Choosing the Best Sunglasses for Sight Fishing in Different Water Types

A woman wearing Orvis gloves casts her fly rod.

There’s a reason sunglasses are an essential piece of safety gear for fly anglers: Regardless of where or how you fish, there’s always a risk of hooking yourself or a buddy in the eye. Ask any guide, and they will probably have a horror story to tell. When hooks are flying through the air, especially on a windy day, sunglasses should be mandatory for anglers and anyone nearby. 

Not only do sunglasses protect your eyes, they can also help you spot fish or their shadows from above. But like any tool, different sunglasses perform better in different situations, particularly water types. Saltwater fishing on the flats and spotting big browns in gin-clear water may both require glare reduction and contrast enhancement, but different lens colors can enhance vision in the distinct water colors when you’re sight fishing. So what’s the difference between a lens that’s better for shallow, turquoise saltwater in Florida and one that’s better for deeper tannin-tinted mountain streams? Here are some variables to consider.

Polarized Sunglass Lenses

The great equalizer for fishing sunglasses is polarization. If nothing else, your sunglasses need to be polarized. Polarization reduces glare caused by light reflecting off the surface of the water. At best, glare is an annoyance, but at worst it can be blinding when clear vision is a must. And though you expect midday glare on open water, early morning and late evening glare on small streams can be just as bad or worse. 

Polarized lenses act as mini ‘Venetian blinds,’ aligned in a way that eliminates about three-quarters of the glare. This helps you see fish below the surface of the water, but you can also spot submerged rocks and wood, so wading is easier and safer. 

There are two ways to polarize glasses: The first results in a less expensive product and the second produces a higher-quality lens. In the less expensive version, the polarizing film is attached to the outside of the lenses. Unfortunately, the film will eventually peel away from the lens— it’s just not as durable. This method can also result in less effective polarization, as it can be applied off the vertical axis, which is crucial to the performance of the film. Higher-quality, higher-priced glasses have lenses with the polarizing film sandwiched between lens layers, encapsulating it. Placement is aligned exactly for optimum performance and will give you superior clarity, better peripheral vision, and durability.

Important Note

A lot of sunglasses advertised as polarized actually aren't. Do this simple test before you buy a pair of sunglasses to make sure: Put on the glasses and look at your cell phone. Slowly rotate your phone to a 90-degree angle, and see if the reflective glare diminishes or increases. If the sunglasses are polarized, it should be difficult to read what’s on the screen without rotating the phone.

A man wearing a ball cap with a fly smiles by the water.
An angler strips her fly line into a bucket attached to her waist.
An angler smiles while balancing her fly rod on the back of her neck.

Fishing Sunglasses Lens Colors

The most difficult thing about choosing the best sight fishing sunglasses is picking the right lens color, since there’s no clear-cut right or wrong choice. Everybody sees color differently and everyone’s vision responds to lens color differently. Here are some general guidelines.

Superlight Tailout Sunglasses.

Brown / Amber / Copper Lenses

For an all-around pair of fishing sunglasses, some shade of amber is a good pick. Some eyewear companies have their own names for these tones, but light brown, copper, and amber all sharpen contrast by reducing blue light. Increased contrast is very helpful for fishing flats, shallow trout streams, and lakeshores. Choose a brown or copper-colored lens for normal conditions on the flats, and an amber or yellow lens for cloudy, overcast conditions.

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Smith Lake Shasta Sunglasses.

Rose Lenses

This is a specialized sunglasses lens hue that reduces contrast. For fishing stark white flats in the Bahamas and Christmas Island, rose cuts contrast more effectively in these in very bright conditions. Some fishermen prefer them in all conditions, but loss of contrast makes objects more difficult to see on cloudy days or when trying to spot fish on dark river bottoms.

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Bajio Roca Sunglasses.

Gray Lenses

Everyone agrees gray sunglasses lenses are not ideal for shallow water and flats fishing, where sight fishing is crucial. Gray preserves normal color relationships. Red light looks red, etc. Gray does not increase contrast, compromising resolution. Choose gray lenses for fishing deep, offshore waters and deep lakes where you don’t need to see fish under the water’s surface.

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Smith Redding Sunglasses in TORTOISE

Green Lenses

You’ll find green lenses in most fishing-specific sunglasses from top eyewear makers—and for good reason. Green lenses excel in bright conditions. They’re not quite as good as gray lenses at maintaining true colors, but they work for full-sun fishing in shallow water.

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Additional Sunglasses Coatings & Treatments

  • Hydrophobic Lens Coating: Fishing sunglasses are always getting wet and dirty, especially when you’re saltwater fishing. The combination of salt spray and sunscreen smears, dries, and leaves a salty film that can scratch your lenses. A hydrophobic coating makes water bead up on the lenses, reducing the chance of damage and making the lenses much easier to clean. You can simply wipe them off with a dry shirttail. So the benefits of a hydrophobic coating are ease of maintenance and longer wear.
  • UV Protection: Ultraviolet (UV) light can damage your eyes quickly. While all sunglasses should protect your eyes from UV light, some off-brand and fashion-first sunglasses don’t. Any good pair of sunglasses will give your eyes UV protection and should be clearly labeled with this information.
  • Mirrored Lenses: A mirror coating does absolutely nothing for your vision, but they do look cool. Paying extra for a mirror coating will not improve your vision one iota.ota.

Don’t Leave Home Without Your Fishing Sunglasses

Choosing the right sunglasses for the water you plan to fish can significantly improve your experience, beyond just the safety. While you can’t go wrong with a pair of polarized amber lenses, it’s worth exploring some of the other lens tints to enhance your vision in more specific water types and light conditions.

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An angler shows off a fish half-underwater.