Umbrella Rigs for Great Lakes Smallies

by Jody White

Casey Smith has been throwing an umbrella rig since just a few weeks after Paul Elias let the world know about it in the 2011 FLW Tour event on Lake Guntersville.

“Me and my buddies around here started on it pretty early, and we learned how to throw it on Oneida Lake,” says Smith, who lives in upstate New York and booked three top-10 finishes in the Costa FLW Series in 2019. “When it blew up there was all the hype, so we started to tinker with it and realized that smallmouth would eat it, and ever since then I’ve learned how valuable a tool it is year-round.”

The umbrella rig hasn’t just been a fish catcher for Smith. For a few years, with the full details of the umbrella rig still relatively under wraps, he and a select group of friends basically paid their mortgages with it in every event they could fish on Oneida in the fall.

“We would go up with three of us in the boat and catch 150 fish,” says Smith of the early days on Oneida. “It would be ridiculous. They had never seen it. They were feeding up, and they weren’t running many tournaments back then because guys didn’t have it figured out. They’ve gotten used to it now, but then nobody knew. You could hook up and let the fish swim around, and you’d hook a second one a lot of the time. You could do it on purpose; it was crazy.”

Those days of seemingly infinite fish and easy money are gone, but it doesn’t mean he’s putting down the rig.

FISH UMBRELLA RIGS NOW
Smith says he basically keeps the umbrella rig tied on all year, but one of the best times to fish it in the North is the fall.

On the Great Lakes, he combs flats and points with it for some of the biggest limits of the season.

“You’re targeting fish that are batfish-oriented and feeding up for the wintertime,” says Smith. “They’ve moved up out of deep water and on to the flats, and they’re feeding up on bait very close to their wintering areas. They’re sitting on the same stuff they sit on deep in the summertime – rock veins, rock transitions and big boulders – just shallower.”

According to Smith, that fall transition is a great time to intercept smallmouths in 10 to 20 feet of water, before you need to start thinking vertically again.

“They move shallower, the bait moves shallower and then they go back out deeper to where they’re going to winter,” explains Smith. “We fish on the closest rock point or rock flat to where they’re going to winter.”

Because it’s the Great Lakes, you aren’t necessarily particularly close to the bank. Though some fall places are within a few casts of the shore, Smith is happy to fish hundreds of yards from the bank if that’s where the fish are and the right structure is present.

TACKLE SPECIFICS
The umbrella rig is one of the best baits to tinker with, in part because the tournament limitations and state regulations create a lot of incentive for innovation. Smith has a two-hook rig he uses on Lake Champlain and a three-hook version for FLW events, but his most widely used rig is a standard five-wire model with blades.

Usually in tournaments Smith slings a Brown Dog Tackle umbrella rig, but on fun days he often uses a YUM YUMbrella Flash Mob Jr. to save a few dollars.

Most often, he starts out with five hand-poured 1/8-ounce heads then adds 1/4-ounce heads if he wants to go deeper. On the Great Lakes in the fall, his bait combo is a unique array of 4-inch Keitech Swing Impact swimbaits around the outside and a 3.8-inch Keitech Swing Impact FAT in the middle. His favorite colors are alewife and bluegill flash.

“I like that setup because the action on the Swing Impacts and the drag on the Swing Impacts is a little lighter, so the bait is a little easier to reel,” says Smith. “They’re feeding up on alewives and stuff like that. The bait is pretty big, so you can use a big bait. On a lake like Oneida, where the bait is pretty small, we’d probably use more like a 2.8-inch bait, but on the Great Lakes it’s alewives and perch.”

For tackle, Smith uses a 7-foot, 11-inch swimbait rod, a 6.3:1 gear ratio reel and fluorocarbon line.

“I stick with 20-pound almost all the time,” relays Smith. “We definitely used braid at first. I think most everybody was, but we switched pretty quick. We were straightening out swivels and hooks. The smallmouth, as soon as he grabs it, he turns the other way. We were having problems keeping the fish on, so we switched to the fluorocarbon.

