How Stuff Works: Polarized Glasses

I once heard a highly regarded fly fisherman say that he considered polarized sunglasses to be his most important piece of gear. These sort of statements always amuse me. I can’t help to wonder how important those sunglasses would be if he didn’t have a rod or a line or a fly! But I definitely get what he meant. While polarized sunglasses may not be THE most important piece of gear, they are often the most underestimated.

Smith Polarized Sunglasses
Polarized Sunglasses

Many fishermen, particularly those new to the sport, probably underestimate them because they don’t understand the difference in sunglasses and polarized sunglasses. They see sunglasses as merely a means of protecting your eyes from bright light. They may opt not to wear them at all on overcast days or in shade. Polarized sunglasses do protect your eyes and reduce eyestrain in bright conditions. But they have greater importance when it comes to tactical applications.

Light usually scatters in all directions. But when it’s reflected from flat surfaces, it becomes polarized. It travels in a more uniform (usually horizontal) direction. This creates a serious intensity of reflected light that causes glare and reduces visibility. The more reflective that flat surface is, the more intense the glare will be. Consider how a signaling mirror works.

Viewing Water Through a Polarized Lens
Looking Through Polarized Lens

Water has highly reflective properties and acts like a mirror that intensifies those reflected rays even more. I’m sure everyone can think of instances when driving where significant glare was encountered. More than likely, the worst glare you ever encountered when driving was during or right after a rain. Pavement is a flat surface that can reflect light and cause glare. Wet pavement intensifies that reflection and creates more intense glare. With that in mind, it stands to reason that you will get even more intense glare when light reflects off the surface of lakes, rivers, streams, etc.

So, “regular” sunglasses will help in these situations by essentially darkening this reflected light, making it less stressful to your eye. But the glare will still be there and will prohibit you from seeing anything on, or in the case of water, under that surface. The chemical filter on the lenses of polarized sunglasses absorbs horizontal light waves, while still allowing vertical waves to pass through. Because light only travels in one direction through polarized lenses, glare is eliminated, or at least reduced.

Contrary to what many anglers expect, this technology does not create “magic fish-seeing glasses!” Fish don’t suddenly appear when you put on polarized glasses. But seeing through the water will definitely help you spot fish. However, there are two other more consistent benefits you will receive from polarized glasses. They’ll help see your dry fly on the surface. And they’ll improve your ability to read water by better recognizing slower seams and deeper troughs and pockets. Additionally, being able to better see the stream bottom will allow for easier, safer wading.

Just how well your polarized glasses eliminate glare often depends on the angle the light hits and reflects off the water. There will be times on bright sunny days when the light reflects at such a severe angle that even the polarized lenses don’t seem to help. During these times, your best bet is to change the angle the light is hitting your eye by repositioning. For example, you may be on the left side of the stream facing and fishing toward the right and encounter an insurmountable amount of glare. Often by fishing from the other side of the stream and facing/fishing the other direction, you can totally eliminate the glare.

Even on overcast days or in shady areas, you can encounter significant glare. I almost always wear polarized glasses when fishing. This is where lens color becomes important. Darker lens colors, like gray, will block more light, making them more ideal for bright conditions. They also work well on deep blue water and better maintain true color. But they block a little too much light in low light conditions. Dark lenses in low light can offset the benefits of polarization.

Lighter lens colors, like yellow or rose, allow more light in and are perfect for fishing in low light conditions. They often even make things appear brighter. But in bright conditions, you want something that will filter light, not magnify it. These are not good choices for sunny conditions on open water.

Do you plan to fish in a variety of different light conditions? You may want multiple pairs of polarized glasses in different lens colors. But if you’re looking for one, multi-purpose lens color, an amber, copper or brown color sort of fits right in the middle. And these lens colors work particularly well in shallow water where most fly fishermen operate.

Cocoons Fitover Sunglasses
Fitover Glasses

The shape of the frames can also be a factor in how well the glasses work. Frames that “wrap” more will help prevent direct and/or reflected light from entering on the sides. “Straight” frames, like an aviator style, allow more light in from side and rear angles. While prescription polarized sunglasses are available they can be problematic in a wrap style frame. Essentially, you’re dealing with a bent lens on a wrap style frame. The stronger the prescription and the more severe the bend in the lens, the more distortion you’ll get when looking side to side. Straight frames are better for prescription glasses.

