They’re not your granddad’s boat shoes.
Like many coastal anglers, there was a time when I figured I was not dressed if I did not have on my “boat shoes.” These slip-on loafers, popularized by Sperry’s venerable Top-Sider, worn without socks, were the must-have wardrobe option for a generation of anglers.
But times have a way of changing, and the traditional deck shoes have changed with them—for the better, I’m happy to say. The old classics were useful and durable, but lacked a lot in comfort. When you stood on a fiberglass deck all day on that wafer-thin sole, particularly on fast, rough runs, your feet, ankles and knees took a beating. Most had almost no heel, so they made for tough walking over any distance. And, since they were most often worn without socks, the shoes tended to become more than slightly radioactive over the years—storage in the garage next to the cat pan was their usual destiny between trips.
Fortunately, these days most well-known manufacturers are producing boating/fishing shoes with some major improvements, including the comfort, cushioning and support of the best running shoes. The new models are light weight, made from highly durable materials, and amazingly, have even come up with a pretty fair solution to the problem of odure-de-shu, if you will.
Sandal type boat shoes make a lot of sense for Florida anglers most of the year. You get a lot less foot sweat with a sandal design, and if you have to wade a bit to get the boat on the trailer or whatever, they’re more at home in the water than most closed-type shoes, and they dry out far faster. The straps on the sandals are a bit less comfortable than a lined shoe to me, but many younger anglers seem to prefer them—in part because of the way they look, I’d guess. The Rugged Shark Fisherman from Bass Pro Shops, about $70, has a soft mesh liner, a padded, liftout arch-support insole, and air-shock type cushioning in the heel. An anti-microbial coating on the interior is said to keep odors down.
Teva makes the Grenada, which is a closed-front sandal that prevents you from sticking a gaff into your big toe. They’re fairly pricey, typically in the $70 to $95 range, but big on style as well as comfort. The company also makes a lot of more open models, all with super footbed support and cushioning, at lower prices. Note that open thong-type shoes may be problematic if you have to wade in mud, however—they come off easily.
L.L. Bean’s boat sandal ($50) is a closed-toe model, in which the toe is completely surrounded. The shoe has three Velcro adjustments for a good fit—it should stay on even in tough wading, and the sole feels a lot like a running shoe underfoot, with good arch support and plenty of cushioning.
Columbia offers athletic-type construction in their boat shoes including the lace-up Belize and the slip-on Cayman. Both models (about $70) include gum-rubber soles, EVA molded footbeds that can be removed for washing, foam padded midsoles for easy walking on tough terrain, mesh breathing panels and an anti-odor treated interior.
Cabela’s Guidewear “Toggle” boat shoe ($60) avoids the shoe-lace tie on the front by using a spring-loaded brass toggle to secure the laces—it looks good and is faster than tying, too. The shoes have a synthetic cloth lining and a lift-out support insole for easy cleaning. The 1 1⁄4-inch heel makes them more comfortable for all-day wear than the flatback jobs, and they’re waterproof, so they remain a good choice for winter wear on sloppy decks. The RedHead Pro Angler ($70) looks like a baseball shoe, but has lots of padding, full arch and heel supports, mesh vents to keep your feet cool and an anti-microbe liner. It also comes in a slip-on model at the same price.
Bite Footwear offers an extensive line of Orthosport sandals in closed or open styles in the $70 to $100 range. In addition to Bite’s standard orthopedic design, their Biofit Fit Solution allows you to customize with optional footbeds featuring extra heel cushion, metatarsal pads, toe ridges or additional arch support.
There are also now what might be called “dress” deck shoes like the Sperry Top-Sider Gold Cup series, shoes that cost as much as Michael Jordan basketball specials, but that look it, too. With 18-karat gold-plate eyelets, deerskin lining and a memory-foam footbed, these are veddy classy classics—and they have the arch support and sole cushioning that raise them far above the original Top-Sider in wearing comfort. Whether you want to spend 150 bucks on shoes that might wind up with redfish scales all over them is another matter, of course. Sperry also makes boat sandals in both thong and wrap-over styles at much more moderate prices, and a new athletic-shoe version, the Portside, that goes for under $60.
Whatever style and price range you want, it’s likely you can find it in a “new-age” boat shoe that’s more comfortable, more stylish, more durable—and a whole lot less smelly—than your old favorites. Even as they age, if you chose models with removable insoles, you can pop these out and run them through the washing machine as needed, keeping your feet—and your crew—happy.