Anglers Facing Possible Ban on Felt-Soled Wading Boots

By Beacon Staff

On a fly fishing blog managed by Headhunters Fly Shop out of Craig, there’s a photograph of dirty felt soles on a pair of wading boots. Below the picture is a question.

“What nastiness lives in these soles?”

The answer, apparently, might be a lot, according to multiple studies, including a 2007 Montana State University report. The nastiness in question is the presence of harmful hitchhikers – aquatic nuisance species – that latch on to anglers and travel with them to new waters.

In an effort to crack down on these aquatic nuisance species (ANS), also known as invasive species, the state Legislature is considering a bill banning external felt soles on boots and waders. The bill was initially sponsored by Sen. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, and is now being carried by Tom Facey, D-Missoula, in the Senate Fish and Game Committee.

The question posed on the Headhunters blog is followed by an analysis of the bill and a forum in which anglers discuss the potential repercussions of such a ban. Responses on the blog mostly favor the bill, though it’s clear some anglers across the state remain skeptical of ditching felt and have concerns about the rubber-soled alternatives.

Mark Raisler, co-owner of Headhunters Fly Shop, echoed the sentiments of many posts on his site’s blog: Bring on the ban, but will it really make that much of a difference? Felt-soled boots, Raisler points out, are only one of many contributors to the spread of invasive species.

“This isn’t going to cure it, but let’s get in the mindset and let’s discuss ANS,” Raisler said. “Are we going to stop ANS from spreading? No. But can we slow it? Yes.”

He added: “I think we need to do everything it takes to move forward.”

Aquatic invasive species have been on Montana’s radar for years. In 2009, the Montana Legislature passed the Aquatic Invasive Species Act and set aside more than $600,000 for the state Department of Agriculture and Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Since then, FWP has intensified a program encouraging anglers and boaters to: “Inspect. Clean. Dry.”

Invasive species, according to FWP, are defined as “organisms that are unintentionally brought into Montana from other places” and “include clams, fish, mussels, plants, weeds, and disease-causing pathogens.” Anglers in Montana are well aware of the devastating effects of one ANS, whirling disease.

A private group called the Clean Angling Coalition, based out of Livingston, has also gained recognition through its research and presentations about aquatic nuisance species across the state.

While these state and citizen efforts have focused primarily on outreach, education and monitoring, the current bill takes on a new approach by proposing to simply eliminate one of the suspected carrier culprits.

Felt-soled wading boots have long been the industry standard for anglers. They are also used by fisheries workers and other people who spend time in the water. But growing research shows that felt’s dense mat of woven fibers retains significant amounts of sediment and moisture, which carry and allow for the survival of invasive species.

Alaska and Vermont have banned felt soles, as has New Zealand. Maryland and Oregon are considering a ban.

Erickson said the bill first appeared in a University of Montana law school class teaching aspiring attorneys about legislation. A student named Nick Domitrovich crafted a proposal to prohibit felt soles.

“I was really caught by the great research by the young man,” Erickson said.

Not only would a ban affect anglers, it would also have an impact on retailers and manufacturers. To create as smooth of a transition as possible, Erickson said amendments have been proposed to push back and stagger the effective ban date as it applies to retailers and citizens. As written now, the ban would take effect Oct. 1, 2012.

The bill states that the “provisions do not apply to a state or federal employee or emergency personnel, including fire, law enforcement, and emergency medical technicians, using external felt-soled boots or external felt-soled waders when acting within the scope of duty.”

Simms, a respected Bozeman-based fishing gear manufacturer, announced in 2009 that it is no longer making felt-soled boots, instead switching to the Vibram rubber brand. Mark Aagenes, state conservation director for Montana Trout Unlimited, said Simms’ decision is a positive sign of the times.

“It’s where the industry is going,” Aagenes said. “Simms, one of the preeminent companies in the world, has already moved away from this.”

He added: “There’s no question that ANS is a hugely important issue.”

Aagenes, while pointing out that there are “far bigger priorities” for Trout Unlimited this session such as a bill proposal to alter Montana’s stream access laws, said he favors a gradual ban so as not to “unduly burden” small businesses that sell boots, along with anglers.

“And we know felt-soled boots are not the primary way that ANS are spread,” he added.

Echoing a point made by Aagenes, Raisler said invasive species are particularly troublesome for agriculture.

“For fishermen, this is a small issue, but for the community at large it’s a huge issue,” Raisler said.

For his part, Raisler has worn rubber-soled boots for awhile, a huge leap from 20 years ago when he attached carpet to the bottom of his Converse All-Stars. His shop only sells rubber soles and he has found that most customers are fine with the transition, even if there are lingering concerns over traction on certain surfaces. Studs and cleats are also available.

Such a wholesale change to the tradition of fly fishing, Raisler said, will inevitably draw critics.

“Anytime there’s change, certainly in America, there’s outcry,” he said. “But change is inevitable. Instead of resisting and yelling and screaming, let’s embrace it.”