fly fishing gear

How to Choose Fishing Sunglasses, Part I

by Tom Hazelton
photos by Tom Hazelton
How to choose fishing sunglasses

Three of the latest lens choices from Smith Optics. See how they influence vision in the image below.

I used to wear cheap waders. I had a chronic case of sticker-shock that flared up every time I looked at the wader rack in the fly shop, and I’d flee back to the big-box store to buy a pair of $99 breathables, which replaced the $99 pair I’d just worn out. I realized one spring that instead of spending $100 per year on crummy waders, I could spend $400 every 4 years on a pair of quality name-brand waders. Once I did, I also found that they fit better, breathed better, and because of the investment I’d made—surprise—I took better care of them.

Likewise, I’d always fished in $12 gas-station sunglasses. Why spend big bucks on a something I usually step on or lose? But after my wader-taught life-lesson, I saved my pennies and picked up a pair of Smith Optics glasses with glass copper-tinted lenses. The difference on the river was startling. Surface glare vanished because of the quality polarizing; same for light leakage and reflection because of better fit and good optical coatings; my eyes didn’t have to struggle with flawed plastic lenses all day; and the increased contrast laid the riverbottom so clear in was almost unfair.

I have a handful of other glasses now, in different colors, though I’ve never stepped on or lost my original Smiths. I also don’t wear them driving every day, to baseball games, or on my hat on nights out—and I always use the retainer strap they came with. Today, if I were to show up at the river having forgot my waders, I’d probably tough it out and wet-wade. But if I forgot my glasses, I’d drive home to get them.

Lens Tech

Sunglass lenses work by blocking a percentage of light from passing through the lens. Usually, they block most or all ultraviolet light (a major eye-health concern), and some smaller percentage of visible light. The percentage of total visible light that passes through the lens to your eye is measured as “Visible Light Transmission,” or VLT. Darker glasses have a low VLT, and lightly-tinted glasses have a high VLT.

Lenses are generally made from either plastic or glass. Plastic lenses, usually polycarbonate, tend to be lighter and more impact-resistant. Glass lenses are optically clearer and more scratch-resistant—but they can shatter, so if you spend a lot of time casting flies with big hooks, lead eyes, or split shot, stick with the poly lenses for safety. With today’s quality poly lenses you’re not giving up much, if any, detectable clarity and they’re plenty scratch resistant if handled with reasonable care.

Sunlight that reflects off shiny surfaces such as water tends to become polarized—its waves are oscillating in only a single plane. Polarizing filters on our glasses are then able filter out almost all the glare, improving visibility through the water’s surface and increasing overall contrast. The best way to illustrate this is to simply tilt your head sideways while wearing a pair of polarized glasses. As you approach 90 degrees off from the direction of the polarized filter, you’ll see the polarized glare reappear on road surfaces, windows, shiny cars, and most critically, the surface of the water. Any sunglasses you’re considering for fishing use must be polarized.

Polarizing technology has been around a long time, but there are some recent developments in lenses that apply directly to the angler or other specialty user by filtering specific colors—wavelengths—of light to improve visibility under specific conditions.

Smith Optics calls theirs ChromaPop. This lens coating filters wavelengths of light at the edges of the primary colors, where they overlap, increasing the definition between the colors you’re seeing, and increasing contrast—often dramatically. I’ve been using these for about a year now, from Lake Michigan to the Driftless to the Yucatan, and I won’t fish without them.

You’ll see a mirrored finish on some lenses that helps fight glare, and reduces transmitted light by a few extra points. It also hides your eyes, so the fish (or that angler that’s outfishing you 2-to-1) can’t see where you’re looking. Note that the color of the mirror coating doesn’t affect the color of the transmitted light (or your vision)—the metallic blue or green look is just cosmetic. The base lens color is what really matters.

Finally are the photochromic lenses, which darken and lighten on their own as light conditions change. This is a particularly handy feature for anglers, though I haven’t found it to be a game changer, and they’re often not quite dark enough mid-day or light enough early morning and late evening. There’s also a number of extra things that go into that high price tag that you don’t immediately think of, like coatings that are anti-reflective, anti-scratch, hydrophobic, and anti-UV. You will hear this across the optics industry—camera lenses, binoculars, riflescopes—and it’s no less true for sunglasses: you do really get what you pay for.

Lens Color

Classic sunglasses have a grey tint, which filters all wavelengths (colors) of light at the same rate. The advantage is that the colors you see are accurate, since none are specifically filtered. But we fly anglers need a lens that filters specific colors to increase contrast, which helps shapes—like fish—stand out. Like anything, it’s about tradeoffs.

