By Todd Ceisner
(Editor's note: In observance of the Labor Day holiday, a new First Cast story will not appear until Tuesday.)
With the release of the 2014 FLW Tour rules on Wednesday, the umbrella rig era at pro bass fishing's highest level of competition has come to an end.
After gathering feedback from anglers and weighing other variables, such as fish care and public relations backlash, FLW decided to ban umbrella rigs at the Tour level beginning next year. Anglers in all FLW-sanctioned tournaments were able to use the rigs since they came on the scene at the 2011 Lake Guntersville FLW Tour Open, but going forward the multi-arm baits will be allowed in EverStart Series and BFL events with strict limitations placed on number of wires, blades and hooks.
While there's no telling if the ban could be lifted or modified in the future, one thing is for certain: One of the most polarizing products and techniques to ever hit the major tournament scene presently has no place in the sport's top leagues. And it appears the anglers were the driving force behind the move.
Survey Results Loomed Large
Bill Taylor, who's worked as the FLW Tour tournament director since 2001, called the process by which the organization reviewed the umbrella rig issue "deliberate" and included input from a number of FLW officials as well as data from FLW's annual angler survey. He said after Paul Elias won at Guntersville in the fall of 2011 with a version of the rig Andy Poss later licensed to Mann's Bait Company called the Alabama Rig, it forced the organization to step back and evaluate its options.
"When it first came out, we were like, 'Uh oh, what's this deal,'" Taylor told BassFan in a phone interview. "Our team met for several days after that Guntersville tournament and decided to take a stance and see how it all progressed and what would happen to the fisheries and how the states would react. We took a wait and see approach and we're glad we did. It proved us right in many ways."
FLW tournament director Bill Taylor said angler input was vital to helping FLW change course on the umbrella rig issue.
FLW opted to allow umbrella rigs during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, fueling a debate over the rig's place in tournament bass fishing. Meanwhile, B.A.S.S. immediately banned the use of the rig in the Bassmaster Classic and Elite Series competition, but continues to allow it in its Open divisions and B.A.S.S. Nation tournaments.
After two seasons, however, angler feedback strongly favored moving away from the rig in FLW Tour events. According to Taylor, surveys were sent to 150 Tour anglers this summer and of the nearly 130 responses, approximately 70 percent voted to ban umbrella rigs altogether. The anglers' voice carried significant weight when making the final determination, Taylor added.
"Any time we evaluate our rules for the next season, we listen to our anglers during the season and after the season," he said. "A lot of the rules that we've adjusted or added are based on listening to the anglers and also what makes good business sense for us. Their input is extremely important to us.
"I don't think we were in a corner. We want to do what's right for the resource and through a combination of listening to our anglers and wanting to protect the resource and doing the smartest thing at this level from a PR perspective."
In the time since Elias introduced the bass fishing world to umbrella rigs, other FLW anglers have relied upon it frequently in tournaments. Others prefer not to throw it in competition, but opted to out of fear a competitor around the next point was filling his livewell because of it. Still others refuse to have one in their boat or even own one, based on principle.
Many pros have said the umbrella rig has its time and place – it's particularly effective during the fall, winter and pre-spawn – but without any restrictions spelled out as to how many wires or teaser baits could be used other than state regulations that typically dealt with numbers of hooks, some anglers went to extremes in creating elaborate rigs that mimicked a giant school of baitfish.
When some anglers began connecting multiple rigs together and hanging a dozen or more baits (some with hooks, some without) and adorning them with willow-leaf blades, it got to be too much, Taylor said.
Jay Yelas favored keeping umbrella rigs in competition because it fostered innovation.
"With the evolution of the rig into multiple baits or two rigs hooked together, it didn't make sense to us," Taylor said. "We looked at it from an environmental perspective and as a resource issue as far as the fish themselves and the damage done by all the hooks and seeing the fish caught on TV with a bunch of hooks stuck in them. We also looked at how it impacted the pros' integrity as far as their preferred styles of fishing."
Dave Lefebre has been one of the more vocal opponents of the use of umbrella rigs in tournaments. He became aware that FLW was considering a ban while at the Forrest Wood Cup and applauds the decision.
"I figured FLW would limit it, which would not have changed anything at all," he said. "Needless to say, like most, I’m thrilled about it, rejuvenated and excited for next season.
"This umbrella rig thing took the life out of me. It made me not excited to go fishing anymore and compete. It was a feeling I didn’t think was possible for me to have. I honestly feel for the EverStart, B.A.S.S. Open, and BFL guys who still have to deal with it, though. Most of them feel the same way the majority of pros feel, I guarantee it. I’ve heard from hundreds of them. That’s a reflection of the PAA voting earlier this season when they voted to ban harness rigs as well. It would be banned everywhere if voting was done at every level, probably even club and weekend levels, too."
