Why do I need the $600 waders? Because I don't have a $40,000 boat
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Let’s just keep this between us, OK? The $500 waders, I mean.
Actually, they could be closer to $600 by the time I add in the custom-cut boots, which aren’t really boots at all, if you consider a boot to be a free-standing article of clothing with a sole, heel, insole and upper. Rather, the “boots” in question here are the waterproof “stocking feet” or, well, OK, booties that connect to a waterproof body suit that covers the legs and torso up to the mid-chest.
Forming chest waders. Stocking-foot chest waders.
Then you put on a pair of actual wading boots, which don’t keep out any water but protect the inner, waterproof, uh, booties. Good wading boots make wading a lot more comfortable, especially on rocks. And I’ve got one pair that are almost as good on dry ground, for hiking from one wet spot to another, as they are in the water.
Wading boots generally cost from about $60 or $70 up to $200 or $300. I already have three pairs of wading boots, so I won’t need to upgrade there, for now.
But back to the new waders, which in this case will most likely be the Simms G3s. These are the waders I have in mind for my next purchase from the only hand-crafted wader company left in the United States of America — Simms Fishing Products, LLC., of Bozeman, Mont.
If I inspire any patriotism with that, it’s not accidental. And it could be useful later, when I make my argument on behalf of the G3s to the chief financial judge in our household, Mary.
For now, though, let’s just say that Simms is an exceptional company, with craftsmen and craftswomen who consider the production of high-end waders to be a process of both art and commerce. They are, I think, the best on earth at both making waders and repairing them — the second service being every bit as essential as the first, to me at least.
Nobody outside of the full-time fly-fishing guide community — and maybe some who are inside — is harder on chest waders then I am. I lose focus, you see, and I hurry. And I spend too much time watching fish and kingfishers and American dippers and passing wood ducks and not enough time watching my step.
So I end up impaled while crossing, or crawling under, barbed-wire fences. I forget to notice the prickly rose thickets or prickly pear up ahead until they all around me, and into my waders. I tumble down slopes and literally walk off the end of cut banks, managing some of the most theatrical slips, trips and falls this side of Buster Keaton retrospectives and America’s Funniest Home Videos.
All in my waders.
So I love the repair crew at Simms every bit as much as I love the production crew.
It might surprise the undereducated among you to know that at a base price of $499.95, the G3 Guide stocking-foot waders I have my eye on are not the top of the line for Simms. That spot is held, at $799.95, by the G4Zs, which are tough-yet-sublime creations touted by Simms advertisements as the “most feature-rich wader in the line.”
Well, I should say. And I probably will say — uh, yes — someday with my checkbook or debit card. But I’m not quite there, just yet.
Getting to where I am with waders has been a half-century process. It began at the thrift shop — then called the second-hand store — at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain back in about, oh, 1967 or 1968. There I bought my first pair of hip boots, for $5.
The second-hand store at St. Joe’s offered an apparel selection from the stream of donations that came in from across the nation. Plenty of us Chamberlain-area kids shopped there. And because I did some refereeing for the grade school and junior high basketball teams at St. Joe’s, I occasionally purchased what passed, to me, at least, as referee’s shirts dirt-cheap at the store.
Others suggested the shirts looked more like something a relatively unsuccessful marijuana dealer might wear. But you get the pattern.
The hip boots were an odd addition to the St. Joe’s footwear line, but one I embraced — especially for five stones. And they opened up a whole new world of travel for me out at the Red Lake slough by Pukwana.
Red Lake really is a lake now. But when I was tromping around the marsh muck in my used hip boots stalking ducks and geese and occasionally earning a lecture from game warden Gene Dominiack, the lake was a sprawling complex of cattails and muskrat huts, willows and open patches of water.
There were also occasional patches of generally dry, upland vegetation where rooster pheasants went to hide from the shotgun crews in surrounding grain fields. Slap on a pair of rubber hip boots, and you could hunt ducks and geese, and the occasional pheasant, and feel like you had the slough world by the tail.
Wandering through Red Lake as a teenager offered answers to some of the mysteries of wetlands. It taught me the importance of sinking your feet into a piece of landscape, and water, you love. And it introduced me to the mysteries of wader leaks, and the never-ending, almost-never-entirely-successful process of leak repair.
Hip boots are limited, of course, in that they can take you into the water only a little less than hip deep, although an industrious young user will always find ways to get a little deeper, and a lot wetter. And by the time I was engaged in journalism study at South Dakota State University, and autumn duck hunting with my friend and English professor, Chuck Woodard, the hippers were clearly overmatched.
So I started buying rubber chest waders, generally for somewhere in the $30 to $40 range. My preferences have evolved, in more expensive ways, since then.
The evolution of waders has a much-longer history, starting with Neanderthal versions produced by the still-operating Hodgman company way back around 1850. The development of rubber in the early 1900s meant important wader upgrades that were followed by improvements in that versatile material during the wars.
Then came polyvinyl chloride, neoprene and the Teflon-based Gore-Tex of later years.
Over the years I’ve gone through more waders than I could count, with plenty of patching and fussing along the way. Right now I have one pair of booted Cabela’s neoprene waders (some waders have boots), which I wear for duck hunting and some cold-weather fishing situations. And I have two pair of lighter, “breathable” lower-end, by Simms standards, stocking-foot chest waders, one of which cost $300 or so a decade ago and the other about $250 five years ago.
I wear the Simms waders throughout the year, simply adding heavier socks and insulated leggings in the winter — a period when, on the right day, you can fly fish in several Black Hills streams.
And I’ve concluded through a process of wearer error that I like my waders sized medium long, but with larger boots, or booties. I’m skinny, with big feet, and hands a lot bigger than the president’s, but that’s another story. Just sayin' ...
