Float Tubing 101
Lots of you have already started float tubing and have discovered how great it really is! But for those of you who haven't tried it yet, here's a few tips I hope will be helpful.
Besides your chest-high neoprene waders, you need flippers for your feet, a personal floatation device (a life jacket), and, of course, a float tube. Let's take them one at a time, with the float tube first.
The float tube was originally called a "belly boat" because when the tuber sits in it it appears to encircle her belly. These days, there are several different types of personal water craft that were spawned by float tubes. Float tubes consist of a truck tire inner-tube or a utethane bladder inside of a cordura cover, which buckles to create a seat in which the tuber sits. They are generally rounded in shape. Now, however, there are also u-boat styles that are not round but open in the front, in a "u" shape. The float tube and the basic u-boat are meant for use primarily on lakes. Now, some manufacturers also produce pontoon-style water craft that resemble a small raft for use on moving water. On some, the tuber paddles around with flippers, on others the tuber rows with oars, and on still others, the tuber can do either. Some u-boats also are built to accommodate oars for use on moving water.
As different styles of personal water craft have become available, fly fishers have debated the pros and cons of each. My personal favorite remains the float tube. I find it the least bulky for transport, the least expensive to purchase, and I get the strongest push when paddling in it because more of my leg is in the water. In the u-boat, one tends to sit farther back in the seat, and since, I have short legs, I find myself paddling only from the knee down in a u-boat, as opposed to my float tube, where I paddle almost from the hip down. I also have difficulty rowing because of an old arm injury, so that capability is of no interest to me. I'ts best to try out the different styles of tubes before purchasing if you can. At Women's Flyfishing® we hold float tube clinics to do just that, and so do many fly shops.
The best advice for flippers is not to try to use the flippers you skin-dive with. It only takes once for you to realize that they simply are not constructed for tubing. tubing flippers come in various styles and prices, from about $35 to over $100. Most tubers prefer flippers they can wear over their boots because of the convenience of being able to walk to and from the water without fear of cutting your wader feet on sharp stones or glass, or to just put their flippers on over boot-foot waders.
No matter which brand of life vest you purchase, just be sure it is short. Kyaking life vests are perfect for tubing. Regular vests come down past your waist, and tend to force your vest up under your chin when you're sitting down, as you will be in your tube.
The first time you go tubing you'll have to get used to rigging up in all the gear. Most people make sure they have a solid gravel bottom into which to launch their tube. That makes for solid footing. Then they get right to the edge of the water, put on their fins and their life jacket and prepare to get into the tube. The most important thing to remember, is that when you have your fins on it is extremely difficult to walk forward. You must back into the water. But that's just as well as it gets you used to the fact that in float tubing, you can only paddle backwards.
You can step into the tube or pull it over your head and then buckle the seat buckle between your legs. The difficulty in stepping into the tube was one of the main reasons manufacturers developed the u-boat, which you just back into and sit down. As you back into the water for the first time, hold onto the straps on each side of the tube. You're also smart to have an experienced tuber nearby, either to walk back with you, or to be floating just off shore waiting for you. You sit down when you're in water up to your knees. Sitting down in shallower water is extremely difficult. The first few times you launch, you might also want to have a friend hold your rod and hand it to you when you are safely in the water. Some unfortunate float tubers have learned the hard way how easy it is to break a rod tip while trying to manage both rod and tube until they're more experienced at launching.
Don't be surprised if your first few minutes in a float tube is rather scary. It's disconcerting to look straight down into the water with no more support than a float tube. We're used to doing that, but generally from a boat. Nearly everyone questions whether the tube will really hold them up. Paddle around for awhile in shallow water until you get used to the sensation of floting then take off, and discover why tubing has revolutionized flyfishing!