Sports column: Position on use of gear truly heartfelt

I recently read several sources stating that Alaska has decided to ban felt-soled wading shoes from all statewide waters. That’s right, felt: the traditional, ubiquitous, all-natural fabric made from pressed woolen fibers. Alaska is not banning something toxic, or a product made from oil drilled in the Gulf of Mexico, or the skins of some endangered species, but good old-fashioned woolen felt.
A decade ago, this odd-sounding ban would have been hard to imagine. Many anglers, myself included, believe that felt provides the best traction on slick river-bottom rocks. Nonetheless, Alaska’s banning of felt is not the start of a joke, but a real news story.
Unfortunately, felt not only clings to slippery rocks, but it also acts like a sponge, holding water for up to several days after the end of a fishing trip. These damp soles thus also potentially hold whatever microorganisms live in that water, providing free transportation for those organisms to whatever waters the angler (and his soles) may visit next.
Just as boat bottoms have been blamed for the spread of such invasive species as Eurasian milfoil, felt soles are likely the chief culprits in the recent spread of didymo (“rock snot”) to great fishing locations around the world. Didymo has already been found in several Vermont rivers, including the Batten Kill, Connecticut, White and Mad rivers. Who knows what other invasive species or diseases our felt soles have spread?
As a case in point, I just returned from a trip to Maine, where I fished the Androscoggin and Magalloway Rivers. The Androscoggin, for five miles upstream of the bridge in Gilead and the confluence with the Wild River, is managed as a wild trout fishery. Thanks to catch-and-release regulations and a restriction to single-hooked lures only, it now holds self-sustaining populations of brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, and landlocked salmon, which can grow to lunker sizes.
Fifty or so miles upstream, in Wilson’s Mills, Maine, the Magalloway River, which is the Androscoggin’s primary tributary, is one of the best wild brook trout streams south of Canada. On my day fishing it, I hooked several large brookies, including two longer than 18 inches.
Not surprisingly, people travel from all over the northeast to fish these streams — not so that they can stock their freezers with hatchery fish, but for the enjoyment of catching large wild fish, which they can release to grow even larger. I saw license plates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York and talked to other anglers from Vermont.
And even in-state anglers may have fished a dozen other rivers in Maine before going there. Unfortunately, if they were wearing felt soles, and did not properly soak and clean them before traveling from some other river, these anglers risked inadvertently damaging the very thing that drew them to this water.
Thus today, I believe, the ban actually makes a lot of sense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more states, counties, or rivers adopt a similar regulation. In fact, L.L. Bean has already cut felt soles from its advertised line of wading boots.
The newest product innovations of this conservation-minded organization have as much to do with stopping the spread of water-born disease — using hard treads rather than felt, minimizing seams that can trap water, and making the boots easy to clean — as they have to do with other design innovations. Surprisingly, Vermont’s Orvis company has not yet made this move, but still offers several models of felt-soled wading shoes.
Alaska’s new statewide regulation ending felt will take effect for the 2012 fishing season, giving local anglers 20 months to replace their footwear. Presumably, it also gives merchants and outfitters 20 months to sell off their stock of felt soles (though I’m not sure who would want to buy any, given that they’ll be banned before they have a chance to wear out).
Despite my own preference for felt, and how much more secure it makes me feel on slick rocks, I have already made the switch. I encourage others to do the same. And if you haven’t, be sure to follow cleaning guidelines before moving to new waters/. (See www.vtwaterquality.org/lakes/htm/ans/lp_didymo.htm for more information.)
Though when you do get ready to get new wading shoes, I’d recommend studded soles for that little extra advantage. And once you’ve bought them, take a trip to Alaska to try them out. You don’t even need to wait until 2012. Do it now. Need I say the obvious? It will be good for your sole.

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