In praise of hip waders

by Gord Ellis | March 18, 2020
hanging rubber hip waders in green

To some anglers, hip waders are the ugly stepsister of chest waders, but to me, they’re the workhorses of the family. In fact, I would argue hip waders are more useful than chest waders in the widest variety of situations. They’re also generally a lot more affordable. This is not a bad thing.

Hip waders were my first waders. I received them as a gift, sometime around my 12th birthday. My father, Gord Sr., had been trying to get me, his eldest son, interested in steelhead fishing and at the time my world revolved around brook trout. The birthday waders were green rubber, with a large clunky boot and they were a bit too big for me. Two straps on either side of the top of the hip waders wrapped around my belt, and velcro strips held the straps in place so the waders wouldn’t fall down to my ankles. Basic hip wader design hasn’t changed in all that time.

Steelhead start

My first foray with hip waders was on the Jackpine River in the spring of 1974. My dad, brother, Roy, and I were on the upper river, and we had to do a fair bit of wading through small braids to get to the main hotspot, but those hip waders were high enough to keep that spring ice water out. When you wear hip waders, you quickly learn to keep a sharp eye on the water level. That day was a success, with several steelhead caught and the waders performing admirably.

As my steelhead fever grew, I inevitably moved to chest waders. They allowed for wading in deeper water and were generally warmer than hip waders. Yet as the years rolled on, my hip waders increasingly came back into use. The turning point came on a canoe trip on the Albany River, in 1996.

Albany adventure

The trip on the Albany was something of an Ellis adventure involving various members of my immediate and extended family. We had a week of canoeing planned on the great river, and for some reason I threw the hip waders in. As it turned out, that decision was a good one. On earlier canoe trips, I’d worn leather hiking boots or rubber boots, but getting in and out of the canoe with hiking boots meant they were forever wet, and the rubber boots weren’t quite high enough and would instantly fill with water. It was a lose-lose situation. Wearing hip waders solved the problem. I could roll them down to boot length if it was too warm in the canoe (that didn’t happen a lot) and they provided a little extra waterproofing from splashing paddles and rain. They were also great when it came time to jump out of the canoe, line rapids, or get ready for a portage.

Initially, I would take them off for most portages. But as it became clear that many of the trails around raging rapids and falls were filled with bogs and water holes, the hip waders stayed on. The boots were not the best for trail walking, but having dry feet made up for it. My hip waders were soon a regular addition to most canoe and cold weather fishing trips. I also used them frequently for late-season steelhead fishing and almost all shore casting. In other words, they became indispensable.

Guiding help

Then I started guiding. Initially, the hip waders didn’t get pressed into service much as most of my work was (and is) boat fishing, and I’m primarily driving the boat and netting fish. However, I soon discovered that hip waders kept my legs and pants from being covered with fish slime.This is an acute problem when fishing lake trout, salmon, and pike. These fish tend to be on the larger size, and handling big numbers of them pretty much guarantees you’ll get a lot of blood, slime, and fishy fecal matter on you. Let me assure you, there are few things less comfortable than slimy blue jeans. Add a little sun into the mix and this guide starts smelling like three-day-old fish kill.

Ups and downs

The only major downside of wearing hip waders in a boat all day is that the rubber doesn’t breathe, and your feet can get clammy. This problem can be partially addressed with battery-operated insoles. They help with the foot perspiration and allow for a more comfortable day, especially when it’s cold outside. Sometimes, just taking off the waders for15 minutes or so and letting the insoles air-dry a bit, will give you a break. Overall though, my hip waders do the job just fine. One other thing I appreciate about hip waders is the relative longevity of them. Last year, I retired a pair I’d worn for over two decades. They were starting to show excessive wear and had a rip in one leg.

Shopping locally revealed that hip waders are much less available than chest waders. I did find some that are a bit lighter than my old pair, but otherwise quite similar. I settled on a pair that fit my foot well and didn’t look too bad. They cost less than $100 bucks. I put these new hip waders to use for a good part of my 2018 guiding season, for some steelhead adventures, and even during the moose hunt. As expected, they’ve proven to be worth their weight in gold.

What more can you ask from a pair of thigh-high rubber boots?

Originally published in the April 2019 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.

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