Want to see a funny video? Go to YouTube and do a search for Winkelman Tube (or click here). The first video to pop up will be one with some idiot getting into a belly boat to battle a 400-pound Sturgeon! The fish pulls the poor sap around like a bobber and nearly pulls him UNDER. Oh, and that idiot in the video? Well, it’s me.
It was from an episode of Good Fishing that we filmed several years ago. I look at it today and think “Oh man, I was out of my mind!” But you know what? It was a thrill that I can’t even explain and wouldn’t trade for the world. The power of that fish combined with the feeling of near powerlessness made the battle epic and, I must admit, a little scary.
Most people don’t utilize belly boats (float tubes) for giant game fish. They’re much better suited for trout, panfish and bass. But the sturgeon video demonstrates that float tubes do allow you to get out and tackle practically anything. If you’re an angler who can’t afford a motor boat, a belly boat is your affordable ticket away from the crowded fishing bank. And even if you do own a boat, adding a tube to your gear list will put a new, simple dimension on your fishing and provide you access to all those small lakes that don’t have boat ramps. Best of all, fishing from a belly boat makes fighting fish a whole different experience. Being right there on the waterline is a blast, whether you have a 4-pound bass on the line or a 400-pound sturgeon.
As I mentioned, getting into float tube fishing is very affordable. Tubes range in price from less than $100 to around $500 for high-end models. There are basically two types of tubes: round and pontoon style (or U-shaped). While round tubes are typically lower-priced, I recommend a U-shape or pontoon style belly boat. They’re easier to get in and out of and generate less water drag, so they’re faster and easier to maneuver. Most people also find them more comfortable than a round tube.
In addition to durability and comfort, there are two important features in the float tube you select. The first is an ample, inflatable backrest. Not only does this contribute to comfort, but it’s also a safety feature. The backrest utilizes an independent air bladder, which can save your bacon if the main tube fails for some reason (remember, you’re dealing with hooks and thrashing fish, so punctures can happen). Don’t, however, rely on your backrest as your only emergency flotation. Wearing a PFD while belly boating is always a good idea.
The second key feature is storage. As with any fishing, you want to be prepared for all species, presentations, etc. So you need ample pockets and compartments for your gear. Remember that belly boating is a very physical activity (since your “outboard” is your legs and your “propellers” are swim fins). So you’ll need storage for water and food to keep your fuel tank full.
If you’re like me, you’ll also want a tube that has a spot to affix a portable sonar unit. Knowing water depth and being able to locate structure is an absolute must. Use your ingenuity to determine the best attachment method. A cinch strap or two is usually all it takes.
The best places for belly boat fishing are small lakes and ponds, for safety reasons. I strongly recommend NOT fishing from a tube on rivers and big water. If you get into swift current, even the strongest legs in the world might not overcome the power of rushing water. And if you’re swept into any kind of rapids, you could be in big trouble since your legs dangle beneath the tube, where injury could occur in rocks, stumps and other impediments. Refrain from getting too far from your launch point on big lakes, as severe weather and high winds could pop up in an instant. If there’s a lot of boat traffic on the water you’re tubing, I recommend wearing blaze orange clothing or other bright colors to improve your visibility.
When you first start tubing, you might feel a little awkward. Getting in and out of the tube and water is certainly the trickiest part. You’ll quickly learn to walk backwards into and out of the water when wearing your fins. As far as maneuvering the tube, after a short time you’ll be swimming like a duck and spinning yourself around by instinct. There will also be a short learning curve on fishing. Because you’re literally at water level, you might have to shorten your back-cast to prevent slapping the water behind you. In many cases, you won’t need to cast at all. Because of the precise control you have in a tube, either sitting in one spot or creeping slowly along, belly boats are ideal for vertical presentations with live bait, spoons and jigs.
When you hook up, expect more fun than you’ve ever had fishing. Even a three-pound largemouth can whip you around, swim around your legs and be the most interesting fight imaginable. So give float tubes a try. You’ll love it.
Babe Winkelman is a nationally-known outdoorsman who has taught people to fish and hunt for nearly 30 years.