Face it: the Age of Felt is coming to an end, and anglers will simply have to adjust. Biologists have known for years that felt soles serve as vectors for all manner of aquatic nuisance species (ANS), from whirling disease to didymo, and various attempts at solving or at least ameliorating the problem have been proposed—sprays, boot baths at boat ramps, public-education campaigns, and the like. Yet the ANS problem persists, so states such as Alaska and Vermont have passed bans on felt soles to take effect in the near future, with more such legislation from other states expected soon. (New Zealand was way ahead of the curve, enacting a ban in 2008.) When even the venerable New York Times takes notice of the problem (“Fly Fishers Serving as Transports for Noxious Little Invaders”), it’s a sign that anglers can no longer pretend that felt is a viable option.
From a pure fishing standpoint, it’s a drag, because felt works and has helped anglers reach water that was unattainable with old rubber boots. However, the new generation of rubber-sole boots shows great promise. At this point in their development, I wouldn’t recommend rubber soles without studs, though. I took a pair of first-generation unstudded boots on a trip to Spain in the summer of 2009 and nearly killed myself. And once you lose confidence in your own wading ability, your fishing experience suffers. But as soon as I tried the studded version, I felt stable and ready to wade in even the roughest water. They’re not yet as good as felt, but rubber soles have come a long way.
Keep in mind that even rubber soles don’t solve the problem of ANS transmission; they merely make it less likely. If you want to do your part in the conservation effort, you must drill into your head the mantra Inspect, Clean, and Dry. For complete instructions on how to do this, check out the Orvis Invasive Species page.