The Vision Thing

The Vision Thing

Our man turns his experienced eyes to flip focals and other optical aids for the aging angler

  • By: Ted Leeson
According to Doug, a hell of a smart guy, a creditable frontman for a local garage band, and a crackerjack optometrist, it's not a question of "if" but "when." Usually, it's in your forties. The pliable lens of your eye loses elasticity; the tiny muscles that control it, struggle bravely though they might, can't alter the lens shape to change its focal length. Your ability to see objects at close distances declines faster than a tech-bubble stock, and you start threading a tippet through a hook eye by holding both at arm's length.The condition is called presbyopia, and Doug says if you don't have it now, you will eventually. Human infirmity always runs a few steps ahead of human engineering, and barring eye surgery as a solution, the best you can do is compensate with some type of magnifier. Angling conditions introduce additional problems since we need this magnification in conjunction with sunglasses during the day and without shades in the low light of morning and evening. And it's even more complicated if you need distance correction all the time. I flirted briefly and tragically with multiple pairs of glasses hung around my neck and spent most of the season trying to avert strangulation. For the past decade I've experimented, extensively, with other options--none perfect but all workable, the best choice depending on the particular kind of compromise you find most acceptable. Clip-On Magnifiers This type of magnifier clips over the bridge of eyeglasses or sunglasses and places magnifiers in front of your regular lenses. A spring hinge flips them up and out of the way when not needed. I use this type of magnifier routinely. Because the lens is close to your eye, the working field of vision is usefully large, and there's enough depth of field to keep your hands a comfortable distance from your eyes when tying on a fly or to let you string up a rod without getting a snake guide up your nose. I rarely use the flip-up feature; though the plastic lenses are fairly lightweight, I find the unit too heavy for continuous wear and instead clip them to my hat brim, lenses on the underside, when not in use. The downside is that you must have glasses on to use them, which for some anglers can mean putting on sunglasses during the evening hatch to get the necessary magnification. And this clip-over design doesn't work very well with wrap-style sunglasses; they don't mount squarely on the curved lenses. But for daytime fishing or anglers who already wear prescription glasses, they are a highly workable solution. I use mine for fly-tying as well. A couple of types are available: The Flip 'N' Focus from Fisherman Eyewear (in 1.5X, 2X, 2.5X, 3X) were the first type I used and still perfectly good ones. $10.99. The Flip Focus Glasses from Springbrook are a similar, and equally good, pair of magnifiers, available in 1X, 2X, and 3X for $15.95. Which to buy essentially depends on which you can find. With both types, however, the wire arms that secure the magnifier are sleeved in plastic to protect your eyeglass lenses. These sleeves come off too easily, and the first thing I do with a new pair is super-glue the sleeves on. The Orvis Full Lens Magnifier Clip-Ons take the idea one step further with full-size lenses that cover your glasses or shades completely. The larger lenses are correspondingly heavier and, to me, are best mounted on your glasses only when needed. The advantage here is a big field of vision that eliminates a problem common to virtually all bifocal magnifiers, built-in or add-on--uncomfortably tilting the head back to focus on objects at or above eye level (in my case, untangling flies from tree branches). But if you find that standard bifocal magnifiers enlarge too small a working area, or are too difficult or uncomfortable to focus, try these. In 1.5X, 2X, 2.5X, 3X, 4X, for $19. Hat-Brim Magnifiers This idea has been around for a while, primarily because it works for many anglers. A single-piece acrylic lens is attached to a hinged arm, which in turn attaches to a hat brim. The lenses flip down for use, and back up under the brim when not needed. The virtues here are convenience and versatility. Under most circumstances, the extra weight on your hat brim is negligible; you can wear these all day comfortably, and they're right there when the need arises. They can be used with or without eyeglasses or sunglasses (including wrap-arounds), making them the most broadly applicable approach, and they are a particularly good solution if you habitually fish in a wide range of light conditions. The tradeoff, though, is that the lenses are a hat-brim's distance away, which effectively reduces the size of the magnified field; these are clumsy, for instance, in stringing up a rod. These are best for small-field, shallow-depth use, such as tying knots. Even then you have to position your hat just right to get eyes, lenses and object all in proper alignment. But you get used to it. You also want to be careful how and where you set your hat down; plastic lenses scratch easily. Flip Focals are the original incarnation of this idea. They mount with a plastic friction clip, though on hats with thin brims, such as straw hats, you'll need to use the tie-tac-type pin to hold them in place. They are durably made with a hinge that won't fatigue over time. Purportedly available in different magnifications, 2.25X is typically what you find--a useful, general-purpose power. These are sold widely at most fly shops and through mail order outlets such as Orvis, Cabela's, L.L.Bean, and so on; prices vary a bit but average about $19. HatEyes, a newer version from MagEyes, have some useful wrinkles on the basic idea. A long, very strong stainless clip has two pinch-points against the hat brim to avoid shifting. The sliding lens mount allows you to move the lenses closer or farther from your eye, and an extension arm (included) can be installed to drop the lenses lower in your field of vision--a nice feature for bifocal wearers. The fold-up lenses are also interchangeable if your magnification needs change, and the pivot tension is adjustable. I like these for their versatility and adjustability, though the clip gap is too wide to secure the magnifiers tightly to thin brims, such as on straw hats. Available in 1.0X, 1.6X, 2X, 2.25X, and 2.75X for $24.95; extra lenses run $9.95-$13.95, depending on power. Note: Firefly Eyewear makes a