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The secrets of barefoot wading…

When was the last time you went barefoot outdoors for an extended time? Maybe it was for a bit of grilling on the back deck, or strolling the beach. Good for you, I’d say. We spend so much time with our feet cooped up in shoes that any time spent barefoot is time well spent.

People who know me well will tell you that I spend plenty of time barefoot, even walking on the egg-cooking concrete of my local Texas sidewalks during summer. I sincerely enjoy the feeling of being barefoot, and I am willing to endure a few sand burrs for the pleasure.

With all that said, you won’t be surprised to learn I also love to wade barefoot. In fact, I have previously mentioned it in this blog post, in case you missed out.

Barefootin' in a carp river.
Barefootin' in a carp river.

I really love the feel of the sediments under my feet and between my toes. It’s very different than the normal wading experience, and it can make you far more stealthy than wading with footgear..

Great, you might say, but isn't that really dumb? I mean, aren't I asking to get injured here? Hang with me for a moment while I explain.

I prefer to wade barefoot, but I stick to some basic guidelines that limit the danger. Prior to deciding to go barefootin', I make sure that I know the area in question extremely well. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wadeable water on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and there are only a few places that I trust to have the proper substrate to make me feel comfortable. What kind of substrate? Sand. Smooth, firm, silky sand. Not a shell in sight.

So now you're saying, OK, sand is good, no shells is good, but what about all the random junk that might be lurking?

Pardon the pun, but you’ll just have to stay on your toes.

This is where detailed local knowledge comes into play. I know a spot with a large oyster bed out in the middle of a wide grass flat, next to a drop-off. I stay well away from the oysters, shuffling carefully alongside the drop and working topwaters for trout, often with great success, and always with the organic feel of the flat beneath my bare feet.

My favorite areas to wade without shoes are the open expanses of sand flats found around Corpus and down further south. Pocked with untold millions of drum feed-marks, the sand flats can be full of the happy tails of black drum and cruising reds. The water is shallow and usually clear, allowing you to check the bottom before each shuffling step. These fish can provide a welcome after-work tug for the guy or gal who knows where to go, and it’ll be easier to sneak close for a cast if you’re able to go barefoot.

I mentioned stealth earlier, and tail-stalking time is when sneakiness really pays off. Big fish on the flats are hyper-aware of any water disturbance. The swish-swash of our feet passing through the water, along with the resulting pressure wave pushed in front of us , is an alarm bell to our fishy friends. How can we use this knowledge to our advantage?

A quick Google search of 'saltwater flats wading boot' reveals sales-pitch adjectives like "rugged" and "durable". Those are great attributes when you need a bulletproof wading boot for coral and shell, but not when you need to be a flats ninja. Think about it in hydrodynamic terms: more surface area = more disturbance of the surrounding water. When it comes to sneaking up on fish in shallow water, you’re quieter without the boots. In hunting terms, it's like crunching twigs and leaves while trying to get close to a deer. You might get away with it sometimes, but you’ll greatly improve your results if you’re able dampen the sounds of movement. Use the reduced footprint (ha, not sorry for that one) of bare feet to your advantage.On those quick trips after work or right before sunrise, stealth can mean the difference between that one good fish or no fish at all.

This brings me to my next basic guideline - I don't go barefoot if I’m planning a serious, day-long adventure. There are simply  too many variables involved and too many ways to get hurt. You should always have serviceable footwear available nearby, even on a flats skiff, because running aground happens - and usually not in ideal places. Safety should always be kept firmly in mind, especially when others might be counting on you.

It's not always easy, but if you look, you'll find areas where you can enjoy a direct connection with the water and substrate on the bottom. Possibly for you it's the sun-warmed squish of a favorite carp flat, or the firm sand in the corner of your local lake's swimming area while you watch the kids and make a few casts. Maybe it’s just a quick break where you slip off your shoes in a safe spot and smile with the simple joy of wiggling your toes in the sand. You won’t regret it.

Let's go over the list. Before barefoot wadefishing, you should:

  • Know the area well. Never wade barefoot on your first few trips to a new area.

  • Understand the dangers your feet will face and how to avoid them. Stingrays, sticks, sharp rocks, and inconveniently placed seashells come to mind.

  • Stick to where the water is clear and skinny - say knee-deep or less - so it's easy to see what your foot might encounter.
  • Consider reserving barefoot wading for relaxed jaunts, not uber-serious fishing excursions. Not saying that a quick evening trip isn't serious, but you know what I mean.

  • Have adequate footwear nearby when you’re wading barefoot. As usual, make sure a stocked first-aid kit is readily accessible, and tell someone where you're going and when you plan to be back.

  • OFFICIAL DISCLAIMER: this is NOT me saying that you should rush out barefoot to your local flats, freshwater or salt, and slosh around willy-nilly. Even if you don’t get hurt, you’ll scare the fish. Use your head, and tread carefully. .

Be careful, be smart, but be brave.


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