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Bill May: Here’s how to catch fish in a float tube | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

My float tube in the story showing flippers, fly rod and reel and trout.
My float tube in the story showing flippers, fly rod and reel and trout. (Bill May)

There is no personal watercraft ideal for every situation.

Once fishermen accept that bad news — even though it won’t keep us from trying — we can move on to the good news: There are a large and growing number of options to gain access to water and fish.

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Float tubes

These evolved from homemade, sit-in coverings over inner tubes to today’s mostly U-shaped and V-shaped models with floatation provided by inflating the shell only.

Advantages:

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Relatively cheap: Typically in the $80-$150 range.

Portable: Often 10-20 pounds, even fully loaded and can be carried to water’s edge before or after inflating.

Storable: Easily stored fully or partially deflated in a car trunk or closet.

No maintenance: Just store after use, hose down and scrub if necessary to remove mud, weeds or slime.

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Access: Ideal for slow moving rivers and small ponds.

Limitations

Limited range, and easily moved by wind or currents, ideal for warm weather and wet fishing, must use insulated waders for colder waters.

Dan Neuland tests a rowable float tube.
Dan Neuland tests a rowable float tube. (Bill May)

Use in rivers

I began using a float tube for slow sections of the Potomac River to help overcome difficult wading and give access to other areas of the river. I would simply get into the float tube in knee deep water, sit down and scuttle along bottom with my feet like a crab to get to a place, stand and cast and then scuttle to the next spot.

When I hit a deeper hole, I had three options: Drop off the seat and stand on bottom again where the depth allowed; drop a small anchor to hold my spot while I fished the area; or float through the deeper water with my feet either hanging down or up on the front bar for a float tube with this feature.

Today there are several options for navigating deep hole: Use flippers to propel — backwards — though to shallower water. This is not my favorite way in a shallow river; Use your hands to paddle backwards or forward; Use a telescoping paddle or two as above with the blade part(s) stored in side pockets when not in use; Use a pair of old ping pong paddles stored as above. The water will likely destroy the glue on the surfaces; Use a multi-section kayak paddle stored as above. I’m working on this.

Rowable float tubes, as shown in the above photo with Dan Neuland, solve most of these problems. But they come at the costs of much higher price, more weight and more storage needed.

Use in still or moving waters: casting

A float tube is often the answer to fishing a small pond where casting from shore is blocked by trees and shrubbery. Here, flippers usually can be the top option for access.

But first you must pay attention to wind direction and current. Most ponds have active inflow and outflow points and therefore current. In an ideal situation, a pond will have an upcurrent/upwind access point allowing you to drift and fish shady cover down to an easy exit point. Then it’s a simple matter of launching from shore, moving out 20-30 feet from the bank, casting as close to parallel to shore or dropoff points until you return to shore at the exit point.

If conditions are not this optimal, use flippers to move above the entry point to allow drifting back to entry/exit point. When working shady shallows use weedless-rigged plastics, surface lures and bubble and a bluegill bug or wet fly with spinning tackle or poppers and size 10 wooly buggers with fly tackle.

Use in still waters: trolling

Years ago, I took a seminar on inflatable rig fishing at Chesterfield Reservoir in Idaho. The basic technique was using a 5-6 weight full sinking line, long level leader, streamer fly and perhaps a small dropper wet fly tied off the bend of the streamer 12-18 inches. We trolled break lines pedaling with flippers or drifting with wind or current and caught big trout. But this technique would also work with bass and all kinds of panfish.

My experience that day taught several lessons. I launched my float tube from an open spot on the shoreline opposite the boat launch. The rest of our class launched from the ramp in pontoon boats powered with oars and/or electric motors. I was doing OK and catching trout going downwind mostly just trolling and occasionally twitching my streamer.

I got far from the launch ramp but not from shore. My plan was to simply go ashore at some point and carry my tube back to the launch point and car. What I realized too late was that the lake was peak full and flooded shoreline willows blocked my planned exits. Then the wind came up leaving my only exit choice flippering my way back into the wind.

I compounded the problem by working back upwind for a distance, stopping to make one cast, hooking up and finding my way even further from my exit by the time I released the fish. I finally kept one trout, broke down the rod and labored and labored and labored my way back to a shoreline exit. Scouting the shoreline and an anchor would have ameliorated most of my problems.

Tips

  • Travel light with one rod and minimal tackle.
  • Carry or wear a PFD. This is mandatory in Maryland.
  • Get flippers specifically designed for use with float tubes. If the flippers do not have some kind of auxiliary leg attachments should the fins come off, make some using light rope. Quality flippers cost about $50.
  • Take water, use sunscreen and bug repellant.
  • Carry a cell phone in a waterproof case.
  • If possible, fish with a companion nearby.
  • Use extreme caution in colder air and water temperatures.
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