combination LED headlamp and flip-down magnifier useful for both daytime and low-light use; see FR&R April 2005 for details. Bifocal Sunglasses Bifocal shades offer an obvious benefit--polarization and magnification in a single, lightweight, no-hassle package. The limitations are equally apparent--putting on sunglasses in low light to tie knots. And you have to get used to the bifocal image jump, what a friend calls "speed bumps for the eyes." The magnifiers blur the lower periphery of your distance vision and can make wading (even walking) a bit dicey until you adjust. But when you get the hang of it, the system is quite practical, at least for daytime fishing. Oddly, in this day of aging baby-boomers, relatively few over-the-counter types are available, so you'll be somewhat limited in frame style, lens material (alas, no glass), tint, and magnifying power. (A spendier alternative--custom-made, non-prescription bifocals, available from most manufacturers with prescription services--increases your options.) The following are available off the rack. Ono's Trading Company makes only one thing--bifocal sunglasses--and they do it well. I checked out the Curlew (one of five available models). The wrap-style frames help block peripheral light and have soft, flexible temple ends that adjust for a secure and comfortable fit. High-quality CR39 lenses are narrow--typical for wrap frames--and require low-profile magnifiers; these are about as small as you can get and still offer a practically sized working field. But I like the intelligent apportionment of close-up and distance fields in this compact lens. These are nicely done. Five frame styles; amber, gray and mirror-blue lenses; 1.25X, 1.5X, 1.75X, 2X and 2.25X; $149.99. Smith Action Optics has a couple of ready-to-wear models; I checked out the Lochsa. The CR39 lenses are pleasingly large (60mm), which allows room for the 2.25X magnifiers and still gives a big, unobstructed field of distance vision. The reader elements are also large to provide a usefully sized field when working close up. With clear, non-distorting lenses and sturdy frames, these offer fine quality--optical and otherwise--in ready-to-wear bifocal sunglasses. Protect the lenses from scratching, and they promise long and useful service. A particularly nice choice for anglers who prefer bigger lenses in a bit more traditional frame style. Copper and brown only, $130. I've used the Orvis Hi-Vis Polarized Magnifiers off and on for years with very satisfactory results. The aviator style puts the 2.25X elements low in the "teardrop" part of the lens, for an unusually large field for distance vision; using the magnifiers, however, may mean temporarily hiking the glasses higher on your face for comfortable eye alignment. The molded CR39 lenses here are certainly of acceptable quality--nothing special--though I've had problems in the past with lenses of this construction and material delaminating at the edges over the years. So keep these off the dashboard and away from high heat. But these are functional and workmanlike, with a nicely chosen lens shape. Gray and amber, $89. The Solar Focus glasses from Fisherman Eyewear are one from yesteryear and a good idea. The frames divide the tinted, polarizing lenses from the untinted magnifiers below. This solid division between them discourages your eyes from looking through the lower lenses in ordinary distance vision, and the clear magnifiers (in choice of two strengths) can be used in dim light. Polarizing side shields and lens-top hoods reduce peripheral glare. On the downside, overall quality--frame and optics--is middling, though serviceable for most anglers. And these are a bit bulky, with boxy, 3-D movie-glasses styling. But for anglers who put function ahead of fashion; the basic concept is right on the money. If you've rejected conventional bifocal shades because of the annoying image shift, give these a look. Gray and brown, 2.0X and 2.5X, $32.99. The Polar Focus glasses, also from Fisherman Eyewear, take a novel approach. The frames hold a pair of clear lenses with bifocal inserts. A separate pair of polarizing lenses are attached with an integral frame hinge and fold down over the clear lenses. Used alone or in conjunction with the tinted lenses, the magnifiers are suited to all light conditions. It's a workable idea provided you accept the limitations, which are primarily optical. Putting one lens over another almost invariably introduces small optical distortions, and you get some light reflection between the interior surfaces of the lenses. But unless you are unusually sensitive to this sort of thing, it shouldn't pose a problem. These are a low-cost solution for anglers who encounter a wide range of light levels during a day's fishing. Gray or brown lenses, 2.0X, 2.5X, 3.5X, for $29.99. Stick-On Bifocal Lenses Optx 20/20 from Neoptx are flexible, half-moon magnifying elements that are wetted and applied to the inside of your existing sunglass (or prescription) lenses, transforming them into bifocals and freeing you from the limited selection (and expense) of off-the-rack bifocal shades. The magnifiers can be removed and reused. The optical quality is decent--close enough for government work--though some experimentation is necessary in positioning the lenses for clear, comfortable vision. Properly mounted, though, they are perfectly satisfactory for the occasional and intermittent close-up work required during a day's fishing and offer the benefits of bifocal sunglasses even on wrap-style frames. At 11/2" x 5/8", these are generously sized, but you can trim them with scissors to better fit smaller lenses. Available in 1.25X, 1.5X, 1.75X, 2.0X, 2.5X, 3.0X for $20. Magnifier Glasses An obvious solution to the vision thing is a separate pair of magnifying glasses. I've never cared much for the inconvenience of this approach when wearing sunglasses--hang both pairs around your neck and the cords get tangled; stash the magnifiers in a vest pocket and they are slow and cumbersome to access. Still, separate magnifiers work under all light conditions, and they are relatively inexpensive. I haven't found that magnifiers like this sold specifically for fishing have more to offer than over-the-counter drugstore types, with one exception: the Orvis Super Magnifiers. These are available in 4.0X and 5.0X--much stronger than you find in off-the-rack glasses. Focal length is short and depth of field is small, but if you need that kind of power in a magnifier, these are in fact about your only option. $49.