The state Department of Natural Resources plans to prohibit wading with felt soles starting March 21 to curb the spread of an invasive organism — called didymo — that gets trapped in damp fibers. When fishermen don't properly clean and dry felt-soled boots, the algae spreads the next time they wade into a different body of water. So far, there are no effective or proven ways to get rid of didymo once it contaminates the water.
"When you talk about the price of a new pair of waders, what's at cost here is really the price of clean water," said Jonathan McKnight, associate wildlife director for the DNR and co-chair of its invasive species matrix team.
McKnight said he hasn't heard many complaints about the new regulation so far, and he has heard that some manufacturers have stopped making felt-soled boots.
Susan Rivers, a biologist with the Maryland Fisheries Service, said she switched to rubber-soled boots before the regulation was announced.
"They are different, but the material you have to get used to, it is just like wearing a different type of boot," Rivers said. "I know people are concerned, but ultimately it's something that will save our waterways."
Rivers said the boots will prevent not only didymo from spreading, but other diseases and spores from exotic animals or bacteria that could travel by boot.
Didymo is an algae that coats riverbeds with mats of yellow-brown vegetation. State fishing regulators say the algae can kill aquatic insect larvae that are considered food for trout.
Similar bans will take effect April 1 in Vermont and next year in Alaska. Montana and Oregon also are looking to start a ban on felt-soled gear.
To prepare for the new regulation, Tony Tochterman, owner of Tochterman's Fishing Tackle in Fells Point, Md., discounted his felt-soled boots to $30 to $50 from $60 to $150. He said he has about 50 pairs of boots to get rid of by the end of the month.
"We're pretty sure we're going to dump the rest to out-of-state stores," Tochterman said. "It's not so bad from our point of view. We can do different things about it."
Didymo colonies were first spotted in 2008 in the Gunpowder River below Prettyboy Reservoir by local anglers. The DNR examined the algae to determine what caused its presence in the river. The agency also found a study that showed felt-soled footgear transferred other diseases to rivers.
Because felt is dense, the material can trap didymo for weeks if not cleaned properly, and even when boots are cleaned, it can take more than a week for the felt to fully dry.
"We're going to lose our credibility and jeopardize rivers just by fishing," said Jason DuPont, a river guide and angler who was among the first to spot didymo at Gunpowder. "And it's a big nuisance in fishing: if your fly gets anywhere near it, it's trapped in a big cotton ball, essentially."
DuPont has been working with Theaux LeGardeur, who owns fly-fishing shop Backwater Angler in Monkton, Md., and has partnered with the DNR on protecting the Gunpowder and maintaining washing stations along the river. Another prevention tool for anglers is a five-minute soaking in saline solution after leaving a stream. The DNR has set up a number of wader-washer stations along the Gunpowder and Savage River in Garrett County, Md., where didymo also was recently spotted.
LeGardeur said he hasn't carried felt-soled boots in his store for two years, and said his rubber-soled boots start at $99 and go up to $220. He said the rubber-soled shoes are safer than felt because they have better traction in mud when anglers are walking on a trail.
"I don't feel at all that anglers should feel maligned in any way with the change in regulations," LeGardeur said.
While didymo is about to be in its full bloom along riverbanks, it isn't a complete river killer. Fish have adapted to it where it first appeared, but Maryland biologists can't say how it will affect the ecosystem of waterways in the future.
Maryland officials will use this year's fishing season as an educational year, with violators getting warnings instead of tickets. Fines and penalties haven't been determined yet and won't be effective until next year.