By: John J. Cook (jnpcook)
Picture this. It's a warm summer evening. The sun is beginning its final descent, casting a crimson hue across the westward sky which is reflected in the perfectly still, mirror-like surface of your favorite lake. You gaze across the surface of the lake, taking in all the splendor, when you notice a ripple in the water. A minute later, there is another ripple, and then another. Suddenly the surface of the lake comes alive with fish in a feeding frenzy. Although the evening is perfect in every way, you did not come here just to admire the sunset. You came to fish. You begin casting in the direction of the feeding fish. But if your luck is anything like mine, the feeding fish always seem to be several yards farther out than your farthest cast on your best day.
You leave your favorite lake that evening a little disappointed. The disappointment does not stem from a realization of an inadequacy in your casting ability, for you can cast accurately and for long distances. The sole reason causing your disappointment is that the fish are just too far out and there is nothing you can do about it. Or is there?
I have witnessed this scenario, firsthand, many times, with the fish rising just past my casting range. That, coupled with the fact that it is pretty difficult to find good shore access on many of our lakes has led me to investigate some of the personal fishing crafts that are now available. In this article I will summarize some of the advantages and disadvantages of each type, compare prices, and provide some links to some of the manufacturers that sell this equipment. This article only deals with non-motorized, inflatable, fishing crafts such as float tubes, U-Boats, and inflatable Pontoon boats. I chose to only include these types of craft as I have personally used each of these types and would rather write an article about something I have personal experience with than something I have learned from a book or article I have read.
Round Type Float Tube (Belly Boat)
The round type float tube (aka. Belly Boat) consists of a main air bladder that is completely round like a doughnut. This bladder may be made of heavy rubber in the form of an inner tube like you would see in a small car tire or it may be made of a lightweight material such as PVC. Nearly all modern float tubes will also contain a smaller air bladder that also serves as a backrest. This bladder is typically made of a lightweight material such as PVC. These bladders will be enclosed in a shell of fabric typically made from heavy nylon material (420 or 600 Denier, etc.) which also makes up the "frame" of the boat and includes such items as the backrest, seat, and the side pockets.
Advantages of Round Type Float Tubes
This type boat is typically the least expensive of the three types that will be considered in this article. The price range roughly varies from $50-150 on average. The round type float tube is very stable in still water such as lakes and ponds. It is typically lightweight (if lightweight bladders are used in the design) and can usually be packed into a backpack if needed.
Disadvantages of Round Type Float Tubes
The main disadvantage of the round type float tube is that it is difficult to get in and out of. This type of tube is only rated for still water use.
To use this type float tube, it is better to enter and exit the tube while on dry land near the edge of the water where you plan to enter. First make sure you have all your equipment nearby (within arms reach). Place the float tube on the ground with the back of the tube facing the water and the front, where you will enter, facing the land. Before you enter the tube you should have your waders and fins already on. Waders are not entirely necessary. If the water is warm enough and you don't mind getting wet, you can opt for wearing a swimsuit instead. Now you are ready to go. Lift one foot up and over the tube and place it into the opening. Then carefully lift your other foot up and over the tube and into the opening. Lift the tube up around your waist and buckle any straps that may be included with the tube (most tubes of this style have a crotch strap). Grab your fishing gear and begin to slowly walk backwards into the water. When you get about waist deep, just sit down and you will begin to float. To maneuver to where you want to start fishing, kick with your fins and you will travel there, backwards.
U-Shaped Float Tube
The U-shaped float tube is very similar to the round type float tube in general design, materials used, and method of propelling the tube through the water. The main difference is that the main air bladder in this type tube is, you guessed it, U-shaped. The tube is entirely open in the front area where you enter and exit the tube. The air bladders are typically made of lightweight material such as PVC.
Advantages of U-shaped Float Tubes
The main advantage of the U-shaped float tube is the ease of entering and exiting the float tube compared with a round type float tube. These tubes are typically a bit more expensive than the round type tubes but the price range sometimes overlaps and the U-shaped tube still provides a relatively inexpensive option. A rough price range for this type tube is $70-200. The U-shaped tube is also lightweight and can usually be packed into most backpacks if needed.
I own a U-shaped float tube and this is how I enter the water. I first put on my waders at my car and blow up my float tube with a small air compressor as I am putting on my waders and gathering my fishing gear together. After the tube is blown up, I place any tackle I have in the side pockets of the tube, and I place my fins in the rear pocket above the backrest. I grab my fishing rod in one hand and carry the tube, on my back (using the included backpack straps) down to the edge of the water. I then put my fins on, throw the tube into the water right near shore, grab my fishing rod and then slowly walk backwards into the water, holding my fishing rod in one hand and placing my other hand on the float tube so it doesn't drift away without me. When I get about waist deep, I sit down and begin to float. I then place the stripping apron across my lap and attach it to the Velcro straps and then I begin kicking with my fins to where I want to fish.
