Ban on felt soles more empty symbol than useful

I respectfully ask the Board of Fisheries to reconsider its decision to prohibit, beginning this summer in most of the state, the use of the felt-soled fishing boots.

Non-felt soles work as well as felt soles in rivers with flat sand or gravel bottoms. But those streams are more the exception than the rule here. Many of our rivers have uneven rock-and-gravel bottoms. In those cases, non-felt boots, even with studs, are unquestionably inferior to felt boots.

This is not simply a matter of comfort or ease of effort. With Alaska conditions of weather, temperature and remoteness, this is a serious issue of personal safety. Slipping and falling into the current of the Upper Kenai River, for example, can quickly become a matter of life and death, especially for a relatively inexperienced fisherman.

The case against felt-soled boots is based on the theory that felt material is especially prone to pick up, retain and transfer bacterial and viral agents from one watershed to another. The argument is that fishermen from other states will import fish diseases and non-native vegetation to Alaska waters on their felt-soled boots. This theoretical threat has not been proven and I doubt it ever will be. What we do know is that birds -- seagulls or ducks, for example -- can easily transport disease from water to water over vast distances, and they don't have felt soles.

If you insist on banning felt soles, why get off in Chicago when you're going to New York? What about laces and boot fabric other than the sole? There is no reason to assume that microscopic bugs can only attach themselves to felt soles. What about surfaces under insoles, in wader gaiters, on fly lines, reels, backing, fly boxes, cork handles and -- here's a good one -- flies or lures themselves?

Fishing in Alaska doesn't only involve auto or boat travel. We use airplanes (with and without floats), and rubber rafts. Non-felt, studded boots are dangerously incompatible with these modes of travel. If you're thinking "just don't use studs," you haven't had much experience with non-felt boots. I've been told that Alaska Fish and Game employees have been exempted from this no-felt rule for work-safety reasons. That makes sense for them. It should make sense for the rest of us.

The goal here is worthy, but the approach the board has taken simply will not work. If we want to prevent bugs from traveling to our waters, we should kill migratory water birds, require the disinfecting of boats and airplanes, and mandate that fishermen wade in disposable latex moonsuits. I'm kidding, of course, but the issue is serious: This regulation endangers fishermen and imposes a substantial personal expense on thousands -- if not tens of thousands -- of Alaska residents and visitors (who get to replace boots and waders at a cost of $50 to $300 a pair), in a futile and largely symbolic exercise.

No one cares about the health of Alaska's world-class fisheries more than I do. But I'm a practical guy, and it's apparent to me that while the decision to ban felt-soled boots is well-intentioned, the effect will be to make it just a little more uncomfortable, a little more expensive and a little less safe to enjoy a great sport in Alaska.

My safety while wading is very important for me. I'm a little guy, so I need all the help I can get. I see no choice but to continue fishing and wading as safely as I can. Apparently that means I should be prepared to be fined or jailed if I want to keep fishing in Alaska, my home since 1961.

I'd ask the board to consider that with a little education most Alaska fisherman and visitors would be willing to clean their equipment more thoroughly. That said, birds will be birds, and the essential threat will remain.

I would appreciate the Board of Fisheries reversing its decision on felt-soled wading boots. I'm confident that in saying this I represent the feelings of many Alaska fishermen.

Daniel M. Zivanich is a longtime Alaska fisherman. He lives in Anchorage.