A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Anchorage: 41°/53°/Intermittent clouds
Fairbanks: 31°/63°/Mostly clear
Juneau: 39°/62°/Partly cloudy
I have to smile to myself as I watch my buddy, Jim Quinn, negotiate the trail in front of me. No head, just arms and legs sticking out from a brightly colored ring, bobbing from side to side between the trees. All that is needed to make this cartoonish scene complete is the accompaniment of some silly music.
This absurd image, however, is quickly displaced by the country into which we emerge. Out of the forest and into a landscape dominated by enormous snow-capped peaks casting a mirror image of themselves across the stillness of a mountain lake, the early morning sunlight just beginning to dapple its surface along with the occasional dimple of rainbow trout on the rise.
Although slightly winded from our trek into the alpine country, we hurriedly wrestle out of our packs and begin to gear up, donning waders, adding swim fins, and preparing for the often humbling task of climbing into our tubes. It's hard for newcomers not to be self-conscious, but Jim and I have been doing this long enough to know there's simply no dignified way to enter a float tube. Still, it's difficult not to chuckle watching your buddy perform a most ungainly pirouette, two-stepping along the bank, before plopping himself unceremoniously into the water. Yet I'm careful not to laugh too loud, knowing I'll have my own turn to perform this same clumsy dance.
Some fishermen simply refuse to suffer the indignities of the float tube, while others find it, once we are on the water, completely and utterly relaxing. For us it's sitting in the lap of luxury, like bobbing along in a pool toy; all that's needed to complete the fantasy is a cup holder and one of those umbrella-topped tropical drinks. What we also love about our "belly boats" is the unique intimacy they allow us to share with the water. Being so near, it lets us experience each ripple, every breath of wind. And for fly-fishers it supplies an up-close and personal perspective on the organisms swimming around us - food for the fish and food for thought as we try and match the hatch.
While some complain about feeling restricted in a float tube, we fans find the belly boat liberating - in this case allowing us access to the lush weed beds on the far end of the lake, the distant hideouts where the large trout dwell. In fact, my first few trips to this lake were nearly my last, the fish around shoreline so small they barely put a bend in my 3-weight fly rod. But on this mountain lake, too distant to ever consider carrying in any type of conventional watercraft, I was able to gain access to the places beyond casting range, where the big boys live. This is where Jim now casts, over a vast mirrored plain, laying a dry fly carefully over the likeness of mountains and a few soft clouds shimmering in the placid brushstrokes of mid-morning, a portrait of pure tranquility - all thanks to a short hike and the freedom of this round nylon tube.
Float Tube Basics
As with all types of gear, float tubes have seen major innovations in recent years. The modern belly boat is a far cry from the first commercially produced tubes which arrived on the scene shortly after World War II and consisted of little more than a rubber inner tube and a canvas seat. Most companies have gone from a round boat to a more streamlined, U-shaped tube, which is easier to climb into and tracks much more efficiently over the water.
All of today's tubes are filled with pockets and even the most modest version has a backrest and comes with a variety of straps to hold spare rods and gear. Attachments are even being made that allow you to add fish finders, anchors and electric trolling motors to your tube. One company, Outdoor Adventure Products, makes something called the Pow-R-Tube. At first glance this hybrid boat/float tube appears to be a single entity, although the rear portion, including the motor, can be detached, allowing it to be used as a standard belly boat. An important feature, considering one of the most practical reasons for having a belly boat is its portability.
For those of us who regularly head into the alpine country in search of new fishing opportunities, the float tube is the perfect answer, supplying unobtainable freedom in places you'd never consider carrying in even a lightweight canoe. To further reduce their burden many hikers replace the rubber inner tube found in older models with a urethane bladder, substantially decreasing the weight of their load. The urethane bladder, which is standard in new models, is also easy to inflate with the use of a small hand pump, a big plus in the backcountry.
On trails that are wide enough, many of us prefer to hike with our tubes inflated. Despite being bulky they are very light, and attaching them to the outside of a backpack allows ample room for swim fins, rain coat, tackle boxes, or any number of other necessities that must be toted along.
For safety's sake, it is wise to keep to smaller lakes due to the limited mobility you have in a float tube. If there's a prevailing breeze, start from the direction from which the wind is coming and allow it to propel you down the length of the lake. Trolling in this fashion is an excellent way, especially on new waters, to scope out the inlets, weed beds and submerged debris where fish normally seek cover.
When choosing a float tube the options can seem endless, with prices ranging from about $50 for the most basic model (without waders and fins) to more than $500 for something as sophisticated as the Pow-R-Tube. Before making a decision it's important to consider how and where you'll be using your float tube. Will it be along the roadside lakes or at trail's end? It will open up a world of new possibilities. And after all, isn't that a part of what makes fishing so special, that there's always a new way to enjoy it?
Freelance writer Dave Atcheson lives in Sterling. He is the author of "Fishing Alaska's Kenai Peninsula."