Seeing A Whole New World: Polarized Sunglasses 101

Seeing A Whole New World: Polarized Sunglasses 101

Over the years of working in the fly shop people have always asked me the following question. “What is the most impactful piece of equipment for fly fishing? My response may be a surprise to some because its not a rod, reel, or line. My answer to that question is simple: quality sunglasses.

That’s right, a good set of polarized eyewear carries the biggest benefit you can invest in. For those who have ever fished in a pair of polarized lenses you are truly missing out. Having that polarization is like having a key to an unreadable map. Simply put, lenses with this technology allow you to see underwater by eliminating the sun’s UV glare on the surface of the water. This allows you to see all the terrain, changes in depth, structure, and most importantly the FISH!

Smith lens tints


This technology is a LIFE SAVER! Think about it, if you don’t wear polarized lenses (or glasses at all) while fishing that can be extremely dangerous. When you fish without sunglasses you will find yourself squinting a lot more which causes eye fatigue and potential headaches over long periods of time. Also, not being able to see under the water increases the potential for trouble when wading. If you can’t see a potential trip hazard under the water chances are you may be taking a plunge which has the chance to ruin your fishing day.

There are a variety of factors to consider when choosing the correct pair of polarized glasses. Fit & Coverage, Lens Type, and Lens Color are all paramount when selecting the proper eyewear for a given situation. Try to find a lens that checks as many of the boxes for what you are looking for. Below you will find my take on each of these factors.

Fit & Coverage: The old saying goes “if the shoe fits wear it”. The same certainly applies to your sunglasses. When picking out your new sunglasses the first thing to look at is face size. The frame size of your sunglasses should closely mirror the size of your face – smaller frames work better with smaller faces and vice versa. Ideally, you will wear these for the entirety of your fishing adventure so finding a style that fits your face well is extremely important.

Also, when picking out a pair of glasses be mindful of the coverage that they provide to you. Which, in part, is determined by the Base Curve of your frames.

Base curve is the radius of the spherical shape of the lenses measured from the nosepads to the temples of the frame. Fishwest carries a variety of models that either fall into the 6 base curve or 8 base curve. Models with a base curve of 6 or less tend to be flatter on the face. Where lenses with a base curve of 8 or more feature more of a wrap style on the wearers face.

Before purchasing a set of frames ask yourself do they cover my face well? Is there any light that can “leak” into your field of view through small gaps? Typically, when I am out looking for new glasses for fishing I tend to find myself looking for something with a little bit larger coverage as well as a little bit of wrap to make sure that I can eliminate as much light entering the lens as possible.

A majority of sunglasses within the fishing world fall into three categories:

Man holding sea shells

Aviator: Aviators have a very distinct design and fit. They are typically metal framed and have teardrop shaped lenses. They provide excellent coverage however do not have a ton of curvature so the potential for light leak is pretty high. That has not stopped these from becoming an extremely popular choice. They are a favorite of many anglers and Top Gun pilots alike.

Rectangle: Rectangle frames are typically wider than they are tall. These frames are great for folks with a rounder face shape due to the coverage that they provide.

Wrap: These frames typically have a streamline & aerodynamic design that provide the most coverage. This makes them perfect for outdoor activities like Fishing.

Fly fishing guide wearing sunglasses

Lens Type: Fishwest carries a variety of different brands like Costa & Smith Optics. They have their own lens technologies that are specifically built for certain situations. However, when it boils down to it lenses fall in to one of two categories: Glass or Polycarbonate (Plastic) and each of them have their own pros and cons. Glass lenses have the best optical clarity on average and are the most resistant material to scratching. However, they tend to be on the heavier side as well as carry a heftier price tag. Poly lenses on the other hand are much lighter, cheaper, and are more impact resistant. However, they are more susceptible to minor scratches.

Lens Colors: Lens colors vary greatly and are designed for different situations and environments to give you the best optical clarity, sharpness and performance.

Here is a quick rundown of different lens colors:

Grey: Gray lenses have the darkest base and therefore provide the greatest volume light reduction. This makes them perfect for extended periods in bight sun. Typically, grey lenses do not provide a great deal of contrast or color variance. Glasses with a grey lens or lens base color are ideal for bluewater fishing applications due to the fact that they eliminate a large amount of light.

Bronze, Amber, Copper: These lenses are considered the “Jack Of All Trades” when picking out lenses for fishing situations. They provide enough light reduction to still protect the eyes and also provide a great deal of depth & contrast resolution. This makes these lenses one of the most popular choices for fishing in all situations in both Fresh or Saltwater.

Yellow or Pink: These lenses are fantastic for low light conditions. They provide excellent contrast in cloudy and dark conditions. However, they are awful in bright conditions because they do allow a lot of natural light in.

Fly fisherman wearing sunglasses

In my personal opinion the most ideal lens colors for fishing in a majority of situations feature a copper lens base. This lens color performs well in a variety of different light conditions from overcast to the sunniest of days. It is always worth considering mirrored lenses as well for the sunny days due to the fact that they help to further eliminate glare in bright sun conditions (for example tropical flats fishing).

If you find yourself fishing in areas where overcast days are prevalent you may want to consider looking into the Ignitor lens from Smith Optics. The Ignitor lens is polarchromatic and feature a rose lens base which means that the lens tint changes based on the conditions for the day with the lenses becoming darker as it becomes sunnier throughout the day.

There you have it. I hope this helps you narrow your search for the right pair of glasses for you. I am personally a big fan of The Guides Choice by Smith Optics with the Bronze Mirror for everyday wear and the Colson by Smith Optics with the Ignitor lens for low/dark light conditions. Good luck with your search! Please feel free to reach out to us by calling 877.773.5437 or emailing in at with any questions that you have.

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