In an age of Facebook and cell phones, it's not easy to get kids excited about fishing, about the outdoors. Nevertheless, there's a Huck Finn inside every youth. What's missing is the raft.
I know no better way to connect youth to the mysteries of nature than to take them float tube fishing in our lakes and reservoirs, or even in the calm sloughs of the Delta. Low water conditions can actually improve fishing. The trout are biting at Shadow Cliffs in Pleasanton, at Lake Del Valle in Livermore, good lakes for getting kids started in float tubes.
The special advantages of the float tube are manifold. No fishing vehicle is more affordable, more transportable, or more nature friendly than a float tube. Even preschoolers can use a tube.
There are no batteries, no pumps, and many tubes can be inflated manually. Just drop the tube into shallow water, put on a life jacket, fins, back into the seat and paddle away.
When a child first sits in the tube, there comes a rush of power. "I can move this sucker in any direction!" The kid provides the thrust and is captain of the ship.
There are two kinds of tubes to get kids started. A round tube, often called a donut, and a U-tube. Parents tend to buy round tubes because they look more childlike. But the U-tube is easier to get in and out of, and it has much less drag than a traditional donut.
Today's float tubes are sturdy. They include multiple double-stitched bladders (air chambers), and they are made of urethane, resistant to punctures and water. With proper precautions float tubes are safe. It's actually quite difficult to capsize a tube when you are sitting in it, because there is a low center of gravity.
Float tubes are light. Some, like the Caddis Wyoming, weigh about seven pounds. Muskrat, Logan, Togiak, and Creek Company, also make tubes (ranging from $64 to $140). These are brands I use with children and teens. You can pack a deflated tube in the trunk of a car or carry it in a backpack. Consider the simplicity and convenience of a boat you can carry on your shoulder.
Float tubes cost a fraction of what other boats cost. Life jackets cost about $30. Fins about $29. Steele's on Telegraph in Oakland is a good place to get fitted. In sum, you can get a float tube set up (fins, life vests, tubes, waders if you need them) for under $300.
The float tube is quiet, unobtrusive, and presents a low profile on the water. Stealth improves fishing. It gives a young angler access to special areas that are inaccessible to big mechanized boats. Even trolling motors cannot take a boat into the tulles or through vegetation. I have seen bait fish in schools scatter when a power boat approaches. And I have also seen float tube fishermen come right within casting distance of boiling fish. Small is beautiful.
Float tube fishing is very active, but in the process of the hunt, children become immersed in the ethos of nature. I have seen young teenagers, floating on the Middle River in the Delta, doing nothing -- nothing but gazing up at the sky, looking at flocks of birds diminishing in the horizon. Doing nothing. That's an achievement.
I remember a scene from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn": "It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened."
There's a Huck Finn in every youth. What's missing is the raft and the solace of wild things.
Paul Rockwell is parent coordinator of Gone Tubin' (Gonetubin.org), a fishing club for youth.