A brief history of float tubes and cool magazine ads

Joey Bagels

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Spurred on by a discussion in another thread with Lewis Chessman, I dug out some of my old magazines and did some investigating into the history of float tubes and belly boats. When I first started fly fishing in 1986, float tubes were already a common sight on the Wyoming lakes I haunted. So I never gave much thought to their origin and evolution. Now that I’ve gone a few decades further down the path to angling enlightenment, I find myself consumed with curiosity about how stuff came to be. Float tubes in particular are a fascination of mine. So...without further ado...here’s what I’ve found.
As early as 1895, float tubes were being manufactured and sold to anglers.

Fish Master (1947) and Tucker Duck and Rubber Fish-n-Float (early to mid ‘40’s) were around since the 1940’s and produced basic, canvas-covered inner tubes used by anglers in the south to chase warm water gamefish.

Earlier, weirder models existed, but none seemed to really catch on.
Trout anglers seemed to discover float tubes in the early 1970’s and by 1980, magazine articles were covering them in some detail even though only a handful of brands and models existed.



Even Bass Pro Shops jumped onto the bandwagon.

Del Canty was making float tubes during the late ‘70’s and selling them, but not being a big operation, they never seem to have taken off. He advertised sparingly and this advert showed up in 1981.

The following year (1982), he introduced a U-shaped tube...possibly the first of its kind and definitely well ahead of its time.

Tubes largely stayed round-ish, with Caddis first appearing in 1982 and having a more square shape.

Other brands kept showing up, but didn’t stick around long.

By 1984, float tubes were big business and full color, full page adverts were appearing.

The ‘80’s were definitely the round boat’s golden years.
Del Canty’s tubes kept evolving and by 1990 had acquired more oblong shapes.

A major leap forward occurred in early 1991, when the first U-boat rolled out of the collective efforts of Wilson Creek and Pete Ross.

Just under 2 years later, something happened and the team split with Creek making the U-boat and Wood River (Pete Ross) making their own version. This advert appear in the December 1992 issue of Fly Fisherman:

Pontoons and kick boats entered the scene by 1987 as seen in this article:

and were gaining popularity slowly, getting lots of coverage by 1994.



Also by 1994, Wood River had introduced its V-shaped boats like the Glide Rider and was directly competing with Creek Company in the same publications. Here are two adverts that are in the same issue of Fly Fisherman (May, 1994).


Sadly, the mid to late 1990’s saw more and more anglers gravitating to pontoons and kick boats. The hybrid pontoon-float tubes like the Creek Company ODC 420 and Outcast Fat Cat put anglers up out of the water, and didn’t use oars like the true pontoons. There’s plenty of information on their evolution too, but I think I’ll leave at this for now. Incidentally, I still really enjoy using my Caddis and U-Boat tubes. Being low on the water keeps me nice and stable and presents less of a profile in the wind. They’re also EXTREMELY easy to travel and hike with making them far superior to hybrid pontoons and kick boats. Happy tubing!
Edited to add: Caddis tubes had originally been made in Oregon, USA. In 2004, Caddis sold its float tube business (now called Caddis Sports Inc) and they are made in China. Likewise, Creek Company has all its tubes manufactured in China, though they are still based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I prefer the original, vintage, made in the good ol’ USA models, but that’s just me.


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bill_s

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Very enjoyable and interesting post. Appreciate your efforts!

I have never used one. Have considered it, but the thought of the typical Kansas wind blowing me into Nebraska has given me concern. :)

Cheers
 

Joey Bagels

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The winds of Wyoming are as bad or worse than Kansas! Low-floating tubes like the round boats and U boats are surprisingly maneuverable in even strong winds. Go ahead and give them a shot!


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karstopo

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I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in a float tube. When I lived in New England, there were a lot of ponds that looked pretty prime for some small craft like maybe a float tube.

What’s ideal water for them? What’s sort of the worst thing to guard against when using one? I guess a leaky wader could be a problem. I’m not sure they would be all that great in gator country.

Are there float tube forums?
 

