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It's a blustery afternoon on the beaverkill River in New York's Catskill Mountains. The worm and night crawler vending machine in front of Bob Darbee's Sport Shop is busted. Small black clouds gather, conspiring to make one very large, very black cloud. It's dark enough to be twilight. Out on the water the fishermen wading the river, which is famed for its trout, are wearing sunglasses. In the bar of the Antrim Lodge other anglers are discussing why.
Millard Bury, who began fishing the Beaverkill about the same time Edwin Land began dreaming up an invention that would come to be called polarized sunglasses, says, "People want to look like movie actors. It's the in thing." Maybe he's right. After all, GQ and Playboy have done stories on the new popularity of fly-fishing.
Says Joe Guira of Roscoe, N.Y., "My rod cost $50, and my sunglasses cost $52. I got some that change with the light. They're photogenic."
Well put. Even if the word Guira was looking for was photochromic, sunglasses are indeed photogenic. They let you look cool while you're holding the catch of the day for a snapshot. But that's exactly the rub. No fly-fisherman worth the price of his shades would be caught dead admitting he bought his sunglasses for fashion's sake. Such a crass statement simply wouldn't be fashionable.
To someone like Bury, real fishermen catch fish no matter what they wear. "I'm a hardhead," he says. "When I started fishing there were no polarized sunglasses. That was 65 years ago. If I had asked my dad for a pair of sunglasses, he would've thought I was weird."
But here comes Erwin Lehman of Miami, ambling along the banks of the Beaverkill, with a defense of the shades he has on. "I wear them because I've got to see the fish," he says. "I read about how the coxswains who brought the landing craft in on beach assaults during World War II wore polarized sunglasses to see how deep the water was."
Fresh and saltwater fishermen have long known that polarized sunglasses help them see underwater. But for people who pride themselves on knowing the Latin names of hundreds of minnows, mayflies, caddis, stone flies, and other creepy crawlies, anglers tend to get a little vague when it comes to explaining how polarized glasses work.
Here's how. When light hits water, part of the light bounces off the surface and part of it bends and goes underwater. The part that bends down lights up the fish and whatever else is within a few feet of the surface. The part that bounces off the surface is glare, which obscures the view underwater. If you want to see the fish, or even if you just want to see the surface of the water and the fly that is drifting on the end of your line 50 feet away—a fly that, at certain times of the year on rivers like the Beaverkill, can be smaller than the tip of a well-worn pencil eraser—you have to get rid of the glare.
Glare has one nice feature, though: Much of it is polarized by the water. Whereas ordinary, nonpolarized light is a bunch of electromagnetic waves that can ripple in a variety of directions, polarized light waves are restricted to one plane. That makes it easy to get rid of them. All you have to do is figure out which plane they occupy and then absorb them from that plane. Voil�, as if by magic, the glare is gone.