Alberta Stillwater Adventures

where flyfishing adventures begin

Written By Mike (Doc) Monteith

Float Tubes - The Good, Bad and Ugly

The first time I saw a belly boat, I was rather puzzled and even a little amused. Here was a full-grown man about 150ft out from the shore of a local trout lake in a floating donut smaller than a child's blow-up dinghy. I hoped he was coming in soon so that I may get a closer look at this miniature fishing contraption. At the time I was standing waist deep in the lake and casting a caddis pattern to any rise forms that I could reach (which weren't many) and keeping an eye for when this fellow fly fisherman might decide to make his way to shore.

It was about an hour and a half later when he decided to make his way in. I was ready to halt my fishing and make my way to the boat launch to meet him and get a closer look at his water craft but that wasn't necessary as he decided the beach I was fishing at was better suited to exit the lake. When he got close enough to the shoreline he finally stood up and I wondered why he was walking backwards to shore. Again I was amused at the look of a full-grown man with a child's flotation devise around his waist. The only thing missing was the inflatable rubber ducky head on the front and the inflatable tail on the back. That's when I saw the flippers. I don't remember if I actually laughed out loud or not but I was aching with laughter on the inside. I remember thinking to myself, "Does he have any idea of how ridiculous he looks?" I never did approach him about the inflatable craft like I had planned. I guess once I saw the fins I had an understanding how it worked and a new thought ran through my mind. "Not in this lifetime!"

It was about three years later that I purchased my first float tube and I've never looked back (at least not until now).

Float tubes are compact, lightweight and extremely maneuverable. They are invaluable when fishing lakes that don't allow boats or when hiking into lakes without road access; but the float tube's best attribute is its controllability. No other watercraft gives an angler the same ability to fish an area as hard as a float tube (although pontoon boats are a close second). Using just leg power you can literally fish every square foot of water without ever taking your hands of your fly rod. You never have to worry about picking up a paddle or oars and you can spin 360 degrees without even a second thought. In this article I want to go over the different types of float tubes available to anglers and which ones in my opinion are worth your hard earned money.

Float tubes are not as new as some of you would think. Prior to the 1940's, early stillwater anglers fastened some type of seat across a car tire tube providing a means to get to the fish. It was a crude method but it worked. Then sometime after 1940, a company surfaced called the Tucker Duck & Rubber Company. They were a small commercial tube manufacture out of Fort Smith, Arkansas. They started to produce the first inflatable float tube known as the Fish-N-Float.

These boats were very heavy when wet and the seams would fall apart fairly rapidly but even so, the Fish-N-Float was a success and soon offered attached waders to the canvas tube. In 1947 a new company appeared on the scene out of Oklahoma City. The Fishmaster MFG. Company offered a new quick connect seat release and gave the Fish-N-Float some stiff competition. The Fishmaster Mfg. Company became a major float tube supplier offering more and more models over the next few years. In the 1950's tubes began to take closer shape of what we see today. Thanks to anglers mostly from Colorado and Idaho float tubes were being modified to include pockets, backrests, stripping aprons and tie down rings. But it wasn't until the 1980's that we saw float tubes making a big impact on the fishing communities. Articles and reviews started to pop up in magazines and the float tube finally came into it's own.

Float tubes today vary in shape, size and durability. Some are the traditional round shape, some are V-shaped and others U-shaped - some are even smaller versions of a pontoon boat (with or without oars). So how do you pick the one that's right for you? Well let's be honest, it's similar to buying a car, look for one that fits in your price range, one that you'll want to spend a lot of time in and one that meets your expectations. In other words, research what tube will fit your wants and needs.

Round / Closed Tubes
The traditional round tubes have a few major attributes but many negative ones. The most positive attribute a round tube has is its cost. These tubes can be found very cheap today since the U & V shape tubes have become more popular. Most round tubes have a rubber truck tire tube as the air chamber. This is good, at least for durability. The rubber tubes can take a pretty good beating. There are no seams in a rubber tube to worry about and if it gets a hole it's easily patched. It's this rubber inner tube that has kept me going back to round tubes. The safety factor is very big with me as I've experienced to many problems with vinyl bladders. I've always recommended that anyone with a vinyl bladder in a round tube, switch to a rubber truck tire tube right away if possible. I have a hard time trusting the seams on vinyl bladders and the seams are very hard to repair if not impossible.  If you can't find a rubber tube that fits your model, you may want to order another vinyl bladder from your manufacturer as they may be hard to find a few years down the road.

Round tubes are now quite a bit cheaper than the other style of tubes so if money is a concern to you this may be the style of tube you're looking for. Another good thing about round tubes are the size. I can fit two fully inflated round tubes in the back of my van along with all my other fishing equipment. When I go with my buddy who owns a U-shape tube I have to deflate my tube to about a quarter of its size. The negatives of a round tube are noticeable when you reach the water. The closed front can make it difficult to enter and exit the tube. The shape of the tube will have you moving slower in the water in turn making you work harder to get to and back from different locations on the lake. And the rubber inner tubes are quite a bit heavier than the vinyl or urethane bladders other shaped tubes come with. You'll notice the weight when hiking into a lake.

When purchasing a round tube the things to look for are:

*Weight capacity. Make sure it's rated with enough capacity that you can add lots of bells and whistles without getting close to your own weight. I weigh 220lbs and my favorite tube has a capacity of 350lbs. This makes me feel safer and the boat feels sturdier when on the water.

* Warranty. Look for a good warranty with the boat you purchase. There are a few manufacturers that offer a lifetime warranty on the boat's shell.