If you wear corrective lenses and prefer the benefits of a wrap style frame or if you simply don’t want to fork over the money for prescription sunglasses, fitover” sunglasses are worn right over your regular eyeglasses.

How Stuff Works: Leaders & Tippet

It’s nearly impossible to talk about leaders without talking about tippet, and vice versa. However, we could go into an enormous amount of detail on either of them – so much so that it would defeat the intended purpose of a brief monthly article that attempts to provide a simple definition of how particular pieces of fly fishing gear “work.” So, consider this a broad introduction of how the two things work together as part of the overall fly fishing “system.” We’ll talk about each individually in more detail in future articles.

Orvis Super Strong Fly Fishing Leader Package
Typical Leader and Package

The leader is the monofilament (usually) connection between the weighted fly line and the fly. Most commonly 7’ to 12’ in length, the leader is typically tapered and consists of three parts: the butt, the taper, and the tippet. These parts are completely separate and easily distinguished in formulated leaders created by knotting different diameters of monofilament together. However, most commercially produced leaders are created with an acid process that results in a knotless, seamless taper from top to bottom.

In either case, the butt is the thickest section that attaches to the fly line. Its purpose is to “turn the leader over” with the cast. A leader with no butt, or too thin of a butt, has a tendency to collapse rather than extend and straighten. The tippet is the thinnest part of the leader that attaches to the fly. It allows the energy of the cast to dissipate. As a result, you’re less likely to crash the cast on the water. The tippet also allows for a less visible connection to the fly. The taper is the section between the butt and tippet that provides a smooth, progressive transfer of energy. A leader with a thick butt tied directly to thin tippet tends to “hinge.”

They size leaders by their length and tippet size. So, if you purchase a 9’ 5x leader, it has a tippet size of 5X and its overall length is 9’. As a general rule, longer leaders are advantageous for not only creating more distance between fly line and fly, but for achieving better drifts in “technical” currents. However, they are more difficult to cast and more prone to find overhanging limbs! A shorter leader can allow for more accuracy in tighter areas.

They size tippet by its diameter and indicate the size with a number followed by an “x.” The bigger the number, the smaller the tippet. So a 6X tippet is considerably smaller than a 2X tippet. Without getting too deep into the history of what now seems a rather antiquated system, it all works off the number 11. The tippet size subtracted from 11 equals the actual diameter measured in thousandths of an inch. For instance, 6X tippet is .005”. It works in reverse too. If the actual diameter of the monofilament is .007”, the tippet size is 4X: 11-7=4. Pretty weird, huh?

Orvis Super Strong Fly Fishing Tippet Material
Tippet Spool

You don’t need to know all of that, though. Just remember that you usually choose tippet size based on the fly size. Small flies should have small tippets and big flies should have big tippets. Some leader packages will have cross-reference charts on the back indicating which tippet sizes match which fly sizes. Another neat trick is to divide the fly size by 3. So a size #12 fly would best match a size 4X tippet. Could you use a 5X tippet on a #12 fly? Absolutely. This is just a guideline. But the farther you stray from the guideline the more problems you’ll encounter.

So, tippet is part of the leader. But tippet is also purchased by itself on spools. Tippet material is pulled from the spool and spliced to the leader with a knot to rebuild or alter the leader. For instance, if you start the day with a 9’ 5X leader and you change flies a few times or break off in a tree, your tippet gets shorter and shorter. You can add tippet from a spool when this happens to build the leader back to its original size.

How Stuff Works: Landing Nets

Various Fly Fishing Landing Nets
Variety of Landing Nets

Landing nets enable anglers to land a fish more easily and safely. They are most beneficial when dealing with larger fish. Big fish sometimes make one last dart or head shake when you try to grab them. This often results in the tippet breaking. While in the Smokies, I rarely carry a net. The fish are typically not very large and can be landed by hand with little trouble. A net is just one more thing to carry. But I use a net regularly when fishing tailwaters and delayed harvest streams.

Carbon Fly Fishing Landing Net
Long Handle Carbon Net

Traditionally, nets have been made with a wood frame and cotton netting and that style is still common today. However, wooden frames are more and more frequently being replaced by lighter, carbon frames. Rubber is replacing cotton for the netting. The rubber netting has a number of advantages over cotton. The most notable being that it is better on the fish. Cotton netting can catch and tangle in the fins, gills and teeth of the fish. With trout, cotton absorbs and removes some of their protective “slime.” Fly hooks also catch and easily tangle in cotton netting. Rubber netting eliminates all of these problems and holds far less odor than cotton.

