Showing up to the river without a good pair of polarized sunglasses is like wading through water in sneakers. Sure, it’s possible. But what you can do and where you can go is limited. From head to toe, our fly fishing gear matters. We don’t need top-end glasses to catch fish, but a decent pair of lenses is just as important as a pair of wading boots for consistent success — maybe more.
But while no one seems to forget their boots or fly rod, many anglers deliberately choose to omit the glasses when it’s not sunny outside. That’s a mistake. And as I’ll discuss below, the right polarized lenses are a critical piece of gear. Yes, a good pair of glasses does put more fish in the net.
So here’s a rundown of lens color, lens composition and frame style.
But first, let’s talk about why polarized sunglasses are so important to the avid fly fisher . . .
** Note ** Links for buying my favorite sunglasses are at the end of this article.
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Why Wear Them?
Reading the water is a learned skill that’s overlooked by anglers of all levels. Sure, the average fisherman can stand on the bank and point to many obvious holding lies for trout. But gathering a full picture, from bank to bank, is far more important. Because oftentimes, trout line up to feed in unexpected places.
A good pair of polarized lenses can help anyone see more fish. Polarization cuts glare by blocking light from certain angles. So the highlights on the water are dramatically reduced, allowing even an untrained eye to pick out a few fish. And if you stare at the right piece of water for long enough, you’ll probably pick up the movements of many more trout.
But seeing fish is only one of the many reasons to keep the glasses on your face. With good lenses we can read the water better, from top to bottom.
With some of the highlights removed from the surface, we see the contours of the currents more efficiently. We pick up swirls and merger seems, and we find more perfect lanes to place a dry fly. But in many light conditions, without good glasses, we are blind to these details.
With the glare from the surface reduced, we see further below the surface too. The best nymph and streamer anglers are obsessed with the structure of a riverbed. And reading the underwater boulders, rock shelves, potholes and tree parts helps us plug in the pieces of a puzzle — a map for what’s below. Seeing just a fraction more of the riverbed is a huge advantage. And recognizing the color change of depth makes a big difference when fishing underneath. Even if the lenses help just a bit more, the overall result is a more complete picture of the water ahead.
Lastly, we wade better and safer when wearing polarized sunglasses. The more you can see into the water, the more you know about where your next footsteps will fall. It’s an obvious but often overlooked reason to keep the lenses on — not hung around your neck or in the glovebox.
Before delving into the specifics of polarized sunglasses for fly fishing, let’s first understand that there’s no magic involved. Good lenses block glare from certain angles, but they don’t block all of it.
In truth, there’s not much difference between the polarization of a fifty dollar pair of sunglasses vs a pair of glasses costing five times as much. The glare they filter out is mostly the same. I wore a friend’s $400 pair of Maui Jim’s one afternoon. There was no difference in how much of the river-glare was cut compared to my $50 Sunclouds or my $200 Costas.
In my experience, it’s the other things about high-end glasses that matter more: the clarity of the glass or plastic, the tint, the frame weight and fit, etc.
Quick Tip: Try tilting your head slightly against the glare. A minor change in angle makes a dramatic difference in how many highlights are filtered out.
Grey, green, amber, yellow or something else? What lens color you choose for your glasses is the biggest decision you’ll make.
For the reasons discussed above, I wear my polarized sunglasses all the time. They aren’t for sun protection as much as they are for reading the water, for seeing past the surface and fishing better. With that in mind, you should choose lens color by considering the light conditions that you’ll fish most often.
Grey lenses are simply too dark for me. For most of my decades on the water, I wore amber/brown lenses, and they are generally accepted to be the best all around color choice for varying light conditions.
But I live in Pennsylvania. I fish deep-green, wooded valleys, often in the backcountry with heavy canopy. I also prefer early mornings, late evenings and cloudy days. In truth, I do everything I can to avoid the sun, finding shady water on even the brightest days.
