The sun ain't no joke

Avoiding holes in your face, skin cancer and other similar indignities
fishing sun protection gear
Photo: Austin Orr

Terrific. Another hole in my face. My fourth. And not the fun kind, either. No cool piercings, this. Serious scalpel work. Micro-sharp curved Japanese surgical silicon, digging chunks of flesh – cancerous flesh - from my cabeza like fruit salad melon balls. Then, to cover the divots, layers of skin subcutaneously cut and stretched to cover the excavation. Two in my forehead, one in my right temple, and a chunk out of my nose, a few years ago, that made me cry, certain that I was permanently disfigured.

The sun ain’t no joke, my friends, and years of it add up.

I’ve always been outside. As a child I spent my daylight hours wandering the fields of the family farm. As an adolescent I ran along the beaches and through the suburban woods near the house. As a teenager I played pickup all day on the outdoor basketball courts around town and then lounged at the pool to recover. Hours on the soccer pitch, both playing and coaching, have been a large part of my adulthood. I worshiped being under bright blue skies.

And then, of course, there’s always been fishing, each moment a double dose of solar radiation, direct and reflected. There’s no hiding from the sun on the water. That’s the joy of it. And the problem.

The UV B cooks you. Crisps your top layer. Tans you or burns you, depending on your makeup. The UV A goes deeper, suppressing your skin’s immune system so that the UV B can do its job even better. Together, they break you down and, after years of it, the skin cancers can begin. Take my word for it. What’s happening to me now is not the result of last month’s sunburn. It’s the effects of a lifetime spent directly under good ol’e Sol.

Fellow fly fisherman, especially you young ‘uns, you need to listen. A splash of sunscreen and a baseball cap isn’t enough, though that’s our sport’s answer to “what to wear on the water.” It’s comfortable and it’s cool and it’s how I’d wish to fish each and every day. But I’m getting tired of these bloody holes and I worry that one day the surgeon won’t be able to dig deep enough. That his scalpel won’t be able to get it all.

So how do you avoid what I’m going through? The answer is simple. You cover up.

Sunscreen

The most obvious answer, and the most onerous. Simply put, it’s a pain in the ass, especially considering it should be applied multiple times throughout the day. But it works. And if you get the right kinds, its application is no worse than checking and replacing your tippet on regular occasion. (What? You don’t do that either?)

I try to put on a solid, 50+ SPF cream on before the fishing day starts and then lighter, more quick-drying supplements as the outing progresses, especially if I’m sweating.

Do be aware that many sunscreens can damage the coatings on fly lines, so try to clear your hands of it before returning to your casting. Also know that sprays may not be appreciated on boats as, if not careful, an overspray can make decks slippery or worse. Sprays are convenient, especially when protecting your scalp (rest assured that you can sunburn through your hair), but they need to be used with care.

Wide-brimmed hats

Protect that scalp with more than sunscreen. And more than a baseball cap. Yes, I know that the venerable Tilley may not be your style, but it’s hard to beat. In particular, it covers your ears and provides shade to you neck and temple areas, all prime locations for sun damage.

And don’t think because you have a wide-brim on that you don’t need the sunscreen. The sun’s reflections from the water come from all directions. The hat’s just stopping the most direct rays.

Patagonia's TropiComfort hoody.
Patagonia's TropiComfort hoody.

Sun shirts

It’s hard to wear long sleeves when it’s hot, but your arms are as exposed as anything. Thankfully, available today is a wide variety of lightweight, breathable sun shirts with significant UV protection built into the weave. Many now come with light hoods for even better protection. Such shirts are comfortable and stylish and have become regular wear for me, on and off the water.

Quick dry pants

Like sun shirts, a good pair of quick-dry pants can feel almost as good as shorts. I started wearing them to protect my legs while bushwhacking to some more remote locations, but they quickly became my everyday fishing wear, even wet wading.

Buffs

And while you’re covering up, why not do it completely, especially under tropical skies.

There was a blogger, once, that made a big fuss about all the “cool kids” wearing their buffs, playing pirates. How silly they were. I hope he’s grown up.

Admittedly, wearing buffs take some getting used to and the early ones often had the habit of fogging up your sunglasses as your exhales were directed up under the lenses. Now configurations and materials are helping solve such issues so there should be no reason not to protect yourself to the maximum.

Socks

This is especially for you skiff guys. When standing on the decks, most of us like to feel what’s under our feet in an effort to avoid the dreaded “line dance.” The answer has typically been going barefoot. But that exposes some of your most tender, lily-white skin and can produce some of the most painful burns you can imagine. Sunscreen is an option but, once again, sunscreen and boat decks don’t mix, so care needs to be taken. An alternative is a pair of thin sock liners, silk being my personal favorite. Almost as good as being barefoot when it comes to feeling the fly line that’s inevitably coiled beneath my feet.

Gloves

Perhaps the most serious sunburn I’ve had over the past several years was on the back of my hands. A long day on my local river toasted me from the wrist down and it took several weeks for the nerves to recover. Since then I’ve been more diligent in my sunscreening to include them or, when in intense sun conditions, I’ll put on a pair of sun gloves. Again, they take a little getting used to, but various configurations are available, padded or not, and you should be able to find something that you can get used to quickly.

Sunglasses

Your skin isn’t the only thing that can be sunburned. Your corneas can as well. And long-term exposure to direct UV light can do serious damage to your eyes. Ever hear of sun blindness? Good polarized UV-blocking sunglasses do a lot more than make you see fish better. See some of the best here.

Get To Know Your Dermatologist

Establish a regular appointment with a good dermatologist; at the very least, annually. Let him freeze those pesky actinic keritosi before they turn into something worse. A simple procedure, and painless. Keep him on the lookout for anything more.

And, very importantly, understand if you have a history of skin cancers in your family. It’s not always easy as our understanding of the sun’s effects continues to evolve, but heredity plays its part. Ask questions of your family. And while we’re talking family, sunscreen your kids.

Cold Don’t Matter

Finally, it may seem odd that here in mid-November I’m writing about sun protection. Truth is, the sun doesn’t care what time of the year it is or how cold you feel. I managed the worst sunburn of my life, age 22, on a chilly March day, my feet cooked purple as we shivered along an early spring hike down some coastal barrier islands. Couldn’t wear shoes for a week. I have no doubt that some of the sun that I soaked up that day was excised by a scalpel from my face all these decades later.

skin cancer forehead

It adds up, my friends. It adds up. So stop banking it now. Cover up. Protect your skin and possibly your life. If nothing else, avoid a few extra holes in your face.

The sun ain’t no joke.

Neither is skin cancer.

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