We will never know who the first person was to use a float tube. I'd like to think it was a teenage boy from the Midwest playing on a farm pond that got us started. What's most likely is that in many places at about the same time people discovered that a simple inner tube with some sort of seat gave them a new way to get to the fish. Regardless of who got us started we know that the modern float tube is a fairly recent invention.
At the International Fly Fishing Center we have on display several float tubes that help to tell the story of the development of the modern "belly boat". The oldest tube in our collection is a handmade sheet metal affair that was originally constructed for duck hunting. This float was made in Farmington Utah soon after World War II and is nothing more than a hollow metal donut with a burlap seat. It does have a unique feature in a small built in compartment in the front of the tube that provides a small amount of storage.
Home made tubes were the rule until the later 1940's when the Tucker Duck & Rubber Company of Fort Smith, Arkansas produced the "Float-n-Tote" tubes. These first commercial efforts were made from truck inner tubes covered with canvas. These first tubes were very primitive by today's standards. The seat was fixed, the canvas needed regular maintenance, the tubes were very heavy (especially when wet), there were no pockets, and the single stitched seams were subject to sudden ripping. The sudden release of the seams provided many an interesting experience when an angler found his boat disappearing around him.
Despite these drawbacks the Float-n-Tote became very popular, especially with southern bass anglers. The only feature the Float-n-Tote boasted was the attached suspenders which allowed the angler to walk with the tube suspended around them. These suspenders were important to the hometown buyers of Float-n-Totes. The nearby White River was a popular wading area and the tubes would be used to float through deep stretches on the river.
The no-frills Float-n Tote quickly spawned competition. In 1947 the Fishmaster Mfg. Co. of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma introduced the Fishmaster Float tube. This canvas-covered tube looked much like the Float-n-Tote, however, it featured a patented quick release buckle on the seat. This feature allowed for easier angler access is found on most tubes still. The Fishmaster Mfg. Co. was a major supplier of float tubes for many years, eventually offering a variety of models and various other accessories.
In the mid to late 1950's Western anglers using these early models discovered that they worked even better if they made "workshop improvements" to them. These included adding pockets and pouches for storage, rod holders, tie down rings, a front apron, and a large back pocket that could be stuffed or inflated to provide back support and comfort. These anglers, mostly in Idaho and Colorado are largely responsible for the float tube as we know it today.
The canvas covers of the first commercial models had two major drawbacks. They were quite heavy and the canvas needed regular treatment to preserve its life. Fishmaster introduced the first alternative to canvas with a vinyl laminate tube. This silver colored material was much lighter, but, the rigid material had a problem. When heated by the sun the air in the tube could expand to a point where the tube would burst from the pressure.
By 1972 float tubes began to appear in fly fishing magazines. The January 1972 issue of Fly Fisherman contained an article by Ron Cordes describing the use of float tubes on Montana's Hebgen Lake. This article focused mainly on fishing for the famed Hebgen "gulpers", but, it contained useful information on float tubes and promoted their use. By this time float tubes were becoming a more common sight on Hebgen and nearby Henry's Lake in Idaho.
The Water Walker float tube, manufactured by American Safety Products, Encino, California, was first advertised in the Oct/Nov issue of Fly Fisherman. The Water Walker was a very light weight tube. It weighed in at only 3.3 pounds and was rated for anglers up to 300 pounds. It was made of neoprene coated nylon and had two separate air chambers. It featured two storage compartments and could be inflated by mouth as well as by pump. The Water Walker was promoted as a packable float tube owing to its light weight and compact size when deflated.
By the mid 1970's float tubing began to appear more frequently in fly fishing magazines, both in editorial coverage and in advertising. The first ad for a guide service featuring float tubes was a photo in an early 1973 ad run by Jay Buchner (Jackson Wyoming). The first "how to" article appeared in the early season 1975 issue of Fly Fisherman and the first buyers guide was in the May/June 1980 issue of Rod & Reel. This 1980 directory listed six manufacturers with a variety of models and styles.
Incremental refinements in tube design have lead to the current state-of-the-art float tubes and kick boats. Today we see so many of these craft on the water that we rarely realize they have such a short history. Just 50 years ago the sight of an angler on an inner tube drew a great deal of attention and was a rare sight indeed.
Copyright, 2001 - Brent Gagermeier