“Also, some of the lakes around here are so clear. The fish obviously aren’t shy, but we didn’t want to take any chances. And it helps to keep it down. Most importantly, it’s that extra stretch that takes away the initial shock of the hookset.”

RETRIEVE WITH INTENT
Though somewhat cumbersome to throw, especially with the wrong equipment, umbrella rigs don’t really require a tremendous amount of skill to use. Typically, the fish bite them hard and are landed easily, and you don’t have to make extreme adjustments. However, it’s important to make the most of each cast to avoid falling into the trap of “chunking and winding.”

“I never just reel it in,” says Smith. “You give it a flair, like you would with a ChatterBait or a spinnerbait. I give it a knock, where it’s just a brief pause on the reel, and then I knock it forward. And, if you’re keeping it down in the water column, usually at least once in the cast I’ll open the bail and let it fall and then give it a knock.”

Experimenting with retrieve depth is key as well. Though Smith doesn’t often drag the rig on the bottom, he knows that finding the right zone is important.

“Sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down, sometimes it’s in the middle,” says Smith. “If you’re not getting them up high, let it go down. Usually your first bite is a good indicator.”

Two things are for sure: If you live up north and haven’t thrown the rig you’re missing out, and if you’re coming up for your first taste of smallies you’d better bring some.

“Everywhere in this region it really works,” says Smith. “The St. Lawrence is the only place I haven’t gotten it to work at all, but I have one tied on all year now.”

Head North for Big-Time Smallmouth Opportunities

Dr. Hal Schramm

Is anglers’ interest in Micropterus dolomieu, the smallmouth bass, growing? Are brown bass opportunities, especially for large fish, increasing? Many bass anglers grant smallmouth bass greater nobility than their larger cousin, the largemouth bass. Few would argue that smallmouths fight harder and jump higher than other black bass. Maybe the esteem is related to a more limited distribution than largemouth bass? Or maybe it’s the ambiance of the idyllic clear-water and rock-strewn habitats where smallmouths thrive?

Whatever the allure, the apparently growing interest in bronzebacks likely has been fueled by Bassmaster’s ranking of two smallmouth-dominated fisheries—Lake St. Clair in Michigan in 2013 and Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota in 2017—as the Nation’s best black bass fisheries, with other smallmouth fisheries like Lake Erie and Thousand Islands (St. Lawrence River) perennially holding high ranks. And tournament-winning five-smallmouth limits exceeding 25 pounds erase any thoughts about smallmouth bass being a diminutive member of the black bass clan.

Domain of Dolomieu
Smallmouth bass have a broad native range extending from southern Ontario in the North to the Tennessee River in the South. Although excellent stream and lake smallmouth fisheries are available in the southern portion of this range, the greatest number of opportunities are available in northern waters. Here, I focus on smallmouth fisheries in the upper Midwest and western Ontario.
Despite their broad distribution, the domain of dolomieu is, compared to the more ubiquitous largemouth bass, restricted and spotty. Many present-day smallmouth destinations were determined by the last advance and retreat of glaciers about 14,000 years ago. Others are a result of recent introductions.

The Great Lakes
The upper Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, and St. Clair—provide abundant, and possibly expanding, smallmouth opportunities. Renowned bronzeback fisheries are available in the shallower bays.

The Green Bay area of Lake Michigan offers vast smallmouth opportunities. May is the best time for a super tanker, according to Captain Bret Alexander (alexandersportfishing.com), but 60- to 70-fish days are common with many fish over 5 pounds caught throughout summer. Alexander favors Sturgeon Bay and the tip of the Door County peninsula, but the west side of the bay from Oconto to Marinette offers excellent and largely untouched opportunities.

Grand Traverse Bay on the northeast side of Lake Michigan also provides excellent smallmouth action. The bite heats up in mid-June and extends until ice-up, according to Captain Chris Noffsinger (­northernadventuresfishing.com). Twenty- to 40-fish days with some fish over 4 pounds are typical.

