Is it time for anglers to ditch their ball caps?

Your trusty trucker cap is failing you when it comes to sun protection
ibera marshlands golden dorado
Angler Francois Botha poses with an Ibera Marshlands golden dorado and ... inadequate sun protection (photo: Chad Shmukler).

That old, weathered ball cap that’s endured the best of adventures and is likely worse for the wear is a time-honored look. Torn and worn, faded and, let’s face it, absolutely filthy, it speaks more to the brand of the angler than to any brand that might be scrawled above the lid. It’s a statement piece, meant to promote the person beneath it. But, if you want to fish well into retirement, it’s probably time to put it on a shelf, where it can still speak to your past adventures but stop leaving too much of your face and head exposed to the worst of the sun’s cancer-inducing ultraviolet rays.

A few years ago, I went to the dermatologist to have a little bump on my right ear looked at. I only did so because it hurt and wouldn’t heal. Because my ball caps don’t cover the tops of my ears, they’re almost always the first place I apply sunscreen. But I’m negligent in that department. My customary once-daily application is likely three applications too few. So when I arrived, the doctor took a device akin to a hole-punch and took a chunk out of my ear. A couple weeks later, the biopsy results came back negative. Bullet dodged. But the warning was received.

It’s estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives. Every hour, two Americans die from skin cancer, and more than 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day. It’s the most common form of cancer, and, while most people survive it, it can be deadly.

The root cause of most melanomas is prolonged sun exposure. A single sunburn may not be a harbinger of the disease, but five or more sunburns doubles the risk of acquiring melanoma. For anglers, particularly those who spend time on and in the water, the danger can be acute.

fly change amicola river
Nose, ears and most of the angler's face left exposed (photo: Ryan Forbus). (photo: Ryan Forbus).

Danger from Above

The ball cap, while it might provide some protection for the angler’s face directly beneath the bill, is an inadequate deterrent. Throwing a face gaiter into the mix can help, but for many of us, especially in the summer or on prolonged visits to saltwater locales, these great little sun protectors are just too damned hot.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “hats should have a minimum 3-inch brim around the circumference or a minimum 3-inch bill with a permanently attached drape to cover the neck and ears.” Additionally, the SCF recommends hats be either dark or bright (not white or light-colored) and be made of tightly woven fabric.

“Dark or bright colors keep UV rays from reaching your skin by absorbing them rather than allowing them to penetrate,” the SCF says.

Fortunately, this is where style meets function. And where function meets protection. A wide-brimmed hat, from a simple Indiana Jones-type fedora to a floppy straw number that might conjure up images of an octogenarian tomato gardener, is likely the best option for days spent on the water. Yeah, you might think you look silly. But, in 20 years, you might still have most of your nose. And honestly, some of the options out there these days aren’t bad. Some, I dare say, are pretty stylish.

ibera marshlands golden dorado fishing
The ball cap in this photo is offering virtually no sun protection (photo: Earl Harper).

What Lurks Beneath

What’s more, while most of us understand that the sun hits us from above, many of us forget that water, particularly flat water, is reflective, and the sun’s rays get us from beneath, too. No hat in the world is going to completely block reflective rays coming from below, but a wide-brimmed hat will help disperse the UV.

“In terms of sun protection, a wide-brimmed hat is your best bet,” Jessica Wu, M.D., a Los Angeles-based dermatologist told How Stuff Works. “And the wider the brim, the better. A wide-brimmed hat will protect you from direct UV rays, as well as reflected rays from the water and sand.”

Covering Up

I’m as guilty — if not more so — as anyone else when it comes to failing to protect my face (and my arms and legs) from the sun. It’s not as if I don’t try, though. In recent years, I’ve become an ardent believer in the sun hoodie — lightweight synthetic shirts that cover the entire upper body and offer the option of a light hood to pull over the head when the sun is acutely bright. I wear the gaiter, too. And long, quick-dry fishing pants. And sunglasses — years ago, my ophthalmologist warned me that my eyes were in danger of damage because of the unblocked sunshine, and since then, I wear sunglasses outside almost all the time. It doesn’t really seem to matter what I do during fishing excursions that last a few days or longer. I still come off the water with racoon eyes and a lively burn.

And as noted, I’ve failed in the hat department. My sweat-stained collection of branded ball caps might be one that most would admire. But for me, the caps are utilitarian. The bill keeps the sun directly out of my eyes. The ball cap helps reduce the glare and helps me see where I’m casting and, if I’m lucky, what I’m casting toward. That’s why I, and I’d venture to say the vast majority of anglers, wear ball caps — not because we’re trying to protect our faces from the sun’s cancer-causing UV rays.

Serious sun protection? Not so much.

In recent years, I’ve taken to wearing a kitschy straw fedora during the summer. It’s not a terribly functional hat for anything other than daily wear, but it does cover the tops of my ears, my nod to the close call with the dermatologist.

But when fishing, I’ve yet to find the sweet spot in the Ven diagram where protection, comfort and function come together. Sadly, I often go with function and comfort and hope my face gaiter and sun hoodie fill in the gaps.

fishpond lowcountry hat
If he can do it, so can you (photo: Fishpond).