Disadvantages of U-shaped Float Tubes
U-shaped float tubes are a bit less stable than the round type float tubes. Some designs utilize a stabilizer bar that is placed across the front of the tube to keep it open. These bars can be lost. This type of float tube is only rated for still water use.
Pontoon Style Float Boat
This style boat utilizes 2 pontoons held together by framework. Most manufacturers use inflatable bladders made of heavy duty PVC and covered with very heavy duty nylon or cordura. The bladders slip inside these covers and the covers are zippered closed. The framework usually consists of hollow metal tubing, either steel or aluminum, and contains the seat, the oarlocks, footrest, attachment points for straps to hold pontoons on, and pulley and cleat system for anchor (if equipped). On some of the more inexpensive models, the seat is molded from plastic and contains the attachment points and straps to anchor the seat to the pontoons. With this arrangement, the frame is basically just the plastic seat. Also with the plastic frame you usually do not have oars so you must propel the boat solely with your fins.
Advantages of Pontoon Style Float Boats
The pontoon style float boat is the easiest to maneuver out of the three styles considered in this article. The pontoon boat can be taken into very shallow water since in most of these boats you are sitting above the water. The oars allow a person to row the float boat at a higher speed than can be achieved with the other style tubes that are only propelled using fins. (A few pontoon style boats, however, are designed to be used with fins only. These are usually referred to as Kick Boats.) Also the oars allow a person to propel the boat either forwards or backwards. Rowing to propel the boat backwards allows for faster speed and more power in the stroke. Sometimes when floating a river it is more advantages to row the boat in a forward direction. Most pontoon style boats are designed with a foot rest and a seat high enough above the water to allow passengers to be completely out of the water. In this type of boat, waders are not necessary if only the oars will be used to propel the boat (such as drifting down a river). If floating a lake or pond, usually the oars are used to "run" your boat to where you want to start fishing and then fins are used to propel the boat while you cast. This allows your hands to be free to fish while you slowly move around the lake or pond. Most pontoon style boats are also rated to be used in moving water. Pontoon style float boats are very sturdy. I have learned from reading some of the posts on this site that a big advantage of this style boat is the fact that they can be easily customized to meet each individuals needs by attaching items to or modifying the metal framework. Some of the optional items available include: cup holders, rod holders, anchor systems, and extra seats to name just a few. For those who have a lot of gear to carry with them, this style boat offers the greatest amount of room for storage of gear.
Disadvantages of Pontoon Style Float Boats
Pontoon style float boats are the most costly of the three types discussed in this article. A rough price range would be $250-$2,000. Most one person models, however seem to run in the range of $300-600. These boats are heavier than the other two types and they take up more space when they are not inflated than the other 2 types. This may be a factor if you fish a lot of remote waters where you have to hike or backpack into your fishing location.
General Things to Consider Concerning Float Tubes and Boats
- Where do you plan to use your float tube or boat? Do you want to only fish small lakes and ponds? Do you want to also be able to fish moving waters such as rivers and streams? This will determine what type of boat you should purchase.
- How much are you willing to spend? When considering a float tube or boat purchase, keep in mind the various items you may need to also purchase such as waders, air pump, fins, etc. Many of the larger sporting goods retailers offer packages that include the fins and sometimes also an air pump in the price of the float tube.
- There are several different types of air valves that are used by the various float tube and boat manufacturers to seal the air bladders. The four types that I have seen are: a plastic valve with plug like those used on an air mattress, a Schrader valve like that used on a car tire, a plastic tube with a Schrader valve that can be unscrewed to leave only a tube with an open end, and a Halkey Roberts self deflating valve such as used on Dry Fly Float Boats. I chose the type with a plastic tube with removable Schrader valve because I can inflate it either with an air hose at the gas station, a foot or bicycle pump, and, heaven forbid, by mouth.
- Determine which accessories you will need and look for a tube or boat that includes these. Some helpful items are backpack straps, stripping apron, lots of D rings for attaching gear, large pockets for gear, foam fly drying patches, rod holders or rod holding straps, anchor, and cup holders.
It's another warm summer evening. As the sun begins to set, the surface of the lake is broken with the telltale ripples caused by feeding fish. You realize that the fish are rising just beyond your casting range but there will be no disappointment tonight. You get into your new float boat and silently head out into the sunset.