Keep it simple. That’s Joe Ludwig’s approach when it comes to a winning strategy for bass fishing on Clarks Hill this time of year. I fished the lake with Joe on January 10, 2006, and we fished all day with just two baits: a lead-head fluke and a jig ’n pig. According to Joe that’s about all you need this time of year.
We started fishing at first light in the back of a windblown pocket in Keg Creek casting bait No. 1, a Zoom Super Fluke on a lead-head jig. When Joe set his boat down, there was 20 feet of water under us, and a ditch running more or less down the middle of the pocket. That ditch was the target for the weighted fluke.
“The bait has moved back into the creeks and into these pockets,” said Joe. “If you can find a ditch with bait in it, you are going to catch fish.”
When it comes to finding bait in a pocket, the more bait the better, says Joe.
“When I come into a pocket like this, I like to see bait dimpling the surface or flipping. Some of these pockets can really load up with bait.”
We both had a 1/4-oz. Buckeye Lures lead-head tied on. Joe rigs his fluke with the hook exposed through the top of the bait. He uses Super Glue to secure the soft-plastic bait to the jig head, so it won’t slide down. (Mental note: make sure the glue has dried before you try to grab the jig head with your fingers).
Joe keeps his usual selection of flukes to a minimum, too. Ninety percent of the time he uses a white fluke. The fluttering bait shows up well and looks like a struggling baitfish.
We fished our way deeper into the pocket casting not toward the bank, but toward the deeper water and the ditch in the center of the cove.
“Bank fishing is usually pretty good this time of year,” said Joe. “You can beat the bank with a Shad Rap and catch 10 or 12 bass, but your best five are going to weigh 9 or 10 pounds. You can catch big fish on the bank, but the bigger fish will spend more of their time in deeper water.”
Twelve or 15 casts into the morning, Joe sort of set the hook on our first bass of the day.
“I never felt that fish hit,” he said. He had paused his retrieve to let the fluke drop, and when he tightened up on the line, the fish was there. The slim bass was a 2 1/2-pounder, but if the fish had a little more belly, it would have gone 3 pounds.
Joe has caught his share of largemouths on Clarks Hill. He has been fishing the lake more than 20 years and has three bass over 10 pounds from the lake. In 1990, he joined the River Rats Bass Club — now the Columbia County River Rats — and these days, at 62 years old, he is still eager for the competition of bass tournaments. Nearly any bass tournament on Clarks Hill will have Joe signed up with partner Bart Blackburn, who Joe calls the best fluke fisherman around. In October, 2005, Joe and Bart combined to take second in the two-day Superbass Championship on Lake Eufaula. More recently, they placed second in the Southern Anglers Challenge at Clarks Hill. They are in the money in most tournaments on Clarks Hill.
A lead-head fluke figures prominently in their bass-catching strategy, and it worked for us last month. I caught two more largemouths in that first cove, both on a fluke, and both as the bait was dropping. In fact, my first bass came after I had pulled the fluke to the surface 20 feet from the boat, then let it drop straight out of sight.
“They like to hit it on the drop,” said Joe, as I unhooked a pound-and-a-half bass.
We hit three or four pockets in Keg Creek before the sun was on the water. Fishing ditches with the lead-head fluke is usually a run-and-gun pattern.
“You can hit four or five pockets and not catch a fish, then you go to the next one, and you will catch 10,” he said. “If the bait is there, they are going to feed.”
Joe recommends keeping a close watch on the point where your line meets the water. This time of year don’t expect to get your rod knocked out of your hand by aggressive bass, in the cold water the strikes are usually subtle.
“If you see your line jump, set the hook,” he says.
Keep an eye out for breaking fish, too. If bass are chasing bait on the surface, a fluke thrown into the splash rings is likely to get smashed.
We did not fish all the way to the back of the pockets, seldom fishing water less than 10 or 12 feet deep.
“I just don’t have any luck all the way back in the pockets,” said Joe. “There are bass back there, but they are hard to catch.”
Too, masses of thick hydrilla billowing up below the surface make fishing the exposed hook on the fluke a problem.
On a cloudy day, the fluke will catch fish all day long, says Joe. Most days, however, when the sun comes up, the bass fall off the fluke bite, and Joe switches to bait No. 2: a jig ’n pig.
Joe usually fishes a 1/2-oz., brown Buckeye Lures jig. Occasionally he will fish a 3/8-oz. jig, but the heavier jig gives you better feel, he says.
And, in his keep-it-simple philosophy, brown is about the only color he fishes.
“Color doesn’t really matter,” he said. “A black-and-blue jig will work, too, and it can be a good combination the first thing in the morning, but brown is about all I fish.”
He dresses the jig with either a Zoom Super Chunk or a Yum craw. In Joe’s book you only need to know one color no matter what you choice of trailer on the jig: green pumpkin.
“Green pumpkin is the best color at Clarks Hill or wherever you are fishing,” he said.
At mid morning we moved to a pocket in Cherokee Creek and switched over to the jig.
“The ditch comes across in front of us,” said Joe. “The depth drops off to about 25 feet, and there is some trash in the ditch. This place always holds fish — we will get bit here in a minute.”
Joe cast his jig across the ditch then hopped it slowly back, pausing between the hops.
“Don’t be afraid to work it all the way back to the boat in the deeper water,” he said.
About 10 minutes later Joe reeled up a lot of slack in his line and set the hook on a keeper bass.
“That fish picked up the jig and was bringing it toward the boat,” he said. “All of a sudden I couldn’t feel the jig.”
Hydrilla has become a key bass-fishing “structure” on Clarks Hill, and Joe targets it with the jig.
“You want to throw the jig up into the edge of the hydrilla,” he said. “When you feel the jig break out of the hydrilla, that’s when it will usually get busted.”
Joe likes the pointed head of the Buckeye jig because it seems to slip through the hydrilla a bit easier than a blunt-nosed jig.
Joe caught two bass on the jig ’n pig and lost another one at the boat. For the day we boated five bass and a pair of stripers. The only baits we used were the leadhead fluke and the jig ’n pig.
“I learned long ago to keep fishing simple,” said Joe. “A fluke and a jig is about all you need.”