Joey Bagels

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I use mine here in Texas and travel all over with them. Leaky waders can be a bummer, but the worst thing to guard against is probably wind as Bill_s mentioned. For really windy days, the round tubes are actually better than U boats because you can leverage your knee under the body of the craft and get some real power behind your kicks without wearing out your whole leg. I’ve fished in some real bowlers and if you have an anchor, it can help. Otherwise, the only major issue is making sure you don’t over-inflate. Blowing your tube up at 6,000’ then traveling to a mountain lake at 10,000’ and leaving it in the direct sun can blow it out.


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Rip Tide

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I've had a leak in the truck tire tube of my round float tube. Right around the zipper area.
I don't know if that was from wear or ozone, but I didn't even realize it until it got to shore and it was nearly flat :redface:

And just this season, somehow the valve opened up on my U shaped tube while I was in the side pocket for a fly box or something
That time I knew right away that I was sinking (but didn't know why) so I had to beat feet to some place I could stand up.
Other than that, I've had very few issues.
They're extremely stable.
Another time this season, a big storm blew in and the two of us in tubes plus some folks in canoes all had to scramble for launch area.
While the canoes were in danger of capsizing we were just out there bobbing along like corks, so we had them go first.

I have the 1977 Herter's catalogue here in front of me
Their "Fisherman's and Duck Hunter's Float" sold for $19.27 and the "Footfins" were $10.87
It's appears that you needed to supply you own inner tube
 

Frank Whiton

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I fished a lot with a plain float tube. It didn't have the high back that many have and did OK in the wind. They are ideal for small ponds/lakes that are wooded. The trees will break up the wind and not be a problem. There is a problem on bigger lakes where the wind gets a good run at you. I have been in a situation that I was on the wrong side of the lake when a strong wind came up and I had to beach the tube and wait for the wind to die so I could return to my truck. I always carried a pump with me on the tube. I did a float on the Green River one time with a tube. I floated from the dam down to the bridge campground. It ended up being more work than fishing. It convinced me that I needed a pontoon boat and I never used the tube again.

Definitely not a good choice where there are gators. Too many body parts in the water. I never used my pontoon boat in Florida because of the gators.

Frank
 

dennyk

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I've never used a float tube, but gotta wonder if anyone has ever gotten nailed by a snapping turtle or other aquatic critter while on the water?

Denny
 

Rip Tide

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I've never used a float tube, but gotta wonder if anyone has ever gotten nailed by a snapping turtle or other aquatic critter while on the water?
I've had a snapping turtle follow me around. More curious than dangerous, I think
And I've been threatened by an otter.
That was a little more disturbing but other than some snapping and growling by the otter (and some screaming and slapping of my rod on the water by me ) nothing came of it.
I'm sure that it thought I was a rival.

What I'm most afraid of is stumps.
 

spm

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I have never used any kind of float tube/pontoon. I look at them and think it would be a good way to get out onto the lake, and then I have this vision of being in the middle of the lake, getting a major puncture and sinking like a stone. Nope.

Enjoyed the advertisements and articles, Joey.

Thanks,
steve
 

Joey Bagels

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First off, I always have an inflatable pfd on when tubing. Also, I carry a pump in case I need to reinflate on a COLD day...you know...shrinkage. But as for dangers from wildlife, I’ve never been threatened by anything. Deflation is likely to take a while, not like a balloon popping. The nylon shell will actually hold the ruptured tube together and slow the leakage of air, so as you make your way to shore, you can add some with he pump if needed. Plus there’s the auxiliary float in the back rest of most models. I’ve been tubing for 32 years or so and never had any problems. I HAVE however rolled my kayak twice. Peoples’ fears and phobias are very real to them, but most of the concerns over float tubes aren’t based in reality. And for traveling and getting into distant stillwaters, they just can’t be beat!


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Lewis Chessman

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Joey, big thanks. A classic op there!

Like Joey, I (almost) always wear a manual life jacket. These days they're so non-restrictive there's no excuse not to - other than sometimes I get too excited and forget!

