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Introduction & History

Introduction & Float Tube Fishing History

This book is dedicated to all tubers and tooners…veterans, newbies and wannabees. I am not conceited enough to suggest that I know all the answers but I can safely say that during more than five decades of floatation fishing I have identified most of the questions.

All false modesty aside I am a pretty fair fisherman. As a kid in Idaho I grew up in a fishing family and I had a lot of good instruction and support for my fishin’ passion. I caught my first trout before age 5 and I have since fished all over the western hemisphere…fresh water and salt…for hundreds of species of fish.

I have been productively fishing from a float tube or pontoon for over half a century. Happily, whenever I go afloat I usually catch fish. I frequently draw lots of attention from both boaters and bankers who are intrigued by the “tricked out” craft from which I am fishing. They see the multi tube rod rack, the sonar and some of the other goodies dangling from my ride and they are impressed. My setup and my success helps make a good case that float tubes are for real and not just a novelty or a “poor man’s boat”.

A common refrain heard from would-be tubers and tooners is that they have “been thinkin’ on” getting into “floatation fishing” (my term) but were intimidated by not knowing how to put a system together…or how to use it. With the increasing number of new models and options the choices can be confusing.

I also hear from a lot of procrastinators who admit to already having a tube or ‘toon but who have never had it on the water. In many cases well-meaning friends or relatives bought them a craft but the recipients simply had no guidance or assistance in getting properly set up and launched. Still others have tried it a time or two but couldn’t get the hang of it…or worse. Floatation fishing is like any other sport or pursuit that improves with experience and
developed skills. And, just like golf, tennis, archery or even typing, you can avoid a lot of mistakes and get going faster if you get some qualified instruction up front. The more comfortable and competent you become the more you will enjoy your new-found addiction.

You will get off to a much better start if you have a guide or mentor along to coach you through the first learning experiences. Once you master the basics you can practice and experiment on your own for the rest of your life. But, the longest journey (float) begins with the first step (splash).

I began this book in 1980 after 25 years of fishing from float tubes. I flattered myself that I knew just about all there was to know about float tubing. I probably did at that time but the original title of this book was “Do It In A Donut” My experience was limited to round tubes.

During the last 25 years there have been a lot of changes in our sport. And, in that time I have learned at least 90 percent of what I think I now know about tubing and tooning. I would like to think that I have also improved my basic fishing skills a bit along the way.

I have continued to learn and write more on this book each year. After five major rewrites and title changes I decided I should probably put something into print. Our sport is constantly growing and evolving. A definitive and all-encompassing work might never be possible.

Float tubing mostly began with anglers who fished while reclining in rubber truck tire inner tubes as they floated down slow streams or thrashed around in farm ponds,. Some early tubers got creative and rigged up various seats and covers to provide more comfortable and efficient fishing. That’s how I started. More on that later. It’s a good story.

The first commercially made float tube covers were made in the late 1940’s and early 50’s.  But tubing did not really become noticeably popular until the late 70’s and early 80’s.  That is when higher quality materials became available for tube covers, zippers and connections and several new manufacturers entered the growing market. In the early days the air chambers for float tubes were almost universally truck tire inner tubes.  The first covers were anything from simple canvas seats to more elaborate plastic-coated cloth covers.  Some even had pockets and aprons.  Many did not.  Many early tubers referred to their craft as “belly boats”. For some reason I have always hated that term.  It seems to be fading away as the number of round float tubes diminishes  In the mid 1980’s there was an impressive influx of new shapes, designs and materials for float tube covers and air chambers.  Tubers were no longer limited to the old “round boat” design.  We soon had “U-boats”, “V-boats”, kick boats, pontoons, and pontubes…with a host of models and colors to choose from.

The pioneers in float tubing consisted of two main groups.  First were the trout fishermen who used tubes to fish small lakes inaccessible to boats and difficult to wade.  They would kick their donuts out to fling flies at the risers previously too far to reach from shore.   The second major group was made up of warm water anglers who wanted something light and portable for getting onto small farm ponds and lakes not easily accessible by boat or bank fishing.   They primarily targeted bass and panfish.   Today, tubers and tooners take their craft almost anywhere there is enough water to float them…fresh or salt.  On some rivers and lakes you might see more floatation anglers than boaters or bankers.

