This month is great for breaking out the float tube and having a go at fishing at Oklahoma's top summer bass lakes. A veteran tube angler offers some tips on how it's done.
By Bob Bledsoe
If it's late summer in Oklahoma, you can pretty much bet that it's going to be hot ... and that's spelled with a capital H-O-T! The heat and sunlight are harsh enough to drive many fishermen off the lakes and back into their air-conditioned living rooms.
Many an August day has found me at one Oklahoma lake or another, watching as fishermen who want nothing so much as to get off the lake so that they can go home and cool off lining up at the boat ramp by noon.
The National Weather Service office in Tulsa reports that in August, temperatures climb above 90 degrees an average of 22 days, and above 100 degrees an average of five days - and those are averages! We've seen summers during which the mercury topped 100 degrees almost every day, and daytime highs averaged around 96 or 97 degrees. Bear in mind that these numbers are from Tulsa, which is pretty far north in Oklahoma. Southern Oklahoma gets even hotter.
The heat is just one of the reasons that I like a float tube at this time of year. Going "wet" (without waders) in a float tube is an agreeable way to fish, enabling you to attain a relatively high degree of comfort throughout a hot Oklahoma summer day. After all, sitting in a tube up to your navel in the water is far more comfortable that is sitting or standing on the deck of a bass boat throughout the heat of the day.
And comfort isn't the only reason to use a float tube: I believe that they slow you down and make you fish an area more thoroughly, too. And that can help you be a better bass fisherman.
For 15 years or so I was eaten up with bass fishing. I fished more than 100 days a year. I had dozens of baitcasting rods and reels. I had giant possum-belly tackle boxes lining one side of my garage.
Photo by Jeff Samsel
Being the outdoor editor of a daily newspaper and, for a while, the editor of and a contributor to a bass-fishing magazine, I was invited to attend major bass fishing events like the BASS Masters Classic. I got to fish with the pros, numerous semi-pros and bass fishing guides, as well as with accomplished amateur fishermen.
I learned quite a lot about bass fishing in those years, but one of the most important lessons I learned was that most fishermen fish way too fast and cover way too much water on an average day.
The most successful bass anglers - from Classic champions right down to just good ol' local anglers - were, I discovered, the ones who might cover water fairly quickly until they located bass, but would then focus their full attention on determining the best way to catch the bass they'd found. I've seen pros win six-figure tournament purses by fishing entire days, or even multiple days, in an area no larger than your typical suburban home.
And I came to realize that one thing separating many of the most successful professional bass fishermen from the rest of us is that they fish an area methodically and thoroughly if they find fish there. They don't give up on an area after a couple of dozen unsuccessful casts - they keep fishing it, maybe with a different color or size or style of lure, or maybe by changing the presentation with a single lure. But once they've found bass, they're reluctant to leave them.
And hitting the water in a float tube helps the casual angler slow down and fish more like a pro.
The slowing is mostly the result of it being more difficult to move around in a float tube than it is in a boat, or even on foot on the bank. Whatever the cause, the effect is the same. If you make more presentations, and cover each stretch of bank or each bit of structure more thoroughly, you're much more likely to catch any bass there.
This is especially true if you're fishing a worm, a jig or a small finesse bait. Making slow and accurate presentations with these kinds of baits can dramatically increase the number of strikes you'll get.
And, as luck would have it, this is the best time of year for fishing a plastic worm. The old rule of thumb for worm fishing is that after surface temperatures get up past 70 degrees in late spring or early summer, plastic worms become a primary lure, and they seem to increase in effectiveness as the water heats up even more, remaining one of the most useful lures until autumn begins to roll the summer back.
So the dog days of summer are best not only for float-tubing but also for worm fishing.
There are numerous ways to rig and to fish plastic worms, but the old-fashioned Texas rig is still hard to beat in many situations. That's especially so when you're fishing for bass that are in less than about 12 feet of water. When they're deeper than that, there's a better argument for using one of the exposed-hook types of rigs, but most of the time, a plain ol' 6- or 7-inch worm, Texas-rigged with a bullet sinker and a good sharp hook, will be the ticket to some great summertime bass action.
