Float tube – Guide to Armchair Flyfishing by John Taunton-Clark

Float Tube Fishing. Enjoy your fishing (Lake Aniwhenua, in New Zealand's North Island.
Float Tube Fishing. Enjoy your fishing (Lake Aniwhenua, in New Zealand's North Island.

Float Tube – Guide to Armchair Flyfishing

Float Tube Fishing. Enjoy your fishing (Lake Aniwhenua, in New Zealand's North Island.
Float Tube Fishing. Enjoy your fishing (Lake Aniwhenua, in New Zealand’s North Island.

They come in a variety of colours and shapes, but all provide the same opportunity – to sit in the comfort of an armchair while sneaking up on those wily old trout at your favourite spot! What are they? A float tube, of course.

These floating, inflatable “armchairs” have been around for quite a while now, probably originating in the USA. More recently, the idea has been extended to produce “float boats”, which are generally twin-hulled affairs with seats above water and the ability to be rowed or even propelled by small outboards. I’ll not discuss these craft further in this article, but they do have a place in the armchair fishing scene.

What is a float tube?

ln the simplest sense, a float tube is an inner tube of an appropriate size to keep a person afloat, with a seat of some form suspended from it. The general idea is that the fisher sits inside the tube, with the surface of the water at about waist level, and propels himself or herself with the aid of swim fins or flippers.

Modem float tubes have fabric covers which house the inner tube or bladder and provide pouches for secondary floatation, spare clothing, tackle and refreshments. The seat is usually attached to this cover and often has a webbing strap which clips onto the main tube to stop the fisher slipping into the water!

Commonly, the secondary floatation consists of a smaller inner tube or bladder in a pouch which forms a backrest for the fisher. If the main tube deflates, this secondary buoyancy should keep the fisher afloat until rescue arrives or the shallows are reached. Under normal circumstances, the backrest provides comfort, support and protection from waves which would otherwise splash over the rear and dribble down your back!

A "doughnut" style float tube.
A “doughnut” style float tube.

On some float tubes, the backrest also may have a storage compartment large enough to hold shoes and a waterproof jacket. The gear pouches will vary in number and placement, depending on the type of float tube, but usually provide storage on both sides of the tube, in easy reach of the fisher. Here one can store those fly boxes, spare reels, spools of tippet material, camera (preferably waterproof, refreshments and whatever. Lastly, most float tubes have a “stripping apron” for keeping the flyline and other bits and pieces from falling into the water. There it is, the complete fisher’s armchair!

Two basic designs of float tubes are available, either known as “doughnuts” or “u-boats”. The original “doughnut” is based on a truck inner tube and is more-or-less circular in shape.

These float tubes are generally the lowest cost option and are very good. They are comfortable and stable, but getting in or out of them requires a bit of technique. l use a “doughnut” tube and have no problem getting in and out after a wee bit of practice. Having truck inner tubes as the main buoyancy, they are quite tough and can be easily repaired if a stray thorn or hook happens along.

I have been told that inner tubes are not designed to be continually inflated and deflated, so keeping these tubes inflated, at least partially, will provide longer tube life.

Because these tubes have standard automotive valves on them, they can’t be inflated by mouth or with the simple “air bed” pumps. No problem, because heaps of types of foot and hand pumps for car tyres are available cheaply and do the job well. If you’re not keen on working up a bit of warmth before fishing, then you can buy electric pumps that plug into your car’s cigarette lighter socket and will pump away while you get kitted up and enjoy your coffee or tea before fishing!

The U-shaped tubes are generally more expensive, but will often have more storage pockets and be a bit lighter in weight. If you want to backpack your tube into a remote lake, the lighter weight could make these the best buy for you.

The open front of this design makes getting in and out of these quite easy. A downside, though, is that they tend to be a bit saggy and uncomfortable if not inflated to the recommended maximum of about 5 psi. They will have inflatable bladders of a polyurethane material, specially made to fit the outer fabric of the float tube.

These bladders can usually be inflated by mouth (if you have a chest like Mr Universe!) or by the simple “air bed” hand or foot pumps which can be bought from most camping and outdoors shops.

These tubes do not stretch like inner tubes and seem to tolerate being inflated and deflated regularly. They are not as tough as inner tubes, and patching them requires special glue and patch material which is usually provided with your purchase.
A word of mild caution is needed on the matter of inner tubes and bladders when travelling. If your tube is inflated and you are going to travel, remember that the pressure inside the tube will increase relative to that outside as you go to higher ground. Increasing altitude can result in the bladder or inner tube bursting, although this is less likely with the stretchy nature of a truck tube. Remember also that increasing temperature will raise the pressure in the inner tube or bladder, so partially deflate your tube if it will be in the sun or another spot much warmer than when it was inflated.

What benefits does a float tube offer?

Apart from armchair-like comfort while you fish, a float tube offers quite a few advantages. Float tubes are relatively cheap, with standard models starting at about $295 complete (but not including waders, fins and other, accessories). They are very portable and easily fit into the boot of a sedan car when deflated.

They also can be back-packed easily into high country lakes. Fully inflated and ready to fish, my tube fits into the back of my station waggon.

They can be launched and landed almost anywhere on a lake shore, so they give the fisher the ability to reach otherwise inaccessible spots and to cover a great deal of water.

Many fish have been taken while trolling a fly as one moves from spot to spot! Your profile is low when seated in a float tube and this allows you to be as inconspicuous (to the trout) as a duck on the pond. Being low on the water and quiet, with no splashy oars and creaky row-locks, you can sneak over and along weed beds, or into the shallows, to stalk those spooky trout feeding in these prime locations.

