Tubes don’t float for this fisherman

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Those shopworn cover photos on the sporting catalogues of a fly fisherman in a float tube somewhere out West never inspired me to buy one. “You’ll never get me fishing from an inner tube,” I told myself. Over the years, my boys and I wrestled many a canoe over rocks and blowdowns to get to our favorite trout ponds. No float tubes for us. No sir.

Time passed. My oldest boy, who lived in Colorado and spent some time fishing remote mountain ponds, returned to his beloved Maine with a progressive outlook on float tubes. He saw them as useful, a sensible device for accessing those hard-to-get-to trout ponds.

“Just try the tube once, dad. You’ll change your tune,” Scotty urged. So one fine day in early June, Scotty and I, with float tubes attached to backpack frames – hiked 4 miles into a comparatively remote trout pond in northern Maine.

I soon realized, as we got to the pond and made preparations to “board” our fishing float tubes, that getting to the pond was the easy part. You don’t just step into a float tube and begin casting to rising trout. Getting geared up for a morning of “tube fishing” on a cold trout pond is a process: Insulated underwear must be donned, and then chest waders. One must check for good tube inflation and then put on flippers or fins. Jacques Cousteau stand aside! Then there is the ever-critical launch. There is no graceful, dainty way to get man and fly rod settled into a fishing float tube. If you can get the tube “on” without getting wet, getting a flipper stuck in a rock or snapping the tip off your fly rod, you are blessed. A ballet dancer would look like a klutz. Grudgingly, I made it onto the pond with no incidents, just in time for the morning rise.

My first hour bobbing about and casting amid rising trout was better than I could have imagined! Very comfortable and amazingly maneuverable these glorified inner tubes. Trout working the surface behind you? No problem: a twist of the left flipper and presto, you’re lined up for the cast. Want to get across the pond? Simply lean back and kick those flippers and you are leaving a small wake. Hmmm. Does the Maine Warden Service consider this trolling?

All in all, my first float tube experience was encouraging and, except for a case of mild hypothermia, I came away with a new appreciation for the tube’s potential as a useful tool for the diehard trout chaser. Hold on, though. Before you run out and buy your very own float tube, you need to have the rest of the story. That day of tube indoctrination with my son was the good. Later float tube forays turned bad, and then ugly.

A few weeks later, still in possession of the borrowed float tube, I elected to try float tubing solo at a trout pond where I was not likely to have an audience. Pulling into the trailhead, I parked the truck and assembled all of the requisite tubing paraphernalia. An emergency mini-compressor was used to perform my first-ever float tube inflation. Arriving at the pond just as the evening rise was underway, I once again managed an incident-free launch.

Fish were rising like crazy. Settling into the soft comfort of the tube, which did seem a tad under-inflated, I tied on a No. 16 Adams and kicked my way near the center of the pond, where the big ones rise just before dark.

After a half hour of my best Zen-like focus on fishing, I was stirred from my trance by the unmistakable feel of cold water at my elbows. You got it. The float tube had lost its customary robustness. In fact, in leaning forward I discovered that air was escaping from an improperly installed valve stem. Water was being trapped between the fabric cover of the float tube and the rubber tube itself. Divers would describe the condition as near-negative buoyancy (I was sinking). After a lot of desperation-style fin kicks and a sluggish pond crossing, I salvaged myself and the tube for another day.

“Another day” came in mid-July out West, where float tubes are very de rigueur for the fly fishing set. My wife and I wound up our Wyoming dream trip this summer at a trout pond in the Shoshone National Forest. This pond – at 9,000 feet – is cold. I mean to tell you COLD. But lots of big rainbows had been rising nightly, just out of reach of a shore caster. Wearing two sets of long johns and chest waders, wife and I set out in our respective float tubes to seduce 2-pound rainbows.

No inflation problems this time. A quick learner, I had pumped these tubes with enough air to make the double-stitched liner creak for mercy. (I had also pumped myself with lots of water to prevent dehydration at altitude) That particular magnificent evening in the shadow of the Pinnacle Mountain range, the pond boiled with feeding trout. We cast. They sipped and slurped. We cast some more. They gulped and gorged. We changed flys. They mocked us. Diane quit in frustration. I pressed on. Despite the cold water and a nagging bladder, I persevered. At a time like that, as every serious fly fisherman knows, there is no giving up; at least, not until an artificial offering is finally sampled by a reticent fish.

But, alas, it was not to be. Soon the bladder situation grew acute, a preoccupation in extremis… To shore! To shore! As I hurried shoreward, the unexpected happened in full view of a small audience of other anglers. Almost to shore, within casting range of a large shady Lodgepole Pine, my flippers became stuck in the mud. And there this fisherman stood inextricably mudbound, in barely two feet of water, with one hand on his fly rod and the other holding up that silly tube at waist level. There was just no way out; nowhere to go, so to speak. Wife Diane, who witnessed my struggle and ignoble predicament through her camera’s long lens, mercifully took no pictures. She said my expression was wrong and it just would not have made a good cover photo for a Cabela’s catalogue.

Float tubes? They have their place, but I’ve yet to buy one. For my money, you really can’t beat a canoe as the trout fisherman’s conveyance of choice.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com.

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