Hunting & Heritage  |  08/03/2016

Gear Review: Five Upland Hunting Boots for Happy Feet

A rough calculation (the only kind I do) tells me that I have walked over 2,000 miles—over a lot of years—in pursuit of pheasants. That qualifies me, it seems, to share a bit of what I’ve learned about field footwear. After all, to hunt pheasants, all we really need is a shotgun, a license and a good pair of boots. Everything else is a bonus.
Dave Murphy, for 15 years the CEO of Red Wing Shoes (makers of Irish Setter hunting boots), puts it this way: “If you don’t have the right boot for the job, you don’t have a good boot.” The right boot must be light enough to allow you to cover some serious miles comfortably, yet heavy enough to provide protection from rocks, wire and uneven terrain. They must provide good support, or you will tire more quickly. They must be flexible, yet sturdy. There is no reason they can’t look good, either. These characteristics are not mutually compatible—one reason why there are not that many truly good upland boots on the market.
To complicate matters, for most of us, there are two distinct pheasant seasons. Opening day can often feel more like summer than fall, when you’ll want the lightest, coolest boots possible to avoid sweating feet (which can cause blisters). Later in the season, you have the opposite concern; keeping your feet warm and dry in sub-freezing temperatures and snow.  There is, unfortunately, no single boot that can handle both of these extremes. So, you really should warm up the credit card and buy two pairs. If you choose wisely, it is an investment that will last for years. Poorly made “bargain” footwear is ultimately no bargain at all.  

Boot Basics

There are four basic decisions you will have to make. You’ll have a choice of overall height, usually 6 to 10 inches. The shorter height will make for a cooler, lighter boot for early-season hunting. The taller height is preferred for winter, since it helps keep snow out.
The second choice will be insulated or non-insulated. Obviously, you don’t need 400 grams of insulation when temperatures are in the 70s. Nor do you want to take the risk of frostbite when sleet is freezing on your shotgun barrel. This is the best argument for having at least two pairs.
Some manufacturers offer the same boot in waterproof or non-waterproof versions. This, your third choice, is not a choice in my opinion. Wet feet are no fun even when it’s warm. In cold weather, wet feet can literally kill you.
The fourth choice, where you should direct a good portion of your analysis, is the boot’s sole. The soul of any boot is its sole, and there are surprisingly few good ones out there. Heavy hunting boots with lugs like an off-road tire, great for hunting elk or deer, are miserable in the pheasant fields. They pick up vast amounts of mud, adding several extra pounds of topsoil to every step you take. Once clogged with mud, they become slippery and dangerous.
Conversely, if your sole is too thin and lacking in traction, it can be easily penetrated by nails, result in sore, tired feet and have you doing more skating than walking. Let’s look at some of the few boots that deliver on their promises.

Quality Brands

Irish Setter – Wingshooter

Irish Setter, a division of the aforementioned Red Wing Shoes, is the official upland hunting boot of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. Red Wing’s financial support of PF and QF helps ensure that hunters will have plenty of habitat on which to enjoy their outstanding Wingshooter series of boots. Red Wing, Minnesota, has been home to this all-American company since 1905, and their boots are handcrafted in the USA from American leather…quite a rarity, considering that about 98% of all boots these days are made overseas.
There is something for every season and every preference in their Wingshooter…a choice of 7 and 9 inch heights, insulated or not and all are fully waterproof. Red Wing employs a staff of scientists specializing in urethane technology, and their soles are as high-tech as footwear gets. The all-leather Wingshooter sole has two oval, lugged insets within a smoother, directional tread—proving excellent stability in mud and snow without allowing either to accumulate. They start at $179.99, money well spent.

Danner – Sharptail

The name Danner has been associated with high-quality boots since 1932, and their Sharptail 8” Brown ($190.00) is purpose-made for the upland hunter. They are attractive boots, combining full-grain leather with lightweight 900 denier nylon and a waterproof GORE-TEX® lining.

The Sharptail’s outsole has an aggressive tread pattern that produces solid traction, but won’t get bogged down in mud. The Sharptail 8” Brown is non-insulated, ideal for early-season hunts. For something a bit different, have a look at the Sharptail Rear Zip 10” Brown ($200.00), one of the more stylish hunting boots you’ll find.

Wood N’ Stream – Flyway

The Weinbrenner Shoe Company started making work boots in Milwaukee in 1892. In 1957, they established the Wood N’ Stream division specifically for the outdoorsman. Their Flyway series is made for the bird hunter, with no fewer than 11 styles of all-leather, waterproof, moc-toe boots in both insulated and non-insulated versions, 6 and 8 inch heights. Their soles are offered in black or cream, with a simple and effective “cellular wedge” directional pattern. Flyways start about $139.00.

Orvis – Featherweight Kangaroo Upland Boot

If you know anything about Orvis, you know they will sell nothing that does not meet their high standards, and their new Featherweight Kangaroo Upland Boot might set even the Orvis bar at a higher level. Their goal was no less than a complete reinvention of the upland boot, and they invested over two years in the process.

The result is one of the lightest boots on the market, with kangaroo leather providing the highest strength-to-weight ratio possible. They require virtually no breaking in, they’re made in the USA and they are supremely comfortable. Even the sole is unique to Orvis, a thoroughly researched proprietary moderate tread as efficient in the quail plantations of Georgia as it is in the Sandhills of Nebraska. No, they’re not cheap, retailing around $400. But if any product illustrates you get what you pay for, this might be it.

Russell Moccasin – Art Carter Traveling Sportsmen Chukka

Since 1898, Russell Moccasin has been handcrafting made-to-order boots, custom-fitted to only one pair of feet—yours. You can choose cowhide, bison, alligator, even elephant or ostrich, and just about any option you can imagine. They keep a few of the most popular styles in stock, one of those being the handsome Art Carter Traveling Sportsmen Chukka. Created at the request of the late editor of Sporting Classics magazine, and made from heirloom French Veal—the epitome of soft, supple leather—these Vibram-soled multipurpose shoes can be worn straight from the boardroom to the pheasant fields. Yeah, they’re $450.

After a long day on tired, sore feet, my grandmother used to say, “My dogs are barking.”  The only dogs I want to hear are my two Labradors, not the ones at the end of my legs. You can have the finest shotgun, the best shotshells, the greatest new vest, but none of that is going to help you if your feet are protesting. Invest in good boots, and you’ll be amazed at the spring in your step and how easily the miles go by. No one is fond of dogs that bark too much.
Written by Tom Bulloch
Main image by Red Wing/Irish Setter