See Through Water

See Through Water

Sunglasses for all conditions.

  • By: Ted Leeson
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas
Sunglass Field Test

If there’s another piece of fishing equipment that serves as useful a range of functions as sunglasses, I am unaware of it. Good glasses defend your eyes from careening hook points and the large-caliber metal ordnance increasingly found at the end of a leader these days. They shield your eyes from the ultraviolet (UV) rays linked to such delightful prospects as cataracts and macular degeneration. Sunglasses reduce eyestrain and increase comfort in retina-searing sunlight and enhance vision on hazy or overcast days. And they allow you to see things with greater definition—important things, such as your fly on the water, the structure of the bottom, fish. Throw in the ancillary coolness factor and you have a pretty advantageous package, particularly for something that sits, largely unnoticed, on your nose.

With one foot squarely in the fashion industry, sunglasses manufacturers relentlessly, and sometimes capriciously, redesign their products, and new models abound annually. But as a preliminary to comments on some of the angling sunglasses currently available, it’s worth considering several key points—including how they work—before buying a pair.

Polarization

The most important angling function that sunglasses serve is minimizing glare by polarizing light. Light waves coming directly from the sun vibrate vertically, horizontally, and at every angle in between. But when those randomly oriented light waves bounce off a highly reflective surface, they all end up vibrating in the same direction: parallel to the reflective surface. In the case of water, this means horizontally. The polarizing element in a sunglass lens can be envisioned as a filter formed from a series of parallel molecular “strings.” When light reflected from water strikes the lens, the horizontally vibrating light waves responsible for glare are blocked by these strings. (A polarizing element blocks all colors of light equally and is unrelated to the color of the lens.) The light that penetrates the surface of the water and bounces off the bottom back to your eye isn’t polarized; most of it gets through your lenses, so you can see into the water. This is a huge advantage in fishing, as you probably know.

Tint density and color

Tint density is simply the “darkness” of the lens, though it’s actually expressed as the percentage of light that gets through and is usually designated VLT (visible light transmission). In low light, a VLT of 40% or more is useful. For low to medium light, a VLT of roughly 25% to 40% works well. For medium to moderately bright light, a VLT of 15% to 25% gives good results and is generally considered the “all-purpose” range. And for bright conditions, a VLT of less than 15% is most comfortable, though lower than 10% makes things impractically dark for most fishing. Many manufacturers offer the same lens colors with different VLTs, so it’s worth paying attention when you buy sunglasses. Photochromic lenses change density (typically from about 10% to 40% VLT) and are highly versatile, but you typically pay more for them.

The tint is the actual color you see through the lens, not on the exterior, which can be coated to appear green, gold or any other color. But a lens tint is just as significant for the colors of light it blocks as those that pass. And in this respect, blue light is of particular interest, since we often fish in conditions that don’t involve bright, direct sunlight, though that’s where the story begins. When white sunlight, which is literally composed of the colors of the rainbow, travels through the atmosphere, it encounters a large number of small obstacles—molecules of gas, for instance. When these particles are struck by light, they selectively absorb the blue light energy and quickly re-emit it, but uniformly in all directions, a phenomenon known as “scattering.” That, incidentally, is why the sky is blue; each particle is like a tiny sun radiating blue light.

In early morning and at dusk, what you observe outdoors is illuminated predominantly by this indirect, scattered light, which contains a disproportionately large amount of blue. The same thing happens on overcast, foggy or misty days, but for a somewhat different reason. The high-energy blue wavelengths easily penetrate cloud cover or haze; the lower-energy colors—yellow, green and red, for instance—are more effectively blocked.

For various reasons, this overload of blue light acts like a kind of optical “noise” or static that reduces visual acuity. Eliminating it, particularly in low-light conditions, improves visual acuity and is primarily a function of lens tint. Following are the most useful tints in fishing and the reasons why.

Yellow: Very effectively filters blue light, which along with a typically high VLT, makes for an excellent low-light lens. By eliminating the blue light but transmitting the lower-energy colors, yellow lenses greatly improve contrast and sharpness of detail in flat light, which somewhat weirdly gives the impression of “brightening” images, even though 50 percent or more of the incoming light is actually blocked. The downsides are a marked color distortion and, for some anglers, an unbearable brightness in sunnier conditions.

Rose/Vermillion: Another very good blue filter that functions much like a yellow lens in flat light, though (to me) with a less pronounced “brightening” effect. This tint offers good contrast, particularly against green backgrounds, and enhances detail in hazy conditions. Like yellow, rose produces a noticeable color distortion, but many people find rose lenses generally easier on the eyes than yellow lenses, and significantly more comfortable in ordinary daylight.