A professional bass fishermen told me one afternoon that - at least during the two or three warmest months of the year - a 6-inch purple worm would catch about as many bass as any other lure you could use. Deciding to test that proposition out, I vowed that no matter what lake I was fishing on, no matter who I was fishing with and no matter what lures they were using, I would fish only Texas-rigged 6-inch purple worms that summer. I used Mann's Jelly Worms and Bill Norman "Snatrix" worms; one had a sickle tail, the other a long, ribbony tail.
And the theory pretty much proved true. During July, August and about half of September, I fished a couple of days a week for bass and used nothing but the worms. I caught as many bass as my partners who were using spinnerbaits, crankbaits, topwaters, buzzbaits, worms and jigs. Some days I caught more!
Now I don't mean to imply that you should fish only plastic worms; a fisherman should strive to be versatile. But I can vouch for the fact that a simple Texas-rigged worm is a pretty reliable bass bait at this time of the year. The good part about this from the float-tuber's perspective is that you can carry pretty much everything you need for a day's fishing in your shirt pocket - a dozen hooks and weights and one or two dozen plastic worms. No need for a giant tackle box full of lures.
I would add one other variety of lure for a summer float-tube outing, however: a small jig-and-grub. Depending on where I was, I might even substitute them for plastic worms entirely. Fished on light line and light-action rods, it can outperform p
lastic worms if you're plying Eastern Oklahoma's cool-water smallmouth streams or ponds or lakes with ultraclear water. In streams in that part of the state I tend to go with a small jig-and-grub as the primary bait for most summertime fishing, but n most semi-turbid lakes and bigger rivers, I'll at least start off with the plastic worm.
The small jig-and-grub offers the advantage of being able to catch virtually every species of fish swimming in the water, except maybe the bottom-feeders. Sunfish, crappie, walleyes, sand bass and others will strike the grubs readily; plastic worms are pretty much exclusively a bass bait.
But enough about lures - let's talk about the float tubes (a.k.a. "belly boats") themselves. A proud invention of the Sooner State, the old green canvas tubes were shipped all over the globe. My first float tube, one of the originals, was basically a canvas cover for a truck tire's inner tube.
Numerous manufacturers eventually got into the act, making float tubes in different sizes and shapes and decking them out with nylon covers instead of canvas ones and ever more pockets, rod-holders and other gizmos and gadgets. Today float tubes come with trolling-motor mounts and sonar-mounting hardware.
Belly boats are sold in many configurations and price ranges in fly-fishing specialty shops and catalogs and in all of the major outdoor equipment catalogs, as well as in all of the sporting goods chain stores that sell fishing gear.
Most models still use doughnut-shaped inflatable inner tubes for flotation. Some use U-shaped tubes that must be purchased from a single manufacturer, and sometimes cost considerably more than the round tubes you can buy at many tire dealers or discount stores. There are also a few tubes made of some sort of plastic foam. I have one that was manufactured in Oklahoma by a company that's no longer in business. I've owned, I believe, six float tubes, and my rigid foam tube is my favorite, even though I've just about "outgrown" it.
(Editor's Note: One apparent failing of these tubes is that, with repeated use over the years, they tend to shrink, leaving the hole in the middle much smaller and snugger around the user's middle!)
If you're an average-sized person or smaller, just about any float tube will do. There's enough flotation in most of them to buoy up someone who weighs 150 to 180 pounds high in the water. But I weigh closer to 260, and a couple of my older float tubes don't quite get the job done, failing to keep me quite as high in the water as I'd prefer to be.
