By Diana Rupp
Float tubes — often called belly boats — are really just glorified inner tubes with a seat, a backrest, gear pockets, and sometimes a few other accessories attached. They’re inexpensive and widely available from most sporting-goods stores and websites. And, in my opinion, they’re one of the greatest fishing accessories ever invented.
Granted, there is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to getting in and out of a pond with a float tube. The first time you do it can be highly entertaining, at least for other anglers who may be standing along the shore and watching. First, choose an open, gently sloping shoreline as your launching spot — if you can find one. Because you’ll be wearing flippers, you’ll need to take awkwardly high steps, or else walk backward, so you don’t trip. Then, place the tube on the water’s edge, with its bow facing the pond. Turn around, step backward into it, and sit down while holding your fishing rod, trying not to get your line tangled in the shoreline brush. Then shove off with your feet, propelling yourself backward and away from the shore.
It’s not the most dignified way to start a day of fishing. But once you’re out there, floating on your favorite pond or lake, you’ll be the one having the last laugh — and catching a lot more fish than those shore fishermen ever will. Whether you use fly tackle or spinning gear, float tubes allow you the freedom to fish weedbeds, downed timber, sandbars, and other structure where fish hang out. They allow you to work a fly or lure along brush-choked or otherwise inaccessible shorelines. You can position your tube so you have plenty of room to cast. And because you are in a silent craft that sits low in the water, you can approach feeding fish quietly, without disturbing them.
Aficionados of canoes, kayaks, rowboats, and inflatable rafts may point out that these watercraft can get you to all the good fishing spots, too. But these boats have to be lifted out of a truck bed or off a roof rack and hauled down to the water, which can be a lot of hassle, or even impossible for a solo angler. Since float tubes weigh only a few pounds, almost anyone can easily carry one, fully inflated, to the water’s edge, balancing it on a shoulder with one hand and carrying fishing gear in the other.
Another drawback of canoes and kayaks is that, unless you have three arms, it’s challenging to paddle and cast at the same time. In a float tube, you’re steering and propelling yourself by kicking your flipper-clad feet, leaving your hands entirely free for casting, reeling in, and landing fish.
Float tubes have other advantages. They can be inflated and deflated quickly and easily, either with a hand pump or a small electric pump you plug into your car charger. This makes them easy to transport in a small car. Storing them in the off-season is a breeze. They don’t even need to take up room in a garage or shed; the back of a closet will suffice.
Float tubes do, of course, have drawbacks. They’re only good for fishing still waters — small lakes and ponds — since they aren’t maneuverable in any kind of current. They’re not exactly streamlined, so even if you’re a strong kicker, you won’t be able to move very fast. In windy or choppy conditions, getting around in a lake can be a real challenge (but that’s true for canoes and kayaks as well). It can also get very chilly when you are fishing from a float tube, since your rear end and legs are submerged. That’s why I almost always wear waders when fishing out of a tube, even in balmy summer conditions.
I’ve used a float tube to fish hike-in high-country lakes for cutthroat trout and Arctic grayling, and I’ve found them to be invaluable in larger lakes where the fish tend to hold along a drop-off that’s just a little too far to reach from shore. But my favorite float-tube destinations are the simplest and best: small, local ponds filled with bass and panfish. Paddling around in a float tube, working a popper through a mat of lily pads to entice a hungry largemouth or catch a mess of bluegills for dinner, is a fine way to spend a summer day.