Best Dressed Among the Flats Crowd

The gear most of us wear onto a flat is actually technically advanced equipment that's every bit as important as the rods and fly lines we use.

May 23, 2003

It seems like common sense to dress appropriately, no matterwhere you go. Most of us wouldn’t wear a T-shirt to the opera or athree-piece suit to the beach. The same is true for fishing theflats. Just because it’s appropriate fishing attire on the NorthFork of some river in Montana doesn’t mean it’ll work when it’s 90degrees, sunny and still as bird dog on point.

It’s true that many people think we fly-fishermen wear a costumewhen we fish and that we need to wear all that snazzy gear just tofit in. The truth is that we need to wear all that gear for our ownprotection and comfort on the flats – there isn’t a lot of shade inthe middle of the Joulters.

Sure, you could just throw on a long-sleeved shirt and head outto look for redfish, but it won’t take long for you to overheat,sweat and dehydrate – not to mention burn through the shirt. Thegear most of us wear onto a flat is actually technically advancedequipment that’s every bit as important as the rods and fly lineswe use. It was designed for optimum use under the intenseconditions we encounter while wading in the tropics.


The reason companies like Columbia, Sportiff, Ex Officio andTarpon Wear make shirts, pants, hats and the like actually runsdeeper than to provide sun protection, but that was the primaryimpetus for their development.

The whole concept of technical sun protective gear began in thelate ’80s with the invention of materials like Supplex. Tarpon Wearis largely credited with the first use of Supplex for shirts andwas among the first companies to produce specialized clothing foranglers. “We wanted to figure out some way to dress downtechnically,” explains Bill Watkins of Tarpon Wear. “We were tiredof traveling from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to fish in the tropics andburning quickly because we were pale white from the winter. Plussun creams at the time washed off fairly easily, so they were oflimited use to us. When we found Supplex, it opened a lot of doors.Our primary concern was sun protection, but we ended up with aproduct that dried quickly and packed easily, too.”

Supplex is not exactly the greatest sun-protective material, nordoes it breathe or dry well on its own. In fact, that’s why ventswere originally put in shirts. With the addition of UV-absorbentchemicals and moisture-management technology, Tarpon Wear producedlightweight, breathable shirts that were fast-drying and highlysun-protective.


Today, though, many companies have begun to move away fromSupplex to materials that are inherently more UV-protective andbreathable. In fact, most modern materials are so breathable thatvents have been left on most shirts only as a matter of traditionand style. Every element of this technical clothing serves somepurpose beyond style and appearance. Most of the shirts aredesigned with collars to protect the neck, an area often forgottenuntil it’s charred.

Many anglers prefer to wrap a bandana around their necks becausethey can dip it into the water to help cool off. It can also beworn around the face to keep the sun off. Tarpon Wear’s originaldesign includes a fold-up collar for protection – something thathas become almost a trademark. Now it also offers a hood that foldsinto the collar and flaps that fold out of the cuff to protect thehands.

But even the pockets and doo-dads that these companies includeadd some functionality to the clothes. “We put large pockets up topbecause you can’t keep anything in the pockets of your shorts dryas you wade. They needed to be closeable and large enough to carrya fly box,” says Watkins. Some companies include pockets fortippets, rod retainers and sunglass loops, and some even provideantibacterial and antifungal treatments to keep the shirts fromsmelling after a few days’ use. In fact, these antifungal/bacterialtreatments seem to be the next trend in development.


The materials these clothes are made of are so light andpackable that you can throw just a few shirts into a suitcaserather than bringing one for each day. At the end of the day, justwash them out – they dry quickly. The pants that these companiesmake also offer far more than sun protection. Most have morepockets than a billiard table, and they protect your legs fromjellyfish and biting insects while you’re stamping around themangroves.

Most of us still prefer to wear shorts on the flats, and severalcompanies make pants with zip-off legs so you can convert them toshorts. Again, most of these pants are made from sun-protectivematerial, and they breathe easily and dry incredibly fast. Thesematerials have been incorporated into virtually every aspect offlats clothing from hats to socks – including underwear. One otheritem that needs to be mentioned is the popular sun gloves. Whilethese are invaluable for spending a day on the flats, you mustremember that any material, no matter how much UV protection itgives, does not protect as well once it stretches. Consequently,sun gloves are not rated for sun protection the way shirts andpants are. They are, however, still quite effective and worth everypenny.

When looking for technical flats wear, keep in mind that naturalfibers like cotton are heavy and not very sun-protective, and theydon’t dry well. But they are durable and tend to make clothes looka bit dressier. Any blend of materials that includes natural fibershas these drawbacks to some extent, but, depending on yourpreference, the drawbacks may be negligible. Right now, manymanufactures argue that the best materials are 100-percentsynthetic.


Whatever you pick, don’t assume that just because it looks likea fishing shirt it functions like one – they are not all createdequal. If the clothes don’t do what you want them to, you’ll end upa crispy critter in no time. Don’t concern yourself with wearingdown the UV resistance either. Most clothes are guaranteed tomaintain their characteristics for the life of the product.

Also, remember not to wear anything over these clothes, like avest. Instead, try any of the new flats packs that companies likeWilliam Joseph, Fishpond, G.Loomis and JW Outfitters aredeveloping. These minimize contact while maximizing storage spaceand movement. You’ll be amazed at the advantages they have overtraditional packs.

Once you have all your gear, don’t forget a good waterproofsunblock. Your clothes won’t protect all your parts, and even asunburned nose and ears can make life miserable.


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