Alan and Jeanne Robinson have owned several watercraft - everything from johnboats to bass boats to Boston Whalers - but none have provided as much pleasure as their $100 float tubes.

"They're the most fun and the best," Jeanne said. "Other than spraying them off, there's no maintenance at all. And the best part is, they always start when you get in the water."

Indeed, with a float tube, there's no motor to malfunction and no risk of running out of gas - unless, of course, your legs grow weary. Float tubes are totally dependent on angler propulsion, which makes them as fast or as far-reaching as their occupant desires.

"It's very relaxing - it's not tiring at all," Jeanne Robinson said. "I'm sure you're getting a lot of exercise, but you never really know it."

All the Robinsons know is that they're having fun, and float-tube fishing has become a family affair for them. Alan and Jeanne have been paddling their way around small ponds and lakes together for 23 years, and now their two sons - Neal, a college sophomore, and Walt, a high school junior - never miss an opportunity to wet their legs (and lines) with Mom and Dad.

The Robinsons, who live in Greenville, are among a growing number of anglers who have discovered the inner beauty of the inner tube, so to speak.

And without question, the real beauty of the float tube lies in its simplicity.

The Robinson's traditional round float tubes, besides being economical, are bereft of bells and whistles. Their fishing crafts are little more than inner tubes covered with rugged vinyl. They are equipped with seats and zippered pouches to hold snacks and perhaps a drink and a small amount of fishing tackle, which are all the amenities necessary for a day of fun on the water.

"The main convenience is that they're so small," Jeanne Robinson said. "You can take them deflated, pump them up and you're ready to go."

Because of that portability, float tubes are the perfect vehicle for fishing those out-of-the-way ponds that many anglers overlook, and that's precisely what appeals to Ed Roberts, a longtime float-tube fisherman from Ninety Six.

"If you can walk to it, you can carry a float tube to it," Roberts said. "The ponds that you can't see except via an airplane or topo map are the best, because they usually don't get much fishing pressure."

Roberts has uncovered several fishing spots by locating small, remote ponds and reservoirs on a map, then getting in touch with the property owners. Many of them have been city or other municipality-owned watershed lakes, which generally have limited access but are often open to an angler packing only a float tube.

Roberts also has found that many of these remote waters are protected by nearly impenetrable shorelines, which again plays right into his master plan.

"How many times have you walked in to a pond and gotten there and found it completely surrounded by brush and briars, and there's no place to fish from along the shoreline?" Roberts said. "And if it has a mucky bottom or a steep shoreline, you can't wade it, either. But if you have a float tube, you can fish it."

And fish it Roberts does. He's caught countless big bass while casting from his float tube, attributing much of his success to the stealth factor facilitated by the quiet and unobtrusive approach of his tube.

"You don't throw a big shadow in these things - you are able to keep a low profile," Roberts said. "And if you move slowly, I think the bass just think you're some sort of big aquatic creature."

It's hard to argue with Roberts' reasoning, especially considering the fact that he's boated, er, "float-tubed," plenty of hefty largemouth bass in his 20 years of float fishing. On one particularly memorable day at a remote pond, Roberts caught 33 bass totaling 147.5 pounds - yes, he weighed them all - including three that weighed more than 10 pounds.

Once a float-tube fisherman is in the water, a pond becomes his or her oyster. Those delicious-looking overhangs that drape the shoreline become readily accessible. The blowdowns and stick-ups and stumps that might be impossible to reach with a shoreline cast are rendered reachable, and the humps and channels that are too far away to approach with a cast from the bank are literally at your feet.

"You can get to places you can't get to in a boat," Jeanne Robinson said.

Including those places where a wayward cast has landed your lure in a mess.

"If you're tangled up in a tree, you just kick your way on over, and it's easy to get your hook out of whatever's there," Jeanne Robinson said.

Float tubes lend themselves to a variety of fishing techniques, although fly fishing and ultralight spinning tackle seem to be among the most popular options.

"The fish can be small, but you feel everything," said Jeanne Robinson, who's partial to light spincasting equipment. "That's a thrill -reeling that fish in and thinking it's going to be so big. And sometimes you can see them swimming right toward you."

Many float-tube anglers are fond of tossing a small fly or spinner out behind them and essentially trolling while they're moving through the water and casting ahead.

The Robinsons often employ a group strategy that has been known to pay some serious dividends. All four family members will head out in different directions in a pond, with each of them tossing a different type or color of lure - long-legged girdle bugs, Beetle Spins, crappie jigs and rigged worms are among the family standards.

When one of them discovers a lure or color that appears to be effective, they quickly tell the others, who change their baits accordingly. And when a hot spot is discovered, such as a bream bed where a feeding frenzy is taking place, they signal each other and converge on the area. Suddenly, a quartet of Robinsons is pulling fish from the same honey hole.

Remarkably, commerically-produced float tubes have been around since the 1940s, when the Tucker Duck and Rubber Company of Fort Smith, Ark., began producing the "Fish-N-Float." Those early tubes featured canvas that could become heavy and waterlogged and seams that came apart readily, but the concept had been born.

Float tubes were improved bit by bit, both in materials and function, over the next few decades, with a hotbed for float-tubing emerging in western states such as Idaho, Colorado and Montana. In the 1980s, the first packable tubes were produced, featuring sturdier construction while weighing less. Today, U-shaped float tubes, which are considerably easier to get in and out of, have emerged as a popular and economical choice.

Ed Few, an avid trout fisherman from Six Mile, purchased his float tube several years ago before making a horseback/fishing excursion out west. But he's come to realize that float tubes aren't just for western lakes and waters.

His tube is equipped with a stripping basket that mounts across his lap, and he's made the most of it while fishing the remote coves of Lake Jocassee.

"Between Thanksgiving and Christmas is when you have the best chance of catching stocked trout around the shoreline," said Few, who has pulled several 16-and 17-inch trout from Jocassee while float-tubing. "But in the summertime, you can use the float tube to catch bream, especially if you get into a place with a lot of overhanging branches.

"It's good if you can get somebody in a boat to take you up there to some of the more remote coves. I get up in there and just paddle around. It can really be a lot of fun."