Other things to consider when looking for a net are the size and shape. Obviously, if you’re expecting to catch bigger fish you’re going to want a bigger net. A 20-pound striper just won’t fit in a 16 ½” trout net. They size landing nets by the overall length, including handle, as well as the size of the head (the part that holds the netting). You should choose the size of the net based on the size of fish you’re pursuing. Choose the overall length (or the handle size)  based on how you pursue them. For instance, if fishing from a boat, a longer handle may be desirable since it’s more difficult to get the fish close to you. If wading, a long handled net might be too cumbersome to carry all day.

Magnetic Fly Fishing Net Holder
Magnetic Net Holder

If you plan to carry a net with you when wading, there are a number of options that will help keep the net out of the way, yet easy to access when needed. Most every fishing vest or jacket has a D-Ring on the back. The sole purpose of that ring is to clip your net on it. To make it even easier, there are magnetic connectors that include a section of plastic, “pig tail” type cord that allow you to utilize the net while it remains tethered to you. There are also oversized retractors that accomplish the same thing.

Net Holster for Fly Fishing
Net Holster

Folks who choose to use sling packs or hip packs tend to have trouble finding a suitable location for attaching their net. Attaching it to the pack with a traditional retractor or magnetic connector often leaves it hanging too low or in a location that impedes the casting stroke. I know many who have remedied this by using a type of net “holster” placed on a belt. Store the net with the handle down and draw from the holster when you need it.

Like most things in fly fishing, there doesn’t seem to be a “one size fits all” solution to the type of net you use or the method you use to carry it. It’s a matter of finding something that best fits most of your needs and carrying it in the least obtrusive way possible.

How Stuff Works: Fly Lines

When spin fishing or bait fishing, you cast a weighted lure or live bait with sinkers. You have a reel of monofilament line and when you cast, you propel the weighted lure forward and it carries all of the monofilament line with it.

Fly LineWe use virtually weightless flies in fly fishing. Many float on the surface of the water. Even weighted flies that sink don’t have enough weight to carry themselves any sort of distance. We use the fly line for that. In essence, the fly line replaces the weight of a lure. When spin fishing, a weighted lure carries a weightless line when cast. In fly fishing, a weighted line carries a weightless lure.

Most fly lines will have a core of come sort and a plastic coating. Saltwater lines usually have a more rigid monofilament core, while freshwater lines usually have a softer, suppler Dacron core. The manufacturer applies the plastic coating in a way that produces a particular taper. The taper determines how the line will behave and perform.

A weight forward taper is the most common. If the fly line is 90’ long, which is typical, the first 50’ or so that attaches to the backing and the reel will be thinner and level. Approximately the front 40’ of line will be thicker except for the last few feet where it attaches to the leader. The intention is for the weight to be in the front part of your line to maximize casting efficiency at your most common distances. For longer casts, the thicker, weighted portion “pulls” the thinner, un-weighted portion behind it with a technique called shooting line.

There are variations on this weight forward design for specialty situations. For instance, a bass line has a shorter but more dramatic taper. They place more weight in a smaller area. The purpose of this is to aide in turning over the heavier, more wind resistant flies commonly used in bass fishing. Some of these variations are referred to as ‘shooting heads.”

Fly Line Tapers
Fly Line Tapers

A double taper line is becoming less and less popular but is one I still really like for fishing smaller streams like in the Smokies. It has a more gradual taper and it tapers equally from the middle of the line out to each end. This design allows for more delicate, accurate presentations at distances of 40’ and closer, and it roll casts extremely well. It’s also nice because you when you wear out one end of the line, you can turn it around and use the other. It is a disadvantage for distance casting because when you get beyond 40’, you get into the “reverse taper.”

You may also run across level lines, especially at discount type stores. There is no taper to level lines. They can be attractive to the beginner because they are so inexpensive but they cast horribly. Unless you are getting into some specialty techniques, I would avoid level lines altogether.

Most fly lines float. Even when fishing weighted flies in streams, a floating line is most often used because the fly and leader can usually sink enough to get the fly where it needs to be. However, there are sink tip lines available in different weights, where the front part of the fly line will sink to get a fly down deeper and faster. These are more commonly used for streamer fishing in lakes or deep, swift rivers. Full sinking lines are also available but not used very frequently. They allow the entire line to sink but are extremely difficult to cast.