Lake St. Clair offers excellent smallmouth fishing from ice-out until ice-up. Fifty fish days are common with many fish running 3 to 4 pounds; 6-pound-plus fish are there to be caught.
Inland Waters
Iowa—Iowa offers good flatwater smallmouth opportunities in the Iowa Great Lakes region, with the best fishing in deeper and rockier Big Spirit and West Okoboji lakes. As in many smallmouth lakes, ice-out is a good time to go, but catches of 10 to 15 fish in the 2- to 3-pound range are common throughout the summer. Five-pound smallmouths are possible. In Northeast Iowa, the upper Iowa, Maquoketa, Turkey, and Wapsipinicon rivers provide good flowing-water action.

Michigan—The upper half of Michigan is smallmouth mecca. Noffsinger considers the three large lakes flanking Grand Traverse Bay—Elk, Skegemog, and Torch—as having better smallmouth fishing than the Bay. Michigan DNR fishery management biologist Heather Hettinger reported that throughout the region, 10- to 12-fish days are common for anglers targeting fish over 18 inches; 24-inch fish are available.

Hettinger emphasized the excellent wade-fishing opportunities, in particular Waugoshance Point at Wilderness State Park, where anglers can sight-fish for giant smallmouths in prime water difficult to access by boat.

Minnesota—Smallmouth fisheries are scattered throughout Minnesota, but the epicenter of brown bass lake fishing is the lake-rich triangle from Grand Rapids to Isle to Brainerd. Good smallmouth lakes range in size from only a few hundred acres to 132,500-acre Mille Lacs. Most of these lakes are quintessential smallmouth waters: clear, rocky shoreline, offshore rocky reefs. Twenty-smallmouth days are common on any of these lakes, but size of fish appears to increase with lake size.

Excellent river smallmouth opportunities occur throughout more than 200 miles of Mississippi River from below Pokegama Dam to Minneapolis, a stretch that includes shallow, free-flowing river punctuated by six impounded pools. Twenty-plus-fish days with fish up to 5 pounds are common in both the free-flowing and impounded reaches.

Anglers seeking smallmouths in a scenic, remote setting can look to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota (Quetico Provincial Park on the Canadian side of the border) where smallmouths are plentiful in the countless Canadian Shield lakes (and rivers). Depending on the lake or lake chain you’re fishing, opportunities range from fast-fishing for smallmouths in the 12- to 15-inch range where 50-fish days are possible to common, or you might double that on high-density smallmouth waters with abundant smaller fish. Trophies to 20-plus inches are regularly caught, often on larger lakes like Basswood and many others. Big fish, however, show up across this smallmouth paradise.

South Dakota—Glacial lakes in Marshall and Day counties in Northeast South Dakota are teeming with smallmouths and hold big fish as evidenced by the recent 7-pound 3-ounce state record from Horseshoe Lake. Dr. Brian Blackwell, South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks (GFP) fishery biologist for the area and an avid angler, considers 10 to 20 fish over 15 inches with some over 3 pounds a good day. Smallmouths over 5 pounds are not uncommon.

South Dakota has few stream-fishing opportunities, but dams on the Missouri River have created large impoundments that provide excellent homes for introduced smallmouth. Although Lewis and Clark Lake and Lake Sharpe support smallmouth bass, Lake Oahe is the place to go for big bronzebacks, according to Dr. Mark Fincel, South Dakota GFP fishery biologist. Ice-out anglers are often rewarded with 60- to 70-fish days; 20- to 40-fish days with 18- to 19-inch fish common and a few fish 4 to 6 pounds are typical throughout the summer. “It’s hard to get away from the 2-pounders,” Fincel says. Oahe is challenging to fish. It’s a water-storage reservoir, and lake elevation can fluctuate 40 feet. Downstream, Lake Sharpe provides stable water levels and lots of smallmouths, but few are over 18 inches.

Wisconsin—Inland smallmouth opportunities are scattered throughout Wisconsin, but the greatest concentrations of good smallmouth lake fisheries are in Iron, Oneida, Sawyer, and Vilas counties. The deeper, clear, and rocky lakes tend to support populations with larger size structure, according to Dr. Greg Sass, Wisconsin DNR fishery research supervisor. Many lakes have relatively high smallmouth densities and offer anglers 25- to 50-fish days of 12- to 15-inchers, but lakes that Sass refers to as “trophy lakes” provide anglers with 5- to 15-fish days with most fish 17 to 19 inches and a few topping 22 inches.