Brown/Amber/Copper: This large color category is probably the most popular among fishermen. Good on partly sunny to bright days, it does block some blue light for sharpness under hazy or dim conditions or changing cloud cover, making it arguably the best all-around tint; it provides relatively high contrast, which aids in depth perception. Moreover, an object stands out when the lens tint is the same color as either the background or the object itself. Since many streambeds and flats are a brownish or tan or amber color, this category of tints helps in locating fish; it does a credible job on green backgrounds as well. There is some color distortion, though not as marked as with yellow or rose lenses.

Gray: A neutral tint, ideal for intensely sunny conditions, often favored by offshore anglers since it tends to enhance darker objects, such as fish under water. In most conditions, I personally find that gray doesn’t boost contrast and sharpen detail as much as other tints, but gray lenses virtually eliminate color distortion and are very easy on the eyes.

Lens materials

Two factors are worth noting in optical performance. First, the quality of manufacture is at least as important as lens material. A poorly made glass lens, for instance, is worse than a high-quality polycarbonate one. Second, when even optically correct non-glass lenses are set in a full frame, the perimeter pressure may slightly flex and deform them—not a problem with more rigid glass or semi-rimless frames—and, at least technically, introduce distortion. Whether you perceive any actual distortion depends on the degree of deformation, its location in the lens and, importantly, the sensitivity of the wearer, which may vary significantly and is why your buddy can wear cheap, gas-station sunglasses that would put you in bed with a migraine.

Rather than detail the gamut of possible materials, I’ll stick to the ones used in the sunglasses reviewed here.

Glass has the highest optical quality and greatest scratch resistance, though it’s also the heaviest, the most expensive and the least chip- and impact-resistant material. But for pure visual clarity, you can’t do better.

Polycarbonate is a softer member of a family of optical resins. It blocks UV rays, is very lightweight, offers excellent impact resistance (until your lenses are scratched), and is typically the lowest in cost; however, it lacks the optical clarity of glass, scratches easily and can change shape (and hence optical performance) with temperature—as, for instance, if you leave them on a sunny dashboard. But if properly cared for, polycarbonate lenses offer a highly functional balance among weight, cost and optical quality, particularly for anglers concerned with impact resistance.

Proprietary lens materials are available from several manufacturers, including Kaenon’s SR 91 and Oakley’s Plutonite. These materials aspire to the optical clarity and scratch-resistance of glass, but with greater impact-resistance and less weight. These can be excellent materials, but as a rule they are priced closer to glass than polycarbonate, and you’re restricted to the frame styles offered by a single manufacturer.

Frames

The main considerations in choosing a frame are fit and comfort (both highly individual matters) and its ability to block peripheral light. Stray light washes out images, diminishes visual acuity and can strain the eyes, causing headaches.

Frames basically come in two flavors: those that are wire and those that aren’t. Wire offers superior adjustability, and anglers with hard-to-fit faces may find it the best material. On the other hand, wire frames are relatively fragile, more susceptible to being bent out of adjustment or breaking. The slim profile also tends to admit peripheral light.

With synthetic frames, the fit you buy is pretty much the fit you get. Some adjustments can be made, but they are relatively small and best made by an optician. The exception is synthetic frames with wire-core temples that allow you to bend them, and some have adjustable nose-pads similar to those found on wire frames. But synthetic frames are more rugged and permit a greater variety of frame shapes, most notably wide temples and face-hugging designs that block stray light from the top and sides, noticeably improving image definition. From the standpoint of pure angling functionality—and I say this as a wire-frame fan—a well-designed, properly fitting synthetic frame is superior to wire. But choose an opaque color; translucent or partly translucent frames (such as some tortoise-shell types) may “glow” or produce light flares when sun shines through them, which compromises vision.

Field Test Results

I asked each of seven manufacturers to send a selection of fishing-specific frames and lenses, then cherry-picked the group for my favorites.  Here are my findings:

Costa del Mar Corbina

Price: $249

Frames: Wide temples and a rubber, almost gasket-like facing on the inside of the frames block light exceptionally well, though they can be prone to fogging. Rubberized nose pads and temples, along with a springy frame, hold these in place. This is a good frame for full coverage without obtrusive bulk.

