Published: Thursday, October 30, 1997
Section: Venture
Page: 12D

BY JASON L. ABLES, Special to Venture
CALL him Sopko.

He set out into the windy waters to find the big fish, and that he did. Having hooked it, he started bringing in line, right on plan. But as the fight neared its end, fate took a twist and so did the fish. It rolled, and when it did, it literally sank Mike Sopko's boat.

OK, it was not a whale. It was a 20-pound striped bass. Still, it was equipped (as they all are) with dorsal-fin spines as sharp as needles and as hard as nails, and Sopko's boat was not a behemoth but a one-man inflatable known as a float-tube. As the fish turned, one of its spines punctured the tube, sending Sopko, an assistant manger at Mel Cotton's Sporting Goods in San Jose, into the drink at San Luis Reservoir.

A rare episode, but it helps illustrate the appeal of one of the biggest trends in fishing. Float-tubes can get anglers close to the fish -- very close.

Nowadays on almost any lake or reservoir, including Anderson, Chesbro and Uvas in Santa Clara County and Lake Merced in San Francisco, people can be found in float-tubes, with swim fins on, kicking from place to place in search of fish. Because of the mobility and the amount of water an angler can cover, float-tubers have a great advantage over shore fishers, Sopko said.

''It multiplies your fishing and catching ability factor by 10,'' he said.

The exploding popularity of float-tubing is no surprise to Ted Adachi, owner of the Caddis Fly Shop in Belmont. ''Picture yourself in an alpine lake, kind of just floating along, billowy clouds, blue skies, beautiful trees, and you are casting to rising fish,'' he said with a big smile. ''It is awesome. It does not get much better than that.''

The desire to leave shore behind and get out on the water where the fish are has always been a part of fishing, but standard boats have drawbacks. They need space for storage; they usually need a trailer and a launch ramp to get in the water; and they can cost a fair bit of money.

Float-tubes, on the other hand, can be launched from just about anywhere, and are portable and light enough that some anglers pack them up to back-country lakes. The cost is bearable, ranging from just over $100 to around $800, and most can be stored in a closet.

The first float-tubes were nothing more than truck inner-tubes with a seat-sling tied in, but in the last decade, designs have greatly evolved. They range from simple doughnut shapes to pontoon boats that resemble baby catamarans. Some can even accept trolling motors and fish finders.

Adachi said he prefers the V-shaped tubes, easy to get in and out of and able to cut through the water more efficiently than round ones. Sopko said he favors pontoon boats that can be propelled with oars, his feet or a trolling motor. He also feels they are more stable on choppy water like that of San Luis Reservoir, a favorite lake of his.

Sopko's adventure with the San Luis striper brings up another side of float-tubing, one more serious. It is a water sport, he said, and one needing common sense. Use the buddy system, and don't even think of trying it in the ocean.

Adachi echoed his views: ''You always want to respect the water; that is one of the most critical things. Do not get into a position where you are compromising your safety.''

An angler should pick a tube rated to hold his or her own weight plus that of any gear, he said. A bright color helps boaters identify an angler in the water.

Doughnut-shaped tubes should have a crotch strap, basically a safety release on the seat so that an angler can get out quickly. Sopko carries a knife that opens quickly with one hand in case he needs to cut away part of the tube in an emergency. He also wears an emergency flotation vest that inflates with a rip cord.

Waders should be worn to protect against cold water and micro-organisms that are in some waters. Anglers should also wear a wading belt, which goes around the body near the top of the waders to help keep water out. ''If you do not have it, even neoprene waders, though they are buoyant, are going to fill up,'' Adachi said, ''and once they are filled up, you look like the Pillsbury Doughboy and you are going to go down.''

Adachi said the weather also needs to be kept in mind. The Bay Area's lakes and reservoirs are considered temperate but they can get cold. Because water drains heat away so quickly, Adachi warned, be on guard against hypothermia that can sneak up unexpectedly. Sometimes that means getting out of the water frequently to warm up and assess the situation.

''The other thing is thunder and lightning. If they are even close, get out of the water,'' Adachi said. ''Stop and think about it for a second: You are out in the middle of a lake with a graphite rod, which is a conductor of electricity.'' But if care is taken, fishing season can extend into the winter months.

''About mid-September a lot of guys just say, 'OK, that's it, I am not going to fish anymore until May,' '' Adachi said. ''Well, (I) do not stop fishing, (I) fish through the winter.'' After all, he said, that is why waders come in different thicknesses.

As for Sopko and the bass that sank him, he let the line run while his friends helped him to shore. Once on land he started pulling in line and, to his surprise, the fish was still on.

''I should have kept him for popping my $300 tube,'' Sopko said with a laugh. But being a catch-and-release guy, he let it go. So float-tubers at San Luis should stay sharp. It is still out there somewhere, with all those spines.

Copyright 1997, The San Jose Mercury News. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.