The Wisconsin River upstream of Stevens Point offers good smallmouth action in both the free-flowing reaches and in flowages. Sass says anglers can expect good numbers of 16- to 18-inch smallmouths. The Chippewa, Flambeau, Namekagon, and St. Croix rivers are emerging smallmouth fisheries.

Western Ontario—Smallmouth opportunities abound in this lake-rich Canadian province. Ontario native and
Bassmaster Elite pro Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson recommends Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, where catches of 50 to 70 bass per day are common. To the east, Marmion Lake consistently produces 6-pound brown bass.

When Gustafson has a chance to go fun-fishing, he heads to the Winnipeg River between Lake of the Woods and White Dog Dam to catch 3-pounders all day long.

Mississippi River Downstream of Minneapolis—From Minneapolis to almost St. Louis, the “father of waters” has been modified with dams and channel training structures (wing dams) for navigation and flood control. The first nine navigation pools, extending from Minneapolis to just upstream of Harpers Ferry, Iowa, are teeming with brown bass. Minnesota native and Bassmaster Elite pro Seth Feider says anglers can expect 50-plus-fish days; 3-pounders are the typical fish seen in tournaments. Pools 4 through 9 offer anglers a good shot at fish over 6 pounds.

Rise of a New Smallmouth Fishery
In a study published in 2012, a team of Michigan fishery scientists compared fish population metrics measured from 1969 through 1984 and from 2005 to 2008 at Beaver Island in upper Lake Michigan. Forty years ago, brown bullhead were 60 percent and smallmouth bass and rock bass were each 14 percent of the total number of fish in routine samples; 14 other species made up the remaining 12 percent of the fish sampled. In 2005 to 2008, smallmouth bass were 93 percent of the fish sampled by the same methods. Despite their dramatic rise to dominance in the fish assemblage, neither the abundance nor the mortality of bronzebacks changed from the historic to the recent periods, but the proportions of large smallmouths and their growth rate and body condition (plumpness) were significantly greater in the recent period than 40 years ago.

It is possible that harvest restrictions beginning in 2001 may have played a minor role in the larger size structure, but they would not account for the dramatic increase in growth rate. The researchers attributed the changes to a cascading sequence of ecosystem changes, all directly or indirectly a result of exotic species that established in Lake Michigan since the 1970s. Invasive zebra and quagga mussels increased water clarity and provided hard bottom substrate for a variety of invertebrates eaten by smallmouth bass. The round goby, a dietary mainstay of the big smallies in Lake Erie and a fish that feeds on zebra mussels, invaded the area in 2006. And to round out the buffet, crayfish, including the non-native rusty crayfish, appear to be increasing, possibly as a result of feeding on zebra mussels or their fecal pellets.

The multiple environmental changes and their complex interaction that lead to this burgeoning brown bass population are incompletely understood, but several facts are evident. Smallmouths have been present in the Beaver Island area for a long time, but in a time span of less than 20 years their population size structure has dramatically increased. The proportion of large smallmouths in the Beaver Island population is almost double the North American average and similar to the size structure of largemouth bass in ponds intensively managed for trophy largemouth bass.

The Second Bronze Age
The Bronze Age, named for emergence of tools made of bronze, lasted from 3600 until 300 years BC. Are contemporary fishery biologists and anglers witnessing a second bronze age, an emergence of bronzeback fisheries? Might smallmouth opportunities—both numbers of fish and size of fish—be expanding? This is certainly the case in South Dakota where smallmouths were first introduced in the 1980s. But what about other parts of the Upper Midwest? Long-term creel data (numbers of anglers, catch, and fishing effort) and population assessments needed to judge changes in smallmouth fisheries are limited.