Genetically, I’m at risk. With family origins in the British Isles and continental western Europe, I can be classified as “hopelessly white.” And the sun has taken its toll over the years on my face, my arms and, yes, the tops of my hands. But the dermatologist — a man I now see often enough that we’re on a first-name basis — is most worried about the skin on face and ears. And I’m under strict orders to find a lid that really protects against the sun.

I know there are options — from light and floppy cloth hats to chic and stylish fedoras — that will do the trick. It’s a matter of prioritizing the protection and finding comfort and function as I go.

I’m off to south Florida for a quick retreat with friends next week, and I’m planning to fish the beach. My travel bag has several hats, gaiters and sun hoodies already packed — and, reluctantly, sunscreen. Hopefully, by the time I board the plane home, that little sweet spot will become evident, and I’ll have a better long-term plan to protect against an angling retirement that centers around precision surgical procedures and biopsy results.

Or maybe I’ll just start growing tomatoes.

Comments

I’ve worn a Filson packer hat for years - to the point it probably looks like one of your ball caps. My only complaint is it takes a bit of sweat to soften up the leather head band. Otherwise, it’s been great.

I've been using an inexpensive but very effective ball cap that has "curtains" to protect my ears and neck. (iColor Sun Cap Fishing Hat). It also has a face curtain. Because the curtain materials are lightweight I can tuck them into the hat when I don't need them. These hats hold up fairly well in the washing machine but, at about $15, replacing them is cheap. One thing I do to modify any hat I use for fishing is to put black "fabric paint" on the underside of the bill. This is a Lefty Kreh trick to enhance your ability to see by greatly reducing reflected light to your eyes.

I’m mid- 50’s and been fishing most of my life. I’m of European fair skinned descent so burn rather easily. I started wearing wide brimmed hats in my 30’s mainly because dislike lathering up multiple times a day with sunblock. Then tried on western style hat and never looked back. Wear felt Stetson/Akubra’s until weather hits 70’s, then switch to straw hats. Surprised not more popular on East Coast rivers. Get the occasional dumbass comments, that’s until they get the Clint Eastwood stare and my comment “ enjoy the burn”. Ha!

I’ve worn a felt or straw outback for decades, and not just for fishing. Ball caps are inefficient, not just for sun protection. I think rain running down the back of your neck is a very avoidable inconvenience. But then again, consider that fashion has dictated that some wear these hats backwards. I am aware that ball hats are most often used as billboards for brand loyalty, but I think skin cancer is too steep a price to pay for that.

After the second procedure for skin cancer I came to the same conclusion. I visited my local Aussie/down under type of store and bought a river quite hat. It covers everything and is waxed cotton to shed the water. I get some comments, but so what..

Keeping my baseball cap as it keep my spf??? Sun hoody from patasimms from falling off my head. Combing with a buff I’m good. Full brims just too bulky. Sunshade hats, meh. So for now this is works for me. For now.

There are unquestionably other solutions, Dave, like many that you mentioned. For me personally, and I know many others as well, they just don't work. Buffs and hoodies, when made of the right materials, can be very effective. And I know anglers that keep them on without exception, regardless of the conditions. For me, personally, however — I always fail at that. They're too hot and I end up ditching at least one, and usually both, as soon as the sun gets high or the temps get hot. So, for me, like the author, it's time to look for a new solution.

Your data is outdated on melanoma. It’s actually a lack of sunlight that causes this cancer. Low levels of vitamin D have been shown to be a cause of all kinds of cancer.

UV damage to the DNA of melanocytes is the current theory. And some genetic predisposition.

Yes vitamin D is important, and many people don't get enough of it. But sunlight is radiation. If your getting sunburned it's not good for you.

I got the Adverterer cap from Sun Day Afternoons company. Attached neck cape and adjustable neck strap to keep it in place during windy days. Around $45 and good quality.

I've been wearing my Tilley for 20 years..still going strong. When I first bought it it was bright white. I was fishing a small mountain stream in Colorado where I literally had to peak over large boulders to spot fish and as soon as they saw that white hat they vanished. I backtracked out, went into town and bought a brown sharpie and made antelope stripes all over it...worked great. I'm sure it will last me another 20 years at which time I will be ready to be cremated with it.

Boonie hats, Guatamalan palm, and an old Resistol I've reshaped a few times never let me down. Fishing the Gulf and North Georgia. Ball caps were always dinky pieces of kit. Always felt silly donning an advertisement on my head too... unless they'd pay me....

Over 20 years ago, I got a brown, felt, "Indiana Jones" style hat. But it was mostly to keep the rain off my face as I wear a rain jacket beneath. It also helps shade my eyes enabling me to see better into the water to spot trout. It also keeps me cooler by providing shade and as you state, keeps the sun off the back of my neck, ears and nose. It looks goofy, my wife hates it, but over time it's become a recognizable feature where people know it's me from a distance.

What hat is the dog wearing? Looks lightweight.

I fish a lot in windy conditions (saltwater, big rivers) and have gone to a hoody over a ball cap rather than a wide-brimmed hat. I don’t fish much in heat, so a hoody is not a problem for me. I’ve had melanoma.

This is long overdue. My doctor calls a ball cap “a head ornament.” I switched to wide brim hats after having a basil cell carcinoma removed a dozen years ago.

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