An ounce of Protection

An ounce of Protection

Shirts and pants that tame the blazing sun and biting insects.

  • By: Ted Leeson
  • Photography by: Barry Beck
  • and Cathy Beck
Protective Clothing

Whether it’s a winter escape to the tropics or a trip farther north in high summer, you can’t say enough about warm-weather angling—packs of bonefish “Hoovering” the flats, lolling tarpon, trout dimpling under sapphire skies, peckish bluegills on a farm pond, shirtsleeves and shorts, sandals and shades. On warm, sun-soaked days and mild, congenial evenings, everything conduces to a larger and fuller fishing life.

Then, of course, there’s the flip side—blackflies, mosquitoes, deerflies, ticks, no-seeums, greenhead flies, and all manner of other things that bite, burrow or generally suck. At best, they’re an aggravating distraction and, at worst, vehicles for a host of sinister hitchhikers—West Nile virus, malaria, encephalitis, dengue fever, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, yellow fever and a host of other hideous and debilitating (or worse) maladies that the Center for Disease Control coolly terms “vector borne diseases.” In addition, angling in warm weather boosts the likelihood of sunburn and the cumulative effects thereof—squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas and melanoma, which in aggregate are diagnosed in about 1 million Americans every year.

Fortunately, in recent years self-defense has become more comfortable, convenient and, arguably, more effective with sun-and insect-protective clothing designed for anglers. Though I once scoffed at the idea of “fishing clothes” beyond an old work shirt and a pair of jeans too banged up for any civilized purpose, a bonefish trip almost 20 years ago changed my thinking for good.

I spent last season testing sun- and insect-protective clothing (and doing a lot of laundry). I tested long-sleeved, button-front shirts—since T-shirts rarely have pockets or a collar that can be turned up against the sun—and pants of lightweight, quick-drying fabric. A few features are worth noting: In shirts, practical pockets are a must. A button-down collar keeps collar points out of your face when skimming across the flats at high speed or when turning up the collar back for sun protection. Tabs for pin-on accessories are useful, since they spare lightweight fabrics the stress of repeatedly tugging on a retractor, and they help preserve the appearance of the shirt. Rod-holder tabs are nice, if you use them, and do provide an attachment point for accessories. Sleeve retainer tabs help keep rolled sleeves off your elbows. In pants, belt loops and at least one zippered pocket are a must, and integral mesh briefs are a real plus for wet wading. Other useful features appeared on all the pants tested: button or snap waist, zip fly, elastic waist-band inserts for mobility, and belt loops.

My sole concern in field-testing was in purposeful materials and designs, not style, which is always an individual matter; I considered the products as equipment, not as fashion statements.

Sun-Protective Clothing

Clothing of this type works by incorporating fibers, weaves, dyes or chemical treatments that absorb or diffuse ultraviolet rays, both the UVA and UVB types implicated in skin cancer. Practically speaking, this clothing gives better protection than sunscreen, which many people don’t use properly anyway. Sunscreen must be applied 20 to 30 minutes prior to sun exposure and reapplied every couple of hours, despite any claims to “waterproof” or “all-day” protection. More important, not all sunscreens address UVA rays; while some brands advertise such protection, the SPF standard is based only on UVB, not UVA, radiation, and so such claims are not necessarily verified. Moreover, recent evidence suggests that certain chemicals used in many sunscreens may actually be associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. Given that the non-profit Environmental Working Group found only eight percent of the 500 sunscreens it tested to be “safe and effective,” sun-protective garments seem the best way to go. I tested only clothing rated UPF 30 to UPF 50; that is, classified as “very good” to “excellent” protection. It all did the job.

Shirts

CABELA'S Made in the Shade Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 50. Hook-and-loop collar fasteners, sleeve retainers. One zip pocket holds small fly box.

