Footwear On The Flats
You sand-burn a pinky toe or slice an Achilles and that flats dream trip goes quickly down the tubes.
By Jerry Gibbs

There is nothing straightforward about this. The choice of saltwater footwear is so personal it nearly defies recommendation. But one can offer parameters.

Do you need fitting out for a dedicated wading trip or will you be mostly boat fishing with occasional forays into the water? What conditions are to be expected? Will you be walking nice hard sand flats or a mixture, with soft suck holes and/or mud, mixed shells and coral pieces, and horrid limestone ledges?

And what about other threats? Standard garb for wading Texas flats is stingray guards, either strap-on or now incorporated into slightly higher wading boots or booties. What’s your physical hot/cold comfort zone and personal conditioning? If you come from a sit-down office job sporting tender white feet, don’t expect to wade barefoot and match a native island guide with leathery sole calluses.

You could go barefoot when fishing idyllic flats, but you’ll need some solid footwear when encountering coral and limestone.

Before you embark on a trip you need to glean every scrap of info—from the lodge, guides, booking agent, previous anglers’ experiences, internet reviews, etc.

Look, wading without footwear is totally sensual on nice clean flats, plus you’ll have the tactility of knowing when you’re stepping on a fly line when fishing aboard a boat. But going au natural can bring on unexpected issues if you aren’t careful and observant.

For instance, say you sun-screened well starting out, then waded awhile before getting back aboard. Maybe did it again. And didn’t re-sunscreen. Bingo. If your barefoot fishing hours are totally via wading and your feet feel cool, do not think clear tropic shallows will stymy solar radiation.

Or take the case of our editor who did the barefoot thing to target snook cruising glaringly white Florida sand beaches. By the time he and his pal sprinted the beach and reached the water, their feet were torched, and later blistered badly. Evidently the guys hadn’t boned up on the Hindu religious practice of fire walking.

You’ll be happy to have flats boots when boulder hopping along rugged shorelines. Try fishing this beach in sandals and you’ll quickly regret that decision.

The ultimate protective—and supportive—wade-dedicated boots are the hard type—lace-ups. When you’ll face the toughest conditions from coral, as found on Turneffe Atoll, to limestone outcropping found some places in the Bahamas, to ledges, rocks and such farther north, they’re your answer. And they won’t suck off in mud. Critics, however, point to heavier weight than rubber booties, but forget the law of buoyancy: Water applies an upthrust force to anything submerged in it—like those hard boots—which in turn reduces the weight of the item in question. I’ve never found hard boots debilitatingly heavy, and I’ve even worn them as boat shoes. If packing space is an issue I’ve heard of anglers wearing them while traveling—mostly unlaced for quick removal while passing through airport security. Consider, though, they’ll likely still be pretty damp for the return home.

So-called low-cut water shoes and water sandals favored by river runners just don’t cut it for me, even when worn with various socks including thin diver socks. Just too much “grack” gets between the bottom of your foot and the sandal. Overall, neoprene booties designed for flats wading are most practical. A number of reputable companies sell them, and the best now come with pretty tough soles. They can serve as your boat shoes, though they are not as cool as a specifically designed boat shoe. Designs that feature a good, long zipper for easy donning and fast removal are what I like. Here’s why: To me, neoprene booties don’t offer the support my feet need. When wading is periodic during the fishing day, I’ll continue to wear boat shoes with orthotics for long standing sessions. Come to a wading area and it’s no chore to remove the shoes and slip on the booties. I keep them at hand because there are times when a wading situation occurs suddenly. Say some happy permit are eyeballed—likely by your guide—eating steadily, holding in one area, and you need to get in the water and slip toward them right now. Sometimes you get the chance for a quick footwear swap-out. If not, I’ll just drown my boat shoes and not worry about it.

When you hook up on a permit or bonefish you may need to cover some ground quickly. Flats boots offer protection for your feet and support for your ankles.

When choosing a neoprene bootie, lean toward the higher cut designs. Check if sewn seems are located where they’ll irritate your foot. Check fit. Unless they fit snugly they’re an invitation to blisters, can make sucking noises that scare fish, and can pull mostly off if you hit mud or other soft bottom. If you’re purchasing booties or any other wading footwear, do so well before a planned trip and check internet reviews on sizing, which is often inaccurate.

That brings us to what to wear beneath your bootie or boot. You can wear nothing of course but some sort of sock helps against abrasion in general and in keeping out debris. For the latter, some anglers employ neoprene gravel guards, while others like thin diver socks 1.5-2mm thick. Those socks are sometimes used along with gravel guards. Depends on how fastidious you are about keeping out gravel, sand, and various shell fragments. I’ve settled on calf-high, fast wicking so-called sock liners. Many are available online. Unfortunately, neoprene is hot and the more material that’s on your foot and ankle, the hotter you’ll be.

Keeping out debris as much as possible, avoiding blisters and abrasions, is a function of a good, snug bootie or hard boot fit. If what you choose feels good initially, it’s still a smart move to spend time wearing and walking in the product—even land or housebound, but better in the water—before an important trip.

Jerry Gibbs
Jerry Gibbs lives, fishes and writes from the mid-Maine coast unless he is on the road hunting off-radar waters, fish and anglers that will make a good story. Gibbs is the former Outdoor Life fishing editor.