For general fishing use, which depends more on your ability to see a riseform and general bottom structure than spotting specific fish, we benefit most from a versatile lens tint somewhere between yellow and red, which filter out the muddying blues and greens of our watery habitat. Most common are brown, copper, or bronze lenses with VLT ratings from 12-30%. Any of these offer excellent contrast under most conditions and filter plenty of light to reduce squinting during bright sun.

Which fishing sunglasses are best?

How different lens colors effect the visual spectrum.  From top to bottom: bronze, gray (blue mirror), and Smith Optics’s new “Low-Light Ignitor.”

“I wear a copper or bronze color lens all the time,” says Wisconsin’s Captain Luke Kavajecz, who splits his days between the sand flats and blue water of Lake Superior—and sometimes, the dark river valleys of the lake’s south shore. “They’ve been perfect for a variety of lighting conditions on both super clear water and our classic tannin stained rivers.”

If you’re after a more specialized tint for specific kinds of fishing, or as a secondary pair for early and late in the day, move toward either red or yellow—rose and amber—lenses with very high VLTs in the 20-40% range. You might feel more eye strain in bright conditions, but you’ll simply see more, and sometimes the high stakes of sight-fishing are worth it. For example, in his home range of the Florida Keys and Belize, flats jedi Captain Bruce Chard uses a bright yellow lens “all day, every day” for his clear-water, white-bottom flats fishing.

“I tell my anglers to bring a pair of Smith Low-Light Ignitors,” he says. “When the clouds roll over, you are still allowing in mega light and get great contrast with fish against the bottom.”

On the other end is Captain John Mauser, who hunts redfish in the often-murky waters of inshore North Carolina. He recommends his clients bring rose-tinted glasses, and not just because he’s an optimist.

“It’s just like how orange shooting glasses help a shooter focus on an orange clay against a blue sky,” he says. “Redfish visually pop against the dark bottom.”


Each major manufacturer offers a staggering variety of frame styles, and not all lens colors are available in all styles. Start at your local shop, and ignore lens colors at first—try on frames until you determine which ones fit your face. Each frame has a different size/fit, rather than each style being available in multiple sizes.

When you’re spending this much money on glasses, it’s understandable that you want them to look good. But avoid trendy styles like aviators or any with square frame shapes that leave your periphery unprotected and allow glittery glare to leak in at the edge of your vision. Stick with frames that have large coverage, wrap your face, and have thick temples to block any sideways light but still allow some ventilation to avoid fogging. They should be lightweight, not touch your eyelashes, not pinch or hurt your nose or ears, and stay on your head at all angles.

Once you know what size you need, filter those models by lens color. Ask the salesperson if you can step outside with a few colors to get a better sense of how they look and feel to your eyes. If you’re really lucky and there’s a river or pond near the shop, see which ones seem to best help you resolve details of the bottom. Keep in mind that the angle of the sun can impact how much glare exists and how well it can be filtered.

Eventually, you’ll find a nice bite-sized selection of options—though the shop might not have them in stock. There are just so many possible combinations, and very few fly shops are able carry anything close to a full lineup.

Resist the temptation to buy an on-hand pair of glasses in a frame or lens color that’s not exactly right. Instead, have the shop order the right ones in. You’ll be glad you did when you put them on and truly see your home water for the first time.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Northern Minnesota native Tom Hazelton fly fishes, writes, and photographs his way around the Upper Midwest, trying to stay above the 45th parallel. He also occasionally updates a blog that can found at
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  • erparf

    All of the discussion is fine unless, like me you need prescription polarized bifocals. At $300 – $400 each pair you pick one color and live with it.

    • disqus_k01VDftlyj

      Good article, although, much like erparf posting above, I need prescription glasses so the costs dictates I have only one pair. Im wondering, is there anything that actually works against glasses fogging up? I have a nice pair of oakley fuell cells, chose them specifically cause they cover the eyes really well but everytime i put them on (when wadefishing in warm weather) they fog up and get useless.

      • One of the trade-offs in full coverage is that it tends to produce fogging in high-heat, high-humidity situations. I know a few brands over the years have tried various solutions (e.g. ventilation holes or slits) but not sure any of them have solved the problem yet.

      • Ken Nichols

        I found a product called Cat Crap…yeah, I know, that comes in a small red container like some lip products. You clean the lenses, apply Cat Crap with a cloth and then buff the lenses. I have had pretty good results in reducing fogging…

        • disqus_k01VDftlyj

          thanks for the tip Ken. I’ll have a look if they seel the stuff over here in europe somewhere

      • hrm2000

        There is a cleaning/anti fog product called Cat Crap (honest!) that I got at a first responders conference a few years ago. Works very well to prevent fogging and it’s a really good general purpose lens cleaner. If it’s still available, get the paste version and use a good microfiber cloth.

