Last week, I had the good fortune to travel to Key West, Florida to test the latest clothing in Columbia Sportswear’s Professional Fishing Gear line. The date was chosen to coincide with the peak of tarpon fishing on the flats and the (usually) calm weather of late June, before late-summer’s hurricane season. Unfortunately, tropical storm Debby showed up as an uninvited guest. The upside was that we got to test Columbia’s rain jackets and quick-dry clothing by running flats boats in 30-knot winds. The downside was that flats fishing was nearly impossible.
I fished with local guide and 4th-generation Key West resident Brandon Cyr, son of well-known guide Mike Cyr. The wind was so bad, the guides couldn’t cross Key West Harbor to pick us up at the dock from the Westin Sunset Key where we were staying, so instead we ferried back to the mainland and took taxis to Key West’s Charter Boat Row, and then stuck to protected areas. Because the flats fishing was so difficult, instead of sight-casting Hogys to tarpon as planned (check out this video to see what we had hoped to be doing), for the most part we stayed tucked in on the leeward sides of mangrove-covered keys and caught snappers, barracuda, jacks and sharks of all sizes.
It’s amazing how many sharks are down in the Keys – and how fast they will show with just a little bit of chum or blood in the water. Watching 4- to 6-foot lemon and blacktip sharks come cruising in across a flat to eat a sight-casted chunk was a pretty cool experience.
As I mentioned, the conditions were perfect for putting the Columbia products through their paces. While it didn’t rain, running in a 2-foot chop in a flats skiff was like having a bucket of sea water thrown in your face every 10 seconds. And then sitting in the lee of an island, you really got to feel the the tropical air – 85 degrees, blazing sun and soupy humidity.
The jacket did what it was supposed to do – shed water like a duck while remaining comfortable to wear and offering lots of useful features like waterproof chest pockets and two simple coiled plastic lanyards to keep small tools handy (without any retractable mechanism to break or rust). I also wore their Airgill pants, which have gill-like vents in the thighs, and Marlin Tech shorts. I’m a big fan of the Marlin Tech shorts, which are stylish but more refined than surfer-wear and have a little elastic at the sides to help keep them up. They are also very lightweight and breathable – comfortable even in the stifling heat.
Making clothing that can keep fishermen comfortable in hot weather – and protected from the sun – is the goal behind Columbia’s line of Omni-Freeze clothing. Their latest innovations, the Omni-Freeze ICE (available now) and the Omni-Freeze ZERO (available 2013) contain threads that are actually activated by your sweat, causing a reaction that lowers the temperature of the garment – like wearable air conditioning!
“It’s human nature to deal with hot weather by wearing as little as possible,” explained Woody Blackford, VP of Global Innovation at Columbia. “We’re trying to get fishermen to realize that you can actually stay cooler by wearing clothing – and protect yourself from the sun.”
Blackford explained that the Columbia fishing shirt clothing is essentially a higher “SPF” than you could ever get from a sunblock, and it blocks UVA and UVB rays, helping to prevent sunburn and long-term skin damage.
Guide Brandon Cyr understands the importance of sun protection. A scar on his back marks the wake-up call 19-year-old Brandon received when, as a teen, he had to have a potential skin cancer growth removed. “Growing up down here, I used to just always wear a cotton t-shirt, and take it off when I got hot,” said Brandon. “Now I realize that being out here every day, I have to cover up.” Because he spends so many hours per day under the Florida sun, Brandon goes to a dermatologist for regular skin checks every 3 to 4 months, and most Florida Keys guides do the same.
With a shorter season here in the Northeast, we don’t always give the sun the respect that it deserves. But I know a few folks, and I’m sure you do too, who have dealt with a skin cancer scare. Right now, the Florida flats guide “look” – long pants, long shirt, neck gaiter pulled up to polarized glasses – seems out of place in the summertime in the Northeast, but I predict we’ll be seeing more of it as fishermen realize that it is a comfortable way to fish and – more importantly – offers a level of protection from sun damage that you can’t get from a bottle of sunblock.