Belly Boats

By Neil M. Travis - July 20, 2009

belly boatsLast week the Ladyfisher wrote an article that contained some photos showing a bunch of our relatives floating around in float tubes; basically an inner tube covered with a fancy cover. For many of my readers this is not an uncommon sight, and for many it is the normal method of fishing. However, as an 'old school' trout fisher, the idea of fishing for trout except by wading around in the stream wearing rubber pants is a relatively new concept.

Back when I was cutting my angling teeth you fished for bass, bluegills, and similar finned creatures from a row boat, usually with a bobber and some type of live bait. Trout fishing was done while wading or walking along the bank of a stream. The only exception would be trolling streamers for brook trout on a lake in Maine, or casting a Skunk [a type of fly] to pockets among the cedars from the seat of an Au Sable River Boat.

My first exposure to float tubes as a means of fishing for trout came during my first visit to Montana 38 years ago when I saw a crude float tube hanging in a fly shop in West Yellowstone, Montana. When I inquired about its use I was told that an angler would put it around their middle, don a pair of swim fins, sit down on the canvas seat, and paddle around casting to trout on one of the many local lakes. WOW, sounded like a dumb idea to me.

It was the following year that I saw the value of fishing from a float tube. Back in Montana again I watched several anglers catching some respectable trout floating around in a device loving called 'a belly boat.' The fish that they were catching were unreachable from the bank, other floating devices set too high in the water to be really effective, and the angler was very mobile allowing them to maneuver quickly from place to place. The pockets that were incorporated in the cover allowed the angler to carry boxes of flies, extra leaders, and tippets; in short everything that was necessary. WOW, what a great idea. The next question was where can I get one?

My first belly boat was a gray canvas cover with a small zippered pocket on each side and a larger pocket across the back. You bought the cover and the tube separately. The tube was simply a large truck tire inner tube, and most fly shops did not have the tubes so you had to go to a tire shop to find one. Over time the tubes would develop dry rot and you hoped that you discovered it before you were floating halfway across some deep lake. The most dreaded noise that a belly boat angler can hear is a hissing sound!

Today the covers are made of nylon, they have several pockets, an inflatable backrest, and the tubes are made of vinyl and they are called bladders. Some are shaped like a U with an open front, and some have a point on the back like the prow of a boat. While some people use them on moving water this is risky and not a recommended practice.

In the traditional belly boat getting into the tube with fins strapped to your feet can lead to some interesting new dance steps especially as our bodies get a bit older. Walking in fins requires that you lift your feet REALLY HIGH to avoid tripping, and the safest way to walk wearing fins and waders is backwards. This is especially true when entering the water. Falling forward with an inflated tube around your middle while carrying an expensive fly rod is not only truly embarrassing, but can be expensive and even dangerous. Fins used for belly boating should either float or be tethered to your leg. Losing a fin makes getting back to shore a true challenge. I always wear a floatation vest when tubing. This only makes sense to me, and in some states it is required as a matter of law.

While it is possible to cover considerable distances in a belly boat ideally they are a short range craft. Most of us are not accustomed to propelling ourselves using fins and kicking with our legs. Finding yourself on the far side of a large lake when the wind suddenly decides to stir things up, and your only option is to kick back across against the wind or wait until the wind goes down will convince you of the wisdom of both watching the weather and limiting the distance you travel.

Generally belly boats are allowed wherever other types of floating devices are permitted, but I get a bit nervous when bobbing around in an area where high speed thrill seekers are pushing their high powered speed boats or jet boats at break-neck speed across the lake surface while trying to impress members of the fairer sex. Throw in a bit of alcohol and I feel like a target in a shooting gallery.

Since those days of yore I have spent many hours bobbing around in a belly boat. I have toted them into mountain lakes, farm ponds, and paddled around the bays and backwaters of large lakes. They are a great fly fishing platform, and open up angling opportunities which would be off limits without them. If you haven't tried one you should give it a try. Who knows, I might even bump into you someday bobbing around on some trout lake. If you do I hope you wave.

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