He's aware that his decision to not use it in competition likely cost him thousands in tournament winnings, maybe even a win at the 2012 Lake Hartwell FLW Tour Major, but he's glad he stuck by his beliefs.
"Making the choice not to use umbrella rigs was extremely difficult these past two years, and my finishes suffered dramatically because of it," he said. "A normal 7th-place weight at Beaver turned into barely getting a top-50 check. A top 10 at the Douglas Lake PAA turned into a 70th and cost me two Texas Bass Classics and even more money. … I accept the fact that it was my own fault and I wouldn’t change anything knowing that it is gone now.
"Once I opened my mouth I simply couldn’t back down, and I especially could not compromise, it's just who I am. I totally understand why many have criticized me for it. My feeling is that these rigs were bad for tournaments, stats, history and every other technique in our sport."
Jason Christie, the top-ranked angler in the current BassFan World Rankings presented by Livingston Lures, has won tournaments with the umbrella rig and without it. A three-wire umbrella rig helped carry him to victory at Beaver Lake. However, he never picked it up during his other two wins this year (Grand Lake FLW Tour and Bull Shoals Lake Elite Series).
He views the umbrella rig as just another tool for anglers, but he'll adjust accordingly without it.
"To me, it really doesn't matter," he said. "If you look at pro fishing and the things we do to catch fish, both circuits could outlaw soft plastics. We'll still use spinnerbaits and top waters to catch them. It doesn't affect the way I work. If anything, you're not sitting there thinking about it. It's a fun way to fish, though. You can catch the heck out of them. If they let us throw it, great. If not, I have 10 or 12 other lures I have confidence in that I can throw.
"To be honest with you, I was a little surprised. I really didn't see it coming. I thought that was set in and that's the way it was going to be until some sort of scientific evidence came out to change it. The thing I'm most happy about is that both tours are doing the same thing now and that means a lot."
Casey Martin will have the somewhat dubious distinction of being the last Tour angler to win an event with the umbrella rig. He caught more than 100 pounds at Lake Chickamauga in June thanks largely to a jumbo rig that featured three swimbaits with hooks and 10 dummy baits.
Martin is vacationing in northern Ontario this week and hadn't gotten to read the new rules all the way through yet. He had received text messages from friends alerting him to the ban on u-rigs, though.
"I guess I'll be known as the guy that got it banned," he said, chuckling. "It is somewhat surprising, but I knew it was coming. The only sad thing is a lot of the lakes we go to, we won't be able to really showcase what's really there."
While he knows he played within the rules at Chickamauga, he knew the boundaries had to be set sooner or later as far as number of wires and baits.
"There had to be a limit somewhere as far as number of baits and that," he said. "It's not a miracle rig by any means. I'm up here in Ontario right now and there are a bunch of smallmouth where I'm fishing. You could throw your shoe at them and they'd eat it, but they won't touch an Alabama Rig.
"There's a time and place for it and FLW made a decision that it's not in tournament fishing. That's what the anglers wanted."
Jay Yelas said he voted in favor of keeping the umbrella rig, but not because it would benefit his fishing performance.
"I just don't believe in discouraging innovation when you come up with a better mousetrap," he said. "It's how America and the world works. Innovation should be celebrated. It's part of the reason why we enjoy such a high standard of living here. That part of it I don't like. I've always been in favor it even though I haven't embraced it as far as a tool for my fishing like some guys have."
Yelas said the refrain from anglers who were opposed to umbrella rigs was the notion that "someone's going to beat you with it so you're going to have to throw it, too."
Scott Canterbury would've preferred restrictions on umbrella rigs, but understands why FLW banned them altogether.
"There's no other lure that you can say that about," he said. "We've never seen anything like it before in fishing, but I'm sure there will be something else in 5 or 10 years that 'll be just as effective. What will we do then? Bass fishing has always been that way. Someone's always coming up with something new to fool fish."
Scott Canterbury won a fair share of cash over the past two seasons with the umbrella rig, but he wasn't surprised when he got word it had been banned in competition. He was in favor of either banning it or regulating it heavily.
"It doesn't bother me one way or another," he said. "We all had a chance to vote on it. I thought of it as just another tool, but I wanted it to be regulated. I wasn't for hooking two or three of them together with 14 baits and seven teasers. It was getting out of control. I'm happy they did something about it. I'm not necessarily happy it was banned, but I'd rather it be banned than keep going in the direction we were going."
As far as what pros will pick up now instead of reaching for their umbrella rig rod, he said BassFans will likely see a return to old-school fishing.
"Looking ahead to Beaver next year," he said, "I'll probably be back to throwing jerkbaits and Wiggle Warts. It'll level out the playing field. A few guys got to rely on it and spent a lot of time with it. It's fun to throw, no doubt. There will be some guys that'll be worried what they're going do in certain situations."