When the weather turns cold on Hartwell and Murray, the striped bass action gets hot for anglers pulling umbrella rigs.
Lake Hartwell striper guide Rick Owen lands a striped bass from Hartwell. The guide prefers to fish the Seneca and Tugaloo river arms for linesides. Photo by Phillip Gentry.
The scene looked more like something off one of those Discovery Channel shows where bold men brave the elements to catch crabs out in the North Pacific. Only the red clay banks in the distant background gave away the location -- not the Bering Strait, but rather Lake Hartwell.
We were going fishing, though I couldn't quite imagine how you'd tell you had a bite on a rod and reel in this kind of winter weather. My guide for the day, Rick Owen, just smiled as we motored up the Seneca River in his 21-foot Sea Pro toward the Clemson area of the big river. I knew enough to know this wasn't going to be an ordinary day using ordinary fishing tactics. I had seen enough of Rick's pictures to know that we were likely to find some of Hartwell's striped bass and that we'd be pulling umbrella rigs to get them. The rest was kind of iffy and I half expected Rick to say we were turning around because there was too much wind to fish today. Instead, he throttled down and started getting ready to put the rigs in the water.
Thirty minutes later, my earlier thoughts about not being able to fish were proved groundless. We started out pulling two sets of umbrella rigs, a nightmarish version of a child's mobile that's pulled sideways through the water. An umbrella rig works by imitating a pod of baitfish. The rig has two spreader bars that form an "X" with two jigs dangling on 4-inch leaders from each arm and one jig on a trailer tied to the middle of the rig so that it follows a foot or so behind the other baits. Altogether, there were nine hooked baits on each rod -- essentially, a fair imitation of a small school of baitfish swimming together.
We'd gone maybe one-fourth mile when we got our first, and second, bite. There was no mistaking the bite as I had earlier feared I might. The rod went from a moderate bend under the weight of the rig in tow, to a classic double bend, and then before Rick or I could get the rod out of the holder, the rod bent over like a piece of elbow macaroni.
Knocking the boat out of gear, Owen, who's a full-time striper guide on Lake Hartwell (Rick's Guide Service 864- 356-7271), rushed to quickly reel in the other rig, while I was left to join the tug-of-war on our side. Finally wrestling the rod from the holder, a feat made easier by the lack of boat propulsion, I stuck the rod butt against my thigh and began cranking the reel.
"It's got to be at least two fish," said Owen, now behind me at the helm and grinning. "Even if they're fighting each other, the drag is tremendous."
Steadily cranking while keeping the rod tip high, I saw Owen's predictions prove to be true: two linesiders -- one a striper and the other a hybrid -- rolled up to the side of the boat accompanied by seven flailing jigs. Owen expertly grabbed the rig by one of the spreader bars and hoisted the whole show over the gunnel and onto the deck of his boat. He then began the process of unhooking the two fish, which were 8 to 9 pounds each. Then, as fast as we could, we got back to our fishing.
PULLING UMBRELLA RIGS
According to Owen, umbrella rig fishing is at its best on just about any lake that has a sizeable population of stripers when water temps drop to the low to mid-50s. He said at this point the fish are dormant and won't chase a bait -- but will take a swipe at an umbrella rig moving by. For anglers who winter fish for striped bass, the umbrella rig bite is best the same time the jigging spoon bite is on.
"It's an impulse bite," Owen said. "The fish are in a neutral or even negative mood and this big screaming rig comes through and their first instinct is to kill it."
Owen also went on to explain that umbrella rigs are excellent for anglers practicing catch-and-release because stripers are typically hooked inside the mouth or somewhere on the outside jaw. Combine that with cold water, and even the biggest fish swim away unharmed after release.
Another bonus is that "U-rigs," as they're often referred to, have multiple baits rather than a single hook. It's not uncommon to spur the competitiveness of other stripers in the school when a striper comes ripping by with other baits hanging out of his mouth. Reeling in two, three or even four striped bass on one rod is not a feat for the faint-hearted.
Owen confines his umbrella rig trade exclusively to Capt. Mack's Umbrella rigs, a product made by another striper guide on Georgia's Lake Lanier near Atlanta. Owen likes the rigs so much he even works part time helping to distribute them to local retail outlets.