I’ve avoided the more-expensive special order option in waders up to this point, settling for regular large waders that are baggy and bunchy but with booties that fit, or medium-long waders that fit in the body and legs but hav booties that are too small, and uncomfortable, and quicker to wear through at the toe -- and need replacement, at a cost.
But now I’m 65, and I have a semi-fixed income that includes a part-time journalism contract and Social Security checks. And it all seems, oddly enough, more comfortable than the salaries I had over almost 40 years of full-time reporting. So I’ve decided to make wader comfort a priority.
But $600 worth of a priority? Yes, your honor, and here’s why:
I spend a lot of time in waders. I mean, a lot of time. Not guide time, but a lot of time, because I fish all year, including fly-fishing in streams on days in December or January when it’s tolerable.
And I love wade fishing. It puts you in the lake or stream or pond. It allows you to feel the bottom contours and angles and structure, the water movement and general temperature. And at times you get to feel things that aren't stumps and rocks -- moving things you can’t quite identify down around your legs and feet. With some, you're never quite sure. But most you know are turtles and, especially, fish. They nudge the side of your knee, whoosh through your legs and, when really spooked, even slam into the back of your calves or thighs.
And when you release a trout back into a stream, it’s not unusual for the fish to settle in for a while behind one of your wading boots as you resume fishing. The fish just hangs out, free of the main current and drifting slightly, gracefully back and forth as it recovers. Both you and the fish will be oddly comfortable -- and you might be inspired -- by that brief bit of symbiosis, until the cold-blooded creature of the creek bids you farewell with a flip of the fin.
Standing still in Black Hills creeks, I’ve been buzzed by American dippers and had kingfishers consider landing on my shoulder. I have surprised muskrats, and been just as surprised by them. Once I was lounging on a rock in Grace Coolidge Creek, with one of my wader-covered legs propped up on another rock, when a mink casually swam up the creek, drifted over and crawled up to take a break on my wader boot. I didn't move for some time. But eventually the mink clearly felt something wasn't right, and slid off the boot and back into the creek.
When possible, I like to “wet wade,” bare legged, wearing shorts and a comfortable pair of wading shoes. But I only do that in high-quality water, with a firm sandy or gravel bottom, little vegetation and on really warm days in fairly warm water. Much of Rapid Creek is usually warm enough in summer. But in parts of Rapid City, the debris can be unsettling. And Spearfish Creek is too cold, especially up high. So mostly, I do my wading in waders.
I wade streams and rivers and lakes and stock dams, fishing for trout and walleyes and bass and crappies, maybe bluegill or perch here and there.
I’ve even been known to wade and fly fish for creek chubs. But we’ll deal with some of my psychological disorders in a separate column. Or columns, as the need may be.
For now, I just want some new waders, a higher-quality pair to add to the rotation of the two pair of Simms. And as with the other Simms, I’ll buy the new pair from Dakota Angler & Outfitter in downtown Rapid City, which I like to call the best fly shop on the face of the earth.
Nobody down there seems to argue.
To some anglers, even $250 seems like a lot for waders. State Attorney General Marty Jackley seemed to express such an opinion last summer when I took him and his son, Michael, fly-fishing on a stretch of Crow Creek over near the Wyoming line. I believe they shared a pair of less-expensive waders that day, which means Michael did all the fishing. And that’s a good thing, because he’s the best fisherman.
I doubt Michael will criticize me for spending $600. It’s possible that my wife will, however. So there’s no reason for us to inform Mary until after the deal is done. I assume I can trust everyone on that?
Meanwhile, I’ll prepare my defense, which is, mainly, “Hey, I don’t have a boat!”
Well, not a real boat. I’ve got a little double-pontooned craft with a single seat and oars that I can lift and carry and squeeze into the box of my Nissan pickup. The “boat” is a convenient little creature purchased for about $500, and I use it several times a season.
I also have a 17-foot Coleman canoe that I bought for about $300 back in the early 1980s. It’s a durable-but-clumsy craft, kind of like its owner. Beyond that, it’s heavy and uncooperative in any wind or on still water.
It’s also a reminder of that night in southwest Minnesota 35 or 36 years ago when I misjudged the distance between the put-in and get-out points of a canoe trip on the Minnesota River. It didn’t help, I suppose, that I spent as much time casting as I did paddling, a fact that was noted later by my trip partner and first wife, Jaciel.
Miles short of our take-out point, Jaciel and I beached the canoe in the dark and set out on foot through mosquito-infested muck, dense cornfields and a near-miss quarry (where I almost led us off the ledge) as Jay’s dad, Keith, waited and paced and searched at one possible alternative landing point after another.
Oh, he smoked, too. Because that night Keith resumed the cigarette habit he had given up prior to the canoe trip. And while I doubt that such an, uh, adventure could have led to the failure of the marriage, I suppose it would be fair to check with the other paddler, just to be sure.
And speaking of Jaciel, I’d prefer she not know about the $600 waders in advance of the purchase, lest she feel the need to counsel Mary on a proper response. Which would be overkill, since Mary is fully capable of prosecuting this case on her own.
My defense for the $600 waders will focus on the $40,000 I didn't spend on a fishing boat and the $40,000 more I, uh, saved by not buying a four-wheeled drive pickup to pull the boat. I'll also introduce into evidence my 12-year-old, two-wheel-drive, paid-for-in-cash Nissan pickup.
All this means no boat/trailer and pickup payment, no spending on boat gas and repair, sonar units and trolling motors, new tarps and trailer repair and tires and insurance and, well, you know.
I do spend what some might consider to be a good deal of money on rods and reels, related gear, and waders. And soon I’ll be more than doubling the wader spending — I think with good reason, well argued above, in my opinion.
And with that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defense rests.
At least until it’s time for the G4Zs.