Thursday, March 5, 2020

Winter belly boating

By Bill Prater

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 it’s 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 “yes,” but I’ll leave it to you and your spouse or Mama to say whether you should. I wouldn’t recommend it to the cold-natured or the belly boating beginners, but you don’t have to be an Inuit to do this, either.
Prepping the float tubeYou 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 it’s 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. Here’s how I stay warm enough for three- to four-hours of fishing at a stretch:

This time of year, we’re 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 it’s also good prep for early season bass and crappie. You probably won’t catch many if any of those in 39 degree water. But gradually, those other species will start develop a prespawn appetite too. They’ll start showing up occasionally at the other end of your fishing line, and you’ll know you can try other tactics.

You figure out baits and such;  let’s 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, don’t try this by yourself. It’s embarrassing when your buddy sees you stumble from your belly boat in warm weather; it’s an abrupt end to the day if you get wet when it’s 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. He’s got a wheel that makes it easy to push that heavy craft to the water’s edge and back again. 
I rely on a sturdy float tube that weighs about 12 pounds. It’s an older model with an inflateable seat; newer foam seats keep you higher off  the water. I make up for it by adding a  life saver cushion. 

If it's too damned cold, stay home or fish from shore until it warms up. For me, it’s okay to get out when it’s 35 degrees or so outside, with reasonably calm wind and likely warming into the ‘40s.

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 don’t 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 it’s 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 you’re out there, line or guide freeze shouldn’t be an issue; I stick to an ultralight rig with braided line and fluorocarbon leader. Everyone is different, so please don’t 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 you’ve never hopped into a belly boat before, wait until warmer weather to give this a try.

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