Lenses tested: The 580 glass lens—I used the copper version (12% VLT)—is designed to block yellow light for enhanced color definition and contrast, which was borne out in testing. Under ordinary daylight conditions, these give a beautifully crisp, sharply defined image, and the color saturation was impressive on overcast days. In low or extremely hazy light, performance was good, but not remarkable. Very fine optics. www.costadelmar.com

Floater Fly Fisherman

Price: $89.95

Frames: These super-lightweight frames wear comfortably and float if dropped in the water. Polarizing side shields allow some peripheral vision and reduce the restrictive, goggle-like effect of frames with wide, light-blocking temples. Vented frame top helps prevent fogging.

Lenses tested: The brown polycarbonate lenses offer a workmanlike, all-purpose fishing tint, suitable for a usefully wide range of conditions. Some anglers may find the tint (VLT 22%) a bit light for intensely bright, glary situations—on the flats, for instance—but the tradeoff is good performance under cloudy or variable skies. Optical quality is quite satisfactory for the price.  www.floatereyewear.com

Flying Fisherman Magnum

Price: $69.95

Frames: With very wide temples and a pronounced wrap built for large lenses, these frames offer superior light blocking and field of view—possibly the best in the group. These can slip a little if your face is sweaty, but they’re extremely light.

Lenses tested: The polycarbonate lenses offer a highly serviceable optical quality. I tested the amber lenses with a green mirror coating and they provided very good detail resolution under intense sunlight, and the tint excelled in shallow water on bright days, though with a 10% VLT, they’re not as well-suited to low light as some other amber lenses. These are a good value in glasses. www.flyingfisherman.com

Flying Fisherman XLT

Price: $89.95

Frames: A strong, close-fitting wrap gives surprisingly good coverage on this skeletal, titanium wire frame. There’s some light leakage from below, but these are a highly practical alternative for anglers who dislike the weight and clunky feel of big glasses. These are super, super light. Temple tips are drilled for a lanyard (included).

Lenses tested: Optically quite satisfactory, the silver-mirrored vermillion lenses (VLT 13%) strengthened contrast nicely, particularly in weedy or grassy waters, and sharpened depth perception. The color leans more to amber than rose, so color distortion isn’t quite as pronounced. A little dark for dim light, the tint serves well under most ordinary conditions—a good alternative to brown for an all-purpose lens.

Kaenon Kanvas

Price: $169

Frames: A bit of a departure from Kaenon’s tendency to massive fishing frames, this new, more restrained, close-fitting design with non-slip nose pads still nicely minimizes light entry. This is a good compromise between light-blocking and frame bulk in a top-quality product.

Lenses tested: Kaenon’s proprietary SR 91 lens material offers sharp, glass-quality optics but with better impact resistance—a superb material. The coppery C12 tint (12% VLT) is a highly credible general-purpose fishing color—certainly acceptable in lower light, but at its best in stronger illumination, whether cloudy or sunny, with crisp contrast. The lenses give a slightly reddish cast that some anglers might find annoying, though I wasn’t bothered. www.kaenon.com

Kaenon Klay

Price: $169

Frames: Extremely wide temples that are continuous with frame fronts give superb coverage all the way around, though the fit is so close that lenses can fog up. Rubber nose pads and general springiness in frame hold these on your face, and they are fairly light for a big design. From the light-blocking standpoint, among the most practical and effective designs tested.

Lenses tested: The SR 91 with G12 tint is a neutral gray with 12% VLT that is best under very bright conditions. There’s less image “enhancement” than with other tints, but top-notch glare cutting and true color transmission make these easy on the eyes for all-day wear. Both Kaenon glasses are well suited to anglers who want the optical quality of glass with less weight and greater impact resistance, and as quality sunglasses go, these are nicely priced.

Maui Jim Banyans

Price: $179

Frames: This semi-rimless style permits large, wide, wrapped lenses for an unusually good field of view, even peripherally, and blocks light extremely well. Easy-adjusting rubber nose pads and temple tips keep these secure. This is a highly practical choice for anglers who want a big view in extremely lightweight, low-profile sunglasses.

Lenses tested: The Bronze HCL (high-contrast lens) lives up to its name; images really pop, particularly on overcast or hazy days with some illumination, though with a 12% VLT, these are somewhat dark under really low-light conditions early and late in the day. But the enhanced contrast offers an image sharpness and depth perception that is highly useful during bright conditions.

Maui Jim Stingray

Price: $209

Frames: This fairly compact frame offers excellent lateral coverage, though there’s some light leakage at the top and bottom. The spring-type nickel-silver hinges give a snug fit, but these can slip if you’re sweaty, particularly since they’re a bit heavy for their size. But these are a pleasing alternative for fishermen who find big, blocky frames with wide temples to be uncomfortable.

