You’ve seen photos of guys holding big fish and wearing the Official Uniform of the Flats. It’s usually name-brand shirts and shorts that cost more than the combined price of your first fly rod, reel and line.
Then there’s a requisite very expensive shades, and hat that screams “I am a serious flats fisherman!”
If you’re preparing for your first trip to the flats, you may feel jolts of sticker shock, but don’t let the price of the clothes be among them. If you already have the whole kit, congrats. I’m sure it works well for you, and to be honest, I also have parts of the Official Uniform of the Flats, but I got them on closeout or steep discounts.
Because I am the Official Tightwad of the Flats, I figured out a cheaper way because I would rather spend my tight-ass cash on trips than expensive duds.
Here’s your head-to-toe guide
Hat: Grab a damn ball cap and call it good. One with a dark underside on the brim helps spot fish, I am told, but my gut tells me your sunglasses are going to make or break you there. You don’t need one of those hats that look like you’re in the French Foreign Legion crossing the Sahara on a camel. I’ve also used a mil surplus gunny hat to keep the sun off my ears.
Sunglasses: There’s too much to talk about. This will get a separate blog.
Buff/neck gator: If you insist, go ahead. All they do is make me sweat and fog up my glasses.
Shirt: Synthetic t-shirt, lightweight. I avoid cotton t-shirts because they're hot, retain moisture, dry slowly and stink. You can get synthetic-fabric t-shirts at any outdoor store. Get a neutral color. If you prefer long sleeves, look for a running shirt, which is designed to wick sweat away and dry fast. Before my last flats trip, I bought a long-sleeved Nike running shirt at a department store for $20. Cheap, synthetic t-shirts keep me as cool and comfy as most of my over-priced fishing shirts.
Shorts: Fast drying with a cinch waist or belt loops. When your shorts get wet, their heavy and will ride down, so I wear a belt. I avoid cargo shorts if I'm going to be doing lots of wading. Fast-drying hiking shorts work well for me. Avoid heavy fabrics and cotton, which take a long time to dry and start smelling funky after a few days.
I like shorts that reach my knees, which keeps me from getting sunburned in the gap between shorts and knees.
Shoes: Here’s where things get tricky because it depends on what you’re doing. If I am fishing out of a panga, all I want is a pair of flip flops. If I am going to be wading where the bottom is sandy or muddy, an inexpensive pair of wetsuit booties will do. But if you’re doing a mix of wading and panga fishing, the sun will boil your feet if you're wearing neoprene while standing on the deck.
If you’re around coral, you might want something a little stouter, but I’ve done a lot of wading around coral and never had a problem with wetsuit booties if I was careful.
But here comes the big but, wetsuit booties have a major drawback. They won’t stop a stingray spine, as Dave Gourley discovered. He stepped on one, and it pierced his bootie and nailed his ankle. It could have a been a trip ender if it got infected. Fortunately, it didn’t because he immediately treated it.
Here’s the flipside. He also had a pair of fancy flats wading shoes that would have protected him from stingrays and coral, but they left quarter-sized blisters on his heels when he hiked long distances across the flats because wearing boots without socks mixed with salt and sand will chafe your feet.
I am stepping up my game for my next trip with a pair of stout neoprene wading boots used by river runners and military that will protect my feet from coral and stingrays without chafing. I will only take the cheap route so far, because it also makes no sense to spend money on a trip and having something as critical as shoes ruin it. Fortunately, a good pair of heavy-duty booties still costs under $100, and if I shop around, I can probably find them cheaper.