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It always surprises me that so many people who fish with a fly rod have not yet tried fishing from a float tube. Many of those folks tell me that is because there are so many different models and types to choose from that they don’t know how to judge which might be the best for them.

Once you get introduced to float tubes you’ll see that they enable you to fish a lake or pond by yourself, and that the peace and quiet you’ll encounter will enable you to do some wonderful wildlife viewing too. Ducks, swans, beavers and sometimes even moose, deer, river otters and more are just there waiting for you.

photo courtesy of - Cecilia "Pudge" Kleinkauf
photo courtesy of - Cecilia "Pudge" Kleinkauf

One day while fly fishing from my float tube at a lake that takes a little work to get to, I met a loon family that kept me entertained for nearly an hour. Mom and Dad and two chicks, just a few weeks old, were swimming quite close to me so they could see if I was catching any fish. The adults were quick to pursue the fish I released. I realized that they must have learned that this was a catch and release lake, and were making the most of it. I could see them swimming right below my flippers.

I reeled in and hooked up my fly as I slowly worked to get my camera for some pictures. I could hear the conversation that was going on, and much to my surprise once I was still, the chicks began to swim right toward me. It was as though they had been asking their parents if it was OK. Soon they were at the tip of my rod and “talking” right to me. It was hard not to get the camera, because I knew if I did it would end this amazing moment. Eventually the parent realized that I wasn’t providing them fish any more, so they softly called to the little ones and the family departed to another end of the lake. I was absolutely dazzled. Only in a float tube, would something like that have ever happened.

Types of Personal Flotation Craft

So, then, let’s talk about float tubes and help you to consider getting one of your own. There are basically three different types of individual flotation devices (or PFCs - personal flotation craft) available that are referred to as ‘float tubes.’ They are: 1 - the traditional round float tube (also known as the belly-boat), 2 - the U or V-shaped craft and 3 - the pontoon boat.

The round boat is designed for use on still water only, as are some of the U or V-shaped tubes which do not use oars. Other U or V-shaped and pontoon boats, on the other hand, might be usable on both still or moving water, depending on their design.

The round tube consists of a urethane bladder, which inflates inside of a cordura cover. The angler either steps into the tube or pulls it down over their head. Built-in straps with buckles connect to create a seat for the angler to prevent them from sliding out.  The backrest also has an inflatable bladder for comfort and safety.

Entry by the angler into the U or V-shaped tubes is easier because both are open in the front. The U or V-shaped tubes may have a single, inflatable bladder that inflates them or, occasionally, two detached bladders that are inflated separately. These two models of float tubes usually also have a separate bladder for a back-rest. With either the U or V-shaped types of watercraft, the tuber just inflates the bladder(s), backs in and sits down.

Both types of the U or V-boats have some sort of mechanism for holding the two sides apart. Usually it is a bar that inserts into pockets on both sides to separate them once the angler is sitting down in the inflated tube.

Pontoon boats typically consist of two separate, inflatable pontoons with a seat for the rower/angler in the middle.  Some manufacturers have developed an under-the-seat frame that serves two purposes for this type of flotation device. It keeps the seat rigid so that the angler can row as well as holding the sides away from each other.

Advantages and Disadvantages

photo courtesy of - Cecilia "Pudge" Kleinkauf

Foreground: A round style boat. Background: A "U" style boat

The advantages and disadvantages of one type of float tube over another is the subject of lots of debate among tubers. Many say that the two main disadvantages of the round boats are that they paddle more slowly because there is a lot of flat surface water for them to displace as they move, and that they are difficult for large people to get into and out of.

On the other hand, three common complaints about the V or U-boat are that while a tuber may like the easy entrance of the U or V-boat, they often find it harder to release a fish because the large side pockets, when full, create barriers they must overcome or if the seat is designed so that the tuber can sit up out of the water, the problem may be having to bend down and revive a fish from a pretty long distance as they lean over the side, and smaller people almost always complain that the seat on a U or V-boat is too large and set too far back for them to paddle as comfortably as they do in the round boats.

The main advantages of the round tube are the ease of transport, the freedom from having to row, and the price-tag. (There are fewer round tubes on the market now, but they are still cheaper than the U or V-boats.) Many people (including me) also find that they can paddle more easily from their hip than from just their knees, which is often the case in a U or V-boat.

The two main advantages of the U or V-boat are that the angler doesn’t have to step into the round hole with their flippers on because of the open front and they find they can move through the water faster than the round tube because of the tube’s design and the fact that they can row. Thankfully, there are styles of float tubes for every user.

Tube Propulsion

All float tube models, except those that also use oars, require that the angler wear flippers on their feet to propel their craft around in the water. Since pontoon boats can be used on moving or still water, they need oars as well as flippers.