* Durability. Triple stitched seems are the least you should go with. Even with triple stitched seems, I've had two float tubes start to come apart on me and had to send them back to the manufacturer (that's where the warranty comes in).

* Rubber or if can find one, a urethane bladder.  These types of bladders are much more durable than the PVC (vinyl) bladders.

U and V Shaped Tubes
The great thing about these tubes is the shape. Because it has an open front, entering and exiting the tube is way easier and doesn't require any sort of balancing act. The shape also helps with speed. The shape of these tubes cut through the water easier making you work less to get to your destination. U & V shape tubes will also have you sit higher in the water with mostly only your legs being submerged. This will keep you dryer and in turn keeping you warmer. In a round tube half of your body is submerged in water and you'll really notice this when the water temperature falls. These are all key things when considering the purchase of a tube because they all have to do with comfort and if you're uncomfortable in your tube, your experience will not be as pleasant as it should be. Also if you do get a leak in a bladder while fishing from a U or V shaped tube, you usually have a couple more bladders fully inflated to help you get back to shore. Of course these tubes do have their disadvantages too. Because of how high these boats sit on the water the wind can become a major factor blowing you around more so than in a round tube. The bladders are usually made of PVC (vinyl) but some are made with urethane.  These vinyl air chambers are not as durable as urethane or rubber inner tubes. The set up time can be quite a bit longer then the round tubes, as there are usually several large bladders to fill in different sections of the tube as opposed to one inner tube and a backrest in the round tube.

When purchasing a U or V shape tube look for many of the same things as the round tubes:

* Weight capacity. Like the round tube you want to make sure it doesn't just hold your weight. You may want to add a fish finder, extra rods, a life jacket, fly vest, an anchor and other accessories.

* Warranty. Again a lifetime warranty is best and will keep your boat around forever, the least you'll want to go with is a five year warranty. It's especially important here to get a real good warranty on the bladders especially if they're PVC.

* Durability. Triple stitched seems are a must, don't settle for anything less. There are more and more U & V shaped tubes that offer urethane bladders and I would highly recommend purchasing a tube that offers these, as the durability is better. PVC does have it place though as some tubes are now available with PVC on the bottom of the tube, which is more durable then the nylon as the PVC will resist snags. As far as the nylon shell, don't buy anything with a denier lower than 400. A denier of 600 to 800 is best.

These boats are another option for anglers. Some come with oars some do not. I don't really understand the concept of the ones that don't come with oars, as I don't see much advantage over a U or V shaped tube. The obvious advantage to the boats that come with oars is speed and many folks are known to rig up their own set of oars to their pontubes just for that reason as you can get to where you are going much easier and faster while on the water. Other then that though the advantages are minimal. The negative thing about having the metal frame on the tube is it limits your leg movement and your legs continually banging into the frame can become annoying. I've found this same problem when fishing from my pontoon boat. It's a fairly minor complaint but thought I would point it out.


Closed and/or Round Tubes

I've always been partial to Trout Traps. I do recommend them for anyone that is looking for a used tube but will not recommend them to new buyers, as the company no longer exists meaning there is no longer a warranty on any of their products. So my recommendation goes to the Caddis Proline II. The Proline II has a 350lb weight capacity and is triple stitched on important seams. You can order one online for as low as $109.00 US.

U & V Shape
Caddis has put together an impressive Navigator series of U shaped tubes. I am overly impressed with the Navigator II specifically. The Nav II features 420 denier nylon pack cloth, triple stitched on critical seams, front rod holder, side rod holder, removable front padded stabilizer bar, two large cargo pockets, two medium size auxiliary pockets, 1000 denier cordura seat and a weight capacity of 350 lbs. You can purchase a Nav II online for $174.99 USD.

Outcast has also put together a great line of boats. The Fish Cat & Fat Cat V shaped series are very durable. They come with a five-year warranty, 1000 denier PVC bottom / Pack-cloth top, urethane bladder, foam seat & seat back. You can purchase the highly recommended Fat Cat online for $325 USD.

So many inflatable boats come and go that it's sometimes hard to keep up with the latest boats on the market and pontubes seem to come and go quicker than others.  One of the latest boats that has left an impression on me is the NRS GigBob.  This packable boat has recieved the 2009 Editor's Choice Award from Fly Fish American Magazine and the 2009 Best New Gear Award from Outdoor Canada Magazine.  The NSR GigBob packs up easily and can be rowed with ease even though it's frame-less.  It's also rigid enough that you can actually stand on the deck.  The boat features pretty much everything needed for a safe and fun time on the water including: adjustable padded seat, Carlisle 7' 2-piece oars with sleeves and oar rights, oar plates, oar mounts, oar loacks, springs and spring rings, oar rests, two easy access tackle bags, stripping apron, a carrying backpack and a five year warranty.  You can purchase the NSR GigBob online for $1,595.00 USD.

Float tubes are an important tool for many stillwater anglers. What type of tube you choose for your fishing adventures will have a great impact on how much you enjoy your time out on the water. Choose wisely and do your homework as to what tube best fits your needs and wants. Round tubes are great as an entry-level tube as they don't cost much and if you find that tubing isn't your thing, you won't be stuck with something that put a big dent on the 'ol pocket book. U & V shaped tubes have come a long way and some are even more durable then the round tubes but include all the added bonuses of the open front. Whatever styles you may purchase in the future, wear a life jacket or some form of certified PFD and play safe. Oh and don't worry about the laughter, they're used to seeing them now.

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