Looking like someone sheared them off with gigantic putty knives, red clay bluffs do more than attract attention. These impressive geographical features also attract fish by the boatload. However, most people run past them en route to more "fishy" looking honey holes.
"Red clay banks are often some of the ugliest banks on the lake," says Rufus Johnson, a professional bass angler from Knoxville, Tenn., who fishes many red clay banks along the Tennessee River in his home state and in Alabama. "People drive past them and ignore them. They don't get much pressure, but they are some of the best places on a lake to fish. I catch more fish on red clay banks than on rocks."
Because of wind, rain or wave erosion, huge chunks of earth crumble from grassy hills, exposing the clingy reddish soil that comprises much of the South. When chunks of dirt fall into a reservoir or river, any creatures living in that soil suddenly find themselves swimming. Bass feed upon these hapless creatures.
"Red-clay bluffs are good prespawn areas because crawfish hang around those areas quite a bit," says Mark Menendez, a professional bass angler from Paducah, Ky. "Before the spawn, bass look for easy meals with a lot of protein and energy to get ready for spawning. Around red clay, I fish with a jig, a tube or crawfish mimicking crankbaits. I like to fish around the points of islands or bluff walls where deeper water hits against the bank. I also like long, red-clay points. I like to fish jagged vertical bluffs that produce a lot of ambush points. Flats and long points are good for Carolina rigging with a Crawbug or 4-inch ribworm in crawfish colors."
Moreover, years of erosion creates lumps, exposed rocks, logs and other debris at the base of bluffs. Aquatic creatures hide in this cover. Bass hunt where they can find food.
"Any little bit of structure makes the bottom of bluffs a great place to fish," Johnson says. "Any kind of cover on a red-clay bank is almost automatic. It might just be one stump, but it holds fish. A couple of vines might hang down in the water. Really close to the bank, there might be some undercuts or washed-out, eroded banks. That's an awesome place to flip a tube, a jig or a worm. I like a red-clay bank to run flat about 100 yards off the bank to about 15 feet of water with patches of pea gravel on it. A scattered stump or two would make it a good place to fish all year long. I'd fish topwaters or burn a spinnerbait through there."
Since they rise so high and sheer, bluffs often mark the edges of deep channels. Over time, currents may smooth eroded soil deposits, creating points or flats along channel edges. Bass rise from the depths to feed in the shallows, and return to deep water to escape pressure or temperature extremes. Often, they hang just over the dropoff edges at the bottom of red-clay bluffs.
In the spring, bass often use these channels to navigate to spawning grounds. They follow the channels and hang next to the vertical surfaces of bluffs. Before spawning, bass might stage in deeper water before moving to the flats at the base of the bluff. "In the spring, red-clay banks are good staging areas because they usually have a good drop," Johnson says. "No telling how much of the bluff is underwater. I like to fish red-clay banks that have flats or tapered points. They usually have a bunch of pockets, almost like a miniature creek. I like to throw small crankbaits around these pockets in early spring."
In the fall, shad follow these channels, as well. They come to red-clay bluffs to escape from bass by hiding in the waves or among the debris at the base of the bluffs. They feed on microorganisms and plankton washed against the banks by wind and waves. Bass follow the shad.
"When it starts cooling off in the fall, shad get up in there and bass follow them," Johnson said. "A Super Spook is one of the best baits to throw at that time. On red-clay flats, I wake a spinnerbait on a slick, overcast day if fish don't blow up on a topwater bait."
A line of muddy water might form at the base of an exposed bank. Many people avoid muddy water, but stained water can attract fish, especially in clear reservoirs because it offers them a spot to ambush baitfish. In clear water, a mudline can become a form of cover, almost like a false shoreline.
In muddy water, use large Colorado-blade spinnerbaits, which push more water and cause more commotion than other types. Also, use brightly colored rattling crankbaits. Make as much noise and vibration as possible so bass can locate the lures in the "clouds" despite the noise caused by waves. Use rattling jigs to fish under the muddy water.
"Often, a mudline is not all the way to the bottom," Johnson said. "It might only drop a foot or two deep. People make a mistake by not fishing in the mudline. I've caught plenty of big fish out of mudlines on spinnerbaits. I burn a spinnerbait through a mudline or stay parallel to it and a little outside it."
In the deeper water around bluffs, anglers might throw jigs, Carolina rigged lizards or creature baits. In places where sheer vertical bluffs disappear into deep water, a drop shot with a 4-inch plastic worm or grub might produce the best action. Position boats almost against the bluff and fish vertically. Bounce chrome jigging spoons almost directly against sheer bluffs or run deep diving shad-colored crankbaits parallel to such formations.
Easy to spot on most Southern lakes, red-clay bluffs might stand out because of the lack of boats around them as people race to the stumpfields, rocks and weed patches. However, anglers who know how to fish the exposed banks might produce some of the best catches on the lake — and that's no idle bluff!