October 01, 2014
My first exposure to the power of the umbrella rig came at the 2013 National Championship of The Bass Federation (TBF) at Grand Lake O' the Cherokees in Oklahoma. Watching coverage of the Bassmaster Classic held there earlier that year, I knew of the quality of bass there and the reservoir's diverse types of structure. At the April event, I was eager to test umbrella rigs, as my experience in Minnesota, where lures can carry only one hook, was slight. At the February Classic, competitors had found success with combinations of jerkbaits, crankbaits, and jigs for early prespawn bass. The Bassmaster Elite Series bans the controversial setups. A topo map disclosed many deep main-lake points where small creeks entered the lower end of the lake, which seemed to offer fruitful ground for umbrella rigs. Grand's clear water color increased its potential there.
I prepared a number of rigs, with arms of varying lengths, matched with jigheads and swimbaits of several lengths and weights to match whatever conditions presented themselves, or the whims of the bass.
I'd heard of the success of anglers fishing rigs with 3-inch swimbaits rather than the 5-inchers that were initially favored for the jumbo bass of the Tennessee River. At times, matching baitfish size can be important when using swimbaits, even more so with these rigs intended to replicate a tight school of baitfish.
As soon as we began prefishing, the power of the umbrella rig became evident. With water temperatures still in the upper-40°F range in the lower end of the reservoir, jerkbaits and swimbaits continued to catch bass. But umbrella rigs caught lots more big fish. It became obvious that working the rigs parallel to rounded main-lake points, underwater points, and deep flats was the key to catching lunkers, as 5-, 6-, and 7-pound bass struck them violently, sometimes right under the boat as the rig turned upward toward the end of the retrieve. We scored with rigs ranging from an array of five 5.5-inch Trigger X Slop Hoppers on a Terminator Titanium Rig to a Lucky Craft Bevy Rig with 3.5-inch Gene Larew Sweet Swimmers.
As the tournament unfolded, two top patterns emerged: fishing square-bill crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and jigs in small shallow pockets with darker and warmer water; and umbrella rigs along steep-breaking banks in clearer creeks and the main reservoir. The winner, Mark Daniels of California, along with many top finishers, used umbrella rigs, regularly recording 5-fish limits over 20 pounds.
Since that event, I've tried umbrella rigs in various situations, making some outstanding fall and spring catches where bass were keying on schooling baitfish. I also learned that pike and walleyes are just as eager to attack these rigs as largemouth and smallmouth bass. And while they shine for outsize bass, fish of all sizes are liable to attack them.
In Minnesota's natural lakes, where big bass rely most on crayfish, bluegills, perch, and bullheads, and the limit on hooked lures is one, these rigs have not shown great appeal so far. But where shad are present, such as on the Mississippi River, they open a whole new chapter in presentation for anglers who haven't yet adopted them. While they're used heavily on many southern reservoirs, northern anglers haven't been as eager to try them.
I find fascinating the way you can tweak these setups with swimbaits and grubs of various lengths and colors, using rigs with and without spinners and arms of different lengths to match preyfish conditions and the attitude of resident bass. When rigging with dummy baits, use a hooked lure on the longer, central wire since bass seem to focus on it. Using a larger lure or one specially colored also draws biters to that hook.
Jimmy Mason of Rogersville, Alabama, need not to worry about limiting hooks on the rigs he uses in the impoundments of the Tennessee River where he guides. "Traditionally, anglers found success with umbrella rigs during the colder months of the year," Mason says. "That generally holds true, but there is a place for the rig in your summertime reservoir fishing arsenal. During the heat of summer, rainfall usually declines and river flows are reduced, sometimes to nil. This causes bass to suspend, and these rigs are about the best thing you can use to tempt bites from suspended bass, which always are tough to trigger. The appearance of a small school of baitfish makes the rig outfish a single swimbait or a crankbait in many cases when bass suspend well off bottom."
