Float tubes have been around for years, but until recently there has been negligible variety or ingenuity in their design. Basically what you got for $150 was a fancy inner-tube of highly dubious construction with built-in koozies and a flimsy rod-holder. You considered yourself lucky to both catch fish and stay dry above the shoulders. Still, despite their shortcomings, float tubes have always been hot items among that sad, boat-less class of fishermen, of which I am myself included, affording us more distance and accuracy in our casts and far greater water coverage. Even the shoddier models promised higher returns than languishing dockside among the gray hairs and water liars.
Fortunately, over the past few years float tube design has entered a renaissance. Today’s models aren’t just seaworthy but far safer and more maneuverable, with shapely hulls and PVC-coated bottoms that add stability while reducing drag. In addition to beer koozies and rod holders, most tubes these days also come with once-unimaginable amenities like seat cushions, stripping aprons, cargo compartments, and fly or lure patches. Some crossover pontoon models can be tricked out with trolling motors, live wells, fish finders, and specially designed frames that let you hold in eddies and move across currents, exactly what you’d get in a typical drift boat. Here are five of the best float tubes and pontoons on the market today.
Outcast Fish Cat 4
Best Starter Tube: Pretty much the industry standard, the Fish Cat 4 doesn’t look like much, but it’s the longtime best-selling float tube in the US, with a justifiably sterling reputation. Essentially a pimped-out inner-tube with a cozy foam seat, stripping apron and cargo pockets, the Fish Cat 4 is easily portable at 14 pounds, totally comfortable, very well made, and fairly inexpensive. Its streamlined, U-shaped hull moves incredibly well on flat, quiet lakes and ponds, and the double-valve system, which Outcast touts relentlessly, means you can inflate/deflate lakeside in mere seconds — no small feat when you’re itching to get on the water. Pump, fins and bag sold separately.
The Creek Company ODC 420 Lightweight Combo
Best for Lugging to Remote Lakes: “ODC” stands for “Outdoor Discover Craft”, and the Creek Company fully intends for you to tote this thing deep into the wilderness. At a meager 8.25 pounds, you won’t kill yourself doing it, even with all your other fishing gear hanging from you. What’s more, you can inflate it at your car and strap it to your shoulders like a backpack. Sure, you’ll look nuts, but it’ll make for a quick and painless romp to that hard-to-reach sweet spot. The rear storage space is big enough for a cooler, dry sack, fly boxes, rain gear, etc., while the carry bag is smaller than most man-satchels. Includes pump, fins, bag and lifetime guarantee.
Outcast Stealth Pro
Best for Hardcore Lake Anglers: The Stealth Pro is a lake angler’s wet dream. Occupying a middle ground between a float tube and pontoon, its frameless design means it’s far lighter than typical pontoons, and its versatile nine-foot body can handle mild chop and even a mid-size river; those pointy “rockered” ends cut through big water while the urethane bladders stabilize you. Built to be self accessorized, the Stealth Pro has dug deep on specs, including a spot for an anchor, up to three rod holders on both sides, ample storage space, fixed oars (so you can drop them to quickly cast), adjustable seat and footrests, and a total capacity of 450 pounds. Smartly constructed, unreasonably comfortable, seemingly indestructible, you’d be hard pressed to find a better solo fishing vessel anywhere. Obvious downsides are the price, bulk and weight; this nine-foot 35-pounder is a bear, but it fits snugly in the bed of a pickup. Lacking that, you’ll have a hell of a time transporting it.
Classic Accessories Oswego
Best for Rivers: The premiere crossover with the speed and maneuverability of a float tube and the strength and vantage of a pontoon, the Oswego grants you access to just about every freshwater location imaginable. Rated to Class I rapids, the 10-foot boat rides high on choppy water, even with a battery, cooler, tackle box, trolling motor, anchor and fish finder strapped to the back. There’s also a stripping apron with a fish ruler, two detachable foam fly patches, adjustable bronze oarlocks, dual valves that allow for quick inflation, and comically durable steel-tube frames. Of course, steel being heavy — in this case, 76 pounds — that translates into minor head-and-heartache when transporting, assembling, breaking down and storing it. But if you’re after a single-seat pontoon at an incredibly sane price, this is your go-to.
Sea Eagle 375fc FoldCat
Best Two-Man Vessel: It’s daunting to think of the time and brainpower that went into the FoldCat, quite possibly the world’s most over-designed, overpriced, yet somehow also unquestionably awesome, I’d-literally-stab-a-puppy-to-own-one inflatable pontoon boat. The 12-foot, waterproof vessel has it all: comfy swivel seats, standing platforms, a casting bar, four rod holders, a lightweight aluminum frame and with a specially designed hull that allows you to fish right on the edge, and a pump system that can inflate in five minutes flat. At considerable extra cost, you can accessorize with fish finders, cutting boards, running lights, a canopy and more. Sea Eagle hangs its hat on the “high-pressure” fabric of the reinforced hull, which is essentially a compression of hardy polymers that makes the boat virtually indestructible and deflects things like UV rays and oil. Weight is an issue, at 75 pounds — but the FoldCat wears it well, and it collapses quickly, folding neatly into a duffel bag.