There are an increasing number of clubs and Internet websites devoted to float tubes and pontoons.  And, there are more and more manufacturers producing more and better models every year.  Our sport is well recognized and we get a lot more respect these days. A high percentage of floatation fishermen fish only fresh water ponds and small lakes.  Some put electric motors on their craft and tackle larger waters.  Still others enjoy braving white water rapids on big brawling rivers.  There are increasingly more tubers and tooners who take their craft into salt water situations…bays, estuaries, harbors and even into the open oceans.   During the decades I have been “dunking my donut” (and subsequent craft) I have floated just about every kind of water and have fished in every type of condition imaginable.

There are chapters providing suggestions and details for how to approach various waters, and how to safely and successfully launch and beach…and also what to do when your adventurous nature gets you into trouble. I can legitimately claim that I have probably taken just about every species of North American fresh water fish while fishing from a tube or toon. I have also taken a hefty number of species from the salt waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) too.    As mentioned, there are separate chapters that discuss fishing different waters and for pursuing different species.  There will also be a chapter on Tackle and Techniques.

I am a multi-tackle (non purist) angler. I build rods, tie flies and make a wide range of lures.  I use fly-fishing gear, spinning and bait casting tackle and even use “dip sticks”…the modern equivalent of a cane pole.   On most of my excursions my onboard rod racks contain up to five rods.  These can be a mix and match of all the different types of tackle.  And, on most trips I have several boxes full of different flies and lures…and at least a couple of types of bait and some fish attractants.  I go fishing to catch fish, by whatever means are required.

The previous paragraphs are not intended to be boastful. I merely wish to make the point that maybe…just maybe…I have “been there, done that” enough to establish my qualifications to “hold forth” on this subject. The stories, ideas and suggestions I present are based upon personal experience. Hopefully, that comes through in this work and I can provide the kind of “real world” information my potential readers are looking for.

Now My True Story

I became a float tuber mostly by accident and entirely opposite from how most anglers do it.
I started in salt water and took my tube to fresh water only after I had been playing in the salt for
several years. Tubers typically start in fresh water and many never fish the salt. Silly me.
As I mentioned, I began my fishing career in Idaho and by the time my family moved to
Southern California in the early ‘50’s I was already a terminal fishaholic. No matter where we
went on family outings I always brought my fishing tackle…”just in case”.

I did not find my familiar trout in sunny southern California but it didn’t take long for me
to become friends with bluegills, bass, crappies, catfish and other warm water species. While
fishing from the public fishing piers along the Orange County coastline. I also met a variety of
inshore salt-water fishes. It was all good. A 12 year old fishing addict does not discriminate.
Once I got past the culture shock of being an Idaho farm kid transplanted into the
California “happenings” of the fifties I acquired some new (human) friends. Some of them taught
me how to “surf” in the ocean waves using an old inner tube. We would sit inside the center of the
tubes with arms and legs hanging over the edges. Propulsion through the incoming surf was
achieved by kicking our bare feet and sculling with our hands. Once we got out far enough to catch
a cresting wave we turned around and rode it backwards into shore.

On one tube-surfing trip to the beach I floundered and flailed my way out just beyond the
breaking waves. The water was several feet deep and clear enough that I could see schools of small
smelt and perch swimming around below me. That did it. I was suddenly transformed from a
“surfer dude” back into my fisherman persona.

I became obsessed with bringing some tackle out and fishing instead of surfing. It took some
doing but I did manage to work my way out through the surf on my next trip carrying a fishing rod,
a few hooks and sinkers and a small container of shrimp for bait.

I was overjoyed to find that the fish readily accepted what I offered from my donut dinghy.
But, I soon discovered that it was difficult to fish effectively while sitting in the middle of an inner
tube having only bare feet and hands for propulsion. In fact, on that first “tubing” trip a “rogue
wave” jumped up out of nowhere and tumbled me into the beach because I could not kick hard
enough to avoid it. I managed to hold onto my tackle but my reel never worked well again. I
learned the hard way that salt water and sand are not good reel lubricants.

