Angler Flotation Devices

Angler Flotation Devices

Don't stand on shore and miss the action-launch out to the fish.

  • By: Beau Beasley
A pontoon boat is stable  easy to maneuver and keeps the angler out of the water

From the steep grade on which I was standing, looking down to a crystal-clear Oregon mountain lake, I could easily spot fish. I watched at least a half-dozen trout rise, coming up like small porpoises, diving on their prey.

I got directions to this secluded water from Old Joe, "the fish guy" who worked at the local hardware store. I told him I was in town for a few days visiting family and wanted to know about the local fishing. He said, almost apologetically, that my choices were limited to a series of nearby lakes that unfortunately were "infested" only with brown trout. Then he advised me almost as an afterthought to take a handful of Parachute Black Ants because "that's all they'll eat." I assumed that the guy was half nuts-only brown trout?-but I was grateful for any leads. I bought a few flies and thanked him, and headed out on what I assumed would be a wild-goose chase.

But Old Joe was right-the lake was teeming with browns. However, as I descended the steep bank of the lake I realized Joe had left out one important bit of information: The brush at the water's edge made it nearly impossible to cast from shore. Here I stood, all alone, beside a lake of feeding trout-and I had no way of reaching them.

I rushed back to the hardware store to ask his advice, but Joe had left for the day. What to do? I wandered aimlessly around the store until I happened to see the day's salvation sitting on the shelf above me: a float tube. This stripped-down model was little more than Read More » a large inner tube with some cheap fabric sewn to it, but I didn't care; I had to reach those fish. I bought the thing on the spot, drove like a madman back to the lake and within minutes was in the water and having one of my very best fishing days. I lost count of how many trout I landed. Joe was right about the flies, too-the browns would only eat Black Ants.

As a fly angler in the market for a personal watercraft, you've got a raft of options before you. How do they compare? How do you choose the best watercraft for you? Leaving aside the venerable canoe and car-top boat (we'll keep this on a one-person-vessel level), let's take a look at other available options.

Float Tubes

Float tubes range from simple circular inner tubes to fully tricked-out models with mesh nets across the front, complete with built-in rulers painted on the netting so you can easily measure out the fish you hold. Other float tubes are U-shaped, making the entry and exit easy. Upper-end models sometimes come with cup holders and nets; others have zipped or hook-and-loop-locked pockets for all sorts of storage. If the bells and whistles seem like overkill, remember: Once you're in the float tube, you won't want to walk back to your car to get something.

The float tube's advantages are its low cost-the float tube is the cheapest option for reaching those areas beyond the wading zone-and its packability; just imagine how hard it would be to drag your canoe to a mountain trout lake?. These one-angler boats are ideal for those who need access to cover deep-water areas in a relatively small body of water like a farm pond or small lake. You can use a float tube with or without waders depending on the weather (and on whether or not you are, like my wife, paranoid about that elusive but threatening freshwater shark or errant piranha).

The drawbacks? You can only use one in moderately still water and locomotion is clumsy-you kick with over-the-boot fins (typically), which propel you in reverse; some fin styles allow you to kick forward, but this is a bit uncomfortable and slow going. Even a light wind can blow you off course, so constantly having to adjust your position is an issue. You can overcome being blown around with a store-bought anchor, or simply a river rock. I've used both, and I prefer the anchor; river rocks are free, but if the rope slips, your rock is gone. And who wants to spend time looking for a free anchor when you should be looking for fish?

Another essential is a good set of flippers. There are many styles, from hard, stiff plastic to rubbery, soft models. I prefer the softer type as it makes kicking easier on my lower back and knees. Other items include waterproof bags, chest pack (see the feature beginning on page 42 in this issue), a rod leash and rod holders. Last, but not least, you need a hand-operated or electric pump, which can run as little as $22 to more than $100. If you get a hand-operated pump, make sure it's a double-action model so it inflates and deflates your float tube.

Here is my recommended order of business to kick off your trip: Lay all your gear on a nearby bank, check and recheck it all, don your float tube on the bank, pick up your gear and stow it and then enter the water.

Fly-casting from a float tube takes some getting used to and may cause you to cast slightly different than you do when standing onshore. Some fly anglers prefer to use a longer rod, which helps them keep line off the water on the backcast.

After a few hours in the water, you might get tired. If you find your cast is getting sloppy, you have choices. The first is to take a break-you might even want to get out and stretch your legs. The second option is just don't put so much line in the air, or simply put down your rod and troll your fly.

Float tubes can vary in price from as little as $99 to as much as $450, so shop around to find the one that best suits your needs. Most float tubes have a weight capacity of at least 225 pounds, and some can easily handle up to 350 pounds of angler and gear.