I'm sure a float tube is far safer than most of the boats I've fished in. The fins act like a great keel and I've never once, in 17 years at it, thought I was going to tip myself over.
As Joey say, almost all tubes these days have an auxiliary float in the back-rest, if not two floats in the main body, so an awful lot would have to fail simultaneously to endanger you. I've fished mine in 30 mph winds and felt quite safe on days when the boat was out of bounds.

If fishing a lake in high winds I always fish from the windward shore, kicking out into the wind then turning and casting back to shore (where the salmon will be, noses into the wind). If/when I get tired the wind will blow me home rather than me having to fight it with tired legs.
Always have a pee BEFORE you start. The cold water can add a certain 'urgency' and at the first inkling I'm heading back to terra firma - which will take a while itself. Tubes aren't fast craft! Then you have to beach, lay the rod down safely, life jacket off, wading jacket off ..... come on, come on ..... wadersdownfliesdown and ..... :eek:

I keep meaning to buy a pump but haven't yet. I'm a 55 y-o smoker but can still inflate my tube in ten minutes. Get a free high doing it, too! :cool:
They are very light and easily portable. They really revolutionised the way I loch fish, opening up so much more water. Also, you can escape the dreaded, biting Highland Midge if the wind drops and they're mugging you by the banks. Undoubtedly, the best fishing 'gadget' I have ever owned and, given it's long life, relatively one of the cheapest, too.

If you haven't yet tried but like the idea, do yourself a favour and beg, steal or borrow one. It may just be the best fishy thing you've ever done since finding The Fly.
 

spm

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First off, I always have an inflatable pfd on when tubing. Also, I carry a pump in case I need to reinflate on a COLD day...you know...shrinkage. But as for dangers from wildlife, I’ve never been threatened by anything. Deflation is likely to take a while, not like a balloon popping. The nylon shell will actually hold the ruptured tube together and slow the leakage of air, so as you make your way to shore, you can add some with he pump if needed. Plus there’s the auxiliary float in the back rest of most models. I’ve been tubing for 32 years or so and never had any problems. I HAVE however rolled my kayak twice. Peoples’ fears and phobias are very real to them, but most of the concerns over float tubes aren’t based in reality. And for traveling and getting into distant stillwaters, they just can’t be beat!


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Yes, I can see, a PFD would be critical. I had always envisioned it popping like a balloon, rather than a slow leak. Never thought of a pump. Also didn't know there was an auxiliary. Obviously, I have a lot to learn. I have canoed rivers a quite a lot, but not lakes. I haven't kayaked at all. And yes, I have dumped in a canoe.

Thanks for the clarification and the help, Joey.
steve
 

Lewis Chessman

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Here are some shots of my friend's maiden voyage in my float tube in 2012. We were at the very head of a long Scottish sea loch where a river enters and, having established his 'in' and 'out' points beforehand, he was quite safe - there was no significant tidal pull or river flow to endanger him. It was his first sea trout on the fly, too. :)

The tube is a Ron Thompson entry-level model I bought in 2000 for, I think £110, roughly $150. It's needed minimal maintenance (the occasional wash), has very basic valves but has never once let me down. You guys may not know of the Ron Thompson tackle brand - it's a nothing name made up by marketing men. The parent company owns several other brands like Scierra and Okuma, imports in bulk, sells throughout Europe and is based in Denmark. Like any of these octopus companies, every so often they happen upon something good!
Here we are 17 years later and my tube seems as good as new. Interestingly, the cheapest equivalent at the store where I bought mine is only £9 more than mine was! I'm not sure when V-Tubes came on the market here - perhaps 2003-ish?

To the water!

A cautious start ....
................................................First Float Tube Trip 1.jpg

Getting settled ....
................................................View attachment 9566

Fish on!
................................................View attachment 9565

No words necessary.
................................................First Float Tube Trip 4.jpg
 

captain belly

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I'm a Buck's Bags kinda guy. I have the last sold 350 lbs capacity Round tube they had. Not as easy to get in and out of as the U-boats, but WAY more stable with the added bonus of resting my elbow and body on the front while slinging lures. love the old article.
I hope to get out again and belly boat some more. As i get older, my knees start to go.
 