Pulling an umbrella rig requires the use of the primary motor on whatever boat you're using. "I can teach anyone to pull U-rigs off any type of boat so long as the boat will idle down to 2 or 3 miles per hour," Owen said.
Owen puts the rigs out on stout baitcasting tackle rigged with line in the 50-pound-test class. He runs two rigs, one on each side of the boat.
"Only let the rig out 20 to 30 feet at a time," suggested the guide. "Leaving the reel in free spool will send (the rig) to the bottom where it will hang up. I keep my thumb on the spool as it goes out and then flip the level and pull the rig back up every so often until I have the desired amount of line out."
Owen typically will run rigs out an average distance of between 60 and 150 feet behind the boat, depending on the water depth, the weight of the rig, and the speed of the boat. Capt Mack's packaging has a distance out chart on the back that's a good starting point for learning how far out to put the rigs to reach the desired depth.
"I always space the rigs at least 30 feet apart so they don't hang if the lines cross," said Owen, "and it's wise to put the heavier of two rigs farther back so it will run deeper and under the other during a turn."
With two rigs deployed, Owen will maintain his boat speed between 2.5 and 3 mph as measured on his combined sonar/GPS unit. A constant speed is not desired, but rpm changes in the motor will cause the rigs to veer and flair like a real pod of baitfish. The trick is knowing when to zig and when to zag.
"I'm constantly watching my sonar," offered Owen. "I want to know what's under the boat so I'll know whether to speed up to clear the top of a hump or brushpile and when to slow down or even pop the boat in idle, which makes the rigs drop and flutter. This is a great tactic when pulling through a suspended school of fish.
Drop that rig right on their heads and then put it back in gear and the rig comes back up, usually with a fish in tow."
One of the chief complaints Owen hears about using umbrella rigs is that the rigs are so heavy it's not like really fighting a fish with close to 2 pounds in jigs and metal there on the line.
"That's why I take the boat out of gear when a fish is on," the guide noted. "Let the angler fight the fish not the fish and the boat and it's really a good fight."
He admits that the exception to this is when there's obviously a big fish on the rod that's real close to standing timber. Then he'll use the boat to assist in getting the fish in the clear before putting the boat in neutral.
U-RIGS ON HARTWELL
Owen said there are two primary locations where he pulls umbrella rigs on his home waters of Lake Hartwell. The first is the Seneca River from Portman Shoals up to Cherry Crossing and the second is the Tugaloo River starting around T-14 back to the River Forks near Andersonville Island. A third alternative is 6 & 20 creek from Portman to Clemson Boulevard.
"My best pattern is to pull the river channel first," said Owen. "If I'm not marking fish in the channel, I'll start looking for fish on the points. There are a lot of rocky points and red clay points in the Seneca, and if I don't mark fish in the channel, I'll start cutting up on those points."
Learning boat control is a big challenge. Along the channel edges of the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers are forests of standing timber that were topped when the lake was made. Those forests are gold mines when it comes to holding fish -- but nightmares when it comes to pulling umbrella rigs.
"I don't recommend that anyone buy an umbrella rig unless they are also buying an umbrella rig puller," Owen submitted. "It's not a matter of if you'll hang up, it's when."
The puller is deployed like a standard plug knocker on a 1/4-inch nylon rope, and in a best-case scenario, the structure will give or a hook will straighten, requiring only minor repairs to the rig. It's good to have spare leaders pre-rigged in case a leader breaks and a few extra rigs ready to go in the event the whole rig is lost (though losing an entire rig is a rarity with a good puller).
The best bait colors for Hartwell follow a pretty standard pattern for most clear lakes.
"I like a white jig with a blue and silver trailer on a bright day and a white jig with a pearl or chartreuse trailer on a dark day," offered Owen. "Some of the jigs that Mack offers have Mylar tied into the jig and those are good on days when you need the extra flash."
Owens summarizes his color choice by stating he will often mix colors, one rig dark and one rig bright, and let the fish choose what color they like on a given day.