Comfort, Etc: Among the lightest-weight shirts in the group, this one dries exceptionally fast, and while back mesh vents are too small for meaningful air circulation, the shirt is cool in the heat owing primarily to the featherweight material. Some stretch in the fabric promotes upper-body mobility when rowing or casting.

The Upshot: Fishing-specific features here are minimal—the single pocket is small and the opening is impractically narrow for easy access. The strong points here are hot-weather comfort and low packing bulk for travel at a reasonable price. $34.99. www.cabelas.com

COLUMBIA Airgill Woven Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 50. Button-down collars, sleeve retainers, rod-holding tab. Two vertical zip pockets that hold medium fly boxes are stacked on two snap-flap front pockets that also hold medium boxes; one small pocket with no closure.

Comfort, Etc: This lightweight polyester dries rapidly and resists stains. Gill-like, mesh-lined slash vents on sides and back circulate air effectively, particularly in a breeze, and this shirt wears comfortably in hot weather. Very slight stretch in fabric and full cut offer easy movement.

The Upshot: Though snap-closing pockets are not my first choice, this shirt offers lots of capacity and organizational options for the angler who carries more than the minimum. Unnecessarily complicated sleeve retainers are annoying, and gilled vents are a little unusual looking—even more so if the shirt is tucked in. But for fishing features, this is one of the better shirts in the group. $80. www.columbia.com

COLUMBIA Blood and Guts Superlight Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 50. Button-down collar, sleeve retainers. Two hook-and-loop closing pockets (hold small fly boxes) are piggybacked with small, non-closing pockets.

Comfort, Etc: Very lightweight, fast-wicking polyester and generous mesh back vent make this shirt reasonably cool. But its real advantage is in the stretchy fabric that moves with you when casting or rowing; the Omni-Shield treatment is also surprisingly effective at resisting most stains.

The Upshot: Not high in fishing features—pockets are fairly small, and the non-closing ones aren’t secure—this is a shirt to buy for simple warm-weather comfort rather than carrying much gear. But it offers excellent body and arm mobility, and the super-light fabric packs down small for travel. $90. www.columbia.com

EX OFFICIO Reef Runner Lite

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Accessory tab, sleeve retainers. Two zip-closing pockets (one piggybacked with a smaller accessory pocket) hold medium fly boxes.

Comfort, Etc: Lightweight nylon wicks well and dries rapidly for practical warm-weather wear. Stretch-mesh side panels from wrist to hem give some air circulation, but also let the shirt “give” when casting, rowing and hiking (even more useful, I think).

The Upshot: Secure zip closures and usefully sized pockets make this an eminently functional fishing shirt that comfortably carries weight in the pockets, though operating closures does require both hands. The mesh side panels can snag a bit on brush when bushwhacking, but a smooth, uncluttered shirtfront and practical design make this a good value at $68. www.exofficio.com

FILSON Long Sleeve Feather Cloth Fly Fishing Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 50 (for selected colors). Two grommeted accessory tabs, sleeve retainers. Two Velcro-closing, flapped pockets hold medium fly boxes and are piggybacked with two smaller zip-closing pockets with tippet-spool grommets.

Comfort, Etc: This all-cotton shirt has natural-fiber comfort that gets even better with washing, though it dries more slowly than synthetics and is a bit warmer in hot weather. Cut full through the body for mobility.

The Upshot: Excellent pocket configuration gives convenient one-hand access to fly boxes and tippet spools or smaller items—a superior choice for minimalist anglers who carry everything in shirt pockets. Sensibly placed tabs keep pin-on accessories unobtrusively at hand. Top-quality materials and construction throughout, and excellent sun protection, though not all colors carry UPF 50 rating. $82.50. www.filson.com

L.L. BEAN Tropicwear Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 50. Button-down collar, rod-holding tab, two accessory tabs, sleeve retainers. Two bellows pockets with cape-style hook-and-loop closures hold medium fly boxes.

Comfort, Etc: Mesh-lined cape-style back and pockets promote air circulation; the nylon/polyester fabric wicks well and dries very quickly. The shirt seems slightly heavier than others, but is quite tough. Cut full for excellent mobility. Thin anglers might consider one size smaller than normal.

