“Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle.”
― George R.R. Martin, "A Game of Thrones"
It wasn’t long ago that the umbrella rig was the hot topic of the day. Possibly the greatest debate in modern professional fishing, the allowance of multi-lure setups fueled raging fires on both sides.
Many pros fought against it, claiming it took the “skill” out of competition and was bad for the sport. However, many tackle producers leveraged for umbrella rigs, citing a renewed life and vigor among consumers. In the end, “the rig” was outlawed on both major professional circuits.
A debate ensued a few evenings ago between a friend and myself, so I decided to take a closer look at the data. What I found was nothing short of compelling.
A recent major event would be the perfect “clean slate” for all pro and con umbrella rig comparisons. In true scientific method, we can test the hypothesis that allowing multi-rig setups would forever change professional fishing as we know it, discrediting our superstars and possibly allowing luck to become too much of a factor.
The test lab: Beaver Lake.
The FLW Tour has been visiting Beaver forever, it seems, right around the same time of year. Early spring is prime “rig time," and Beaver’s moderately clear water, combined with multiple bass species, make it a perfect environment for the technique.
I took a look at the results from Beaver, comparing both the weights and the top performers for the last several years, and was astounded by what I saw. Certainly, lucky rig-slingers would have dominated previous events and weights would have been drastically higher during those events than they would be in today’s no-rig era, right?
In fact, notwithstanding serious doubt and deep contemplation by yours truly, it appears that the rig may have made no difference whatsoever.
Let’s look back at the evidence.
In the 2012 and 2013 Tour events at Beaver, the tournaments were dominated by use of the umbrella rig, and winning weights were 54 and 61 pounds, respectively. This season, with umbrella rigs outlawed, Matt Arey’s winning weight was a little over 59 pounds – right in the middle.
In 2012, the event winner was FLW legend David Dudley, who threw an umbrella rig, and shallow-water master Andy Morgan finished 2nd, uncharacteristically also wielding the multi-lure. By comparison, Dudley and Morgan finished 3rd and 2nd, respectively, this season without it.
Big players in the Top 10 this year, without the rig, included a who’s who: Morgan, Dudley, Casey Ashley, Scott Martin, Mark Rose, etc.
But 2012 was certainly no list of lucky slouches, either: Dudley, Morgan, Luke Clausen, Glenn Browne, Jay Yelas, Jacob Powroznik. And 2013? Try Jason Christie, Anthony Gagliardi, Scott Suggs, Rose, Koby Kreiger and Stacey King.
It appears, from what the data suggests, that what we’ve known all along holds true even in this unique scenario: the cream rises to the top.
I wanted to get the inside scoop, so I elected to call on one of the sport’s nicest guys and also one of the best anglers on the FLW Tour, Mark Rose. He seems to always be near the top in today’s day and age, and I knew he had both positive and negative experiences with the umbrella rig. Also, a tighter review of my data showed that Rose had finished in the Top 20 in all three case study events, and was the only angler with Top-10 finishes in each of the last two. Surely, he would set me straight.
As usual, Rose’s comments were modest, and he expressed feeling fortunate for doing as well as he did. But make no mistake; this guy is more than fortunate, he’s incredibly talented.
When I got down to the nitty-gritty, I was surprised to hear his opinion. “Truthfully, I’m neutral, and that’s the way I voted,” Rose mentioned when I asked of his stance on the rig debate.
Rose mentioned that he never relied heavily on the umbrella rig at Beaver in any of the previous contests. However, he did use it to catch his largest fish there in 2013, and he also excelled with it recently in practice at the Rayovac event on Grand Lake, where he finished 15th.
And although Rose is certainly adept at catching fish with such a contraption anytime it presents itself, he cautions that the umbrella rig is simply a situation bait, like any other. “It has its niche. It’s like a jerkbait or anything else,” he concluded.
Rose said the umbrella rig is best in early spring, during pre-spawn, in moderately clear water. He mentioned that at Beaver this year, much of the lake was too muddy to produce strong catches on an umbrella rig, and that, in other areas, the water was simply too clear. According to Rose, the best water for throwing the rig is fairly limited.
In addition, looking at the schedule for this year, Rose pointed out that “rig season” would be coming to an end, as we now move into post-spawn events on all circuits. While certain competitors would find uses for the contraption year-round, like experts do with other small-window techniques (for example, long-line cranking or deep-spooning ledges), the technique seems like it would be far from dominant for the majority of the tournament season.
However, one cannot deny that the umbrella rig often catches a whole different category of bass – lunkers. With further review of our Beaver test events, we see that Jason Christie was the only angler to put a single-day catch of 20 pounds on the board in any of the 3 years, and he did that with an umbrella rig. And in a recently televised Major League Fishing event (filmed last year), Kelly Jordan set a big-bass record with an 8-pounder wrangled on the harness. Savvy television viewers may have noted that KJ was careful to fully unhook the bass over the side of the boat, in order not to allow cameras to witness the harpooned whale being stuck multiple times. Interesting.
Perhaps the rig would be the undisputed big-bass champion across the board at tournaments year-round. We’ll never know.
But getting back to the subject at hand, it appears, by scientific method, that we can conclude that the umbrella rig makes very little difference to tournament outcomes as a whole. The best fishermen still finish near the top. And, in this case at least, the weights are very similar for all events, whether dominated by the rig or not, on the same body of water, at the same time of year.
Although I was formerly one purist who would have argued otherwise, I think the whole thing is fairly trivial. I guess my own underlying belief about the world’s best was temporarily clouded by the ludicrous thoughts of 30-lure setups.
The fact of the matter is Mark Rose is likely right: the umbrella rig is not unlike any other lure. It is a tool that is best for the job during a narrow window of time and across a small set of conditions.
The best tournament bass fishermen will become the best at throwing it, the most knowledgeable of its habits, and exploit its advantages to the fullest extent, just like they do with other lures and techniques.
I, for one, am glad it’s gone, because I think it represents just another avenue away from true cast-and-retrieve fishing, as intended in tournament rules since the game’s inception. But perhaps the data suggests otherwise.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)