While l have mainly spoken about fly fishing from a float tube, I can see no reason why spinning and jigging also should not be successful from your float tube. ln the USA, l believe that the duck hunters use float tubes too, so that’s another opportunity to explore, with caution!

What other bits of gear will you need?

Float tube essential gear.
Float tube essential gear.

I mentioned before that the seat on the float tube is below the water, so a good pair of chest waders is a must. In our lakes, neoprene waders provide the warmth to keep a fisher comfortably on the water for many hours. Other types of chest waders are fine if suitable clothing is worn underneath the waders to provide insulation from the cold water. Although boot-foot waders will do the job, they are not as comfortable as sock-foot waders when wearing the swim fins which are needed for propulsion. Boot-foot waders do have an advantage if the fisher wishes to visit dry land for any reason. One simply gets out of the float tube and is ready to go, whereas, with sock-foot waders, a stop to put on the wading boots is needed.

If you choose to go with boot-foot waders, special float tube fins are available to fit over the boot with relative ease. ln the case of sock-foot waders, l use my diving fins and get double the value out of them!

Another item which is very useful is a floating landing net. Attached to the float tube by a length of cord, this simply floats along with you until needed. Wooden-framed landing nets are available in many shapes and sizes and you should choose one which will cope with the size of fish you are likely to catch – be optimistic!

Small anchors suitable for float tubes are available. These are generally small folding grapnels, and apparently, do the job of keeping the float tube in the chosen spot while you concentrate on fishing. I don’t use an anchor because l prefer to be free to drift and move, even if it does mean that l have to paddle against the wind to stay in my “hot spot”.

All the other items will probably be in a flyfisher’s bag already. Polarising sunglasses and a hat to keep the sun off the face are useful. A good pair of forceps for removing hooks when you need to release a fish also help.

Some manufacturers also make fish bags to attach to the float tube and these can be useful, al- though killing a fish quickly and then threading a short length of cord through the gills can do the job adequately.

Safety Considerations

Float tubes are designed for use in still water only and should not be used in flowing water. Most tubes will carry warnings to this effect, but it is worth stressing this point. ln flowing water, a tuber can get into uncomfortable situations and you should, therefore, avoid them!

I mentioned before that float tubes usually have secondary floatation to provide a safety factor in the case of an emergency. Personally, l would not use a float tube without this and stress that the secondary buoyancy must be inflated! While accidents involving float tubes have been few, they have happened. It is also recommended that a personal floatation jacket is worn while tubing. The automatically inflating types are ideal since they are comfortable to wear. A key point to remember is that, just like kids’ inflatable toys, your tube will deflate if some nasty sharp object pierces the inner tube or bladder. It pays to be just a wee bit careful when working with a knife or hooks in a float tube!

As with most emergency situations, remaining calm and avoiding panic can often prevent a disaster. If your float tube suddenly deflates, your reserve buoyancy should be enough to keep you safely afloat, provided there is no panic. Using this buoyancy and your personal floatation jacket, you should be able to reach the shore without suffering anything worse than getting wet!
Your only means of propulsion in a float tube is your swim fins, so if they fall off, the situation could become embarrassing! Making sure that your fins are on properly is a good idea, and it can also be useful to use one of the devices available to secure your fins to your ankles so that they can’t be lost.

If we think about the shape of a float tube, it isn’t the most streamlined or slippery shape, either through the water or the air. If a strong wind blows up, the job of propelling the tube against the wind can take lots of puff. Be warned that good judgement is necessary when deciding whether or not to use your float tube if the wind is strong, particularly on larger lakes. If you do get caught out by a sudden blow, you should be able to reach the downwind shore and either wait it out or pack up and walk back to your base.

Remember that your profile in a float tube is low and that you will be less visible to other water traffic than perhaps a dinghy or canoe might be. For this reason, it makes sense to wear a brightly- coloured hat or jacket when fishing from your float tube and to stay aware of boats that are nearby. Many float tubes also have orange or yellow material on the rear of the backrest which makes the float tube more visible.

A few other tips:

l mentioned before that a benefit of fishing from a float tube is your low profile, and hence less of you being visible to the trout. This low profile has another effect, though, and this is to put your fly-casting loop closer to the water than if you were standing. For this reason, short fly rods don’t work well from a float tube, so I’d recommend the standard 9-foot rod for the average caster.

Getting in and out of your float tube can provide much amusement for onlookers if you don’t have a few tricks up your sleeve! Firstly, don’t try to walk even a short distance to the water while “wearing” your float tube! Carry your rod, fins and float tube to the water’s edge, choosing a place where you can enter the water easily. Put your fins on and enter the water, no more than calf-deep. Make sure that your rod is placed on the bank where you can reach it, then get into your float tube. If you have a “doughnut” tube, it is easy to lift it over your head and lower it over your shoulders until it is floating.

Grab your rod and walk slowly (backwards is easiest while wearing fins) until deep enough to sit in the tube. Remember to fasten the harness which will prevent you slipping forward on the seat, before paddling away to a great day of fishing! Getting out of your tube is easier, but a wet float tube lifted over the head can make for discomfort, so just get into the shallows, unbuckle the harness, remove your fins, and step out of the float tube. It should be easy!

So, if you aren’t already enjoying “armchair” fishing, get a float tube and enjoy yourself!

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