The full guide to belly boat fly fishing

29th of July 2022

There’s nowhere on your favorite lake you can’t fly fish with a belly boat (or float tubes, as they’re also known) beneath you. Get aboard one of these strange-looking vessels, and fly fishing becomes a sport for the arms, head, and legs. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

What is a belly boat?

Originally a clever adaptation of the inner tubes found in tires, the belly boat has evolved. Today’s version is usually a seat with an inflatable tube that curls around it in a ‘U’ shape, with the open end allowing the fly fisher easy access to the seat. 

A retaining bar keeps you in place while your legs dangle down from the front of the seat, ready to provide the power. A mesh line tray attaches between you and the retaining bar so that you don’t have line floating all around you when you cast. So it serves a similar purpose as a stripping basket would do on shore.

Here's how it works:

  • You wear chest waders to stay dry but with fins (flippers) on your feet.
  • Most belly boats have some storage space between the back of the seat and the curved end of the ‘U’ for your gear, as well as a couple of handy storage pockets on the tube to either side of you, allowing quick access to the stuff that you need most often.
  • Look for a rod and net holder somewhere behind the seat when you’re looking to buy your first belly boat. Be prepared to spend a little extra so that it comes complete with oars and a cord attached to the tube for mooring or towing.
  • You don’t want your legs dangling down and working against you should you have to resort to the oars, so make sure there’s a strap beneath the open ends of the tube on which you can rest your feet while you row.

How to get going

So, you’ve taken your first tentative steps down the slipway and for probably the first time in your life, you’re sitting in a chair, up to your hips in water. Now what?

Well, as with riding a bike, a lot of it you’ll pick up through doing it rather than just reading about it, but here are the basics.

Most modern belly boats have the tube meeting at an apex behind the angler, so they are designed to move with you facing the other way, as when you row a boat.

Once you’ve kicked off into deeper water, you’re striving for a gentle, up-and-down kicking motion with alternate legs. You’re bending your leg at the knee: each leg starts with the foot underneath you – toes pointing downwards – and the lower leg at a 45-degree angle to the upper leg.

The leg kicks forwards and upwards until the angle between the lower and upper legs is about 150 degrees, then returns to its starting point, as the other leg kicks upwards.

Pace yourself (you have a long day ahead) don’t bend your ankle and avoid breaking the surface with your feet: the splashing will frighten fish away. 

To turn right, the paddling arc is a shorter stroke. With both lower legs at ninety degrees to the upper leg and toes pointing straight down, jab forward a short way with the right leg and simultaneously back with the left and repeat until you’ve turned as far as you need to.

To turn left simply reverse the process. Forward with the left leg, back with the right.

If you prefer not to paddle all day: there's also belly boats available that have an electric motor and a propeller.

Fly fishing from a belly boat is an immersive experience
Fly fishing from a belly boat is an immersive experience

What gear do I need?

One of the most important conversations you’ll have with your tackle dealer when you start belly boating won’t have anything to do with fishing gear.

It’ll be about the type of fins that you use. Young, strong people can overcome a poor choice of fins but everyone else has to get it right.

  • In general, the longer the fin, the more movement you generate with those underwater kicks.
  • Forget scuba diving flippers – you need specialist float tube fins.
  • Ideally, they should fit over a wading boot. If they only fit over a wading sock, they can cause wear, giving rise to leaks.
  • Whether worn with boots or not, they have to fasten securely, so they don’t drop off in the water.

As for the belly boat itself, this is a sector of the gear market where you get what you pay for, so don’t cut corners.

Ask about a repair kit and also see if there’s a crotch strap to stop you from sliding down the seat should a sudden wind tip the belly boat forward. While the retaining bar will stop you from falling out, repeatedly pushing yourself fully back into the seat can get tiring.

And check how portable the belly boat will be when inflated (you’ll need to buy a hand pump for that job, incidentally). Being able to carry it comfortably on your back from your car to the water’s edge or from one part of the lake to another is essential.

Safety tips when fly fishing from a belly boat

  • Top of the list is a lifejacket. One that stops short of the waist (so it doesn’t get distorted when you sit down) and one that you activate, not one that inflates automatically when coming into contact with water. You’re so close to the water already in a belly boat, that an automatic life jacket could easily inflate when you least need it to.
  • Stick to small stillwaters unless there’s no breeze. That way, if the wind does turn against you, it can only push you so far before you’re on the shore again.
  • Don’t go belly boating alone unless you’re in clear view of people on the shore and they’re not going anywhere.
  • Make sure that the tube consists of two independent sections so that a puncture in one doesn’t mean disaster for the entire vessel.
  • Wear thermal layers under your waders or else wear neoprene waders. Water gets cold and your legs are in it all day.
  • Try and fish where the breeze blows into the shore. If you get in trouble, you’re at least being blown back to safety.
  • Walking forwards in fins can lead to trips and a nasty fall. Have everything ready and in position on the belly boat, which you want to be waiting for you in the shallows, before you don the fins and then walk backward into the water, lowering yourself gently into the seat.
  • Once fishing, don’t leave flies dangling in the water while you’re choosing replacements or having a bite to eat. You don’t want them snagging your fins.
  • If you're going belly boat fishing on a big river: do this only when you have enough experience, never do it alone, and make eye contact with the skipper of boats. Various currents can carry you away and get you in trouble quickly, so please take care.

How to fly fish from a belly boat

You’d think casting would cause a belly boat to move around a lot but as long as any breeze is behind you, you don’t false cast excessively, and you use your fins to steady the craft, you should be able to hold your position.

Keep things that are sticking out behind you (landing net, spare rod) on the opposite side of the belly boat from your casting arm, to minimize the risk of tangles.

How to work your fins once you hook a fish is something only experience can teach you but remember to keep looking around you as well as at the end of your line while you play the fish so that you always know where you are on the water. And be aware that at some point, you’re going to have an experience many anglers never know: playing a fish that’s directly beneath you…

Belly boating is the most immersive fly fishing experience you’ll have. You’re at one with your environment and the whole lake is yours. Stay safe, and tight lines!

Also see

Our article about fly fishing from a kayak.

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