With the water around here warming slowly, this may be a good time to consider whether to get out there and fish from a float tube.
Since I wrote a few weeks ago about the rewards of mid-winter, open water fishing, several have asked whether itís really possible to fish from a float tube as soon as a little ice opens up, and whether you can avoid hypothermia and general freezing of the nether regions. The answer to both questions is ďyes,Ē but Iíll leave it to you and your spouse or Mama to say whether you should. I wouldnít recommend it to the cold-natured or the belly boating beginners, but you donít have to be an Inuit to do this, either.
This time of year, weíre mostly talking about the pursuit of trout in lowland lakes and ponds. But with early spring on the horizon, you can explain to spouses and other skeptics that itís also good prep for early season bass and crappie. You probably wonít catch many if any of those in 39 degree water. But gradually, those other species will start develop a pre-spawn appetite too. Theyíll start showing up occasionally at the other end of your fishing line, and youíll know you can try other tactics.
You figure out baits and such; letís just talk about how to keep warm when fishing where you can reach out and pick your jig out of the ice. It should go without saying that you need as stable a fishing platform as possible, and for at least the first time or two, donít try this by yourself. Itís embarrassing when your buddy sees you stumble from your belly boat in warm weather; itís an abrupt end to the day if you get wet when itís 40 degrees.
I have a sweet little backpackable belly boat, but it stays in the garage until the arrival of much warmer weather. (In it, my butt drags in the water.) My fishing buddy Jim has a big old external frame pontoon boat equipped with oars and a trolling motor, but leaves that gear at home this time of year in favor of flippers and hip boots. Heís got a wheel that makes it easy to push that heavy craft to the waterís edge and back again.
Prepping the float tube
I rely on a sturdy float tube that weighs about 12 pounds. Itís an older model with an inflatable seat; newer foam seats keep you higher off the water. I make up for it by adding a life saver cushion.
You might think your little boat will lose air over the course of the day, but advance planning should keep that from happening. If you fill your tube in a warm garage and then take it out in the cold open air, it will start to collapse. Pump the thing up in an unheated area, keep it in the cold on the ride to the pond, check it before launch and top it off if needed. If you start fishing at mid-morning, the water temperature is usually going to be stable and the air is as cold as itís likely to get. If anything, your tube may get firmer as the day progresses. If you fish well into evening, as the air cools you may have to stop and pump your ride back into shape.
Dressing for success
All kinds of expensive, waterproof, windproof gear is available these days, along with thick neoprene waders and battery-powered, heated socks. They work fine, but I prefer to save my scarce retiree dollars for fishing gear. Hereís how I stay warm enough for three- to four-hours of fishing at a stretch:
If it's too damned cold, stay home or fish from shore until it warms up. For me, itís okay to get out when itís 35 degrees or so outside, with reasonably calm wind and likely warming into the Ď40s.
As the old saying goes, dress in layers. I start with medium-weight long johns, top and bottom, and add fleece waders with a strap at the bottom of each leg, loved by fly fishermen. Add white liner socks and sturdy wool socks, preferably ones that reach near the knee. I know neoprene is warmer, but I get by just fine with breathable, chest-high, stocking foot waders, with fleece pockets to occasionally warm the hands. I donít bother with foot warmers, and my regular wading boots keep my feet warm enough. (I thing the boots add warmth). Add a heavyweight wool shirt, a hooded windbreaker if itís going to turn nasty, and a wading belt and life jacket.
A wool hat with ear flaps, and waterproof fishing gloves complete the ensemble. You might add chemical hand warmers; I throw a couple in with my soft plastic baits to help keep them supple in the cold.
Since it should be above freezing when youíre out there, line or guide freeze shouldnít be an issue; I stick to an ultralight rig with braided line and fluorocarbon leader.
Everyone is different, so please donít take this as gospel, and be overly cautious out there. I have a pleasant plumpness about me that probably shields me from leg cramps when left in cold water too long, for example, and a shocking lack of common sense. You may not have either of those advantages.
Using barbless hooks and a landing net makes it much easier to release fish without getting hands overly wet, the one chill factor guaranteed to bring your cold weather outing to a chilly halt. Bring along an old towel, preferably two, to help keep your hands dry.
Pick an overly safe place to launch, quit before you get cold, and if youíve never hopped into a belly boat before, wait until warmer weather to give this a try.