Mason notes that though these arrays are lifelike, bass have become somewhat conditioned to them. "When we first fished them, shortly after Paul Elias' victory at the October Guntersville FLW Tour event, we called it the silly season," he says. "It seemed you could do no wrong that first fall and winter. Today, however, you often must tinker with lure size and position and color to do well. I often experiment, trying Yumbrella Rigs with and without blades to see which bass prefer. And for finicky fish, I sometimes substitute Yum Muy Grubs for swimbaits.
"It's like any other hot lure type that comes along. At first you can't miss, but within a few years, or even months, bass seemingly become more suspicious of it. We've seen that with the Rat-L-Trap, Senko, and Chatterbait, to name a few."
FLW Tour angler and Lake Fork Guide Tom Redington also notes that angler use has made bass a bit more leery of the rigs than in the beginning. He recalls a trip just before Thanksgiving when he took his young son to Fork. Finding the boy's Zebco sadly insufficient, he'd cast a flippin' stick far into open water and hand it to his son who braced his feet against the gunnel. After a 10-count, the boy commenced reeling and hooked bass on every cast until his arms were too tired to continue.
"Anglers picked up on the rig immediately, and by the next year, the bite had slowed some," he says. "But this past spring we had a great bite on the rigs here at Fork, as it stayed cold well into the Prespawn Period. We loaded up on big females staging along secondary points.
"In general, the downsized rigs are working better now. But even with small swimbaits, your odds of contacting big bass go way up with umbrella rigs. The key is to 'sell out to it,'" says the guide. "That is commit to fishing it all day: don't quit when you don't get bit for an hour."
During fall, Redington also uses these rigs when bass push into the backs of shallow creeks. "In fall, it's especially important to retrieve slowly, so light jigheads help you work it shallow. I often rig with 1/16-ounce heads at that time," he says.
Bass veterans were concerned about the physical strain of heaving hefty and cumbersome umbrella rigs on the heavy rods required. But with years of muskie and marine fishing behind me, I found them no problem to throw for hours. On that Oklahoma trip, I relied on a 7-foot 11-inch Fenwick Elite Tech swimbait rod with 65-pound-test Sufix 832, which worked well. The only glitches came as some inadequate snaps failed to withstand surging bass at boatside.
Since that event, I've used Matt Newman's iRod Bama Rig Special, in the Genesis II series. It's 7-foot 10 inches and rated for 1- to 4-ounce lures and 50- to 70-pound braid. It's surprisingly light and has some give in the tip to help lob rigs, but plenty of backbone to wind in multiple lunkers should that opportunity arise. I'm assured it does, though I haven't had such good fortune.
G. Loomis' NRX Umbrella Rig rod won last year's Best of Show for Freshwater Rod at the annual ICAST Show. This 7-foot 7-inch inch NRX916 UBR is rated extra-heavy. It has a softer tip to load, but is stout enough so it won't overflex at max capacity. The lightness, durability, and sensitivity of NRX is sure to make this one a winner.
Mason uses an 8-foot Dobyns 804 model for fishing smaller setups with lighter jigheads, switching to a Dobyns 795 Mike Long Series Swimbait Road for heavy-duty rigs that can top 5 ounces. Flippin' sticks with parabolic action work okay, as well.
A large reel accommodates the thick line and provides a powerful pull whether battling a bass or two, or hauling up the inevitable snag, or bending hooks out. I've generally spooled 50- or 65-pound braid for its castability and strength, but have used 25-pound fluorocarbon in some clear-water situations. Pro anglers are divided among those two camps, though the darker water of most reservoirs and big rivers negates the need for fluoro, from a visibility standpoint. Mason fishes 65-pound braid around vegetation and 25-pound fluoro in clear conditions. Since a net inevitably tangles fish, swivels, lures, and mesh, it's best to quickly hoist your catch aboard, no matter how large.