      • Acethecat1

        Costa Howlers. Don’t fog up. Fit great. Not ugly like Oakleys.

    • I used polarized lenses that correct for astigmatism, so I know exactly what you’re talking about. If you’re lucky, your prescription doesn’t change often.

      • Acethecat1

        I checked with a few mfgrs about lenses that correct for astigmatism and come in a progressive. The BEST lens quality was with Vaurnet but it came at an incredible premium. They grind their own lenses and get it right 100% of the time. Beautiful. I also have house payments.

    • hrm2000

      I just got a new pair of “prescription” sunglasses at Costco (yep, Costco…) The lens material is what they call DriveWare. It’s polarized, photochromic, and the color ranges from a yellowish tint to a dark copper. I got them for fishing to supplement two other fishing glasses, one copper and one a light greenish color. The light green pair isn’t dark enough for mid-day and bright sun, and the copper pair is too dark on heavy overcast days, early morning or dusk. The new glasses are very good, and although the lenses are glass, they aren’t all that heavy.

      Here’s the interesting part: Since these are “prescription only”, I had my local eye dr write out a prescription. I originally wanted just plain glass, but he included a very, very slight correction that really makes everything razor sharp.

      I’d say these have improved my fishing, but that’s a stretch…

      Given the slightly higher cost of a really good pair of fishing glasses, these are definitely worth checking. With vision insurance they come in at about the same as a pair of ChromaPops.

  • S.K. Halstead

    I would share just a few thoughts. About 20 years ago I fished with a guide on the Platte River in Colorado. He saw fish take flies that I could not detect. I asked him about his sunglasses and he said they were Smith (Action Optics) so I acquired several pair of this brand in various colors (and quit using my Orvis sunglasses). I did need bifocals and was able to get a pair of copper lens bifocals. I won’t say this changed my fishing fortunes but they are good glasses and I still use them today. I am most impressed with the virtually unbreakable lenses. I have been hit in the face with flies and was most thankful the glasses kept my eyes protected. These lenses have never scratched for me either.
    As for light being polarized, this is not quite correct. Just try looking through two pairs of polarized lenses and you will see it blocks out essentially all light. You can see into the water because by polarizing the light, it does block the glare component (as long as the lenses are oriented correctly). If the light coming off the water was polarized and you looked at it through polarized lenses, you would see only darkness.
    On a recent trip to the Bahamas, my guide had blue tinted glasses. I was able to see the bonefish most of the time with my brown lenses, unless I wasn’t looking in the right direction. Unfortunately our guide was not able to communicate with us effectively so we were often blind casting to the location he stated – while he continued to try to orient the boat so that we could better cast (I think?). He never saw a fish other than 10 o’clock or 12 o’clock so I began to be a little suspicious of what he was telling us. Of course he tried to keep the boat pointing at the fish so they were in that range.
    I will always contend that a good guide is more important that the quality of your sunglasses as far as seeing the fish. Eye protection is numero uno for me, and it is fun to be able to see the fish you are casting to as well.

  • Jerry Plaaten

    As a life long cash strapped eye glass wearer, I used cheap clip on sunglasses for decades. Finally, I took the plunge and got prescription Maui Jim’s with progressive lenses. Soon there after, I got to one of my favorite shady trout streams, put on the sunglasses and WHOA, there were all the fish in the pool suspended in mid air! Mine cost way more than $400 but worth every penny! If you’ve been thinking of prescription sunglasses, do it!

  • Captain Richard Berlin

    Im thrilled to join this thread!. Like Marshall, I am severely astigmatic AND I need bifocals for tying flies, etc. Given my addiction to chasing Permit on the flats, optics are a critical component of my arsenal. For years I have relied on Smith Optics frames in Base 6 (the less curvy ones that will accommodate my astigmatic prescription. And until recently, Smith would custom grind my bifocals an extra 2 mm lower on the lens so they wouldn’t interrupt my fish scanning mode.
    Sadly, that option no longer exists. So–I wonder what other astigmatics (like Marshall) do who need bifocals? Marshall, I mis

  • Great article. Eye protection when fishing is one of the most over looked self protection elements in fishing. A strong sun block and correct clothing are crucial but most fishermen buy sunglasses based on whether or not they can see the fish any better and ot on how to best protect there eyes.