Lenses tested: Glass lenses like these are Maui Jim’s forte—crystal clear, sharp and non-distorting. The rose lenses I used (14% VLT) are a bit lighter than most tints of this type and seemed to involve less color shift. But the real strength is outstanding image definition and contrast. This is a serviceable all-purpose lens, though really at its best, which is quite good, in full daylight. www.mauijim.com

Oakley Straight Jacket

Price: $180

Frames: The extreme wrap and wide temples give good coverage except for the puzzling cutaways adjacent to the lenses, which leak a bit of light. Grippy rubber nose pads and temples keep glasses in place even when you sweat. Non-metallic hinge is a plus for saltwater anglers.

Lenses tested: Hard-resin Plutonite provides crisp images; optically, these are very nice quality. I tested four lens colors; two really stood out. The amber has a 30% VLT and tends to the yellowish, making a very creditable low-light lens that is still comfortable under brighter conditions—a fine all-purpose lens that provides excellent contrast. The copper-colored VR28 Black Iridium (14% VLT) is a terrific bright-light lens—great for the flats—with a pleasing color balance for the tint and good eye comfort. www.oakley.com

Orvis Zeiss Polycarbonate Acklins

Price: $159

Frames: These extremely light and distinctly curved synthetic frames offer good light blocking on top and sides, though the fairly slim-profile design admits some light from the bottom and may not be a good fit for broader faces. The stout, five-barrel hinges are rock solid, and rubberized nose and temple pads reduce slippage.

Lenses tested: Orvis has partnered with well-known optics manufacturer Zeiss to produce a high-quality polycarbonate lens. I tested two tints. The yellow lenses produce extremely bright (if a little flat) images in dim light, especially for a 28.6% VLT lens. In sunny conditions, the color distortion is quite pronounced, but for early mornings and dusk, this was one of my favorite yellows, with crisp low-light resolution. The rose tint offers sharp contrast and eye comfort, though at 11.5% VLT it’s best suited to bright days. Orvis claims that the rose tint blocks infrared light, reducing heat behind the lens—a particular boon to contact lens wearers, since heat accelerates eye drying, which is a problem with contacts to begin with. I can’t say I noticed this effect particularly, but I don’t suffer much from dry eyes when wearing contacts.

Orvis Abaco Tri Spectrum Glass

Price: $230

Frames: These sturdy synthetic frames offer a wide and deep field of vision with good peripheral light-blocking that comes from lens coverage rather than large temples or wide frame elements. These have the same beefy hinge design as the Acklins frame, but lack the non-slip nose pads and temples, though the frame itself is fairly springy and hugs the face. A basic and functional design.

Lenses tested: These high-quality glass lenses transmit tack-sharp images without distortion. I tested the amber lenses (17.3% VLT), which enhance shadows for very good depth perception and contrast, and the color transmission seems more faithful than many amber tints. While somewhat dark for low light, this one excels in bright sun or on days of shifting clouds and variable light conditions.

Smith Optics Backdrop

Price: $199

Frames: Made of a nylon alternative derived from castor seeds (!), these eco-friendly frames have a strong wrap and shield light on top and sides if they’re snug to your face, though some light can enter from the bottom. Rubberized inserts on nose pads and temples and spring hinges keep everything nicely in place. You get a good visual field in a fairly streamlined package.

Lenses tested: These Techlite glass lenses with the Polarchromic (i.e., photochromic) Ignitor tint—a kind of copper/rose—are a superbly sharp fishing lens with pretty minor color distortion. They make details pop out, which improves depth perception. The VLT changes from 10% to 35% depending on light intensity, and transition usually takes less than a minute—usefully versatile through a wide range of conditions. The Polarchromic Amber tint is equally good and a bit brighter in low light. Optically first rate and a very good value in glass lenses. www.smithoptics.com

Smith Optics Pavilion

Price: $119

Frames: Similar in style to the Backdrop, but with a less pronounced wrap (and less peripheral vision) and no rubber inserts. They can slip a bit when you sweat, but they give good coverage in a practical, sturdy frame.

Lenses tested: The Carbonic lenses are optically very good for a resin-based compound. The copper tint (14% VLT) is a bit dark for low-light conditions at dawn and dusk, but through the bulk of the day, whether cloudy or bright, sharply highlight underwater detail. They’re particularly good in hazy sunlight and changeable conditions. These are good glasses for the money.

Ted Leeson has tested products for this magazine for more than two decades. He teaches English at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, and spends summers on the water, mostly in Montana’s Madison Valley.