Flippers must be put on before getting into round boats, or most U and V boats, and the angler must then walk backwards to get in the tube to avoid tripping over the blade of the flipper.

photo courtesy of - Cecilia "Pudge" Kleinkauf

Scuba-diving flippers cannot be used in float tubes. They are simply not designed for tubing. When scuba-diving, you are lying flat in the water and can use a swimming kind of kick. In float tubing you’re sitting up and need to push yourself through the water to get anywhere.

Joann, one of my float tube clients, had brought her scuba-diving flippers with her the day she was going tubing. I had told her that I had all the equipment, but she felt like she was familiar with her scuba flippers and wanted to use them instead. Since I couldn’t change her mind, I let her put on her flippers, and try them out with the tube. It wasn’t long before she realized that she couldn’t push water withthose, and watched while the other folks fishing with us were moving themselves around with ease. Since we weren’t far out into the lake I just towed her back to the beach to change flippers.

Every type of float tube other than the pontoon craft requires that the angler paddles to move around the lake with either flippers or oars. And, what you need to get used to is that the paddling is propelling you backwards. It always takes a while for me to help the novice tuber understand that it is virtually impossible to move the tube forward and to help them relax and paddle correctly.

There is a Personal Flotation Craft for every budget.

Depending on the watercraft style, tubes start at around $100 and  pontoon boats can go up to $2000.

Float tube flippers are designed to scoop or push water instead of paddling as you would when you are swimming. One at a time, your flippered-feet will point down into the water and push it away from you to make you move. Many people compare it to “riding a bicycle backwards.”

Tubing flippers come in various styles and prices, from about $35 to over $100. Most tubers prefer the flippers they can wear over their wading boots. That gives them the convenience of being able to walk to and from the water without fear of cutting the stocking foot of their wader feet on sharp stones.

Float tubers also need a pair of “flipper-keepers.” They are ankle straps that connect to the flipper to make sure you don’t lose it if it should accidentally come off.

Additional Things to Consider

PFD (Personal Floatation Device)
No matter which brand of personal floatation you purchase, you need to make sure you have a life jacket, and that it is short. Kayaking style PFDs are perfect for tubing. While more expensive, the new SOSpenders, or other inflatable devices that hang around your neck, are another good choice. They come in models that automatically inflate when entering the water, or models that require the tuber to activate them.

Inflation Pump
Another important float tube accessory is an inflation pump. You can buy a double-action hand pump in most sporting goods stores. It’s surprising how little time it takes to blow up a tube or U-boat with a pump that inflates on both the up and down stroke.  Many of the pumps are also small enough to take with you in your backrest in the event of a multi-day adventure.

photo courtesy of - Cecilia "Pudge" Kleinkauf

Backpack Straps and Patch Kit
A pair of backpack straps will increase your ability to carry the tube on your back. Tubes and U-boats are surprisingly difficult to carry around when inflated. Several of the float tube manufacturers sell straps, or you can find them at local sporting stores. The same is true for the patch kit, which should always be carried in a tube. Small motors can be modified to “drive” a float tube but the noise and the reoccurring need for gas or charging can make them a nuisance. A quiet, calm day is what most people want when fishing a lake.

Transport to the Water

Transporting your tube from your vehicle to the water is one of the things anglers should consider when deciding which personal floatation craft to purchase. Especially if you’re going to be hiking with your tube, round float tubes are by far the easiest and lightest of the options. If equipped with back-pack straps, they can easily be carried down a trail to the lake fully inflated. U and V-boats are another story. Often twice as heavy as round float tubes, they can be difficult to take very far. Being both wider and higher than a round tube, they present more problems when carried through the woods.

Most pontoon boats can be disassembled and transported in a carrying bag designed by the manufacturer explicitly for that purpose, but the weight can still be upwards of 12 pounds. Don’t forget that you must also move the oars and all the other gear, as well as the inflation pump if the boat is to be assembled or reassembled in another location. Notice how many pontoon boats ride atop their owners’ truck or SUV all summer long.

When it comes to purchasing a float tube of your own, I recommend exploring these websites; Buck’s Bags, Creek Company, Outcast, Fish-cat, and Caddis. I use Buck’s Bags HI & Dri-2 tubes.

Let's Fish

Every spring I offer single-day float tubing for the great fishing that occurs just after the ice goes out on the lakes and the trout move into the shallows for a couple of weeks. The fish might not be huge, but there are lots of them, and everyone learns how to fish from the tube.

Twice more over the summer I offer four-day float tube trips to a catch and release lodge called Adventure Denali, about 20 miles from the entrance to Denali National Park. We fish in the tubes for some very large trout that have been fed and protected in these amazing lakes. “Pudge, you’ve changed my life,” one of my clients said as she departed. She had already told me that she was going right out and to buy herself a float tube.

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