Owen said he always uses either a 6-inch curlytail or shad body trailer on the umbrella rig jigs, which themselves vary in weight from 1/4 ounce to 2 ounces. Multiply that by 9 and you understand what weight varieties are available. When he wants to get deep in the Tugaloo River channel, he will opt for a 2-ounce rig. On other days when he's pulling the area known as the "S curves" above Twin Lakes in the Seneca, he'll lighten up to 1/2 or 1/4 ounce, depending on where the fish are holding.
Another favorite tactic is to outfit the rig with swimbaits.
"I have a couple with the Tsunami baits and Calcutta makes some good ones," Owen said. "Most any of the swimbaits will work and they tend to run a little shallower because they're more buoyant than the chipmunk jigs that come on the rigs. Also, you have to use the same weight for each bait no matter what you use; mixing weights on the same rig will throw the whole thing out of balance."
UMBRELLAS ON LAKE MURRAY
When umbrella rigs began winning striped bass tournaments during the winter on lakes like Hartwell and Lanier, many tournament anglers began paying attention and started using the tactic on other lakes. This was the case with John Mauldin, a Striper Kings club member from Greenville who also loves to fish on Lake Murray. Mauldin has earned a reputation as the best artificial bait troller on any lake and he's won several tournaments on Lake Murray during the winter by pulling umbrellas.
"This time of year we'll concentrate on the major creeks that flow out into the main Saluda River channel," Mauldin said. "We like to have birds in the air in the areas we're fishing. Birds mean bait and bait means stripers."
Mauldin feels that Murray stripers react a bit differently to umbrella rigs than stripers on other lakes such as Hartwell. Two things that differ right off the bat is the distance he pulls the rigs behind the boat and the baits he equips the rigs with.
"We'll pull in an area with the rig only 50 feet from the boat," he said. "I also downsize my baits by breaking off the ends of the trailers. I take about 3 inches off the body, which leaves just the tail and enough body to get the hook in."
Mauldin also revealed that striped bass on Lake Murray show a different color preference than other locations. This requires him to experiment with many different color combinations to find what works. Some of his picks are blacks and reds and any other color that he'd never use on other lakes.
"I had this ugly chartreuse bait with brown spots on the tail and the Murray fish just ate it up," he said. "We even won one tournament pulling U-rigs with that particular color. The bad thing is I can't find any more of them, so I keep my eyes open for other unusual colors."
The reason Mauldin will pull so close to the boat is that he's found Murray striped bass seem to stay shallower. He indicated that he'll mark baitfish holding at the 25- to 30-foot levels with the stripers just below them.
"We try to stay in the creek runs and run alongside any shoals or points that we find back in the creeks. At a typical speed of 2.8 to 3.0 mph, we'll pull four rigs at one time at varying distances behind the boat and see which one produces. Then we'll move the others in a little tighter and key on that depth," he said.
The veteran troller will put one rig out at 50 feet, another at 65 feet, the third rig at 80 feet and the last one at 100 feet. This kind of setup prevents being able to turn the boat very sharply (because the rigs would tangle each other in a tight turn), but he makes up for it with more baits.
"Murray is a great lake for multiple hookups," Mauldin said. "We'll get a fish or two on one rod and the other one will go down; it can get pretty hectic when you come through a school of active fish."
Mauldin admits that the average striper tends to be smaller on Murray than Hartwell, but the numbers seem to be greater. He said that a good fish on Murray would be 9 to 10 pounds, while the average is more likely to be 6
pounds. These fish are just over the minimum size limit of 21 inches on Murray.
"We have been able to catch a 20-pound fish on umbrellas at Murray and a teenager or two, but that was before they had the two big fish kills over the last two summers that wiped out a lot of Murray's big fish."
Anglers looking to get in on Murray umbrella rigging should concentrate their efforts on creeks from the vicinity of Dreher Island State Park back to the river forks at Little Saluda River. That includes Crystal Lake, Buffalo and Hawleek creeks on the north side and Clouds Creek, Spring Creek, Rocky Creek and Hollow Creek on the south side. Ramp access is available at the state park, which is located on State Park Road two miles south of Dreher Island Road near Chapin.