Before I made my first cast, I knew what I was up against.
It was May 26, and the sun was hot on my neck at 10 a.m. As I walked down the shoreline of my favorite Rochester-area pond, I hoped to find spawning crappies in the shallows, or perhaps some burly pre-spawn bluegills.
But the clear water told the tale. I could see dozens of beds amid the rocks and weeds near shore, but nary a fish on them. Fifty feet from shore, a dense mat of weeds had sprung up in the week since my last visit.
If the panfish had indeed spawned, then the outside edge of that weedline was where I'd find them.
Such is the shore angler's dilemma in late spring. Yes, I could cast a slip-bobber rig beyond the vegetation, but pulling a fish through the weeds proved difficult, especially using ultralight tackle. And throwing a jig beyond the weeds without a float was an exercise in futility.
I needed a new plan, and it required a boat.
I bought a boat six years ago. It's a 14-foot Lakes N Rivers V hull from Fleet Farm, and it has served me and my family well at Chester Woods Park near Rochester and on a handful of lakes down in Iowa.
But the reality is that southeast Minnesota abounds in neither boatable lakes nor boat launches. And, while I enjoy the occasional full day on the water, most of my fishing ventures last just two or three hours – hardly enough time to justify the hassle of hauling and launching a boat.
Fortunately, my other boat is considerably less hassle and much more portable. It's a float tube, and I honestly can't figure out why more anglers don't have them.
Slow and simple
I bought it 25 years ago, and while such watercraft have evolved considerably since then, the basic concept remains the same. You sit half-submerged in the tube, wearing flippers on your feet, and kick-paddle your way through the water.
Yes, a float tube is slow. It's not made for windy days, nor for big waters. I know from experience that you don't want to be 100 yards from shore when a thunderstorm rolls in.
But there's no better way for a solitary angler to fish small waters. Granted, kayaks and canoes cover more water, but you can't paddle and fish at the same time. In a float tube, your legs provide both steering and propulsion, leaving your hands free to fish.
So, later in the afternoon of May 26, I returned to the pond with my tube. I'd picked up some worms and a jar of Berkley Powerbait Crappie Nibbles, which I would put on a yellow 16th-ounce Lil' Nipper jig.
As soon as I was outside the weedline, I dropped the worm-tipped jig to the bottom and began kicking forward – the float-tuber's version of trolling. Within seconds, my rod bent and I reeled in a respectable 7-inch sunfish, which I released.
The next drop produced a six-incher, followed quickly by a 10-inch largemouth.
In five minutes, I'd caught more fish from my float tube than I'd caught in an hour of shore fishing that morning. The fish were hanging out near the bottom, right along the dropoff where the weeds stopped.
But I had hopes for bigger sunfish.
I set off for the other side of the pond, which was about 75 yards away. The wind was in my face, and occasionally a wave would splash against the front of my tube, spattering my glasses with spray.
When I reached the other side, I encountered a similar weedline, but the water on the outside edge was much shallower – just three or four feet. I put on a bobber and tipped the jig with pink Crappie Nibbles. Barely had the bobber hit the water before it disappeared, and I cranked in a 12-inch bass. The next three casts produces three smallish sunnies in rapid succession, but nothing worth taking home for dinner. I switched back to worms, but if anything the fish got even smaller.
If I wanted fish for dinner, I'd need a new plan, and I opted to follow the adage of using bigger baits for bigger fish.
Feel the power
I tipped my jig with a two-inch black twister-tail grub and began casting and kicking my way back to where I'd first entered the water. As expected, the deep water in the middle of the pond produced nothing, but I held out hope that the weedline I'd worked earlier might provide some action.
I approached the weeds, then turned the tube and cast parallel to them, letting the jig sink 10 feet to the bottom. I twitched it once, then waited. Perhaps two seconds later, the line twitched, and I set the hook.
If you want to feel the power of a big sunfish, there's no better way than using light tackle and a float tube. That fish got sideways and spun my tube all the way around before I finally brought it to hand. It was a solid 8 ½ incher, and it would figure nicely into my dinner plans.
The next cast produced a slightly smaller but still very respectable sunfish, and then the bass started hitting.
When I left the water a half-hour later I had enough sunnies for a meal and had used my legs so much that they were starting to cramp up.
Which brings me to a final points about float tubes. If you get one, wear a life jacket. Yes, the whole boat is a flotation device, but such things aren't foolproof. I learned that the hard way one of the first times I used my tube.
Sunfish get revenge
I was fishing a gravel pit in Missouri, and the sunfish and crappies were really biting. I had a dozen fish on a stringer when I noticed that my tube seemed to be losing air. Not enough to really worry me, but I headed for shore anyway.
Later that night, I fully deflated my tube, removed the air bladder, then reinflated it to look for leaks. There were at least 20 of them, all in the bottom of the bladder.
I was puzzled – but then I remembered how many times that stringer of fish had bumped against the bottom of the tube as I fished. It turns out that the dorsal spines of a sunfish are more than sharp enough to puncture a float tube.
Lesson learned. I had to replace the air bladder, and from that point on I've trailed a fish basket behind me.
Eric Atherton is an outdoors writer from Rochester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org