Once upon a time, if you had plans to spend time on a boat—say, for instance, a years-long voyage to a distant port in a faraway land—your footwear choices were limited to whatever crudely fashioned leather options were being peddled by the local ship chandler.
Lucky for the modern fisherman, nautical footwear has come a long way since then, and it’s become highly specialized, too: There’s a shoe for nearly every angling endeavor.
Whether you spend your fishing days slinging baits from the bow of a bass boat, stalking spooky permit and bonefish across saltwater flats, or hopping into and out of a kayak all day as you portage from one remote trout lake to the next, there’s a shoe out there that will keep your feet comfortable and protected.
We rounded up nine pairs of new fishing footwear and wore them in all sorts of fishy situations in order to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each.
1. Sperry H2O Escape ($90; sperrytopsider.com) ▶ These all-synthetic, ultra-fast-drying shoes have a cushioned copolymer EVA midsole with five molded channels that drain water from the foot box. A removable, perforated insole expedites the drying process.Tiny slits cut in the tread—calling siping—maximize traction when navigating any wet surface, from docks to rocks. A bungee lacing system aids in on-off, while a very-low-cut heel collar allows for excellent freedom of movement without rubbing on the ankles and Achilles tendon.
2. Columbia Bonehead Vent ($80; columbia.com) ▶ The Bonehead combines canvas-and-leather uppers, impact-absorbing midsoles, and non-marking outsoles with siping. The spacious toe box is comfortable, and the squishy midsole has three drain ports that also provide ventilation on muggy days. Canvas doesn’t dry as quickly as synthetics, but it boasts superior odor control. A word of warning to those who prefer to go sockless: Wet canvas is abrasive. Also, the squared leather lace doesn’t hold a knot very well. We’d rather see a round lace.|
3. World Wide Sportsman Newport ($80; basspro.com) ▶ The Newport poses a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it’s very well made and attractive, with a soft nubuck upper and stitched moccasin-style toe. But nubuck doesn’t dry well, so if they do get soaked, they aren’t going to be very comfortable to wear (the antimicrobial footbed will cut down on odor, though). A low-cut, generously padded collar and tongue secure the foot inside a spacious foot box. We found that they run between a half and a full size big, so keep that in mind when ordering.|
4. OluKai Nohea Mesh ($85; olukai.com) ▶ Hailing from Hawaii, this shoe features a breathable synthetic upper that is stitched to a half-inch-thick nonmarking rubber outsole. A removable and washable footbed is anatomically designed and very comfortable. The aggressive rubber soles are tacky and will provide a good foundation on the slick deck of a sportfisher. The loafer design means easy on and off, and a collapsible heel allows you to quickly slide your feet into the shoes. We found Nohea Mesh run about a half size big.|
5. Rugged Shark Aqua Ghilly ($40; ruggedshark.com) ▶ This superlight shoe sports a synthetic mesh upper with strategically placed lateral supports. The fast-drying material conforms perfectly to the foot’s anatomical features. A cushiony molded EVA outsole shaves considerable weight, and deep grooves keep the water flowing under the shoe. A 1-inch heel rise offers just enough lift, and the anti-shock midsole minimizes pain from heel strike. The Aqua Ghilly is a great fit for tournament bass fishermen who spend all day on their feet.|
6. Simms Vapor Boot ($170; simmsfishing.com) ▶ Shorter and lighter than most wading boots (7.5 inches and 25.4 ounces for a size 11), the Vapor is a combination wader and hiker, equally at home in the water as on the trail to the water. The bombproof upper combines synthetic leather, ripstop nylon, and a tough triple-stitched rubber rand. Partial neoprene liners provide comfort, and the padded collar snugs the foot and gives the ankle superior support. Vibram Megagrip outsoles offer sure footing in the stream and when navigating difficult terrain.|
7. Keen Gallatin CNX ($110; keenfootwear.com) ▶ The Gallatin is a sandal-shoe hybrid with an exoskeletal frame that cradles the foot, provides a breathable structure, and refuses to hold water. A thin polyurethane midsole flexes nicely and allows the shoe to conform simultaneously to both the terrain and the foot. High-cut arch support will please those cursed with plantar fasciitis, while a hard-rubber toe cup provides unparalleled protection in the sandal class. Some might balk at paying north of $100 for sandals, but these are built to last and are a great choice for wet waders and kayak fishermen.|
8. Vivobarefoot Ultra Pure ($60; vivobarefoot.com) ▶ As the brand’s name implies, this minimalist option closely mimics going barefoot. Aside from a small swatch of neoprene that serves as the tongue, the Ultra Pure is made completely of molded EVA and therefore is ultra lightweight (4 ounces). The honeycomb upper allows the shoe to drain and your foot to breathe, and drying time is not a factor, as the shoe doesn’t absorb moisture. We found the shoe to be quite comfortable. In terms of functionality, it’s well suited for just about any marine activity, save the yacht club cotillion.|
9. Freewaters Charger ($60; freewaters.com) ▶ For fishing days when your feet don’t need a lot of protection, or for just hanging at the marina bar after a day on the water, the new Charger is perhaps the most comfortable flip-flop ever created. The squishy, ribbed footbed is made from the same material used by Therm-a-Rest in their closed-cell sleeping pads.Generous arch support cushions strides, and the molded heel cup is particularly comfortable. The contoured strap is supple and wide enough to secure the foot without binding.|
My Favorite Wading Shoe Several years ago, while fishing the flats of the Bahama’s Out Islands with fellow writer Kirk Deeter, I watched him slide out of our skiff and into the knee-deep crystal-blue water with his Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars laced to his feet. “Did you forget your wading shoes?” I asked. “These are my wading shoes,” he replied. Since then, I’ve followed Deeter’s lead and worn my old white Chucks while wet-wading waters as diverse as the Gallatin River and Mexico’s Ascension Bay.They’re lightweight, they pack easily, they drain well, they offer ample ankle support and excellent toe protection, and, best of all, I’ve repurposed a pair of shoes that had been gathering dust in the back of my closet. —John Taranto Money Saved: $89.44 (the average price of the shoes in this test)|