UPDATE: For our most recent picks for the best fishing sunglasses, check out feature Best fishing sunglasses for 2018-2019.
Over the years, we’ve produced few “best of” features, for a variety of reasons. Mostly, this is because we find such features to be largely disingenuous. No one that claims to have selected the “best” this or that has fully tested all of the options out there and even if you could presume they had, chances are they’d be unqualified or otherwise lack the expertise to draw such lofty conclusions.
Count us amongst the unanointed and incomprehensive. We’ve certainly not tested every pair on the market and we possess no credentials whatsoever in the world of optics, ophthalmology and so on. So why do a “best of” feature for sunglasses?
Because sunglasses are one of the most important pieces of fishing gear and in many fishing scenarios they become unquestionably the most important tool in an angler’s arsenal. Over the years, we've amassed extensive experience navigating lens technology and how it translates on the water. Fishermen face a dizzying array of options from a fairly wide field of manufacturers and knowing not only which sunglasses perform at a high level, but which are best suited to your type of fishing can be difficult. The hope is that bringing our experiences to bear on these decision making efforts will prove considerably valuable.
But, as we’ve noted in previous years. Take “best of” with a sizable grain of salt. After countless hours of testing — swapping lenses and frames and so on through a wide array of fishing locales and conditions across several different continents — these are, put simply, the sunglasses we reach for when we’re on the water chasing after fish.
Best Low Light: Maui Jim HT
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The reality is, not much has changed in the world of sunglasses since our last rodeo. Mostly, we’ve seen a few incremental additions from manufacturers and have gotten to spend more time with technologies that debuted around the time we did this a couple of years ago.
Amongst the unchanged is our goto pair of glasses for low light conditions. Maui Jim’s HT lens was our favorite low light performer in our first feature back in 2011 and it remains so today. Back then we touted its clarity and versatility — including its ability to take you through varying conditions on all but the sunniest of days — and we continue to do so.
We’ve also grown to find noteworthy its neutral tone, a quality we’re not drawn to in any other class of lens. When utilizing a low light lens not only as secondary eyewear when the sun is tipped towards either horizon, but as a versatile lens for days with changing light conditions (read: days with fast moving clouds and approaching storms, days spent on small creeks with vegetation lined banks and often sun-choking tree canopies, and so on) the neutral tone of the Maui HT seems to play less havoc on the eye as conditions shift.
Also look at: Smith Techlite Low Light Polarized Ignitor
If you’re looking for solely a low light performer, skip Maui’s HT and look at Smith’s Techlite Low Light Polarized Ignitor lens. Though less versatile, Smith’s Ignitor and its 40% VLT (visual light transmission) will take you places Maui Jim’s HT (at 29%) won’t. And those places are dark. Or at least they seemed that way until you donned Smith’s Low Light Ignitor lenses.
These glasses are a favorite on those truly overcast days or on evenings where the hatches don’t seem to come until it’s almost impossible to see to tie on a new fly. They’ve also served us very well in the salt, chasing snook in the mangrove or trying to spot permit cruising the edges of lagoons, on those dead flat days when the whole world seems to lack contrast.
Best Saltwater: Costa 580G Green Mirror
We hemmed and hawed a couple years back when trying to make our decision for best saltwater lens. To Costa’s credit, the choice was between two of their lenses: their 580G Blue Mirror and their 580G Green Mirror. Costa touts the blue version as intended for blue water excursions where anglers chase quarry such as tuna, dolphin, sailfish and so on in offshore locations, while the green is aimed at nearshore anglers in search of bonefish, permit and the like in relatively shallow waters.
Two years ago, we went against the grain and opted for the 580G Blue Mirror, finding it more well suited to both types of saltwater fishing than we did the 580G Green Mirror. But we’ve changed our minds. Rather, we’ve spent another two years fishing various frames with both these lenses aboard and have found the greener of the two to be better at piercing through the sun glaring off the ocean’s waters and giving us a sometimes breathtakingly clear, contrast-filled view of the world below.
To be clear: both lenses are excellent performers and you’ll be well served by either pair. If you spend more time offshore, opt for the Blue Mirror and wear it with confidence near shore — and vice versa.
We’re also pulling back on our recommendation of Costa’s 400G lens. Not in general, they are quality specs, just not as an almost-replacement for the 580G. Just as more time on the water has taught us that Costa’s own recommendation for where to fish which lens was accurate, it has also taught us that the added clarity of the blue and yellow-blocking technology (ranges around roughly 400nm and 580nm respectively) in Costa’s 580 lenses can’t be mimicked by lenses that lack it — and this added clarity may be more evident in the salt than it is anywhere else.
Also look at: Costa 580G Blue Mirror
This is essentially just a restatement of what we said just above, for those of you that are skimming rather than reading. Both the green and blue mirror lenses from Costa are excellent saltwater performers. If you spend more time in blue water (offshore, chasing fish in more than 10 feet of water), then go for the blue mirror instead of the green.
