Reach More Fish from a Float Tube
Sick of crossing fly rods on crowded rivers? Flip your way into the still water with a belly boat for some of the best—and most overlooked—fishing.
->IT’S 6:30 A.M. and I’ve been driving for an hour. I’m pleased I’m getting the jump on the weekend fishermen at one of my favorite Colorado trout rivers. My mood evaporates when I pull into the lot to find a dozen vehicles already there. A small army of anglers is hastily rigging away, and I can only imagine how many have already staked out the prime runs. • I don’t mind rubbing shoulders in the river, but this day something in me snaps and I turn around and head for home. Then I remember I’ve got a float tube in the bed of my truck. After a drive to a nearby reservoir, a brisk hike, a few pumps, and a refreshing kick across the water, I find myself in the middle of a Callibaetis hatch. There’s only one other angler, and I barely notice him, instead concentrating on rainbows feeding on the surface. I catch two dozen, all on dries, all before lunch, and wonder why I haven’t done this before. • Trust me, I haven’t missed out on this type of fishing since. You shouldn’t either, for no matter where you live and what you fish for, a few hundred bucks can get you into the float-tube game. Once you’re in it, your flyfishing opportunities will have quadrupled.
Clint Jaspon took this 3-pound brown on the White River in Arkansas.
1: Tube Tactics How to enter the water safely, maneuver around a lake so you hit all good fish-holding areas, and rig and cast to trout in a variety of situations
Flippers are difficult to walk in. It’s safest to wade into shallow water with your back to the lake, holding the tube around your waist. Then push off into deeper water, where you can start fishing.
Trout will congregate in the oxygen-rich, cold-water inlet. Cast to the edges and closer fish first, then extend your casts farther upstream.
The best way to work a weedy area is to cast a nymph or streamer just to the edge, then let it sink before giving it some twitches.
Fish branches and sticks carefully, working your flies into every opening.
If nothing is rising, fish deep water with a sink-tip line and a beadhead nymph.
Work shady areas by casting flies right up to the shoreline.
You can count on a few good fish to hang near the outlet. Cast behind any white water, to shade edges, and to seams.
Tweak Your Cast
Casting from a tube can be awkward at first. You’ll feel every wobble if you try to muscle your casts with your body. That’s ultimately a good thing, as it forces you to depend more on timing and fluid mechanics. When your body is closer to the waterline, you have to put the casting plane in the proper position. If you don’t swing and stop the rod high, your line will smack the water every time. One way to get around this is to use a longer, 9 1/2- or 10-foot No. 5 or 6 rod. Being exposed on open water also forces you to make friends with the wind; use it to power your back cast, and remember that tight loops travel through headwinds much better than loose ones do.
2: Safety Considerations: Stay out of fast water and wear an inflatable personal flotation device
Float tubes are not meant for fast water. Trying to navigate one in serious current is asking for trouble because you won’t be able to fight the flow. The glassy spring creek might be an exception to this rule, but where waves are involved, you should step up to a single-person pontoon boat with oars.
Wear an inflatable personal flotation device. True, a PFD can be cumbersome, but an inflate-on-demand device, such as the Outcast Angler’s Inflatable PFD ($95; outcastboats.com), is a wise investment, and you’ll hardly notice you have it on.
-> The Approach**
Lake fish (trout, bass, or other species) like to gather in and around vegetation, especially in late summer. Be sure to work weed mats, downed timber, rocky outcroppings, and other structure. Work outside in, casting from deeper water back toward the shorelines where fish cruise and hunt. Fish also congregate at creek inlets and outlets, hanging in the subtle currents found there. Look for small seams, bubble lines, dropoffs, and rise forms.
Don’t rush things, as splashy kicking negates the stealth advantage. Don’t focus on where you see fish rise, but on where you think they will be next. Consider the wind and currents, and position yourself so you’ll drift into the casting zone.
-> Rigging Up
Try a streamer such as an olive Woolly Bugger or white Zonker on a short 3X leader with a sink-tip fly line. Concentrating on shoreline cover, you can provoke strikes from some of the larger, more predatory fish by retrieving the fly with steady, calm, elongated strips.
Nymph fishing is deadly for trout in still waters, but few people know how to do it correctly. You want to make a long cast that lands gently near vegetation. Let the fly–a weighted nymph like a beadhead–sink for several seconds, then slowly retrieve it with 2- to 3-inch strips. I also run a tandem rig, with a large attractor nymph on top and a smaller one on 5X tippet as a dropper. Nymphs with soft hackle or marabou accents do well, since they oscillate in the water. Reliable patterns include AP Nymphs, soft-hackle Hare’s Ears, Pheasant Tails, and Stalcup Gilled Nymphs when the Callibaetis are going strong. Don’t bother with weights or indicators.
With dry flies, use a weight-forward floating line, a 9-foot leader, and a short tippet. Many anglers choose patterns that are too large for flat water. Better to err on the small side; big patterns can put fish down. A tandem rig of two No. 16 to 20 Parachute Adamses is an ideal setup.
