By Susan Dymond
Long ago and far way some kid figured out that you could take your rod and the tractor inner tube to get to that big fish in the middle of the farm pond. If you have access to ponds, pools (like behind small dams on hill country streams), lake shores or other reasonably still water but have trouble positioning yourself to cast to the structure, you might consider a belly boat as an option. These are the ultimate in becoming one with the fish, fins and all. Easily portable and very affordable.
The basic concept has evolved somewhat but if you loved Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” (or the Disney equivalent) here is your chance to live the mermaid fantasy. Belly boats are small inflatable craft that are covered in some sort of canvas (the old ones) or “bullet proof” (read hook resistant) heavy woven stuff to accommodate a seat, pockets, usually an inflatable back rest, whatever else you want to hang on them and you. They are the ultimate in environmental friendliness, powered totally by the single operator’s fin action. This is where the mermaid part comes in! Belly boats come in two varieties…what I call the O-rings and the U-tubes. (Don’t ask for them this way, the guys at the shops will look at you funny.)
The O-rings are the closest to the evolutionary root. You guessed it, they are round; basically a tricked out inner tube. These days they may have up to three PVC or Urethane air bladders and up to 1000-dernier (that’s the woven stuff) bladder covers. These feel the most secure giving good support for elbows, offer the most protection from whatever may be floating around with you and they say…one cannot slip out of these donuts. All that said, they are awkward to get in and out of (more on that later) and when shopping round boats be sure you get one that fits. Don’t laugh, what happens most often is that folk get tubes that are too big so they sort of slosh around in them. I am told that makes for a long day. Round belly boats are the most economical starting around $80 and most will fit in the back of a pickup or SUV even when they are inflated. Deflated they are light enough to back pack to your secret pond.
The U-tubes are the next step on the ladder. These are, well, U-shaped. The bladders curve around; one sits against the round part of the U with two arms extending on either side. Most have a stabilizing bar and/or a stripping apron that goes across the open end. This makes it easier to enter and exit with grace. One sits a little higher in a U-tube. In reading reviews there are mixed opinions on maneuverability. Some say the U-tubes move through the water more easily than the O-rings, but the word is that the O-rings turn with just a kick toward the rise. U-tubes start as low as $90. It would be tough to spend more than $300 on either style for the basic boat. U-tubes tend to be a tad heavier but are still as portable.
Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize
OK….you found your perfect boat. Ladies, surely we can do this part! As with any outfit, there are the basics that one MUST have; a pump, flippers, and a patch kit. You cannot go anywhere without these!
Pumps inflate the boat; no pump no boat! Make it easy on yourself and get a two-way pump (one that pumps air on both the up and the down stroke.) Make it really easy on yourself and get an electric pump that plugs into your car, but remember that now you have to carry the inflated boat to the water.
Flippers are the propulsion system. Now the bottom line is the more surface the more efficient the propulsion. Word is that scuba fins work the best and are the most versatile, even if more awkward on land. You will need to chose the kind the best suit your foot ware of choice (more later.)
Patch kit. Well we are throwing sharp objects around an inflated boat, are we not? Eventually it will happen. Be prepared with the patch kit recommended for your particular boat when you hear the inevitable HISS. (A good reason not to stray too far from shore. The deflation is usually gradual but still….)
Once you have the big three taken care of, one can go nuts with whatever else to hang on your belly boat. I think it a good idea to have a rod holder and rod tether but I am a belt-and-suspenders sort of girl. It just is no fun fishing without a rod….and my father’s childhood (read antique; priceless) bamboo, agate-eyed fly rod is in the bottom of a very deep lake in Utah. (Thank heaven he did it, not me!) Most of these boats come with all sorts of pockets and pouches. Customize yours to fit your needs. Be sure there is a place for potable water. One can even put, dare I say it, a fish finder on these boats.