When In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange was fishing Lake Tawakoni, Texas, Guide Johnny Guice demonstrated a trick to reduce fouling when you cast a rig on braided line. He adds a plastic stirring straw on the line where the knot connects to the rig, which deflects lures and hooks from the mainline.
New Generation Rigs
As I write, it's been almost three years since these rigs burst onto the bassin' scene. Larger and more elaborate ones have emerged, as well as modifications with fewer lures to abide by conservative regulations.
As part of his presentation array during his dominant victory on Lake Chickamauga, Tennessee, in 2013, Casey Martin used Picasso's Baitball Extreme, which employs up to 16 swimbaits, though he reportedly limited the array to 13 swimbaits, fitting the other arms with willowleaf blades. He used it, outfitted with an array of 3.5-inch Larew Sweet Swimmers to amass a 103-pound catch over four days that bested the field by more than 22 pounds and included the 8-pound 5-ounce lunker.
Curiously, he found umbrella rigs futile on Day-2 when he resorted to a drop-shot rig adorned with a single 6-inch Roboworm. "I couldn't get a bite on the Baitball," he reported. But abandon it he did not, and fish went berserk for it on the final day.
In accordance with Tennessee statutes, only three baits bore hooks. But he positioned the "live" lures to draw more bites than the more numerous dummies. Picasso offers Dummy Heads with a screw-lock device to hold swimbaits firmly. His outrageous array may have broken the proverbial camel's back, for soon after it, the FLW Tour joined Bassmaster in banning the rigs, as several pros were outspoken in their opposition.
In the interest of versatility, Berkley added options in their Schooling Rig. The Magnum version has five 7-inch arms backed by 80-pound Cross-Lok Snap Swivels. It's available alone or packaged with five PowerBait Split Belly Swimbaits and five weighted hooks for Texas rigging. Consider this sort of setup when fishing through standing timber or vegetation. Two sizes of Ripple Schooling Rig have a longer arm linked to a V-shape arm that hold two swivels. They come with three PowerBait Ripple Shads and three weighted hooks. The larger model has 4/0 hooks and 3½-inch Ripple Shads, while the other has 1/0 hooks and 3-inch Ripple Shads. Finally, the Mini Schooling Rig has two 2½-inch arms and a short central arm rigged with a willowleaf blade. It comes alone or packaged with a pair of 3-inch Ripple Shad and 1/8-ounce jigheads.
Because many jurisdictions limit the number of hooks on an array to from 1 to 3, companies have invented rigs that portray the look of a bait school, while limiting the number of hooks. Doing so also reduces weight.
Following the success of the Yum Flash Mob and other arrays, PRADCO added the Boo series from Booyah. The Boo Rig has four short arms of wire adorned with willowleaf blades, and a fifth wire of flexible nylon-coated wire with a snap to attach a crankbait, swimbait, or other lure. The Boo Flex Rig uses the same flexible wire, with a leadhead in front to get lures deeper. Boo Spin Rigs incorporate a wire arm holding a pair of blades, which run ahead of a snap to attach a lure. Finally, the Boo Teaser Rig has a nylon-coated flexible arm and four short arms with screw attachments to add grubs or small swimbaits. These rigs are meant to make any lure have the multi-baitfish appearance that's made umbrella rigs so successful.
Z-Man came out with QuadZilla, an array of four willowleaf blades set on wires ahead of a skirted head with a single hook. For easy storage, the arms slide through the head in a compact package. Mann's Bait Company came out with an innovative rig, the Three-For-All, which combines three baits on one jighead, an addition to their Hardnose Series.
Softbait makers have rushed to offer many fine options for umbrella rigs, matching the colors of any baitfish, and adding some in worm colors and wild hues to tempt fish that have seen their share. One item I've found of great use when dummy baits must be used is the Hitch Hiker from Tru-Turn, a spring-like wire with a clip at one end to attach to a swivel.
Though these rigs have their detractors, I find them fun and effective in many situations, and the fall season is prime time. Some anglers even say they make it too easy to catch lunkers. I say, where do I sign up!