The Upshot: Practically sized, securely closing pockets are a big plus, though accessories hung from tabs on pocket-tops may interfere with access. And loaded pockets sag, requiring two hands to close. But functional design, superior sun protection, rugged fabric and comfort make this a top choice for the money at $44.95. www.llbean.com

ORVIS Helios Caster

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Concealed button-down collar, sleeve retainers. Two zip-closing pockets hold small fly boxes.

Comfort, Etc: Lightweight, stain- and odor-resistant polyester/nylon blend moves moisture well and dries in a hurry. This comfortable fabric is lighter than it first seems. Non-restrictive, full cut and stretchy mesh allow easy arm and shoulder movement.

The Upshot: Clean, uncluttered shirtfront doesn’t catch fly line when casting and has a low-bulk feel even when carrying gear. The pockets are just a bit too small for medium fly boxes, but shallow depth and wide openings give easy access to smaller items. Not high in capacity or long on features, but a good all-around shirt for warm-weather fishing. $79. www.orvis.com

ORVIS Open Air Casting Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Concealed button-down collar, sleeve retainers, accessory tab. Two button pockets, one with zip security pocket inside, hold medium fly boxes.

Comfort, Etc: Fabric and venting are quite similar to that of Helios Caster, but mesh chest panels give added air movement.

The Upshot: Pocket bellows expand to hold gear, though pocket openings could be wider for easy access, and button closures are less convenient and secure than other types. Good upper-body mobility is a strong point in this general-purpose fishing shirt. $79 www.orvis.com

PATAGONIA Sol Patrol Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 30. Concealed snap-down collar, sleeve retainers, accessory tab. One vertical-zip pocket holds large fly box; two button-flap pockets hold small boxes.

Comfort, Etc: Extremely light, ripstop polyester dries in a flash and, with cape-style mesh back, makes for real comfort in hot weather. But to me, the story here is stretchiness in the fabric for excellent casting and rowing mobility; this shirt doesn’t hold you back.

The Upshot: A useful mix of pocket sizes make this practical for fishing purposes, though the button pockets are a bit of nuisance and have smallish openings. The freedom of movement afforded by the fabric make this a good choice for especially active anglers; it packs small for travel, and there’s value for the money. $79. www.patagonia.com

PATAGONIA Cool Shade Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 40. Sleeve retainers. Two zip pockets hold medium fly boxes.

Comfort, Etc: The polyester/nylon blend wicks well, and vented back cape circulates air, though the fabric seems slightly heavier than others in the group. I found it comfortable in warm, but not extremely hot, conditions. It’s cut full for mobility, but lacks the stretch of the Sol Patrol.

The Upshot: Pocket design and size are quite practical for fishing. Angled zip openings are a useful compromise between the ergonomic superiority of vertical zips and the security of horizontal ones, and it carries contents comfortably. The uncluttered shirtfront won’t snag fly line or catch in the brush. A functional shirt for those who need pockets that hold gear securely and want everything else simple. $79. www.patagonia.com

SAGE Vapor

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Concealed snap-down collar, three sunglass slits/accessory tabs. Two zip-closing, side-entry pockets hold large fly boxes. Seamless shoulder design is excellent underneath a vest or pack. Articulated sleeves provide casting mobility.

Comfort, Etc: Extremely lightweight nylon is quick drying and quite cool in the heat. Zip-closing, mesh-lined side vents and mesh-lined pockets aid air movement. Welded yoke, side and zipper seams reduce bulk—packs small for travel.

The Upshot: A wonderfully supple shirt, this one has gigantic, secure pockets with wide openings and true one-hand access. Side vents are narrow, however, and don’t dramatically increase airflow, and accessories hung from tabs may obstruct pocket access. But pocket capacity and comfort make this a superb shirt to fish from. $100. www.sageflyfish.com

SIMMS Ultralight Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Concealed button-down collar, sunglasses slit/accessory tab. Two zip-closing side-entry pockets hold medium fly boxes. Articulated sleeves and supple fabric allow excellent rowing/casting mobility. Overshot cuff-tops offer sun protection to backs of hands.

