DONNELLY FLATS — After six weeks away from home fishing in Bristol Bay, you'd think I would have larger concerns than what to wear on my feet.
However, as go the feet, so go I. Consequently, here's my rundown of my likes and dislikes when it comes to boots.
No doubt in Bristol Bay, hip boots and Xtratufs ruled my world.
Xtratufs, Grundens, LaCrosse
Xtratufs are the foot gear of choice for most commercial fishermen working the deck of a boat. They're a good boot, but much of the reason they are so popular is marketing. The cannery stores carry Xtratufs exclusively. The reality is that though they are well made, Xtratufs have little ankle support. They are soft, and woe to the fisherman who drops an anchor on his toe.
Grundens makes a good deck boot that's tough, solid, heavy and very expensive — excellent if one doesn't walk far.
LaCrosse makes a cheaper knee boot that's comfortable and relatively solid with decent support. The drawback to LaCrosse is they are neoprene, making them almost impossible to patch. Neoprene boots are prone to splits; rarely will I get a season from them, either on the boat or at home.
Most setnet fishermen who spend their summers in skiffs and on the beach wear chest waders. Waders are great if you don't need to do a lot of walking, but I'm leery of them for a couple of reasons.
If you go in too deep and fill them with water, it is almost impossible to lift a leg high enough to crawl back into the skiff. Also, every setnetter I know buys a couple of pairs to get through five weeks of fishing. Canvas waders seep after a couple of weeks of hard use, and the slipper type is prone to rips. Solid chest waders tend to develop leaks where the flexible material on the uppers meet the solid boot bottoms.
Chest waders give you about 18 inches of depth beyond hip boots. Discounting the extra depth, hip boots hold up fairly well and are much easier to move around in. Quality is an issue with hip boots as well as waders. Expect to pay a hundred bucks for decent hip boots.
Wear them every day for a month and they will have a hole or two. That's OK — wet feet remind you that you are not a fish and don't really belong in the water.
Caring for boots
At home, whether in the river boat or in the dog yard, water is a daily challenge for me. Rainy dog-yard days require knee boots. Walking distances in the woods also require them. Given all variables, I'd personally opt for the cheaper LaCrosse-style boots. Hard sticks will poke holes in softer rubber boots. Either way, five weeks of constant wear is the life expectancy of most knee boots.
The jury is out on hip boots. Quality or price is the question. Here is my advice: If you are a person who puts rubber boots away properly in the fall, buy good hip boots. If you just drop them in a closet corner, buy cheap ones. Hip waders will self-destruct over the winter without proper care.
Stuff the boot lightly with crumpled newspaper and hang them from the straps out of the light. Vegetable oil on the creases will get a second season out of a decent boot.
Good coastal and river footwear can be quite different from what one might wear hiking in the tundra or woodlands.
Many types of hiking boots are available. At the risk of outcry, I'm going to discount all of them. Hiking boots tend to be heavy. Insulated hiking shoes get wet and stay wet — and they aren't as warm as a decent, insulated high-top tennis shoe.
Hunting or walking long distances require light foot gear. Buy quality, lightly insulated tennis shoes with a good (not Vibram) sole, and you will not be disappointed. Breathable tennis-type shoes will walk dry in a short period of time.
Foot gear that suits your individual needs is the ticket. What I choose to wear is not going to work for everyone — and there are some excellent manufacturers that I'm not familiar with.
The sensitivity of your feet will be a major factor in your choice of boots.
Prone to blisters? Steer clear of hiking in knee boots or standard hiking boots.
Trying to cross deep, fast streams? Stick with hip waders.
Above all, stay comfortable and realize that in Alaska, if you spend any amount of time outdoors, you will rarely be dry.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.