Wisconsin DNR has intensively monitored the fish and fishing in Escanaba Lake since 1946. Smallmouth bass were present but scarce until 2000. Now the lake is producing 5-pounders. In 40 years time, smallmouth bass became the dominant fish near Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan, and the size structure of the population greatly increased. There may be other examples, but you don’t find things if no one is looking. One of my favorite Minnesota smallmouth lakes is one that 20 years ago didn’t include smallmouth bass in the DNR’s lake survey data. An obvious oversight on DNR’s part, but it just happened that their historical sampling sites were located in bays that lacked smallmouth habitat. If, indeed, interest in smallmouth bass is growing, more anglers targeting brown bass may unveil new opportunities.

What I see, hear, and read suggests increases in the size of smallmouths being caught. Part of this likely is due to changes in anglers—not just more anglers, but also anglers fishing new presentations and using modern electronics to fish more efficiently. The profusion of printed and electronic information also deserves credit.

But I think smallmouth populations are changing, too. In some northern lakes, particularly larger lakes, size structure appears to be increasing. An analysis of statewide fishery monitoring data over the past 70 years by DNR fishery scientists reveals significant increases in both abundance and size of smallmouth bass in Wisconsin lakes. Northern smallmouths have very slow growth. Even fast-growing fish, like the goby-fed bruisers in Sturgeon Bay and Lake St. Clair, have to survive for 12 years to reach 18 inches. But obviously they do survive. Michigan DNR fishery scientist Dr. Jan-Michael Hessenauer has estimated annual mortality rate of adult St. Clair smallmouth at only 22 to 37 percent, a low rate for black bass. The only reasonable explanation, especially considering the increasing fishing effort, is the high incidence of catch and release.

But it’s not all good news. Noffsinger, who has guided on Grand Traverse Bay since 2004, has seen recent downturns in smallmouth bass size and numbers that he attributes to increased fishing pressure and high harvest, particularly during the spawn. It seems clear to me that, via catch and release and good fish-handling practices, anglers may hold the key to the future quality of northern smallmouth bass fisheries. Yet to be learned, though, is whether excessive indulgence in C&R will create high-density, slower-growing populations, a common situation in many largemouth bass populations.

*Dr. Hal Schramm, Counce, Tennessee, is a fishery scientist, avid bass angler, and freelance writer. He frequently contributes to In-Fisherman publications.

5 Reasons Spinnerbait Crush Bass In The Fall

5 Reasons Spinnerbait Crush Bass In The Fall thumbnail

1) Bulky Profile

Matching the size of you spinnerbait to baitfish in the Fall will help you provide the bass with just what they’re looking for. Baitfish born in the Spring will have grown much larger by Fall, and the Bass are usually dialed in on these bigger meals. Match the hatch by using spinnerbaits with larger blades in the Fall. This will help your bait look more like the the fish bass are likely feeding on.

2) Cover Water

Fish kick things into high girl in the fall and anglers can take advantage of this by throwing fast moving baits with big drawing power, like the spinnerbait. Fish a spinnerbait around grass, cover, and structure in the fall, especially deep back into channels and creeks.

3) Ability To Fish Around Cover

As Shad and baitfish begin to push back into coves and creeks, the bass will follow. Largemouth will push back into these areas gluing themselves tight to to docks, timber, laydowns and brush piles. They use these areas as ambush points as they way for a passing fish. Try bumping your spinnerbait hard off the cover, this can trigger into biting. Usually when a fish hits your bait using this method, they hit it realy hard. So be ready.

You can also fish up around shallow water cover really well with a spinnerbait. The more you bang your bait against things the better. Really try getting your bait tight to the cover you think is holding fish.

4) Schooling Fish

Baitfish, shad and school in the fall which makes them a primary target for feeding bass. The profile and action of a spinnerbait helps put off the look and feel of schooling fish swimming in a tight pack. Look for areas of congregated baitfish and then rip your spinnerbait through the school You can also try killing your spinnerbait by letting it just free fall towards bottom. This helps putt off a unique look similar to a dying baitfish falling to the lakes floor.

5) Fish It Fast Fish It Slow

Burning spinnerbaits across schooling baitfish or slowly winding your a spinnerbait over deeper brush piles will also help trigger strikes.