Alabama Getaway

As I prepared myself to cast the latest and greatest in fishing lures, I realized that no other type of lure has caused me so much thought and contemplation before the initial cast. The rig I was about to cast (especially with bare hooks) was a fearsome looking beast.

And what is this magic lure?

The Alabama Rig.

Umbrella Rig

A five-arm umbrella rig. Photo by © Wayne D. Lewis/CPW

“I designed it to simulate a school of small bait fish in a tight bait ball,” said Andy Poss, inventor of the original Alabama Rig, on his website. “You can fish a huge range of lures with our rig — grubs, swimbaits, jigs, worms, spinnerbaits, etc.”

Poss built the first version in 2009 but didn’t make a sale until July 2011. That first lure sold for $25. As word of its success spread like wildfire among the bass tournament crowd, and supply was outpaced by demand, examples of the lure on eBay were going for hundreds of dollars.

If buzz equaled bucks, Poss would be a millionaire. But copycats move faster than the U.S. Patent Office, so imitations and variations can be found more easily than the original. They all fall under the umbrella of the “umbrella rig.” (Redundancy intended.)

As with every angling invention since the rubber worm, these lures aren’t without controversy. Any rig that claims to catch five fish at once (or three fish in Colorado — more on that in a moment) will have detractors questioning its ethics, saying that it takes away from the purity of the sport.  The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) quickly outlawed them in Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments and conservation agencies across the country are questioning how they align with existing regulations.

If you read under “Legal Fishing Methods” in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) fishing regulation brochure you will find, right at the top: “1. One personally attended line. Each line shall have only three common hooks attached.” Common hooks are later defined as “any hook or multiple hooks having a common shank. All hooks attached to a common lure shall be considered a common hook.” Thus, the “three fish  in Colorado” bit.

Three-wire umbrella rig.

Two sizes of three-wire umbrella rigs. Photo by Wayne D. Lewis/CPW

I had purchased a five-wire (the original) and a three-wire rig and determined that the three-wire could be fished as is, while the five-wire would need two of its appendages to go hookless. I initially decided to fill these spots with bare spoons or spinners. Do not attach any lures with treble hooks, you will quickly go over your limit.

My enthusiasm to try my new purchases outpaced my research. My umbrella-rig arsenal had grown to three: the five- and three-wire rigs with approximately 8-inch-long wire appendages, and a three-wire rig less than half that size. Both three-wire rigs came with white plastic swimbaits, the five-wire would have to be equipped with items from my tackle box.

I decided to test them out at the lakes at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. There were three reasons for this: 1. Location: This getaway is within 7 miles of my central-Denver home. 2. Variety: Lake Ladora offers a large reservoir feel while Lake Mary has a nice fishing-hole vibe. 3. Buffalo: But that’s another story — you can read “Come for the Buffalo, Stay for the Fishing.”

First up was the larger of the three-wire rigs which I cast from the rocky banks of Lake Ladora. How is it to cast? In a word — weird. I’m sure I’ve caught fish that weighed less than the umbrella rig. It’s a bit like tossing a football when you’ve played baseball most of your life. But I quickly got used to its heft and was soon able to place it pretty accurately.

My fears of constant snags never materialized and I was able to try a variety of retrieve speeds without a problem. The large contraption was much easier to use than I thought. It just didn’t catch me any fish.

Three-wire umbrella rig

Three wire rig with arms bent 90 degrees from main body. Photo by © Wayne D. Lewis/CPW.

I tried the smaller, three-wire version. It started out a bit harder to cast and would gather more weeds on the retrieve. But after a quick chat with a passing angler, I got a few helpful tips. He had discovered that if you bend the arms at almost a 90-degree angle from the main head, it would tangle less. He was right, it worked much better that way. But it also wasn’t getting me the magic results I had been promised by all the marketing hype.

I took a short walk and tried to switch my luck at Lake Mary. Different setting, same results.

Most experts agree (even though the Alabama Rig has only been in use for about two years, there seems to be a lot of experts) that the rig is most effective when targeting suspended bass. Fish are “suspended” when they gather at mid-depths of the water, away from underwater structure and trail schools of shad or other feeder fish. These suspended fish will still usually orient to some type of bottom structure; holding above a long sloping point, a bend in a river channel or a vertical drop off. Much of the online advice recommended taking your boat out into open water that is 60 feet deep or so, and then using your fish finder to locate shad and bass which will be holding at approximately 25 feet. Choose bait that closely matches the feeder fish. Then cast your A-Rig, and count down below the depths where the fish are suspended. The rate of fall is going to depend on your jig head weights and lure size. Then bring the rig up through the school, matching your retrieve speed to the activity level of the fish.

Great advice if you have a fancy fish finder or a boat. I score big zeros on both accounts. And the majority of the waters I fish aren’t deep enough to fish the way the lure is truly designed for.

It was time to search harder for the advice that fit how I, and the hordes of anglers who hurl their lures into the watery depths from the shore, fish.

I read of a guy who, instead of fanning the wires out like an umbrella on the rig, bends them all in a straight line coming out the back of the rig. He then hooks it up with top-water lures to catch bass over the top of submerged grass.

An online video I watched showed an angler using umbrella rigs on streams and rivers pursuing trout (I’ve gotta try that).

Another reviewer cast the Alabama Rig in as shallow as one foot of water and engaged the reel as soon as the rig hit the water. He caught a few bass in water so shallow he could see the bass attack the Alabama Rig. But the further he fished away from the bank, he’d slow down his retrieve trying to find the sweet spot where the bass were suspended.

Umbrella rig

A “Frankenstein” umbrella rig — do not try this, it didn’t work for the author. Photo by Wayne D. Lewis/CPW.

When you know you are around fish, and you are not getting bites, make adjustments according to the conditions. If it’s cloudy, you might want to add some flash to your baits using a jighead with a willow leaf spinner blade running under it. When fishing during low light, windy conditions or when fishing 20-plus feet of water, fish tend to bite the bigger swimbaits better.

Another reviewer will go shallow and throw this thing into the thickest cover that he can. Your shad grouping will ne

d to be tighter, and your swimbaits need to be weedless. He states that it surprisingly comes through thick cover quite well. Throw out your weedless A-Rig, let it sink to the bottom and work it through the cover as you would a jig.

Advice on rods was all over the place, with some saying to go big and stout, while others were claiming lighter rods allowed more finesse. I stayed with what I was used to. One thing that took a while to get used to was that with all the arms the rig was constantly bumping into something, so it was hard to decide when to really set the hook.

Rainbow trout

Rainbow trout caught with Alabama Rig. Photos by © Wayne D. Lewis/CPW.

After all the time, effort and thought I put into pursuing bass, it’s ironic that the first fish I caught on a small three-wire rig was a feisty, pan-sized rainbow. Who’d a thunk it? While releasing the trout, I discovered that A-Rigs and fishing nets don’t mix.

I was sure the new state-record bass was next in line to hit it, but it had gotten too dark for a man not willing to admit he needs glasses.

Do Alabama Rigs live up to all the hype? They haven’t for me — yet. They aren’t the angling equivalent of a ’roided-up slugger swinging a corked bat. However, while frustrating at times, they sure are fun, and I plan on using them in more settings. Would I have caught more fish with a hook, a bobber and worms from the garden? Probably. But I wouldn’t have written a story about it.

This story is abridged from the Colorado Outdoors magazine 2013 Fishing Guide.

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