At this time of year, when you're floating "wet" in a bathing suit or cut-offs, it doesn't really matter if you're riding an inch or two lower than what the tube's designed for. The only problem is that the items in your tube's tackle and gear pouches are likely to get wet. But in the wintertime, when you're fishing in waders from your tube for crappie or trout, you want to make sure that you're high enough in the water to give you at least 3 inches of "freeboard" away from the tops of your waders. As remarked, once my weight climbed up above 230 or 240, I noticed that my two favorite tubes didn't hold me far enough up anymore, and I was taking cold water in over my wader top now and then. I had to get a bigger tube.
Ideally, your float tube should float you no more than about belly-button-deep in the water. And your waders should come up to your armpits even when you're seated in the canvas sling seat of your float tube. That should give you plenty of clearance to keep dry when fishing in waders. With the right clothing - two or three layers of fleece, acrylic and wool - and a pair of insulated waders - you can stay downright comfortable for many hours when fishing in cold water.
But we're talking about summertime bass fishing, when getting wet feels good, and when sitting in the water with your toes dangling in the even-cooler water about 4 feet beneath the surface can let you fish comfortably all afternoon, even though the air is 100 degrees.
Now let's talk a little about how you move around in a float tube.
There are several devices on the market - hinged flaps that strap to your ankles, "kickers" that strap to your shoes, and others - for propelling a tube. As I mentioned, I've even seen float tubes rigged with a battery and trolling motor. But I believe most float-tube users find that the broad, flexible swim fins used by scuba divers and snorkelers represent perhaps the best means of propulsion. They provide a fair amount of power for each unit of effort.
The one quirk to using swim fins for propulsion is that you move backward much more efficiently than forward - which is fine, once you get used to it, but it does take some getting used to, at least for many beginners. It can also affect the way you fish a plastic worm. Most experienced worm fishermen don't like to "drag" a worm while moving away from it; it affects the worm's action. And if you're moving backward while you fish, you need to either learn to angle your casts a little bit "forward" (in the direction you're moving), or to fish a cast, move, and then fish another cast, move again, and so on.
You must pay attention to the wind, most particularly if it's strong, when you set out to fish from a tube; it can be difficult to move against a strong wind in a float tube. So if you set out on the upwind side of a big pond or a lake and let the wind push you a long way downwind, getting back to your starting point can be a trying, laborious experience. And if you're wearing swim fins instead of shoes, walking back along the shore might be a difficult, maybe almost impossible option.
You should also be prepared for the first time you hook a really big bass, or snag a big carp or catfish, while you're out in water deeper than you can reach the bottom with your feet. I hooked a nearly 9-pound carp in deep water at Chimney Rock Hollow (Pumpback) Lake in Mayes County once while I was float-tubing. The carp pulled me around in circles for several minutes before I got free of it.
I remarked earlier that items in a float tube's pouches may get wet. I would advise you not to take anything with you than can be harmed by getting wet. I ruined a brand-new camera while fishing from a float tube one day. On the top of my tube was a strap-on tackle box that rode fairly high above the water - or so I thought. But it was a windy day, and the small waves lapping against the tube splashed water up against the tackle box repeatedly throughout the afternoon. Eventually enough water seeped into the box, soaking the camera and ruining its delicate electronic circuits. Accordingly, if you're going to carry a camera, a cell phone, a GPS receiver or any other electronic device with you in a float tube, I'd strongly recommend investing in one of the small waterproof pouches that can keep that kind of gear dry.
I'd also recommend inflating your tube and checking it over a couple of days ahead of any planned fishing trip. The canvas and nylon tube covers are usually good for many years, but the rubber tubes inside age and wear out more quickly. You may have to apply patches or replace the tubes periodically. Blowing up your tube a couple of days ahead of time to make sure they're holdi
ng air is a good idea.
I'd also recommend filing a "float plan" with a spouse, friend or relative when you go float-tubing - that is, tell someone approximately where you'll be and about when you expect to return, so that if you do get stranded somewhere, someone will know where to find you.
Float tubes offer a practical and relatively inexpensive way to cover a lot of fishing water. I've owned and fished from tubes since the early 1970s, and I still prefer tube-fishing to fishing from a boat during the hottest days of summer.
It's a great way to catch bass at this time of year.
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