So with the amber lenses I wore for years, I found myself lifting my glasses to my forehead for a few minutes, and then dropping them back down — repeating this over and over throughout the day. Then many times, I simply hung them around my neck for good, because the light grew too dim.
Yellow lenses changed all of that for me. A few years back, I bought my first pair of yellow polarized sunglasses, and I was significantly impressed. Now, on most days, I never take them off. For me, the test has always been whether I can tie knots in dim light. And with a good pair of yellows, I can do that easily.
So I choose yellow lenses as my default. In bright sun, yellow is the wrong choice, and I can actually feel my eyes straining after a few hours. So in those moments, I’d rather have my ambers. These days, I sometimes bring both, when I know that the day will be bright at some points and dim at others. I also choose amber lenses most often for snow-covered terrain and short midday fishing trips. But overall, yellow lenses are my go to.
Clarity, Glass and Plastic
The biggest difference between an inexpensive pair of polarized sunglasses and a top-of-the-line pair is the clarity. And it’s hard to argue against this. No matter the material composition of the lenses, quality and clarity go hand in hand. So does the cost. But the same question always remains: Is it worth paying the extra money for a little more clarity?
That’s for you to decide. As a college student, my answer was no. But as more and more of my life has become about fly fishing, I really enjoy looking through a great pair of sunglasses.
What about glass vs plastic lenses? I own both, and to me, glass lenses are always clearer. The downside is that they weigh more. I thought that wouldn’t matter to me. What’s the effect of some extra centigrams on the bridge of my nose? Almost nothing. I don’t care about that. The only thing I don’t like about the added weight of glass is the way they slide down from my forehead too easily. Propping my glasses up is an old habit of mine that will never die. And too often I’ve pushed the glass lenses up only to have them fall back down seconds later. It’s irritating. But this is a minor detail, and it may not matter much to you.
Johnny Cage, Wins
Frame’s are a personal decision. Choose what fits your face, and find a style that you like.
Because these are fishing glasses, opt for a frame design that blocks light from entering at the sides or the corners, because unfiltered light slipping in changes things. In this case, go for function over form — but you can find both in a pair of glasses that you are happy with.
These Are My Favorite Polarized Sunglasses . . .
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For me, the Fantails are the perfect frame. They block almost all side light without being obnoxious in design. The lenses are big enough to provide full coverage, and they have enough room behind them to prevent fog up. So they allow air flow and are comfortable. That’s important. I wear the 580g (glass) in Silver Copper (much like amber). And I wear the 580p (plastic) in Silver Sunrise (yellow). Fantail frames are designed to fit the average face size and shape. Check out the Costa site for more details on frame sizes.
I’ve owned a few styles of Suncloud glasses through the years, and the Milestones are my favorite. They are the best polarized glasses I’ve found in this price range, and the warranty is good.
What About Sunglasses Holders?
There are two kinds of anglers: those who still put their glasses on top of their ballcap and those who use a tether around their neck. Seems that everyone has to learn the hard way. I finally did.
I wore Croakies for many years, and they’re alright. But I really love Cablz. At first glance, you’d think that the wire hanging behind your head would cause problems. But for me it doesn’t.
I like the standard length Cablz, and I prefer them without the adjustable feature that some of the new styles have, which adds weight and causes the wire to bounce a bit.
Go with the standard Cablz.
Prescription, Flip Overs or Fold Overs?
Good luck finding a pair of fit over lenses that you’ll be happy with. Cocoons are a fair choice, but I don’t know anyone who’s happy with them for long. Likewise, the plastic lenses that clip on and flip down over your regular prescription glasses are a subpar choice, although they can surely work for a while.
My best recommendation is to bite the bullet and get your prescription in a good pair of polarized sunglasses. Sorry, but there’s no better answer here.
Polarized sunglasses are standard fishing gear, just as important as anything else that we carry to the water. If I do forget my glasses, I turn around and walk back to the truck for them. That’s how much I need my sunglasses to read the water and feel comfortable about fishing what I see in front of me.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N