Also look at: Smith ChromaPop Blue Mirror
Smith has created a lot of fans with its relatively new lineup of ChromaPop lenses, and with good reason. Smith's ChromaPop technology is, like Costa's 580G, based on color-blocking — although it employs a different scheme. The results can be dramatic. Smith's ChromaPop Blue Mirror, which is backed by a grey tinted lens with a blue mirror front coating, lenses are excellent performers on both the flats and in blue water and wear very light thanks to their plastic construction (more on this later). Forced to chose between the two, we'll grab for Costa's 580G, but we'd never feel under-gunned wearing the Blue Mirror ChromaPops and there were times when the Smith's offered that "special something" that the Costa's lacked.
Best Full Sun: Costa 580G Copper / Smith ChromaPop Bronze Mirror
Since saltwater gets its own category, "Best Full Sun" applies mostly to freshwater fishing. And. if we're fishing the sun-baked Missouri or Madison in July, we're most likely to hit the water with either Costa's 580G Copper lens or Smith's ChromaPop Bronze Mirror lens. Both lenses feature color-blocking technology, in an effort to increase clarity and contrast.
Smith’s color-blocking technology, ChromaPop, does so in areas of what Smith calls “color confusion”. Specifically, this is in two areas: one where red and green wavelengths intersect (ranges roughly around 450nm and 580nm, respectively). While Costa's color blocking 580 lenses do so in a different wavelength range on the blue end of the spectrum, and the results produced by the two lenses do differ, both definitely produce a visual field with more “pop” (hence the namesake on Smith's part) and one where well-camouflaged subjects like placidly finning rainbows and bottom-dwelling brown trout can be considerably easier to spot.
Smith’s ChromaPop lenses are plastic and as such won’t offer the same optical clarity of glass. That said, it is important to note that the plastic in question here is Trivex — a well-heeled material in the world of sunglasses (used also by Costa in its 580P lenses and by other brands such as Kaenon) that is said to provide near-glass optical quality. For the most part that’s true, and that’s why these lenses have proven to be a goto lens when there’s sufficient light along for the ride. On those days, the “it” affect of Smith’s ChromaPop technology and the benefits of its light-wearing Trivex-constructed lens won out over the added clarity provided by glass.
That’s a sword that cuts both ways, however, and we did find that in more challenging conditions we were more likely to reach for a glass lens (often one of Smith’s own).
If you're a stickler for the optical quality that only comes with glass — even if the heavy sun you'll be fishing in won't likely make you miss it — and don't mind the extra weight of glass, then Costa's 580G Copper lens may be your best grab. As noted, color-blocking technology is on board here as well, and the effects are notable. Also onboard is Costa's hallmark for clear, crisp lenses.
Also look at: Smith ChromaPop Brown
Another ChromaPop option that differs slightly in character (read: tint) from its bronze-mirrored brethren. The main difference here, however, is in VLT. With a 14% VLT, the ChromaPop Brown Mirror is a somewhat brighter option worth considering if you’re looking for a little added versatility.
Best Overall: Smith Techlite Glass Polarchromic Copper Mirror
We’re going to hedge our bets here a bit even though we’re sticking with our guns by naming Smith’s Techlite Polarchromic Copper Mirror lens as the best all around fishing lens out there. And, we’re standing by everything we said last time, namely:
“In our minds, being best overall means offering more than everyone else does. But how do you quantify sunglasses? Well, as far as we're concerned, you quantify them by assessing their versatility. If you fish in a considerably diverse array of environments -- as many of us do -- and can own only one pair of fishing sunglasses, then a pair Smith Optics Polarchromic Copper Mirror Lens should probably be it. Thanks to the polarchromic aspect of this lens -- which means it self-adjusts its darkness dependent on the sun conditions -- these lenses do the job in virtually any scenario. In fact, we found it hard to find a scenario in which these lenses wouldn't do.”
Finding what’s “best” is often most about finding the tool that’s most suited to the job, and that’s the main thing that makes the Smith Techlite Polarchromic Copper Mirror shine: it’s the right tool for so many jobs, thanks in no small part to its stunningly clear optics and versatile, polarchromic 12-20% VLT profile that adjusts throughout the day as ambient light conditions change.
That said, over the last year or two, Smith’s Techlite Copper MIrror has faced a some stiff competition from another of Smith’s Techlite polarchromic lenses.
Also look at: Smith Techlite Polarchromic Amber
Like its copper-mirrored kin, the Smith Techlite Polarchromic Amber lens is a startlingly clear, contrasty lens that adjusts its VLT through the day. The tough choice has been which to reach for. The amber lens’ brighter 15-30% VLT profile makes it much more well suited to overcast days and may also make it the choice for older eyes that aren’t what they used to be, which benefit from more available light. Still, at most times the Techlite Polarchromic Amber feels more like a low-light lens than it does an all-around performer, which keeps it second in line to its sister lens.
Also look at: Smith ChromaPop Polarchromic Ignitor
Bearing more in kind with Smith’s Ignitor lenses from its ski lineup than the Low Light Ignitor mentioned earlier here, Smith’s ChromaPop Polarchromic Ignitor brings the best of the ChromaPop color-blocking technology and the Techlite polarchromic technology into one lens. So what’s to keep it from being best overall? Its tint. The Smith ChromaPop Polarchromic Ignitor features a rose-colored tint that some testers swore by, while others simply liked less than copper, brown and amber tints in comparable lenes.