Comfort, Etc: Polyester fabric, mesh back-panels and armpit vents are super light and cool, but impressively tough. Anti-microbial finish controls odor. Low in bulk, it takes up little room in luggage.

The Upshot: Mesh back-vents don’t contribute a great deal to air circulation, but light weight and efficient wicking make for good performance in extremely hot weather. Secure, easily accessed pockets are smartly designed for fishing, and off-shoulder seams don’t chafe under pack straps or vest. Top quality. $99.95. www.simmsfishing.com

Pants

CABELA’S Made in the Shade Pants

Fishing Features: UPF 50. Two mesh-lined front pockets, two zippered, mesh-lined rear pockets. Zippered mesh vents on legs.

Comfort, Etc: Thin, super-light fabric is cool in the heat and wears quite comfortably, though leg vents are a bit too narrow to contribute appreciably to air circulation.

The Upshot: A basic, no-frills pair of pants, these are well-suited to wading, owing largely to the fast-drying nylon fabric and pocket mesh. Front pockets are usefully deep, though a zip closure on one of them would improve practicality; stashing car keys or a phone in the rear pocket when sitting in a boat is ill-advised. Even so, what you get here is good utility and excellent sun protection at a reasonable price. For $34.99, these are a good value. www.cabelas.com

EX OFFICIO Vent’r Pant

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Two mesh-lined, double cargo pockets (upper pockets open, lower ones zippered), drop-in cell pocket, zippered rear pocket. Tool loop.

Comfort, Etc: Incredibly light rip-stop nylon, with water- and stain-resistant finish, dries extremely fast. Inseam stretch mesh panels promote air circulation, interior drying and easy mobility. These are wonderfully light and supple.

The Upshot: Quick-drying fabric and mesh-lined pockets make these very good wading pants; an integral brief would make them even better. Upper cargo pockets are not terribly deep, and mesh lining can snag on car keys and other irregular objects. Zip cargo pockets are nice, but I find security pockets more useful when placed higher up, where they are less apt to get wet. Still, light and compact for travel, these are a top choice for very hot weather and wade fishing. $70. www.exofficio.com

EX OFFICIO Nio Amphi Pant

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Two mesh-lined, double cargo pockets (upper pockets open, lower gusseted ones with hook-and-loop flaps), drop-in cell pocket, two mesh-lined zippered rear pockets. Tool loop; removable belt.

Comfort, Etc: The stain- and water-resistant nylon is a bit heavier than used on the Vent’r Pants but is reasonably cool and very quick drying. Inseam gusset panel gives very good mobility, and smooth fabric finish is comfortable.

The Upshot: This is a highly credible wading pant with lots of pocket storage, and the slightly more substantial fabric is equally suited to walking the bankside brush or hiking the boonies. Zip rear security pockets are useful for a wallet, but uncomfortable for car keys. A good all-around fishing pant. $70. www.exofficio.com

L.L. BEAN Tropicwear Pant

Fishing Features: UPF 50+. Two double cargo pockets (upper pockets open, lower ones have hook-and-loop closing flaps), three zippered pockets. Integral mesh brief; removable belt.

Comfort, Etc: Lightweight nylon has excellent wicking performance and drying time. Loose fit promotes air circulation and mobility; fabric finish is soft and comfortable.

The Upshot: Quick-drying fabric and mesh brief make these superior wet-wading pants, though if you get almost waist deep, the front pockets may fill with water and drain slowly. But deep front pockets and three zip pockets hold contents securely when clambering around the banks or climbing around a boat. Great sun protection, and a good value at $49.95. www.llbean.com

PATAGONIA Guidewater Pants

Fishing Features: UPF 50. Two front pockets with mesh drains, one zippered thigh pocket with mesh drain, one zippered rear pocket. Removable belt.