JoJer

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There have been some accidents where people overturned float tubes. The round ones, particularly, are easy to tip over forward. I have friend who lives by a shallow lake. He thinks canoes and sit-in tubes are death traps. He favors a sit-on type that's like a lawn chair with foam floats. I felt a bit unconnected in it for the first few minutes but forgot all about the differences quickly.
My own semi-secret nightmare in a float tube is tangling one or both feet in discarded mono, y'know, that 20 pound test that's loaded on most of the spin reels they sell in W-mart- tying me to a snag, in cold water over my head. Hell, I can barely reach my feet on dry land. With the tube, it's nearly impossible. Your only choice is to drop through the seat and hope you can cut loose before the hypothermia gets you. YIKES!
One year I discovered that my tube didn't float me anymore. I think it shrunk in the heat of the garage. I bought a spiffy new one that had a back rest and a head rest, each with it's own little air pillow. The head rest got dumped first. All it did was knock my hat off all the time. I put 'er in Silver Creek, down stream from the bridge, west of the Conservancy. Fish feeding all around me as far as the eye can see. Raise the rod, everything stops. Set the rod down, feeding starts up again. It was a funny and fun game for a while, but it gets old quick. I decided to push on back up to the bridge and exit. Big wind came blowing down stream and I found out what that back rest was really good for: A sail. I barely made it back to the bridge before my legs gave out.
I mostly quit using my Uboat after I got my canoe.
 

moucheur2003

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I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in a float tube. When I lived in New England, there were a lot of ponds that looked pretty prime for some small craft like maybe a float tube.

What’s ideal water for them? What’s sort of the worst thing to guard against when using one? I guess a leaky wader could be a problem. I’m not sure they would be all that great in gator country.

Are there float tube forums?
I live in New England and the ponds and small lakes here are ideal water. Some of the brook trout ponds in the Great North Woods are perfect for float tubes. One time I hiked up the trail from Smuggler's Notch to a certain pond (that I won't name but you can discover easily enough with a little ingenuity) with my gear in a backpack and had a blast once I got there -- most hikers don't fish and most anglers don't hike, but the pond was full of eager brookies.

As discussed by others above, wind can be a concern but can be managed, especially with a low-sitting model. You want to test the air bladders for leaks before you get out in the middle of the lake. You definitely need good chest waders, unless it's a hot day and you're wearing swim trunks -- there's a reason they are called "belly boats". One thing that didn't occur to me on my first expedition until it was too late is that if you wear a fishing vest, everything in the bottom half of it is likely to get soaked.
 

Lewis Chessman

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I hope to get out again and belly boat some more. As i get older, my knees start to go.
Hi, captain and welcome!

I still use the hefty, basic fins (like U.S. Caddis, I think?) with wading boots but I've read a lot of chat on the UK FFF over the years on the benefit of more expensive but better designed fins which lessen the strain on the knees. Maybe the American members could recommend some good models to help keep you kicking?

I don't know if it actually helps but at the end of season pack up I always roll the air tanks up rather than fold them in the belief that folding puts more stress on the plastic over time and weakens it. So far, so good.

Having never heard of the Creek Co. before this thread I happened upon their Float Tube Anchor on eBay UK yesterday. It's simply a mesh bag you fill with stones on site and a rope, so very light weight in transit. Not available on their site today, it seems.
Has anyone ever tried them? They look like they might be more faff than they're worth, time-consuming to haul up and the line is just begging to hook a dropper when a fish runs haywire .... but maybe I'm wrong?
 

Joey Bagels

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I’ve used a regular grocery store mesh sack that holds onions. Just fill it with roundish rocks, tie it off with some thin cord like paracord, and it’s set to go as an anchor. Nothing special, but it works. Another option is a small, 5-10 lbs. boat anchor and a buddy of mine used a 10 lbs. dumbbell. All of which are usually less expensive than gear aimed specifically at float tubes. Go figure!


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