If you’ve ever competed with crowds to fish the shores of a lake, or couldn’t quite cast as far as you wanted toward rising stillwater fish, you should consider belly boating.
Belly boats, or float tubes, can be a stillwater angler’s best friend. They’re essentially more technical, adult versions of the float tubes that kids use in pools.
Boats are usually more or less U-shaped, with a hammock in the middle to sit. Your legs hang down into the water (don’t worry, you can still wear waders if it’s cold), and you sport a fin on each foot. Instead of having to control a paddle, your legs do the work of paddling and navigating, leaving your hands free to cast.
Belly boating is a great way to get away from crowded shores, since very few people at a given lake will be using one. They’re also great for accessing places that shore fishing won’t allow, like underwater drop-offs and sheer cliff areas.
Additionally, they can be deflated and packed in a backpack, allowing you to take them into the backcountry, which is a huge plus.
If you’re new to belly boating, here’s a quick how-to guide for getting started.
Buy or rent a belly boat
Belly boats actually aren’t too expensive for what you get, especially compared to other fly fishing gear. Basic ones can be found for under $100, but even the next tier up falls somewhere between $100-200. You can get nicer models for $300 or more, but I’ve never had a problem with my mid-level model.
Depending on where you’re fishing, you may be able to find a shop that rents belly boats as well. This is a good way to figure out if you enjoy it. But, if you decide that you’re going to keep belly boating, it’s probably best to buy one, since it’ll pay for itself after a few uses.
Belly boating doesn’t require much, but there are a few things that are vital, or helpful, when using one.
The first is a mandatory item. You will need fins for your feet. These come in several varieties, from minimalist backpacking versions to ones with extra support around the ankles. All these styles will get the job done, so buy whatever fits your price point and preferences.
One item that isn’t vital but that’s really nice to have is a pump. If you’re backpacking into most of your fishing holes, a pump will probably be too much to carry, but if you’re driving to fish, a pump will be a welcome addition.
Belly boats can be blown up manually, but you’ll probably get a little lightheaded. Using a pump saves both time and lungpower.
There are also plenty of other accessories, like rod holders, anchors, and dry bags, that can be added to a belly boat. What you get is totally up to your fishing style and preferences.
Organize your fishing tackle
One of the annoying things about belly boating is that it often causes your gear to spread out and get disorganized. Every so often, I go to grab something from my fish pack only to realize I’ve left it in a belly boat pocket.
One way to combat this is simply to remember to clean out your belly boat at the end of each session.
On the other hand, if you find yourself going a lot, another option is to get designated tackle for the boat. Storing extra nippers, hemostats, tippet, floatant, and other small essentials in the pockets permanently ensures that you won’t forget to grab something for the boat, or forget to move something back to your pack. Even a designated belly boating fly box is a good idea.
One thing I do tend to transfer back and forth every time is a net, but you could easily get a cheap net specifically for the boat. I also sometimes go without a net. Since I’m down in the water with the fish, and there’s no current to fight, it’s usually very easy to get fish in, and released, quickly and easily without a net.
Get in shape and size down gear
Belly boats aren’t particularly light or small. They’re bulky and take up the majority of the room in a backpack. If you’re driving to your spot, you’re good to go. But, if you’re backpacking in, don’t expect it to be a stroll in the park.
Boats vary in terms of weight, but many of the sturdier ones can reach 15-20 lb. While that’s not a lot in itself, remember that you’ll also need to carry fins, waders, boots, fishing gear, and everything else you’d normally take on a hike.
Before setting out on a backcountry excursion, make sure you know whether you’re capable of carrying the extra weight. If not, work up to taking the boat with you.
In addition to the weight, boats take up a lot of space. You may need to strap some things to the outside of the pack, or forego some luxury items. I usually limit my fishing gear to the bare essentials, and cut down on extra things that aren’t absolutely necessary for the hike.
Learn the technique
Don’t worry, fishing from a belly boat isn’t that much different from regular fishing. There are a few things to keep in mind, though.
By far the trickiest thing, in my opinion, is that you’re very close to the surface of the water while casting. This means if you’re trying to cast a lot of line out, you may need to alter how you cast to manage the line. Lifting your arm higher while casting can help you avoid hitting the water, and stripping in your line more than usual before starting a new cast also helps.
In addition, it can take a while to get used to the fact that you can really only travel backward. So, if you cast forward, you’ll probably end up dragging your fly back a bit. Get used to coming to a stop or adding some slack to your line to keep the fly still if you’re drifting. Alternatively, you can “troll” streamers by kicking hard enough, and it works quite well!
One other annoyance of a belly boat is managing excess line. If you’re stripping your fly, you’ll have a lot of line build up across your lap. The belly boat is going to be an absolute magnet for a fly line. Loops will get caught on all sorts of boat parts, so make sure your line is free before casting.
Maintaining a belly boat is pretty easy. When you’re done, rinse off the boat with freshwater, make sure all debris is off, and let it dry out completely. If you have to immediately pack it up for a hike out, you can pack it wet, but make sure you pull it out to dry it off before storing it. Alternatively, an inflated belly boat will dry pretty quickly, so you may be able to get it dry before packing it up.
It’s recommended that you wash a belly boat with a mild soap before storing it long-term, but I often just use water and make sure all debris is gone.
You can store it non-inflated or partially inflated, but not fully inflated. Half-inflated is a good option if storage space isn’t an issue, and saves you time the next time you blow it up!
For more information on taking care of your boat, check out this Basic Care guide.