
from knives, hooks, fish spines and many other pointy things. In addition, there are wear points from rubbing and there are seam failures wherever you over-stress them during use. Many accidental wader punctures can be avoided by exercising proper caution. It should not be necessary to remind you that you shouldn’t walk through barbed wire or thorny bushes while wearing waders. You should also not roll in broken glass or sit on boards full of protruding nails. And, as your mommy used to tell you, “Don’t run with scissors in your hands.” Be careful with hooks and lures, avoid knife points and do not allow spiny fish to bump against you. I have had to patch several pinhole leaks in my waders after allowing fish baskets or stringers to swing against my wader-covered legs on the trek back to my vehicle.