LED's For Your Heads

LED's For Your Heads

A look at lights for fishing at night

  • By: Ted Leeson
My first night-fishing experience, over 30 years ago, was an unauthorized sortie (OK, trespassing) into a tempting little bass pond that lay one creek, three barbed wire fences and 400 hummocky yards of drained swampland from the nearest road. At dusk, my three co-conspirators and I scratched a crude assault plan into the dirt and set off. We fished through the dimming light, then on into the night until a small sliver of moon finally set. We got royally skunked-the lesser of two bummers when we discovered that, in the throes of poaching euphoria, no one had thought to bring a flashlight.The walk out was deeply unpleasant. Compensatory obsessions are born in just this way, and since then I've accumulated an obscene number of flashlight-type devices. Of these, none has proven more useful over the years than the headlamp style-it leaves your hands free for tying knots or untangling leaders; there's no fumbling around to find it; and it pretty much points automatically in the direction you're looking. Out of a better-mousetrap kind of curiosity, I took a look at the newest development in headlamps-LED technology. Unlike ordinary lights, LED's (light-emitting diodes) have no filaments, which presents a number of advantages. Most of the energy produced by an incandescent bulb is heat radiated in the infrared (and hence invisible) part of the spectrum. LED's turn electricity directly into visible light and are about five times more efficient in this conversion than ordinary bulbs. Filaments are also fragile (particularly when hot), and LED's are more shock and vibration resistant. They burn longer on a set of batteries, have useful bulb life that runs into the thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of hours, and are more compact. There are two downsides, neither of which I find prohibitive. First, LED's are not as bright as conventional lamps (though the technology is moving quickly toward parity) nor do they throw the penetrating beam of an incandescent. In one way, this is an advantage; bright lights can spook fish, and you really only need enough illumination to tie on a fly or tippet. Still, single-bulb LED's don't have a great reach or field of illumination for lighting your way on the hike back to the car; multiple-bulb types are better for this. There are scads of these things on the market now. I winnowed the field on the basis of weight and compactness (all the units I tested had batteries in the lamp housing, not a separate battery pack at the back of the strap); hands-free operation (either a head strap or a hat clip); and useful illumination. There are two types: The single-lamp style uses only one LED, typically powered by a couple of coin-type batteries. As a result, these units are extremely lightweight and small-hardly bigger than your thumb. No head strap is necessary. They clip directly to your hat brim, and you adjust the position of your hat to put light in the working field. No big deal. But if you wear bifocals, or like working very close to your chest, you might consider a light with a swivel mount that positions the beam more directly downward. Single lamps throw enough light to tie on a fly, but at farther distances, the illumination falls off significantly; I wouldn't use one to pick my way along a rocky jetty after a night of striper fishing. But for close up, they do the job well, pack easily in a vest and are the least expensive alternative. In field testing, I found no appreciable difference in intensity or quality of illumination among the various brands (with one exception noted below). Some of these LED's are manufactured to produce a colored light, such as red or green, which helps preserve night vision (see sidebar). The multiple-lamp type incorporates two or more LED's and usually allows for illuminating the bulbs in combination-one for close-up work, two or more for tasks that require more light-or for selecting power levels that dim or brighten the bulbs. This flexibility reduces unnecessary consumption of battery power when less light is needed, but still has the juice when a bright beam is necessary. Multiple lamps are better for hiking back to your rig in the wee hours, more for the increase in the field of illumination than for brightness at a distance. Power is provided by one or more AAA alkaline batteries, so the units are somewhat larger and heavier, and most require a head strap to support. If you wear a hat, some adjustment can be required to get everything to fit up there. But these offer versatility at a weight and size that is still practical. Single Lamp Lights Firefly Eyewear combines a clip-on LED lamp with a flip-down 2.5X magnifier for those of us whose vision problems run beyond a lack of light. I'm always skeptical of combination devices, but this one is in fact pretty practical. Getting all the players lined up-your eye, the lens, the light, the fly in your fingertips-does require adjusting the hat and magnifier just right, but you get the hang of it. I do find the flat slider switch overly tight for easy one-hand operation, however. But once in business, you have a clear, usably bright working field. An added bonus is that the unit is light enough to keep on your hat in the daytime, when you can use the magnifier alone. Water-resistant shell. $39.95. The Impulse 2 from Princeton Tec packs some highly useful features in a small, light, low-profile package. The large, easy-to-push button is the simplest and most convenient switch of any in the group. Mount this one under your hat brim, and a hinge allows it to pivot far enough back to point at your chest. The three brightness levels are easy to access. Princeton Tec's long experience in manufacturing high-quality flashlights shows here. A good switch, practical pivoting and bulb color choices make this a top choice in single-lamp units. $14.99. The LEDHedz Micro Hat Lamp is about as basic as they come. A simple, strong clip secures the unit to the top of your brim, and a slider switch activates the lamp. The switch is a bit tight to operate (especially with wet hands), but it's not a major drawback. It's lightweight and compact, and rounded edges make for easy vest-pocket storage when not in use. This is one for anglers who like their gear simple, straightforward and functional. Water resistant. $9.95. LEDHedz also offers the Tech10, with a 10mm LED that is about 20 percent brighter than standard bulbs. It has the same hat clip on a similar, but slightly larger, housing and a rubberized slider switch that's easier to operate. Power consumption here shortens the battery life a bit, but it's a good tradeoff if you need the extra illumination. $7.95. The Photon Freedom Micro is the smallest and one of lightest of them all. It's mounted on a ball-joint for easy swiveling to any position; clip it under your hat brim and you can even point it straight down. On/off and beam intensity are controlled by a simple push button. Multiple modes (3 speeds of flashing beacon and S.O.S.) are perhaps too clever by half, but in on/off mode, operation