Get Framed: Trolling ‘Sand Eels’ - The Fisherman

Get Framed: Trolling ‘Sand Eels’

Trolling Sand Eels Fishing

Although the sun had not quite risen above the eastern horizon, the crew on the Shearwater had already deployed two umbrella rigs behind the boat. Black tubes filled out the starboard side rig, and bright-green tubes adorned the port side one. The rods were stuck out to the sides in the rod riggers with safety lines attached as the crew patiently waited for the first action. It didn’t take long before both rods doubled over and began bouncing to the beat of fish. “Doubled up!” I yelled, and the rig on the port side quickly surfaced with several bluefish attached. The angler on the starboard side, however, struggled to gain line as it stayed deep.

I brought the boat down to a slow idle with just enough momentum to help prevent slack in the lines. A few moments later the port side setup’s leader showed, and a trio of bluefish could be seen with green tubes attached to their lips. Grabbing the leader and then the center of the frame, the fish were lifted over the side where they were quick to spit up their breakfast—sand eels. The bluefish were unhooked, released, and the deck was given a quick swab to prevent anyone from slipping on the mess.

The starboard side angler was finally beginning to gain some line, but he was working for every inch. Taking the boat completely out of gear, the angler gained more line, and after several minutes the leader finally approached the boat. As the fish slowly circled up to the surface a pair of stripers could be seen trailing the rig. The smaller fish was flipped into the boat while the larger one netted. Once on deck they were both unhooked and measured—27 inches on the smaller one, and 39 inches on the larger one. A couple of quick photos were snapped and both fish were released over the side and safely swam away. They’d been “framed” by sand eel impersonations and would not be the only ones to get fooled that day!

The Bait and the Lure

Sand eels are one of the primary forage fish in the northeast, and just about everything from cod to striped bass to tuna and even fluke dine on them. They are small, slim baits that average between 3 inches and 6 inches with a silvery side and a dark back. Like many baitfish, they’re often found in large schools for safety purposes.

Trolling Sand Eels Fishes

The umbrella rig itself dates back to the 1960s and has an interesting history. It has seen quite a few adaptations and variations over time, and now even has a freshwater version that can be cast and retrieved. Regardless of how or where it is used, the key to the umbrella rig’s success lies in its ability to mimic a school of bait.

An umbrella rig consists of a center weight and has several wire arms extending out from the center. This is often called the “frame.” Teasers are attached to the arms themselves, and similar baits with hooks are attached to leaders off the end of its arms. When rigged with tube lures (Limerick hooks covered with surgical tubing.) it closely resembles a school of sand eels.

Umbrellas come in many sizes, styles and colors. You can get them with shad body baits to mimic bunker and other baitfish or the traditional tubes that resemble sand eels. I fish two sizes most of the time: a small and a standard version. The small one uses 5/0 or 6/0 hooks where the frame is only about 12 inches in diameter. I use this with lighter tackle or when trolling rivers or bays. The standard version has 9/0 or 10/0 Limerick hooks and is about 24 inches in diameter. I use the larger rig more when fishing the open ocean or when bigger bait is predominant.

Besides the Limerick hook, whose bend gives the tubes a distinctive spin in the water, the other key component to the rig are the swivels. I use bead chain swivels on all of my teasers and my hook baits to allow them the best possible spin. I believe strongly that the spin of the tubes is picked up by the lateral line of the fish and is one of the key reasons they are attracted to the rig.


While many people are intimidated by fishing umbrellas, they are missing an opportunity to use a great lure. That said, some basic tips and tricks will make not only for a more productive but also a more enjoyable experience.

Make sure the rig is not tangled when deployed. Inspect it while it’s in the water beside the boat and make sure that all of the baits on the leaders, as well as the teasers, are flowing freely. Do not deploy a tangled rig as it will not fish properly.

Once you are sure the rig is tangle-free, let it out SLOWLY. If dropped back too fast the heavier frame may sink quicker than the tubes and tangle. It might also sink to the bottom and get weeded up, or worse, snagged. Keep a thumb on the spool while letting out line and stop it every 20 feet or so. The thumb can also be used to act as a temporary drag if you get a bite while deploying the rig.

Once you begin to fish the umbrella rig, be sure to keep the rod tips low to the water and keep an eye out for line wear at the tip. I splice a 2-foot section of Dacron into my wire line setups at 100 feet (as well as every 50 feet thereafter) so that the Dacron rides in the rod tip and not the wire. This serves a dual purpose of marking the amount of wire out while also helping to save on the life of both wire and rod tip.

Trolling Sand Eels Rod

Watch the rod tip for bottom bounces and strikes. If the rig is bouncing the bottom it is likely to pick up weed or other debris. Check it periodically to make sure it remains clean. If you’re not watching and you miss a strike you won’t know to circle back again or that the rig is potentially tangled from the strike. Also keep an eye on the water around the boat for signs of weed. If you see a lot of weed in the water then chances are good that your rigs also picked some up. The more weed you see the more often you should check. If there is so much weed that you can’t keep the rig clean then it’s time to move.

When it finally comes time to land a fish on an umbrella rig, the safest and easiest method is to grab the center of the umbrella frame, and any leaders with smaller fish attached, and lift them together. A good pair of gloves helps prevent knocks and cuts to your hands. For bigger fish, fish with weak mouths, or fish hooked lightly, I use a net.

Lighten Up

If most of the fish being caught are small, or you want to use lighter tackle, then simply downsize your umbrellas. In the early spring when there are more school-sized fish around I use an umbrella that’s cut down to only 12 inches in diameter and outfitted with small tubes. It makes fighting the smaller fish more enjoyable, but be on the ready as large fish will still strike it.
Most commonly, umbrellas are trolled on wire line as it’s the most conducive to getting the bait deep. That being said, some of today’s braids and monofilaments work fine, especially in shallow areas. You may need to fish a bit further back from the boat, or add a trolling sinker to the front of the umbrella to get to the same depths as wire, but it is an option. For much deeper water, downriggers can come in handy to get the umbrella rig into the strike zone.

While anglers often cringe at fishing wire and equate it to fishing with a broomstick, you can use relatively light wire line gear and have a lot of fun. I have three varying classes of wire line setups that I use depending on the conditions: ultralight, “everyday” and heavy. While the ultralight is reserved for trolling flies, and the heavy comes out for very deep water and when trolling the largest of frames, the everyday setup sees a lot of use as it is both sporty and capable. My everyday rods are 7-foot, 10- to 25-pound class, and have a rather light tip. I fish them with a Penn Fathom 25 and load it with .020 Inconel wire that is pre-marked with Dacron slices at 100, 150, 200 and 250 feet. To the end of the wire I attach 8 to 10 feet of 50-pound test monofilament leader ending with a snap swivel. I can fish with this setup for hours on end without tiring myself out, yet it is still powerful enough to handle a large fish.

While not everyone is a fan of trolling with umbrellas, there’s no question that it’s an effective method to target gamefish, especially when fish are keyed in on sand eels. With today’s technologies you can still go light and have a blast. So next time they’re feeding on sand eels, drop them a frame and hold on!



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