One of my new California friends had been teaching me the basics of snorkeling and I had
been able to talk my parents into getting me a mask and fins for my birthday. The first
improvement I made in my rudimentary float tube system was to wear my new swim fins.
The fins made a world of difference in my ability to get beyond the breakers and out into
fishing territory. They also helped me to move around and maintain my position without having to
use my hands. Now my hands could be kept busy baiting hooks and unhooking fish.
A favorite uncle provided my next equipment “upgrade”…a big truck tire inner tube. It
was patched but serviceable and definitely larger than the regular car tube I had been using.
At first, I was ready to go back to the smaller tube. I was dismayed to find that I was too
small to comfortably and effectively drape my arms and legs clear up and over the larger donut. I
was just smart enough to figure out that I needed some kind of seat.

So, I began experimenting. My first seat was simply a short length of wood lashed into place
across the top of the new and larger tube. It was a great seat…until I tried to get out through the
waves. It was top heavy with me sitting on it and the first small wave dumped me. Back to the
drawing board.

Next, I used a shorter length of board and dropped it down inside the center hole in the tube,
like a child’s swing seat. It worked fine until subjected to water and waves. It was hard,
uncomfortable and tilted forward to let me slip out of the tube too easily. Too much trouble.
One of my experimental seats almost kept my voice from changing and could have prevented
any branches on my family tree. I rigged several loops of rope into a sling of sorts. I straddled it as
I tried paddling out to fish. It suspended me in the right position, but quickly created excruciating
“crotch cramps”.

I finally borrowed a heavy darning needle and some stout thread from my mother. I had
learned some basic stitchery from watching her do the family mending and felt confident that I
could put something together.

My first working seat was crudely crafted from some burlap. Later, I came up with a couple
of serviceable seats made from canvas. Once I had a design that was both functional and
comfortable I experimented with several other types of material.

Yep, I designed and made my own first floatation system. That made me like many other
early tubers. We all believed that we had independently discovered float tubing. And, realistically,
we all did…individually.

Float tubing remained nothing more than a novelty to me for many years. As I mentioned, I
fished from a tube mostly in salt water. I finally introduced my tube to fresh water for various
warm water species but I still fished mostly from piers, boats and the bank.
Tubing remained as something for summer fishing when the water was warm. I did not own
or use waders and my wet suit was for diving.

My first commercially made “float tube” was technically not a tube at all. It was a round
molded plastic “personal fishing craft”. I was out of school, married and working. On a work
assignment in northern California I saw IT hanging on the wall of a little tackle shop. I had to have
it. It was about the size of an auto tire inner tube and it was made by heat welding the top and
bottom of the two molded halves of rigid plastic around the middle.

It had a contoured seat that was functional but hard and uncomfortable. As small as it was
it barely floated me without taking water over the top. I had bought it mainly as a novelty. After a
couple of test drives I handed it down to my sons. It became a favorite water toy for them.
That first “store-bought” craft met its demise several years later after I had moved my
family to the Salt Lake area. That poor hard donut had been moved around and bounced around a
lot. It finally succumbed to the rough treatment.

Shortly after my son Steve launched it to join me in a crappie fest the tired craft split at the
seams and sank in a rush of bubbles. All this happened in shallow water. There was no loss of
tackle and Steve was in no real danger. We hoisted the sunken vessel out of the water and donated
it to a nearby dumpster. Sadly, for this book, I never did get any pictures of it.

In the late 70’s, a friend showed me a new float tube he had bought at one of the larger
tackle emporiums in Salt Lake. It was a FishMaster, one of the early entries into the commercial
float tube arena. It was crude by today’s standards but it had pockets, a stripping apron and a
good seat with a crotch strap. It was light years ahead of my own creations. I bought a couple.
That was the beginning of TubeBabe’s floatation fishing career. She took to it like a duck to water.
I strongly suspect that our FishMasters were some of the first float tubes ever seen on many
of Utah’s waters. At least we were usually the only tubers fishing whenever and wherever we
launched. Since we usually caught a lot of fish we attracted a lot of attention. It wasn’t long before
the local tackle shops were doing a fair amount of business in float tubes and accessories.

During those early years of tubing in Utah I was often asked to “hold forth” in mini
seminars, both at tackle emporiums and on various lakes, to demonstrate float tubes and how to
fish from them. As new makes and models became available some of our group seminars and
fishing “floatillas” became quite colorful.