Fly Line Weight Chart
Common Fly Line Weights

Fly lines are sized by a line weight that is designated by a single number like a 4-weight or 9-weight. This is intended to match the same designation on a fly rod, so you would use a 5-weight line on a 5-weight rod. It takes the amount of weight in a 5-weight line to properly flex or “load” a 5-weight rod and make it cast its best.

If you use a 2-weight line on a 5-weight rod, there’s not enough weight to load it. You throw your arm out trying to get the line out. If you use an 8-weight line on a 5-weight rod, it overloads it and it’s hard to control. There may be some specialized situations where you may want to over-line or under-line a rod. But 99% of the time, you want to match the line weight to the rod.

You choose what line weight (and rod weight) you need based on what you’re fishing for. For trout, you’re typically casting smaller flies to fish in clear water and trying to achieve delicate presentations. Lighter lines in the 3 to 5-weight range are common. For largemouth bass, you’re probably fishing more stained water and commonly casting bigger, more wind resistant flies. You’ll be able to better accomplish this with 7 to 9-weight lines/rods.  In saltwater, you probably want heavier lines not only for heavier flies, but also to contend with heavier winds.

Nippers

Fly Fishing Nippers

It’s Time to Quit Using Your Teeth….

Welcome to the wonderful world of nippers! It’s probably pretty easy to figure out that the primary function of nippers (aka clippers, cutters, snips, etc.) is to cut your line. They are mostly used to trim the tag ends of monofilament after tying a knot or to cut a new piece of tippet from a spool. But as you’ll see, the right pair of nippers can perform a number of other tasks as well.

As I described before, my beginnings in this sport were humble at best and my funds were rather limited. There was a lot I could do with $10 back then and I certainly didn’t want to waste it on nippers – not when I could just use fingernail clippers. That strategy served me well for a time, until I figured out what a lot of fishermen eventually figure out. First, they make fingernail clippers out of very cheap, soft metal. After you repeatedly clip monofilament line, they form a series of nicks in the blade. It’s not long before they become completely useless. Second, when regularly exposed to water (such as every time you go fishing), they rust – quickly.

So you can constantly replace in expensive fingernail clippers or you can do what I ultimately did – drop $10 on a decent pair of nippers. They’re rustproof and will last years before the blades begin wearing out. The other benefit to a good pair of nippers is they are designed to cut line, not fingernails. What does that mean?

When working with smaller trout flies, particularly dry flies, it can be difficult to prevent the large, curved head of generic fingernail clippers from also clipping away some of the hackle. The straight, somewhat recessed blades on fly fishing nippers work and cut in tight spaces. Most nippers designed for fly fishing also include another simple but highly useful feature – a small needle.

When a fly tyer finishes a fly, he knots the thread at the hook eye and coats it with a thin, invisible cement. Well, in the world of fly tying, time is money and production fly tyers apply that cement quickly, often leaving an invisible layer in the hook eye. When you need to tie that fly on your line, you can’t get the tippet through the hook eye because it’s coated in glue. This happens even more frequently with painted, hard-bodied poppers, only the paint coats the hook eye. The little needle on your nippers will clear that layer of cement or paint and preserve your sanity when attempting to attach a fly.

Multi Tool Nippers
Multi-tool nipper

As with most any fly fishing product these days, there are seemingly endless nipper styles and features to suit your needs and tastes. Some have a different shape, boasting a better ergonomic design. Others come with additional tools for tasks such as tying knots or sharpening hooks. Want to take it to the next level? Check out this description of Abel’s nippers:

  • Designed, manufactured and assembled in the USA
  • Anodized 6061-T6 aluminum body construction
  • Replaceable jaws – machined out of premium grade Crucible CPM S35VN stainlesssteel, then heat treated to 58-60rc
  • Engineered to cut 7X – 100 lb mono and braid
  • Two Year limited warranty on the jaws after initial purchase
  • Pin – 316 stainless steel
    Abel Nippers
    Trout print nippers

    And they can be yours in black for a mere $85. For custom colors, they’re just $105. And with a cool fish print… a steal at $165. Yep, $165 for line cutters. All of a sudden, $10 for a pair of nippers doesn’t sound too bad, does it? As with anything else, if you have the disposable income and want to spend $165 of it on nippers, go ahead. I won’t judge you.