3: Top 10 Tubing Waters: The best lakes and impoundments in the country to catch trout (and more) from a belly boat
CASCADE LAKES AND CRANE PRAIRIE RESERVOIR, OREGON Only 12 feet deep, Crane Prairie has lots of rainbow trout and bass. cascadeguides.com
EAST NEWTON LAKE, WYOMING You’ve got a legitimate shot at truly big browns on this 80-acre lake 5 miles northwest of Cody. eastgateanglers.com
FLATTOPS WILDERNESS LAKES, COLORADO Wild cutthroats chase dry flies in late summer at this most picturesque of fishing spots. roaringforkanglers.com
LAKELAND REGION, WISCONSIN** Take tubing over the top and chase muskies with bucktails! eaglesportscenter.com
LAUREL HIGHLANDS LAKES, PENNSYLVANIA These small lakes offer solid bass fishing, and many have no-motor restrictions. acmedamfishing.com
MADISON ARM, HEBGEN LAKE, MONTANA Famous for gulper fishing in late summer, this water calls for long, accurate casts. henrysforkanglers.com
MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIFORNIA Ideal float water–the farther you wander, the better your chance for big trout. thetroutfitter.com
MOOSEHEAD LAKE REGION, MAINE There are more than 40 lakes in the area, all with wild brookies. maineguideflyshop.com
THE 5 CURVES, SILVER CREEK, IDAHO Fish the Callibaetis hatch here in August. No fins; just use your feet to clamp on to weed mats. silver-creek.com
SPINNEY MOUNTAIN RESERVOIR, SOUTH PARK, COLORADO Kick to the western edge for rainbows in summer. coloradotrouthunters.com
4: Gear: The tube and flippers will get you where you want to go, but don’t forget a pump, base layers, and a net
-> Tubes There are two basic types of float tube: U-shaped and doughnut-shaped. For fishing functionality, the U design has more open space in front, giving you more room to cast, switch fly rigs, and net and release fish. If you tend to lean into your casts, however, the buoyancy of a wraparound belly boat will give you better support. Some fishing buddies and I tested several tubes earlier this summer and generally felt more comfortable with the U style. Following are three options to consider.
(A) The affordable, no-frills U-Boat 2000 is easy to inflate, and the bladder system is beefy enough to support 275 pounds. Two accessible armrest pockets hold ample gear. The tube weighs just 7 pounds, so you can pack it to remote waters with minimal effort. A double-action pump and a pair of fins are included–all you need to get going. THE CREEK COMPANY U-BOAT 2000 SUPER COMBO, $120; CREEKCOMPANY.COM
(B) The Trinity won’t wear you out, either on the hike to the lake or when you’re kicking to the opposite shore. Its dual pontoons help you slice through the water. Five air chambers give you the security of knowing you won’t sink, and the inflatable seat adds both comfort and leverage for the angler. The package comes with a pump and a backpack. The tote weight is 8 pounds, the capacity is 300 pounds, and the construction features solid thermal-welded seams. OUTCAST TRINITY, $330; OUTCASTBOATS.COM
(C) Even against strong winds, you’ll knife through the water in the Bullet HC, thanks to its raised bow. Rock solid and very comfortable, at 42 inches wide and 56 inches long, it is particularly buoyant and stable. If you plan to spend hours on the water, this is the ride you want. The stripping apron and storage chambers are functional, not clumsy. The real appeal is its puncture- resistant construction, with a nylon shell and urethane bladder. Weighing 14 pounds, it supports up to 325 pounds and comes with a five-year warranty. BUCK’S BAGS BULLET HC, $400; BUCKSBAGS.COM
-> Base Layers The right underlayers and warm socks are essential, as your legs and feet can freeze when they’re dangling in chilly water for hours, even in summer. SIMMS GUIDE FLEECE PANT, $100. SIMMS EXSTREAM WADING SOCKS, $25; SIMMSFISHING.COM
-> Flippers They come in various shapes and sizes, from lightweight backpack models (shown) to larger, sturdier fins for big lakes. You want a pair that snugly clips over your wading boots (if they fall off, you’ve lost your “engine”). These are a good lightweight option. OUTCAST BACKPACK FINS, $37; OUTCASTBOATS.COM
-> Net Get one with a handle that’s long enough to extend your reach outside the tube’s perimeter. The 28-inch Brodin has rubberized Ghost webbing and a magnetic holder. BRODIN CUTTHROAT FLOAT TUBE NET, $109; BRODIN.COM
-> Pump Many float tubes come with compatible pump systems. If yours doesn’t, buy one so you don’t have to bust your lungs blowing up your float tube every time you go fishing. Be sure to inflate tubes to the proper pressure. BUCK’S BAGS SMALL DOUBLE ACTION HAND PUMP, $15, OR INFLATION ADAPTER (LETS YOU USE A BIKE PUMP), $9; BUCKSBAGS.COM