Of course I had to acquire and try out just about every new float tube to hit the market. I
had no idea at that time that I was beginning a quarter century of R & D that would help qualify
me to write a book on the subject. As the old saying goes, “If I knew then, what I know now.”
Sadly, there were several manufacturers who came on the scene, launched a line of excellent
gear and then went “down the tubes” in spite of producing good products. It seemed obvious that
the float tube business was only going to get bigger over time. Too bad some of the smaller
companies were not adequately capitalized to hold out during the slow early growth period.

The FishMaster Company was one of the first commercial float tube manufacturers. The
original owner sold the company and retired a few years ago. They still produce and sell the same
old “round boat” that started them in the business and their basic design is still their mainstay.
Predictably, they do very little business these days compared to high tech competitors with their
newer designs.

Sometime around the early 90’s float tubing took an exponential leap forward. Frustrated
tubers were able to convince manufacturers that they did not have to rely on truck tire inner tubes
for air chambers and that there could be different shapes. Soon, tube bladders were made from
vinyl, urethane and other materials rather than the heavy black rubber of the inner tubes.

This led to the development of float tubes with an open front…”U-boats”. These were much
easier to get in and out of. I don’t remember but I am sure I giggled a lot the first time I launched
an open-front craft. For the first time launching I did not have to fight my way out into the water
with a “donut” pulled up around my waist.

It wasn’t long before we had “V-boats” with pointed bows/sterns that made it easier to track
through the water and to maneuver more efficiently in wind and waves. Next came the “pontube”
models with two separate air chambers. And, of course there were more and more full sized
pontoons being designed for fishermen. These larger and sturdier craft were capable of venturing
forth on bigger lakes and even going down feisty rivers.

We tubers and ‘tooners get more respect these days. No longer do we suffer so much from
the slings and arrows of outrageous derision while we paddle around like a duck stuck in reverse.
Most other fishermen now realize that we are serious anglers and that we often out-fish the other
guys…the boaters and bank tanglers.

Unfortunately, we still have to put up with the “power squadron”. Water skiers, personal
water craft operators and even other anglers in high powered boats seem to have the philosophy
that the most powerful craft has the right of way. Just like on the freeways the power mad crowd
seemingly enjoys living on the edge and taking chances…at the expense of others.

This can be dangerous as well as aggravating to floatation fishermen. Many of us plan trips
accordingly. It’s best to launch early and to leave the water before the craziness gets out of hand.
Fortunately, the wackos thin out during the colder times of the year when fishing is often the best.
I wish I had saved one of my early “store bought” float tubes…the hard plastic one that
broke apart and sank to the bottom. While we’re at it, I also wish I had saved every make and
model I have ever owned and fished from. There have been many. But, I have seldom kept any
model longer than it took to learn the positives and negatives and then move on to something new.
I could probably fill a large garage with my tested and discarded float tubes. Fortunately
(or unfortunately) most have been sold off, given away or downloaded to friends and relatives. I
would find it interesting to know how many of my former “rides” are still in use…if not still stored
in someone else’s garage.

I also wish I had taken more pictures, and better quality pictures. In my earlier years I
never owned a decent camera and often did not even take one when I went tubing. I missed a lot of
“photo ops”. On many tubing trips I had a camera but was more caught up in fishing than taking
pictures. Little did I know how much I would have liked to have better photo records of those trips
in later life…especially when trying to produce a book on tubing and tooning.

Over the years, many of my tubing trips were solo shots…or with others who were not
photographers. Consequently, I do not have many pictures of myself fishing from float tubes but I
do have a lot of “dead fish” pictures. Fortunately, I have taken and saved enough pics of the
different float tubes and other equipment to enable me to create a pictorial of sorts.

I have been shooting digital photos for the last few years. Before that I went through a
succession of “budget” cameras and eventually acquired some decent SLR 35mm equipment. This
meant that I have had to scan a lot of old photos and slides. I have also spent a lot of time reviewing
my growing accumulation of digital images and then editing the whole collection.

Hopefully my readers will critique my photos less on quality and more on content. Again, if
I knew then what I know now…well, let’s not go there. It ain’t even a possibility. But, the journey
has been its own reward. I’ve met a lot of good people (and nice fish) along the way and I’ve had a
ton of fun. My fondest wish is that I can help someone else to get there faster and with less pain,
frustration, anxiety and expense than I have put into my “research and education”.