Comfort, Etc: This all-nylon pant dries fairly quickly and wears comfortably, but the fabric is a little heavier than some of the others tested, and the pants are a bit warmer in the heat.

The Upshot: Mesh pocket drains make this a perfectly serviceable wading pant, provided nothing important is in the thigh pocket, which reaches almost to the knee. But a sturdier fabric, security pockets and smooth front design make this a good pant for hike-in fishing or bushwhacking the banks. Surprisingly rugged for a lightweight pant, and well made. $79. www.patagonia.com

Insect-Protective Clothing

The bug-resistant clothing I tested was made of fabric from one of two suppliers—Insect Shield and No Fly Zone (Burlington Labs). In both cases the active ingredient is permethrin, a synthetic form of the pyrethrum that occurs naturally in a certain type of chrysanthemum and has been used for centuries as an insect deterrent. The permethrin is actually bonded to the fabric, not just applied as a coating, which accounts for its high durability through repeated washings (it should not be dry cleaned). Typical insect repellents, such as DEET, work by blocking an insect’s sensory detection of the chemical compounds that allow them to find you. Permethrin is a “knockdown” insecticide that disables or kills insects on contact.

The EPA considers permethrin-treated clothing to be relatively safe; Insect Shield, for instance, has a Category IV toxicity rating, the agency’s most benign designation (15 percent DEET repellents have a higher, Category II toxicity rating). And while skepticism is always warranted, consider the alternative—slathering the chemical cocktail of an insect repellent all over your skin, where it can be absorbed.

I was pleased to find that both of these fabrics shield you from bugs; both effectively warded off biting insects to a degree that genuinely surprised me. Unfortunately, there is no “halo” effect, whereby uncovered skin gets a degree of protection from proximity to the clothing; if the bugs are bad, you’ll still need to apply insect repellent to face and hands. There are some differences in the longevity claims for the permethrin-treated fabrics. The effectiveness of Insect Shield is EPA-registered to last through 70 launderings. No Fly Zone lasts for 25 washings, though tests (presumably in-house) indicate that it can remain 83- to 87-percent effective after 50 washings.

So much for the fabrics. As for the finished clothing, I again looked to utility. All of the products tested also had a UPF rating of at least 30, presumably under the theory that if you are protecting against assaults on the flesh, you might as well go whole-hog.

Shirts

EX OFFICIO Insect Shield Baja Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Rod-holding tab, sleeve retainers. Two flapped, hook-and-loop closing bellows pockets, one piggybacked over zip security pocket, hold medium fly boxes.

Comfort, Etc: This poly/cotton blend is heavier, a bit warmer, and slower to dry than some shirts, though mesh side and sleeve vents (that close with hook-and-loop tabs) do give good air circulation if you’re moving about or fishing in a breeze. Generous cut offers easy movement.

The Upshot: This workhorse of the Ex O line helped define the whole fishing-shirt genre and remains eminently practical for angling, in part owing to easily accessed pockets of useful size and a sturdy, rugged fabric for a lighter-weight shirt. Not the highest of tech in materials or features, this basic, sensible design still gives good, long service. $85. www.exofficio.com

EX OFFICIO Insect Shield Halo Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Concealed snap-down collar, sleeve retainers. Two flapped, hook-and-loop closing pockets hold medium boxes; two piggybacked, zip-closing side-entry pockets hold small fly boxes.

Comfort, Etc: Light, moisture-wicking nylon dries fast and, with mesh-lined back and two big vents, makes for comfort in the heat. Back vents also give a little extra shoulder mobility. Corrosion-resistant snaps on front are suitable for saltwater.

