Tubin' bass: No stone unturned

Only fishermen get swallowed by doughnuts. It's Jack Raymond's favorite way to bass fish. In fact, from the terms of endearment with which he glorifies belly boating, it sounds like love.

"It's a more intimate experience," he rhapsodizes, trying hard to clue me in to the joys of fishing out of an inner tube. "You're in the water with the fish. Where it's shallow, you can walk on the bottom, so you know what it's like, not just how deep it is; and you don't have to read a number off a thermometer. You understand the water temperature, how it feels and when and how it changes. The only way a man could be more in the fish's realm would be trolling with scuba gear."


Tidbits For Tubers

Float-tubing flippers have been designed for use with shoes on, which can make them more comfortable than swim fins over a long haul. In your tube, you can cover a 1/4- to 1/2-mile loop and probably every bass will get a look at your lure because it will take awhile. One thing for sure: You will learn a stretch of water and locate some great spots you were unaware of before. And you may find bass where they shouldn't be; always exciting.

Accessories: rod, drink and depthfinder hold compasses, anchors, even a portable urinal. Check the Web: www.bassproshops.com, www.cabelas.com.


This idea charged my imagination for a while as I pictured myself fighting a bass under water. "Yeah, you'd have to troll, because casting would just be silly," I added.

"And you can work a place slower. If there's wind, you just hold where you want to be with the flippers, no messing with an anchor, oars or trolling motor. You're forced to fish good water most fishermen lack the patience for, passing it up on the way to somewhere else," Jack continued Bass fishing has been reinvented for a person I thought had long ago reached the limit of human obsession. And since his mouth seems to be operated by his reel handle, Jack talks while he cranks, and I'm hearing about it again as I float nearby in my johnboat.

"See?" he hammers home as a breeze kicks up, "wind's blowing and I'm staying here, exactly where I want to be, facing my target."

"Yeah," I patronize as I row back up, "looks like your tube's glued to the surface."

In your mind, if you remove the water, he looks like some horribly mutated ballerina, flippered feet pointed down, jiggling around and that tube spreading around him like the world's ugliest tutu.

"Think what you want," he says gleefully as his rod tip curtsies into the water, "it works."

There are drawbacks in Florida, and one of those is the fisherman as gator bait. Jack's been scouring one lake on a regular basis, and the local dinosaurs are starting to get blasé about him.

"Had one coming straight for me," he recounts, "turns out I'm just between him and where he wants to be. Then I look around and another one's 20 feet away, just staring. It was flight or fight. So I threw up my arms and bellowed and he took off."

Jack figures he makes an imposing creature out there, kind of like a swimming pool dragon. "I still wouldn't want to do it at night, though."

Jack's inability to speed off somewhere, which he sees as a virtue of the method, I could see as a drag. Turns out, equipped with his special Flash Gordon tubing fins, he can kick along almost as fast as I can row. Greedy fishermen who want the best of both worlds carry a tube in the bass boat to their best spots, then get out and fish them properly.

Wading is the only other propulsion that gives a fisherman instant, silent and absolute control of his presence. Tubing has the obvious advantage of easily crossing over soft bottom and straying into deep water. The tuber is wet to just below his waist. This puts him near eye level with gyrating bass, dawn surface mist and turtle faces - a perspective far more exciting than the aerial view from a boat. But the overwhelming victory of a float tube over every other form of boat is its portability. Leave it in the car trunk or stuff it into your backpack. The exciting thing about these balloons is their ability to unlock fishing holes inaccessible to conventional craft.

Float tubes come in different shapes and styles. Jack's tube completely encircles him, with a headrest and various pouches, Velcro rod holders, Velcro lure patches and a measuring apron across the front. Like a giant's jock strap, a harness hangs below to support the fisherman upright. Loads of accessories are available, from depth gauges to drink holders.

I agreed to try tube fishing so I would no longer have to listen to my buddy sell me on the concept. I pictured him 95 years old, taking four hours to step out of the truck and into his tube - now equipped with a telescopic walking cane, Velcro denture holder and spittoon - still trying to talk me into trying it, even though I'd been dead for 20 years.

Here I am, flippers on, scooting around a gorgeous, cattail-edged lake, with the sun thinking about rising. A little surface feeding's starting to crack the smooth surface. Yep, it's like the difference between riding in a jumbo jet and being a bird. And it combines fishing with the fun of kicking around in the water like a drunken frog. Fishing in zero gravity, I wish I had a beer belly so I'd feel absolutely liberated. The only problem is, Jack's out here too and if I hear about 10 more "I told you so's," I'm going to refuse to enjoy the experience.

He's working a grass lined cattail bed slower than a city crew digging a ditch, while I'm still having fun driving my new toy, preparing for the inevitable race. I got a different-style tube, open in front like an armchair. "Man, I can't believe you've got one of those round ones," I try to irritate him. "Mine's a lot faster."

My taunt loses its luster in the loud splash engulfing Jack's paddle spinner at the other end of his cast. "Like I said, speed isn't everything," he grunts.

The float tube offers little leverage in fighting a big fish, so Jack spins away like an aquatic top, drag buzzing in short bursts. Darned if a great big old bass doesn't fly clear of the surface, then dives and pulls him along some more. About three minutes later, Jack starts gaining lots of 8-pound test and the hook comes out, followed by great unhappiness. Meanwhile, I've continued along his shoreline and landed a fat 3-pounder on a classic Rapala. I'm noticing how nice and easy the whole experience really is and I plop my light lure between some cattails and pull out a 2-pounder before "doughnut man" cuts back in front of me.

OK, I'll admit it. I'm hooked on a new way to fish. I've done it from a rubber raft, but this is a lot less awkward and more efficient. The race? We lined up about 20 gator-lengths from shore; me feeling pretty confident in my u-tube - more like a croissant than a doughnut. Amazing how fast Jack's pastry could go though, and after the starting kick, I never had the lead. I put it down to inexperience. So, was it fast? No. But I hardly remembered the pace while fighting another fish.