Pontoon Boats

Last summer I fished from a WaterSkeeter ( one-man pontoon boat and landed my largest smallmouth bass of the season because of the access the boat afforded me. Before this experience, I was strictly a float-tube angler; now, I've come to appreciate diversity in watercraft. WaterSkeeter offers a wide variety of one- and two-person pontoon boats, some rivaling the size of a raft. Other companies that offer pontoon boats include Outcast, Rivendell, North Fork Outfitters, Buck's Bags, Creek Company and Fish Cat, to name a few.

The pontoon boat I tested allowed me to sit up much higher in the water than a standard float tube would; actually, you can stand up and cast on many models, too. I've found maneuvering pontoon boats to be much easier than float tubes, at least if you're covering a significant distance on a river, say more than a mile. Also, rowing with oars can be easier than kicking your legs off, as you would in a tube. (Purchase oars that float and keep them on a tether!) In pontoon boats, you also stay relatively dry, a big plus in cold weather or cold water. And traveling downriver in a large body of water with current is easy in a pontoon boat, whereas it's downright treacherous in a float tube.

The pontoon boat also has several advantages over a conventional boat: It's much more affordable, requires little or no maintenance, allows you to go upstream against the current, and runs for hours on mere Snickers-bar power (or whatever you happen to be eating ).

On the downside, pontoon boats are often at the mercy of river currents and wind. You'll find it nearly impossible to go upstream if there is any significant current, and the wind can still push you around, unless your model is fitted with an anchor. They can also be inconvenient to transport if you have to assemble and disassemble them each time out. There are, of course, smaller pontoon boats that can stay assembled all the time and can easily fit in the bed of a pickup.

Pontoon boats run the gamut in cost from $200 to more than $1,000 and have weight limits that range from 300 to 600 pounds, which of course varies from company to company. My father-in-law bought a pontoon boat a year ago and he swears by it. In fact, he liked it so much that he bought a second one for my mother-in-law so that she could join him, even though she doesn't fish. She loves hers, too.


Ah, the kayak. Its sleek profile and light weight have attracted a crowd of die-hard angling kayak enthusiasts. You can trick out these rigs with everything from fish-finders to anchors; generally kayaks have plenty of room for just about anything you might need for a day's fishing. Some who venture out to remote islands even tote camping gear and small stoves on their boats so they can tuck into a hot meal and rest after a long day of fishing.

Kayaks fall into two categories: Sit on Top (SOT) or Sit in Kayak (SINK). Anglers who feel the need for speed may prefer SINKs, which afford a lower center of gravity and tend to be sleek and aerodynamic. They also offer protection from the elements, good dry storage and tend to make new kayakers feel a bit more secure than SOTs do.

The downside to a SINK is that if you flip over your kayak, righting yourself without getting out of the kayak is doable but difficult. This all-important skill takes practice and is also why, when on any watercraft, a PFD should be worn.

According to Tom Detrick, general manager of Appomattox River Company (, the largest kayak dealer in the country, anglers tend to prefer SOT model kayaks because of access issues. "Anglers prefer SOTs because they are generally using the kayak as a tool as opposed to (those) who kayak for the sake of kayaking. Anglers, both traditional and fly, seem to prefer the ease of movement it affords them as well," Detrick says.

In fact, SOT anglers often stand in their kayaks to cast. If (kayakers usually say when) you turn over your vessel, bailing out is easy: Your legs are not inside the kayak, so you simply employ the "wet exit," a much more appealing option for novice kayakers than holding your breath under water while you attempt to right your craft. SOTs also allow you to get in and out of your kayak easily. Fly anglers often want to wade in multiple locations and they use their kayaks to get them to small islands and sandbars.

However, this doesn't mean SINKs are not a good option for anglers. According to Capt. Cory Routh, an expert in the field of kayak fishing and a guide, it all depends on your application. "If you're in relatively quiet water like a pond or a quiet estuary, a SINK is fine,"says Routh. "However, if you want to fish in open water like the ocean, a SOT is where it's at, as far as I'm concerned."

Kayaks used for inshore fishing tend to be about 10 feet long and are easy to turn; ocean versions are generally 12 to 14 feet long, have rudders and are often called "open water" kayaks.

Routh points out the industry is constantly making upgrades; he points to Native Watercraft's Ultimate as an example. This kayak is like a cross between a canoe, a SOT and a SINK, and anglers can easily stand up and cast, or pole another angler.

Drawbacks to kayak fishing include the size and often awkward configuration of the kayak itself. Because these are one-piece units, kayakers have to be a little creative when loading and unloading their boats. (A simple boat wheel, which can run as little as $45, can help you move your kayak by yourself a significant distance.)

Kayaks have a wide price range, from as low as $150 to more than $1,200, depending on the make and model. The weight capacity also varies greatly so check with the manufacturer's guidelines.

When all is said and done, personal watercraft can make your angling life easier, and more productive. Bon voyage.

Beau Beasley ( lives with his wife and children in Warrenton, Virginia. His first book, Fly Fishing Virginia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters, was released last spring.