Before an angler makes his or her first cast into a cold, fast-flowing Montana river, countless decisions must be made—not least of which is whether to don waders. Sometimes it’s obvious—at both ends of the temperature spectrum, for example—but other times, it’s a matter of personal taste. Each mode has its merits, but which is ultimately best? Let’s find out.
Sense of Freedom
Ever see an Olympic athlete in overalls? Agility comes hard when you’re clad in continuous fabric from toes to solar plexus. Traipse around the streambed on a warm summer day wearing nothing but shorts and sandals, however, and you’ll feel like Huck Finn.
Studded wading-boot soles offer superior traction, but if you do fall in and fill up your waders, you’re about 50 times more likely to drown. Wet-wading in Chacos is almost always a graceless dance across greasy bowling balls, causing meme-worthy facial expressions, followed by an applause-eliciting kerplunk as you bang your foot into a rock and tumble face-first, again. Either way, you lose and the river wins.
Regardless of material or quality, waders don’t breathe as well as bare skin—which means that any real exertion makes for an overheated, itchy epidermis. Wet-wading offers superior circulation, but unless it’s warm and you move around a lot, you’ll soon find yourself covered in goosebumps, shivering like a wet cat. And while soggy pant-legs might get you some knucks from your favorite watering-hole bartender, a clammy crotch and stubbed toes make it hard to keep one’s dance moves at the Murray on point.
We’ve all seen pretentious anglers, decked out head-to-toe in enough gear to outfit a small fly shop. It’s essential to remember that the experience is supposed to be about your time outside, enjoying the wind and the water and the myriad subtle elements of nature that elude us during our busy workdays. What matters is the present moment—the day is defined by your experience, not your gear or appearance. So whenever possible, go au naturel.
If you fish a lot and wet-wade all summer, you’ll likely need several cans of Bag Balm—and a torturous adjustment to liberal application and sleeping in socks—to avoid cavernous skin-splits and an eventual limp. Struggling in and out of waders is a small price to pay for healthy feet.
Cold is relative, and seasoned Montanans are well-acquainted with all levels of thermal deprivation. As soon as the water climbs above 55 degrees, most locals leave their waders at home. If it’s late August and you’re standing ankle-deep in the Gallatin, beads of sweat dripping off your forehead and down the front of your $500 waders, you’re gonna stand out like a sore thumb.
Score: 3 to 2
Well, there you have it. A close call, no doubt, but wet-wading takes the cake—so don’t be afraid to ditch the waders once in a while, step out unencumbered into the rushing river, and feel the cool, clean water envelop your legs. You’ll be glad you did.
Enjoying the path of most resistance and roads less traveled, Brett Seng has lived, worked, and played right here in Bozeman for the past 16 years. His traveler’s lifestyle includes trout guiding and freelance photography. See more of his work on Instagram: @brettsengphoto.