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September 21, 2007

The Umbrella Policy

Savvy anglers have been fooling striped bass and bluefish on umbrella rigs for years. Gary Caputi shares the insiders' tactics with downriggers, super-braids and soft-plastics that are breathing new life into this deadly trolling weapon!


Ungainly they may be, but umbrella rigs are undoubtedly one of the most effective tools for taking striped bass, especially when the fish are feeding on schooling bait.

The first time I laid eyes on an umbrella rig was on a charter boat out of Highlands, New Jersey, at the start of my first-ever trolling trip for striped bass and bluefish. We were steaming out to the fishing grounds around Sandy Hook when the mate pulled out this ungodly-looking contraption made of wire and adorned with a collection of brightly colored plastic tubes. To me, a fresh water angler who had only dabbled in surf and party-boat fishing, the contrivance was so large and unwieldy that I couldn't envision a game fish coming anywhere near it, but by the end of the day I was convinced that umbrella rigs were deadly medicine on bluefish and stripers.

Umbrella rigs are still among the most popular and productive inshore trolling weapons, and the tried-and-true method of rigging and fishing them still applies. While umbrellas can be rigged with everything from soft-plastic shads to spoons, the traditional rig features "worms" made from dyed surgical tubing. The tubes are armed with special bent hooks or pieces of wire that cause them to spin when pulled through the water. Small tubes with a sharp bend are preferred for bluefish and weakfish because they spin faster, while longer tubes with a gentle curve are used when stripers or big blues are the target because they exhibit a lazier action that these fish really go for. In years when long, narrow baitfish such as sand eels are abundant, umbrellas armed with tubes can be so effective that trollers often come home early, suffering from exhaustion.

The Umbrella Policy
Captain Pete Barrett downsizes his umbrella-trolling outfits by using super-braid line or downriggers.

Wire line has long been used to present umbrellas to fish holding well below the surface. The standard setup involves a sturdy boat rod equipped with special carbide guides and a reel loaded with 150 to 300 feet of stainless or Monel trolling wire, usually 40-pound test. At typical trolling speeds of two to four knots, you can figure on one foot of depth for every ten feet of wire in the water. For example, letting out 200 feet of wire will put the rig at 20 feet. It's a simple and accurate way of presenting umbrellas to deep-holding fish.

While wire line is still a popular way to fish umbrellarigs, some innovative inshore trollers have been grappling with alternative methods. One guy who has managed to put it all together is my old friend, Captain Pete Barrett, associate publisher of The Fisherman magazine. While Pete still uses wire from time to time to fish the "soft stuff" (VHF parlance for umbrella rigs), he has helped refine some new methods that allow for the use of lighter tackle and make the rig a little more versatile, while at the same time increasing the fun factor when fighting fish.

Downrigger Umbrellas

Fishing umbrellas on downriggers is nothing new, but until recently it has been a hit-or-miss proposition. After working out some of the sticking points, Pete and his friends have come up with a workable solution that provides fast and easy depth control and allows for the use of monofilament line.

The Umbrella Policy
Both bluefish and stripers find tube-rigged umbrellas irresistible when sand eels are thick.

"The biggest problem we encountered in the past involved the release clip," Pete explained during a recent dockside chat. "Umbrella rigs, especially the ones rigged with plastic shad bodies, put a lot of pressure on a release clip. Any clips that pinch the line are useless, and most outrigger-style clips can't be adjusted tight enough to hold the rig. We finally hit upon using an AFTCO Roller Troller release clip, for two reasons: it was the only one we could really crank down and still trust to open on the strike, and it allows us to adjust the depth of the ball without having to reset the fishing line."

Pete modifies the Roller Troller by replacing the standard wire dropper with a shorter one made from 200- or 300-pound mono and corresponding crimps. The mono is stiff so it won't tangle or foul with the running line.

The umbrella rig is fished off a medium-weight conventional outfit. Pete likes line-counter reels so he can set the rigs at exactly 100 feet every time, but you can get away without a counter by marking the line at 100 feet with a waterproof marker. The reel is loaded with 30-pound mono tipped with a 12-foot leader of 60-pound test and a ball-bearing snap swivel. No additional weight is used.

Pete starts by letting out the umbrella to the 100-foot mark and runs the line through the Roller Troller. Then the downrigger ball is dropped to the desired depth, usually 20 to 30 feet, depending on water depth. As the ball descends, the clip slides down the line, pulling the rig with it. The umbrella will usually run a foot or two deeper than the ball at trolling speed. When an adjustment is needed to account for changes in bottom contour or to match the depth at which fish are being marked on the sounder, the ball is cranked up or down without having to touch the reel. When a fish hits, the clip opens and the angler can fight the fish directly. No wire, no drail weights.

Good as Wire

The Umbrella Policy
These anglers are ready with a large landing net, as double-headers are not uncommon on umbrella rigs.

