GREENWOOD COUNTY – From Hawaii to Alaska, Bill Hartman has fished from sizable saltwater vessels. He’s roared across sprawling reservoirs in bass boats at “better hold on” speeds, and piloted canoes and kayaks across quiet wilderness waters.
Wednesday morning, Hartman launched his favorite fishing craft, carrying it to the water’s edge balanced on the fingers of one hand.
“These things are just so much easier to handle than even things like a kayak,” said Hartman, as he dropped a U-shaped float tube into the water. “ It’s so much easier, in so many ways, and I know I can catch a lot more fish.”
Within five minutes of taking to the water, Hartman had his first fish of the day, a nice bass. A few casts later, he added a big bluegill. By time he quit fishing a few hours later, the fish bag on the side of his tube was bulging with bluegill, green sunfish, bass and crappie. His two guests did just as well.
Hartman, of Emporia, first tried fishing from float tubes about 25 years ago, back when they were basically coverings that went over traditional inner tubes. He said they looked like “a neat idea” of a way to fish Flint Hills ponds and watershed lakes, especially those where launching even a canoe could be tough. Wednesday morning’s trip was a prime example of what he appreciates about fishing from float tubes.
The ranch road was rocky and rutted as Hartman approached the watershed lake and the shoreline was rough, cloaked in trees and steep. When he opened the topper on his truck, he pointed to one inflated float tube and two more that needed air.
“There’s no way you could even get three kayaks in here,” he said as he pulled the two empty float tubes from the truck, and hooked them to an air pump that ran off the truck’s power source. A few strokes from a hand pump had the two tubes to his desired pressure.
Dressed in shorts, he pushed the float tube ahead of himself for balance until he was in about two feet of water. There he turned and sat on the tube’s seat, which was just high enough to keep Hartman’s “seat” out of the water, too. Seated, he buckled a pair of kick fins to his feet. A few kicks with his lower legs and he was backing out on to the lake. The fins, he said, cost about $30. His favorite float tubes, Fish Cat 4s, run around $250 online.
“That’s not a lot of money these days,” he said, “ especially when you consider what it costs to get a boat registered, and insured, and paid for, and filled with gas....”
No place like home
Hartman came to Emporia in 1968 as a college student, and retired a few years ago after a long career as an administrator at Emporia State University. Through those years, he made a lot of contacts through the region, including some landowners who owned small ponds or watershed lakes. Though he’s fished all over the country, like Dorothy, Hartman said “there’s no place like home.”
“I’ve taught fly-fishing classes at the college for years, and I often ask the students what part of the country has the best fishing,” he said. “I usually here something like Montana but that’s just trout, trout, trout and then some more trout. I always tell them the fishing is better in the Flint Hills. You can go out and usually catch a lot different kinds of fish, fish where it’s not crowded and the scenery is beautiful.”
Though most of his fishing is on private waters, Hartman is sure anglers with float tubes could do well in most of the small community lakes that are open to public fishing. Waters enrolled in the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism’s Fishing Impoundments and Stream Habitats program, which leases private waters for the public to fish for free, should also be productive.
About 15 years ago, Hartman started Fly Fish Kansas, a small-time guiding operation he runs to take anglers float-tube fishing in the Flint Hills. Much of his business is repeat clientele from Kansas and neighboring states. He’s hosted avid anglers from the coasts and England who were already in the area. Most of his weekends are booked months in advance.
He furnishes all of the gear, including fly rods, which is the only method of angling he likes.
Many trips have begun with a few casting lessons on shore by Hartman, a certified fly casting instructor.
“The trips are guaranteed,” he said. “If they don’t catch fish, or don’t have a good time, they don’t have to pay me. That hasn’t been a problem, though.”
He said fishing from a float tube is ideal for beginning fly casters because there’s usually nothing to tangle their backcast. Casts don’t need to be far.
“That’s another great thing about float tubes is that you can get really close to the fish,” he said. “It’s not like you’re banging a paddle on the side of a kayak or dropping something in a canoe and spooking everything.” One reason he likes the Fish Cat 4s, is because they let the anglers set higher than in most other float tubes, which makes easier casting.
Hartman has a fly-fishing style for about all levels of anglers. His simplest is using a 1/32-ounce marabou jig with a small foam float about three feet above it.
“It’s about as fool proof as you can get. As long as it’s in the water it’s hard to fish it wrong,” he said. “You can reel it in really slow. You can just let it sit for a while. We’ve caught so many big bluegill and nice crappie. We’ve also caught some big bass and really big channel cats.”
Hoping to beat the heat and wind, Hartman and his guests were in the water by 6:30 a.m. The lake had not a ripple. As he predicted, bass to 15 inches and bluegill to more than nine inches attacked a small popper stripped and chugged across the top of the water by a 13-year-old angler.
As they often do on a fly rod, most of the bass jumped several feet out of the water several times. Some of the bigger bluegill were strong enough to pull the float tubes a bit. A few crappie were caught, too. Most were added to mesh bags attached to the float tubes.
“When I started fishing most of these places they were full of stunted fish,” he said. “We’re removed thousands and thousand so now the populations are more balanced. The ponds are a lot healthier and most people like to take home a mess of fish after I clean them.”
The bags on all three float tubes filled at a steady pace. The popper was the hottest fly for a couple of hours. As the sun got higher, the anglers switched flies that fished deeper.. Each of the anglers had about 20 fish in their bags, and had released several others, when they quit at about 11 a.m. The best fish was a 16 3/4-inch crappie.
Hartman said he starts guiding and doing his personal fishing in mid-March and he fishes well into October. He takes time off for an annual trout trip, with his float tube, to northwestern Montana. He skips all of August.
“When it’s so hot that you burn your forearm on the side of the float tube, it’s just too hot to be fishing,” he said. “I’ll usually start going again in September. When the water is cold we bring waders. It’s all just so simple.”