is trouble free. The light weight, pivot adjustment and eight bulb color choices are the strong points here. A good choice for the minimalist angler. Water resistant. $20. The LED Clip-On Light from Wind River is also one of the lightest single-lamp units, but more importantly, it has two very useful features. First, a very strong, clothespin type clamp that attaches securely to a hat brim. And second, the bulb itself (rather than the whole lamp head) rotates 90 degrees from a horizontal position to a vertically downward one-an elegant solution to putting light where you want it. A larger, or less deeply recessed switch would be nice, but it's certainly usable. This one is cleverly done and useful-one of my favorites. $40. Multiple-Lamp Lights The Black Diamond Ion is a practical compromise for anglers who want a bit brighter working area or a little larger field of illumination (say, for extricating a fly from the brush) but don't want the added weight of a four- or five-bulb unit. Two LED's here are housed in lightweight swivel housing that is nearly as compact as some single-bulb clip-ons. The low-profile strap doesn't interfere with your hatband at all and is cooler than the wider, beefier straps. Burn time is on the low end, and battery cost on the high side, but if your top priority is ample working light in a light, tidy package, check this one out. Water resistant. $19.95. The #2610 HeadsUp by Pelican eschews whistles and bells. Press once to light one bulb, twice for all three. There's no cycling through five or six modes, no flashers-just dim or bright, on or off. And the switch gets my vote for the best in the group-easy to access, nice positive click. The light is angled downward to compensate for the lack of a pivoting housing; you just move your head around-not a problem under most circumstances, though bifocal wearers may have difficulty putting the bright spot of the beam into their close-up zone of vision. A nice choice for anglers who want simplicity in design and opration. Waterproof and built like a tank. $30.95. The Tactikka Plus from Petzl was one of my favorites. A built-in red lens flips up or down to change light color at any of three brightness settings, and it acts as a bulb protector during transport. The switch is very easy to operate, even with wet hands, and a ratcheting tilt adjustment locks the lamp head firmly. Ergonomic design and good fit make this comfortable and convenient to use. The whole unit strikes a useful balance between practical fishing illumination and enough light to find your way back to the car. Good versatility. $30.95. The head unit of the Petzl Zipka Plus is identical to that of the Tactikka Plus without the flip-down lens (colored lenses are an option, though onstream swapping is not practical). The claim to fame here is the headband. Two retractable zinger cords connect the lamp head to a rear housing that sits against the back of your head. Spring tension on the cords holds the light in place. Remove the light and the cords retract to pull the two housings together, forming a unit slightly larger than a golf ball. Durability could be a question; I've worn out countless zingers over the years. But then these cords won't see anywhere near the constant use of a vest zinger. An interesting idea worth checking out if you need a small-profile, tangle-free package in a head-strap style. $42.95. The Princeton Tec Aurora is a nicely compact unit, with a simple push-button switch, conveniently located (for right-handers anyway). Even the lowest of the three brightness levels gives sufficient working light, though you must click through two brighter settings to get there. The 180-degree tilt operates smoothly; head strap is reasonably comfortable, though a forehead pad would be nice. What I like best here are the useful choices of light intensity, solid construction and the fully waterproof housing. A good, all-purpose fishing light. $29.99. The Princeton Tec Scout is the lightest and most compact of the multiple-lamp types; it's scarcely larger than a single-lamp unit, but two bulbs (at the highest setting) give more light in a wider field. It can even be detached from the strap and clipped to your hat if you prefer. A couple of drawbacks: When the light is pivoted fully upright, the housing covers the switch; you have to tilt it forward slightly to turn it on. Minimum size and weight are achieved by using four coin cells instead of AAA batteries. If you need more light than a single lamp, but small size and low weight are still top priorities, this is your item. $19.99. The 5 LED Headlamp from Wind River is unique, incorporating one red and four white lamps. By itself, the red bulb throws enough light for knot tying; add the whites for a brighter beam or general-purpose use. Wide-angle bulbs give a usefully large field of illumination; the switch is accessible and easy to operate. A comfortable head strap and neoprene forehead pad make this one exceptionally comfortable to wear. One drawback: There are four modes here. When the light is on, you must cycle through the remaining modes, by repeatedly pressing the button, to turn the light off. It's a small nuisance, though, given the versatility offered by the bulb colors. This headlamp is also available with all white bulbs for maximum illumination, though I prefer the flexibility of having the red bulb myself. $40. Illuminating Factoids LED's can last 100 to 1,000 times longer than an incandescent bulb, though lifespan is measured differently. The life of a conventional bulb is calculated by the number of hours it takes for half of a sample group (say, 50 lamps) to burn out. The life of an LED is considered over when the light falls to 50 percent of its original value. An incandescent bulb comes to a sudden end; an LED slowly fades away. LED bulbs are not replaceable. The "white" light of an LED actually appears a bluish purple, not yellow like an incandescent. Though LED's are not as bright as incandescent bulbs, they are more directional, manufactured with a lens in the bulb that gives them a fairly narrow beam angle. Thus the bright spot in the beam can provide nearly as much light over a small working area as an incandescent. Conversely, they have less peripheral light outside the bright spot which makes them second choice for walking or hiking in the dark, where a broader illuminated field is helpful. Two bulbs, while brighter than one, are not twice as bright. Typically, the gain is more in the wider field of illumination. Pilots and astronomers have long used red lights to avoid the "night blindness" that comes when a white light is shut off at night. The white illumination shrinks the pupils; until they dilate again, you can't see. Red light closes the pupil less, so vision recovers more quickly. "Battery life" should be interpreted with care. It designates the time of continuous illumination before power is completely drained. But as with any flashlight, as the batteries weaken, the light intensity drops and will eventually become too dim to use before the batteries are technically dead. Carrying spare batteries is always a good idea.