Another method that works involves the use of braided line as a wire substitute. I first saw this system used while fishing with Captain Terry Sullivan on the Flats Rat a couple years back. Terry and a lot of other anglers had been using super-braid line for trolling Mann's deep-diving Stretch plugs for bass in the spring and fall. The thin diameter of the braid allows the plugs to dive deeper than when they're fished on mono.

On the day I fished with Terry, umbrellas were out-producing everything else, so we pulled out a braided-line outfit, clipped on a four-arm shad rig and dropped it back about 300 feet. At 2 1/2 knots it was picking off bass at surprising depths. Come to find out that Barrett uses the system, too.

Setting up a braided-line outfit for fishing umbrellas is easy. Start with a light-medium or medium-action conventional outfit rated for 25- or 30-pound test. Most lightweight graphite star- or lever-drag reels work great for this application. Load the reel two-thirds full with mono and top it off with 100 yards of 50-pound super-braid. Take care when connecting the mono to the braid. I've been using a double uni-knot to connect them with no problem, but be very careful when tying and snugging the knots. Finish off with a 12-foot leader of 60-pound test and a ball-bearing snap swivel.

The Umbrella Policy
Charter crews rely on umbrella rigs to provide fast action for their clients.

To get the rig down, clip a four-ounce trolling drail to the snap and then clip the umbrella to the drail. At three knots, with all 300 feet of braid in the water, the umbrella will be working at about 25 to 30 feet. This is comparable to wire, which gets down 30 feet with 300 feet of line in the water and no drail.

By adjusting the boat speed, you can drop the rig even deeper. On the day I fished with Sullivan, the bass were holding at 40 feet in 55 feet of water over sandy bottom. By pulling the engine out of gear momentarily and letting the rig drop deeper before shifting back into gear, we caught the deep fish just fine. Just don't try this trick over hard bottom or you'll find yourself losing umbrella rigs in the rocks, an expensive proposition.

The Great Impostor

In case you haven't figured it out, umbrella rigs were designed to mimic a school of baitfish - but which baitfish? For years, the standard procedure was to rig them with surgical-tube worms, and versatility meant nothing more than changing the color or size of the tubes. If you were really creative, you dyed your own custom-color tubes and made them in different lengths and curves.

When the primary forage consists of sand eels, it's hard to beat rigs armed with long tubes because they resemble a pod of the long, skinny fish that has been separated from the main school. That's all it takes to ring the dinner bell for prowling bass, blues or weaks.

The Umbrella Policy
Soft-plastic shads have become hot umbrella lures, especially in areas that see an abundance of juvenile menhaden.

A few years ago, when a bumper crop of peanut bunker (juvenile menhaden) were working their way down the beaches of New Jersey, a few enterprising anglers began arming their umbrella rigs with six-inch plastic shad bodies on short leaders, and they had a field day on the bass. Shad rigs in white or chartreuse were a big secret for about a month, but now they dominate the walls of tackle shops where once only tube rigs could be found.

Today, fishermen are rigging umbrellas with a variety of different lures, including Red Gill sand eels, Mann's Mannhaden soft bunker imitations, six-inch Fin-S-Fish and Clark spoons. Salt water shops that cater to boat fishermen have racks and bins loaded with all kinds of soft-plastic fish bodies, most of which have seen duty on an umbrella rig at one time or another.

Fortunately, most umbrella rigs feature snaps that allow you to switch lures easily. With just a few frames, you can cover the gamut by keeping a supply of plastic fish bodies, some hook-and-leader combinations, a bag or two of assorted tube lures and a selection of dropper lures at the ready. That's all it takes to respond to the presence of different types of baitfish or the fish's preference for particular color combination.

Choose the Right Frame

The Umbrella Policy
Bluefish tend to prefer tubes with a sharp bend, as the high-speed spinning action drives them wild. Bass like a slower meal.

When selecting an umbrella rig, pay close attention to the frame. Frames come in four- and six-arm versions, in a variety of arm lengths. For use with downriggers or on lighter trolling outfits loaded with super-braid, go with rigs that have relatively short arms. The huge "gorilla rigs" are overkill, and don't catch any more fish than the short-arm models, which keep the lures in a tighter pattern. The short-arm frames create less resistance in the water and are easier to handle, especially when you are dealing with downriggers and release clips. Look for frames made from light-gauge, stainless-steel wire. If the wire gets bent, you can bend it back into shape.

Most umbrellas feature a "dropper lure" positioned in the center of the rig. The dropper can be used to create a variety of illusions. By using a lure that matches the others and rigging it to run slightly behind the rest of the formation, you'll make it look like an injured and vulnerable baitfish trying to keep up with the school. Or you can rig a larger lure in the dropper position to present a larger target. To target big fish, rig a big plastic shad or large trolling tube four to six feet behind the other lures. Rigged in this manner, the other lures on the umbrella act more like teasers, and the dropper is what the bigger bass will key on.

Umbrella rigs. Love 'em or hate 'em, you can't deny that they are incredibly effective, which is why they are still one of the most popular inshore trolling weapons in existence. Rain or shine, always keep an umbrella on your boat!

The Umbrella Policy
Illustration by John Rice