June 18, 2021
By Frank Sargeant
You know those little panfish ponds and bass lakes you’ve always wanted to fish if only there was a boat ramp?
How about those high-country lakes where the big trout are always sipping flies just out of casting range? Or those times when the breeze is out of the north, the surf is flat and you wish you could get outside the bar and maybe hook up with a tarpon or a king mackerel?
With a float tube, all of these otherwise inaccessible waters suddenly become fishable.
While most of us can appreciate a fast ride in a $60,000 bass boat or busting offshore in a half-million-dollar, triple-engine center console, there’s much to be said for angling adventures that allow for a minimalist approach. Such is the appeal of float tubes—one-person boats that can be packed on your back and paid for without a credit score check.
Of course, the advantages of tubes go well beyond their portability. For one, they’re very low profile—much lower than the deck of a bass or flats boat—which makes them perfect in clear, shallow water. Tubes are quieter even than a boat pulled along by a trolling motor. Propelled by flippers or swim fins, they move in total silence—sort of like an oversized goose.
And there are no issues with storage. Put a hook on the wall of your garage and stow your float boat right beside your rod rack so it’s ready to go whenever you want to hit the water. Deflate it for long-term storage and it shrinks to about the size of a carry-on bag.
You don’t need a trailer to get it to the water, either. Inflated, one will fit in the bed of a pickup with room to spare for tackle and a cooler. Deflated, you can toss it in the trunk of a subcompact.
Best of all, they’re cheap. Considerably cheaper than a motorized boat, of course, but less expensive even than most kayaks and canoes. About $200 gets you a good, serviceable tube, and the Cadillacs in this genre are under $500.
DESIGN AND MATERIALS
Float tubes range in shape from the original circular tube to the modern teardrop-shape designs of most quality builds today. Circular tubes are inexpensive and, because they’re supported by truck inner tubes in most cases, very durable. Also, when the tube finally gives out, it’s inexpensive to replace.
Those who fish windy high-country lakes like them because they’re easy to transport and tend to get blown around less than the high-flotation A- and U-shape tubes. They are, however, slow in the water, hard to steer and have virtually no space to carry added gear.
The modern crop of teardrop- and U-shape tubes generally offers higher flotation, the security of two or more bladders and more space for gear. They’re also easier to paddle in a straight line with fins and they go faster than a round tube.
The least expensive teardrop-shape tubes have vinyl bladders. These are less durable than polyurethane, which is found in the better models, but they do keep the price low. And, if you intend to pack your tube into remote locations, the lighter weight of single-layer vinyl may be a factor.
Most quality tubes have a tough shell covering the interior air bladder. The shell is usually made of polyvinylchloride (PVC) fabric in various "deniers." The higher the denier, the stronger the fabric and greater the durability. Most good tubes use at least 420-denier fabric on the top and 500 on the bottom for added toughness.
WORDS OF CAUTION
Of course, these are tiny boats. Anything more than a 12-inch chop starts to get iffy in a tube. And you can’t use them in a river with significant current—steering becomes impossible immediately.
Also, they can leak. In fact, most probably will eventually, but the good ones last several years before this becomes a problem. A patch kit should be an essential part of your gear from Day One in case of puncture.
In cold water, you need waders, which can be an issue if you’re packing in. And you’ll want to avoid large lakes where you can’t get off the water quickly if a storm blows in—tubes are slow.
You obviously can’t bring anybody with you, not even your 6-year-old grandkid. Space is limited, though the larger tubes do have a sort of bow deck where you can carry some extra gear, a small cooler and a second rod.
While sharks and gators generally avoid humans in my experience, there are some places where the big eaters are so abundant and focused on feeding that they might very well take a bite out of you if you happen to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time, so be aware.
There’s also the concern of getting pushed by wind or current into a situation you can’t get out of. It’s wise to travel against the wind or current when heading out, if possible. That way, when returning to the put-in with legs tired from paddling, you’ll at least have the wind at your back.
Another safety aspect to consider is your visibility to powerboaters. It’s a good idea to add a whip with a bright flag to your tube, or at least wear a brightly colored hat that you can wave at approaching boaters. Carry a bright flashlight if you fish at dawn and dusk and be quick to shine it in the direction of any approaching powerboat.
Always carry a communication device—a phone in a waterproof case, at the very least. And it should go without saying, but you should always wear a PFD.
Cautions aside, tubes are just plain fun to fish out of. They are minimalist gear that provide maximum enjoyment.