What is a lady to wear on the lake? When I have talked with some of our members about fishing in belly boats I have heard a lot of squeals and squinches about dangling in a lake with fish, turtles, weeds, and other YUK. So here is the deal…if one is squeamish one can choose not to have direct contact with the gunk… which really is a pretty good idea. Many of the sites I have read are in the northland or the highland where the water is COLD. Suggested cruise wardrobe is neoprene or breathable stocking foot chest waders with appropriate warm stuff underneath. Boots are optional. If you expect to be in and out of the water it is probably best to wear boots. Fit your flippers to your boots or your waders whichever you choose. Another suggestion for warmer waters is cheap jogging pants and a t-shirt with neoprene gravel guards. Actually, having something darker on your legs will be less offensive to the fish. You will blend in better.
From the waist up is pretty much up to you and the weather, however one should include a personal flotation device (PFD). The shorter PFD vests for kayaking or the inflatable “suspender” types work particularly well. For safety reasons one should wear eye protection; polarized sun glasses will do fine, and a hat; the bigger the brim the better. Both protect from misplaced casts and the sun reflecting off the water. One other safety suggestion: de-barb your hooks. It is easier on the fish and on you!
The In’s and Out’s
Now for the BIG question. Once all this stuff is assembled at the edge of the water, how in the world does one actually get in and get out? There are various suggestions and I am not going to attempt description but rather quote two techniques.
The traditional way from www.floattubefisherman.com.
“With a regular donut style tube, you have a couple of challenges. The first thing you do is place the tube on the shore with the back of the tube facing the water. Now use your rod holder to secure your rod (most tubes come with Velcro straps to hole your rod or if you purchased a rod holder, even better). Place one finned foot in the tube and slide it under the tube. Now place the other foot on the tube and bend over placing both hands and some of your body weight on the tube. Place your other finned foot in the tube and slide it underneath as well. You may have to lift the tube some to slide the fin under. You should now be standing upright in the center of the tube ready to go.”
“The hardest part about getting into a round tube is getting your flippers inside the tube. This may sound easy but rest assured it will take some practice.”
“When I exit my tube I remove my flippers before trying to step out. Usually your legs are tired and your balance seems off when you get out of the lake.”
“OK, so you’re standing in your tube. Now what do you do? (Be careful that you are not standing on your seat for this next part.) Bend over and grab the side handles with both hands (there is one on your left and one on your right.) Lift the tube until it’s waist high and begin walking backwards into the water. When the water is knee high, attach the safety latch on your seat and continue walking backwards. When you feel the seat touch your butt, you can then sit down. You may now attach the two straps to the stripping apron and guess what? You’re floatin’.
“As with the entering procedure, make sure you walk backwards exiting the water as well. If you’ve ever tried walking forward with flippers on when you were a kid, you know what will happen. You’ll fall flat on your face.”
However, here is another opinion from Eric Licht a.k.a. BassHunter from www.gofishohio.com who faces toward the water.
“Here’s how I get in. I put the belly boat in the water then ease both flippered feet into the leg holes.” (I am assuming he means one at a time) “Now I simply take my rod in one hand, then put both hands on top of the tube on each side. Using the tube to help balance myself I walk into a little deeper water – anything over 20” or so is good – then I just sit down.”
Once in the water and floating….just kick and you are on your way to catch the big ones. And by the way….there is an obvious exercise dividend here so kick away!
If by now you are hearing the mermaid’s song and your feet are beginning to fell a little webby, Google “belly boats” or “float tubes”. YouTube offerings abound from all over the world. Take a look, some are informative and some are just flat funny. Cabela’s and Bass Pro both have good and reasonable selections of tubes and accessories as do other sites. The two sites quoted above have lots more information. There is much more on appropriate rods, lines, and techniques when fishing the float tube.
It is now true confession time. I have never fished from a float tube. But I have been stuck on the bank watching by buddies catching the really big ones from their tubes. I was envious then and still am. The more I look, the more I read, the more I want to release my inner Ariel and flip with the fishes. Ladies, this looks like way too much fun to pass up!