We didn't winnow the more than 100 Best of the Best entries down to 15 winners by sitting at a desk and reading marketing copy. Instead, our experts took the tackle on the water and fished with it—hard, in all kinds of conditions. What survived the rigors of testing in experienced hands is here—the Best of the Best.
There’s no trick to catching more fish. Just get on the water more often and stay out longer, no matter how tough or harsh the conditions. The real key is choosing gear that lets you stay out there, comfortably weatherproof, with tackle at your fingertips—like this year’s Best of the Best. --Ted Leeson
This new guide-class wading boot distinguished itself in the field with its superior ruggedness and stability. It has a 2mm high-grade rubber chassis that resists abrasion and cuts, and triple-stitched construction protects against seam failure. The lacing panel is fashioned from an extra-durable mesh that’s sturdy but supple enough to conform to your foot for a comfortable fit. The dual-zone lacing system is brilliantly simple: Hook-style speed laces snug over your instep to the desired fit, and a unique locking eyelet at the base of the ankle holds the instep tension, so you can customize the lacing pressure in the boot upper for optimum wading security and ankle mobility. And the boots open wide to make getting them on and off easy. Extra-tall uppers (seldom seen on wading boots these days) give superior ankle support for negotiating rough rocky bottoms or broken terrain. The KGB comes with two soles but accepts any of the other eight OmniTrax Interchangeable soles, letting you adapt to wading conditions or replace soles as they become worn. Price: $210 korkers.com
A new take on an old material, the PhD Full Zip is very smart indeed. The washable quilted nylon shell encloses a high-loft, -compression--resistant wool batting, and the torso is lined with a soft, jersey-knit merino wool. A full draft flap behind the zipper seals in heat. Hand-warmer and chest storage pockets zip shut for security. Though it’s intended primarily as a midlayer, the water--repellent finish sheds light rain and snow, so it serves double duty as an outer layer. Price: $220 smartwool.com
Sonic welding technology used to construct these new waders produces a waterproof bond that completely eliminates stitched-and-taped seams, which are a common source of leaks and add stiffness and bulk. These welded seams are strong, withstanding 60 pounds of pull, and the four-layer nylon fabric in the body is equally tough. The result is a hard-wearing wader that’s surprisingly light, supple, and packable—plenty durable for everyday use and superbly suited to hike-in anglers, float-tubers, kick-boaters, and destination travelers.
Its features are truly unusual in this price class: Anatomically cut left-right neoprene feet (which vastly improve comfort over a long day of wading) fit inside boots without bunching. An ingenious suspender design allows you to drop the wader top for instant waist-high conversion in warm weather (or to answer nature’s call) without removing your vest or rain jacket. The exterior front pocket, sized to hold even the largest fly boxes, has a weatherproof zipper, and one of the two flip-out inside pockets is completely waterproof for a camera, phone, or wallet. Integral loops keep the included belt in place, and a drawstring top cinches up for deep wading. Nothing useful is missing here and nothing superfluous is added. Price: $259 orvis.com
Borrowing a time-honored idea from the backpack industry, Umpqua Feather Merchants built this new waist pack around a lightweight aluminum stay—a curved, butterfly-shaped frame between the padded waist belt and the cargo bag. The bag holds its shape, and accessing the interior is far easier than on conventional designs, where fishing out what you need is like groping around in the bottom of a limp pillowcase. The frame distributes weight evenly for comfortable load bearing, and it creates a rigid platform that lets you rotate the pack around your waist without binding. Convenience is engineered into the layout of the 500-cubic-inch cargo bag. The main compartment’s sturdy zipper opens wide and the contents are visible against the light-colored lining. This is an exceptionally functional waist pack at a very good price. Price: $100 umpqua.com