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October 26, 2001

Sole Searching

Deck shoes help you stay on your toes by providing safety and comfort while fishing

During my teenage years, I spent many summer Sundays at the local drag strip where my brother-in-law Tom raced in a "street-legal" division. We'd always arrive early, park in the pit area and prepare the Camaro for top-flight performance. First item on our checklist: Change the rear tires from all-weather radials to sticky racing slicks.
"Winning a quarter-mile race depends on getting off the line quickly," Tom used to say. "All the horsepower in the world won't help if you just sit there, spinning your wheels."
Fishermen also benefit from good traction, though not for competitive reasons -that is, unless you're some kind of rod hog who wants to get a sure-footed jump on your companions when the bite heats up.
Start at the Bottom
"Deck shoes must provide good traction on hard surfaces that vary from wet to dry," says Jason Boie, a designer for Sperry. "We're constantly developing rubber compounds and testing them in our lab to find materials that offer optimal slip resistance along with other desirable qualities such as flexibility."
Marketing Director Rob Bon Durant says Teva originally developed Spider Rubber (a proprietary compound with a high coefficient of friction) to meet the needs of trekkers scrambling over wet, slippery rocks. Using the same material in boating footwear has helped the company penetrate new markets. "A rubber compound's carbon content affects its stickiness," says Bon Durant. "But determining the exact formula is a delicate process. Too much carbon causes rubber to smear easily and mark up the deck."
Boaters and anglers who like to hop onto the dock at the end of a day and stroll away without changing their shoes represent the greatest challenge for nautical footwear manufacturers. A soft-rubber outsole (industry jargon for the bottom of a shoe) -perfect for gripping a pitching deck -tends to wear out rather quickly when used for everyday asphalt stomping; conversely, harder soles last longer but are less slip-resistant.
According to Brian Johnson, national sales manager for Gill North America, "The average boating shoe probably spends two-thirds of its life as a land-bound sneaker, so we have to make outsoles from harder-than-ideal rubber compounds. The outsole sacrifices some grip in exchange for longevity." Boie agrees that most deck shoes see double duty, describing them as "middle-of-the-road" models. "Our customers want shoes that perform well on deck and last long on land," he says.
Outsole patterns quickly reveal any footwear's intended purpose. "Conventional running shoes make poor fishing shoes because deep treads designed for traction over terrain such as earth or grass don't grab smooth surfaces. The more rubber in contact with the deck, the better the grip," says Johnson.
A completely flat outsole would offer maximum surface contact -but only as long as the deck remained absolutely dry. The first splash of water would send wearers "hydroplaning" toward the transom. Siping, another insider's term, refers to the grooves in tread patterns that channel water out from under shoes and allow outsoles to maintain direct contact with the deck. "Look for multidirectional siping," advises Bon Durant. "It pushes water away quickly and effectively."
Johnson recommends comparing outsoles and asking yourself, "When I put my foot down, will water escape or get trapped under the shoe?" In order to completely displace water, siping must provide an exit by extending out the side of the sole.
Upper Hand
Once you've covered your bottom, examine a shoe's upper construction. Carefully consider how, when and where you expect to fish before deciding which style of footwear to purchase. Fair-weather fishermen casting from flats boats enjoy the airy, open-toed comfort of sandals. Manufacturers such as Sperry and Teva offer sandals with slip-resistant outsoles and uppers that fit snugly -an important consideration because if the outsoles grip the deck but the uppers fail to hold your feet firmly, you'll still end up with unsure footing.
Potential hazards such as cleats or even gaffs in under-gunwale storage should convince anglers who frequent cockpits of sport-fishers to opt for the added protection afforded by shoes. "Leather destined for use in deck shoes undergoes a special tanning process to make it more saltwater-resistant," says Boie. Even so, natural leather uppers usually feature strategically located synthetic mesh panels to promote breathability and quick drying.
If your plans include backing down hard on billfish and maybe taking a few waves over the transom, footwear with all-synthetic uppers may suit you better. A synthetic material known as nubuck leather offers several advantages over the genuine item. "Nubuck is tougher than natural hide and won't absorb water," says Johnson. "It won't stretch, shrink or stiffen when dry."
Hard-core types who spend days at sea must be prepared for conditions varying from clear and calm to rainy and rough. Rubber boots, particularly in cooler climes, keep feet dry and comfy in such situations, explaining why they've become the preferred attire for long-range anglers who spend days and nights at the rail on trips of seven days or longer.
Take the time to select shoes that fit your feet as well as your fishing style. Using appropriate footwear can mean the difference between humming along with rubber sole or slip-sliding away.