The Upshot: Best pocket capacity of any shirt tested, with easy, one-hand open and close. Zippered pockets are most practical for smaller items, but have sensibly large openings for access. Sleeve retainers are pointlessly overcomplicated, however. But clean front design and pocket storage make this among the best choices for the minimalist angler. $85. www.exofficio.com

RAILRIDERS Madison River Shirt with Insect Shield

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Sleeve tabs. Two button pockets, one piggybacked over zip security pocket, hold small fly boxes.

Comfort, Etc: This lightweight nylon shirt is a bit heavier and slower to dry, but wide, mesh side-panels from wrist to hem and vented cape back give good air circulation, and overall comfort and coolness are good. Generously cut; you may need a size smaller than normal.

The Upshot: This is not heavy in fishing features. The zip-pocket is convenient, but I find the button-through patch pockets a bit small, slow and inconvenient to access, and not very secure for small items. It’s a good shirt to fish in, less so to fish out of. But the product is well made and quite serviceable if you’re not pocketing much gear. $74. www.railriders.com

SIMMS Flyaway Solid Shirt

Fishing Features: UPF 50 with No Fly Zone treatment. Concealed button-down collar, overshot cuffs to protect tops of hands. Two zip-closing, side-entry pockets hold medium-to large fly boxes.

Comfort, Etc: This rip-stop nylon makes a pleasingly light shirt that wicks well, dries quickly and offers odor control; lightweight fabric gives unencumbered freedom of motion. Expandable collar turns up very high for exceptional bug/sun protection.

The Upshot: Generously sized pockets lined with solid fabric won’t snag gear, but zipper tabs are annoyingly small. Button-concealing front placket contributes to a smooth, clean, non-snagging shirt exterior, though an accessory tab would be a welcome touch. A good choice for those who favor maximum protection and straightforward, functional design. $89.95. www.simmsfishing.com

Pants

EX OFFICIO Ziwa Insect Shield Pant

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Two mesh-lined cargo pockets (one piggybacked with zip-closing pocket, one with cell pocket), rear zip pocket. Ankle zippers to facilitate zip-off leg removal for conversion to shorts.

Comfort, Etc: Very similar to Ex Officio Nio Amphi Pant. Leg zippers produce bulk and stiffness at thighs, but that’s the usual price of convertibility.

The Upshot: Same as Nio Amphi Pant, with zip-off leg option and less overall pocket capacity. Reasonably cool in the heat and very quick-drying, this is a highly functional, general-purpose wading/fishing pant with insect protection. Packs small for travel. $85. www.exofficio.com

RAILRIDERS Eco Mesh Pant with Insect Shield

Fishing Features: UPF 30+. Two mesh-lined front pockets, three zip security pockets. Removable belt.

Comfort, Etc: Fairly light, but extremely fast-drying nylon is supple and comfortable. Zippers on outseams expose leg-length stretch-mesh panels that promote excellent air circulation for coolness and drying, and promote good freedom of motion in the legs.

The Upshot: A highly practical pant for boat fishing and wading; front pockets are mesh lined on one side only, to minimize snagging on contents while promoting water drainage. The pants dry quickly and are surprisingly tough for the fabric weight. Highly packable, these are a particularly good choice for travel to hot, humid climates. $84. www.railriders.com

SIMMS Fly Away Zip Off Pant

Fishing Features: UPF 50+ with No Fly Zone treatment. Two mesh-lined double cargo pockets (upper pockets open, lowers with hook-and-loop flaps), mesh-lined rear zip pocket. Tool loop; ankle snaps for adjustable fit.

Comfort, Etc: The mid-weight nylon here is not as cool in hot weather as other fabrics, but it does dry reasonably fast. The cut is comfortable and gives very good freedom of movement. Like all convertible pants, leg zippers produce a stiff area around the thigh.

The Upshot: While quick-drying fabric and mesh-lined pockets make these credible wading pants, the heavier fabric and snap-snugging cuffs are well-suited to bushwhacking along bug-infested waters. Pocket mesh may snag, but the pockets are deep and secure. $89.95. www.simmsfishing.com