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Skilled shore anglers might disagree, but to properly fish a pond, a lake, or a reservoir requires some kind of watercraft. If you’re lucky enough to have a boat, a trailer, a vehicle to tow it, and a place park it, and you have access to water with a boat ramp, you’re all set. Of course, you don’t need a boat ramp to fish from a canoe or a kayak, but you still need a vehicle with a roof rack, a place to keep the vessel when you’re not fishing, and the upper body strength to lug it around. Another option is float tube fishing. Anglers use what’s called a belly boat with oars. Float tube fishing a fun way to fish but one that still has requirements for transit, access, deployment, and storage.
Modern float tubes are U-shaped, which makes them easy to step into and out of while wearing swim fins. They’re no longer made of truck tire inner tubes, which were heavy and needed to be inflated at a gas station en route to the water. Today’s tubes are made of lightweight but sturdy vinyl and can be inflated in a few minutes with a simple manual pump. Just pull on your waders, fasten your fins over your wading shoes, sit back into your boat, and kick off into the pond.
Float tube fishing can get you into water where launching a boat is impossible, like remote ponds in roadless backcountry, or spots where boats aren’t allowed. And while a folded-up float tube, waders, fins, a pump, and fishing tackle are a significant load for a multi-mile hike, it’s less difficult than lugging a canoe.
For less remote locations, float tube fishing is easy-peasy. The uninflated tube and pump fit easily in a trunk or back seat and can be made ready for action in a few minutes. It’s pretty straightforward, but float tube fishing does require some gear. Here’s a look at what’s involved.
Table of Contents
- Float Tube Fishing: The Tube
- Float Tube Fishing: The Fins
- Inflating a Float Tube
- Safety Considerations
- The Advantages of Float Tube Fishing
Float Tube Fishing: The Tube
Fishing float tubes are available from the major online outdoors and fishing retailers and generally cost anywhere from $100 to $500. As noted, they’ve advanced from the old days, when they basically consisted of a rubber truck tire inner tube with a nylon cover and seat. The truck tire tube has been replaced by relatively lightweight urethane or vinyl bladders, which pack down to a reasonable size and inflate easily. Round tubes can still be had, but the doughnut shape offers no advantage; modern float tube fishing vessels are mostly U-shaped, to make it easier to get in and out of them. Float tubes with two bladders provide a measure of safety if one of them is damaged.
Some tubes have a second bladder to lean back against, while others have a padded backrest. Some tubes incorporate inflatable seats; others include foam blocks for the seat and backrest, and these allow you to sit above the water, a real advantage if you’re going to spend time in cold high-elevation ponds.
There are usually zippered, lunchbox-sized gear compartments atop the float tube on either side of the seat, and a mesh tray that goes over your lap, where you can fuss with tackle or rest a fish for unhooking. Fly-fishers think of this item as a stripping apron, which holds their slack line while casting, and wouldn’t want to be without it. Many have an imprinted ruler so you can measure your catch. Finally, there’s a stabilizer bar that connects the two tubes at the front.
Float tubes have maximum weight capacities. A common limit is 225 pounds, and 300 pounds tends to be the upper limit.
Float Tube Fishing: The Fins
When using a float tube, fins are your only source of locomotion. And that pair of cheap blue snorkeling fins from your long-ago beach vacation will not do. You need fins purpose-built for float tube fishing, like this pair from Outcast. You should invest in lanyards, too; if a fin falls off and sinks, you could be in trouble. The available selection of float tube fins has always been sparse, and only a handful will claim to have neutral density, which is not quite the same as buoyant. Don’t trust them to float.
Some fins are designed to go over wading boots, others over your waders’ stocking feet (or your own feet, if you’re not wearing waders.) Some float tube fishing fins can be used either way. But keep in mind: if you need to make landfall at some distance from where you put in—for example, if your tube suffers a puncture—you’ll need some kind of shoes to get back. That could just be an old pair of sneakers, stuffed in one of your gear compartments or behind the seat. But the simplest approach is to wear your regular waders and boots, then attach the fins to the boots.
Inflating a Float Tube
Unlike float tube fishing fins, pumps for recreational inflatables are everywhere. Your basic choices are powered pumps, which usually plug into a vehicle DC outlet or a portable power station; hand pumps, and foot pumps. They’ll all work. Choose according to your budget and needs. If you’re bringing your tube to a remote body of water—which is one of the best ways to go float tube fishing—you’ll need a manual pump. Foot-operated pumps are smaller and easier to carry than they upright, hand-operated kind, but they also take longer to inflate your tube. Most tubes inflate to around 3 psi.
Maybe you’re young enough to not remember those hideous orange kapok life jackets. Lucky you. The modern version of that life vest is the cheapest and simplest option, but they are kind of bulky and uncomfortable, especially in warm weather. There are also life jackets made for fishing (that is, they have pockets and come in outdoorsy colors). The coolest option is also the priciest—an auto-inflating life vest. Honestly, more of us should be wearing these more often, whether floating or wading.
If you’ll be out in the low light of dawn or dusk, especially if there’s any boat traffic where you will be fishing, lightweight portable lights are a great idea. They’re cheap and widely available these days. At any time of day, it’s a very good idea to have something that can make noise to signal for help, like an air horn or emergency whistle. Naturally, if you have service, you’ll have your phone handy.
I once asked Dave Flanagan Sr., a retired cop and fishing guide on Long Island, whether it would be safe to fish Long Island Sound from a float tube. You know, just off the beach. He looked at me like I was nuts and I left it at that. A pontoon boat with oars is one thing, but using a kick-powered float tube on a river or tidal water just isn’t a great idea. You simply have too little control over your speed and direction to contend with wind, current, and waves. Stick to still waters for float tube fishing.
The Advantages of Float Tube Fishing
A common misperception about stillwater fishing is that the middle of the lake is the deepest part, and that’s where all the fish are. There is some truth to that; the middle is often the deepest part, and deeper water offers fish cooler temperatures and protection from predators. But really deep water doesn’t offer fish all that much. Little sunlight reaches the bottom of deeper water, and sunlight is what’s responsible for plant life, the beginning of the aquatic food chain.
The real hotspots for float tube fishing are near the shore, in what’s known as the littoral zone. That’s where tiny periphyton grow on weeds and grasses, a food source for aquatic insects. Shorelines, especially in wooded areas, are often tangles of lay-down trees and limbs. The nearby woods and the tangled structure of submerged timber create great habitat for fish and the bugs, crustaceans, minnows, amphibians, and even small rodents that trout like to eat.
It’s easiest to fish the littoral zone from the water side, rather than the land. You have room to make a back cast behind your tube, which isn’t always the case on a pond in the woods. You can work your way along the shoreline, far enough back from the fish but still within an easy cast, slowly swimming a bait or fly among the cover. Fly-fishers in particular benefit from being out in the lake, because it gives them room for back casts, which they often don’t have on wooded shorelines.
This is not to say fish don’t feed out in the open water of the lake. They do, of course, and a tube makes it possible to reach fish you can’t reach from shore.
A guy I know of once fell asleep in his tube and woke up on the other side of the pond, pushed there by a gentle breeze while he dozed. I bet that happens a lot. Float tubes are that comfortable.
Apart from the fact that you’re always traveling backwards, kicking fins is a pretty cool way to get around a body of water. It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort, as long as you’re not in a hurry. It’s quiet, and it takes no skill, just a little getting used to. You don’t move quickly in a tube, but you eventually get anywhere you want to go in a relatively easy and uncomplicated way. Most importantly, you can reach the fish.