By David A. Brown
Special to BassFan

For the angler viewing a field of standing timber, a fine line separates that exhilarating kid-in-a-candy-store feeling from the overwhelming sense of “whereto begin.”

Often rich with opportunity, these skeletal remains of pre-reservoir forests can perplex just as easily as they can reward. The difference? A logical breakdown versus random wandering.

Bassmaster Elite Series angler Joey Cifuentes III has spent many hours picking his way through standing timber, and his 2023 win at Lake Seminole proved he’s pretty good at it. After placing sixth on Day 1, Cifuentes took over the lead on Day 2 with the event’s heaviest bag – 26 pounds, 1 ounce – and never looked back; ultimately racing past fellow rookie sensation Kyoya Fujita by a margin of 8-12.

During that late-February event on the Chattahoochee River impoundment straddling the Florida/Georgia border, competitors saw a mix of spawn and pre-spawn fish. Devoting his event to the latter, Cifuentes exemplified how the seemingly disjointed habitat actually presents a workable scenario.

“I see a lot of potential,” Cifuentes said of the inundated tree remains. “I see a lot of structure where big fish can suspend.

“If it’s a large field of timber, you have to break it down, but with our mapping, that’s not hard to do. You just have to look for the trees located in the most likely areas, based on season.”

> Spring: When he knows pre-spawn staging is still in the picture, Cifuentes looks to timber in creek arms close to spawning flats. This, he said, could be back in a creek like the Clinton, Ark. pro expects on an Ozarks lake, or it it could be a big flat off the main lake – basically, his Lake Seminole deal.

> Summer: “I like deep timber on main lake points. A lot of times there’s one main tree that’s off on a long point. That tree might be in 80 feet, but the top rises up to 15 feet below the surface. During the summer, fish will suspend in the tops of those trees.”

> Fall: Autumn’s all about the feeding, so locating where the bait is holding is the most important detail. Fall can be a very scattered season, so Cifuentes will explore deep timber for fish transitioning out of summer patterns, but he’ll also check shallow zones.

> Winter: The colder months find Cifuentes following his summer strategies, with an emphasis on channel swings.

Key Features

During his win on Lake Seminole, Cifuentes mostly parked in a bay off Spring Creek and worked amid standing timber in 20 to 22 feet. With optimal pre- and post-spawn staging habitat and proximity to a major spawning flat, he stayed busy with fish that were coming and going.

Looking at the broader picture of standing timber exploration, Cifuentes noted the key features he seeks.

> Go with the flow: Water is life and a big part of a bass’ life cycle involves following established routes into and out of spawning and feeding areas. Knowing this, Cifuentes pays close attention to nature’s travel lanes.

Courtesy of Joey Cifuentes
Photo: Courtesy of Joey Cifuentes

Closely monitoring his forward-facing sonar leads Joey Cifuentes to the sweet spots in standing timber.

“Anywhere there’s good creek channel coming into the standing timber is a good area,” he said. “A channel swing may be 30 to 40 feet deep, but if it swings in close to a flat with timber, that gives the fish easy access to the flat.

“It’s like a grass edge; the fish will sit on the edge of that timber. You can scan and find that hard edge where the timber stops.”

Similarly, in shallower timber, a small creek or ditch running into the wooded area offers a convenient spawning route.

> Find the food: From crawfish crawling around tree trunks and exposed roots, to shad balls, to larger forage, the one thing that’ll instantly increase a dead tree’s popularity is food.

“On Seminole, I saw crappie gathering on some of those stumps and big limbs," Cifuentes said. “I think some of my bass may have been relating to those crappie.”

> Appealing isolation: “If you have a lot of small trees and you have a large one, or a cluster of trees, a lot of times the changes or differences can be good.”

What to Throw

When fish suspend, especially in early spring, Cifuentes finds it hard to beat a jerkbait like the Berkley Stunna. A good year-round option, this bait pairs well with forward-facing sonar.

“I also like swimbaits and a big soft-body glidebait, like the Berkley Nessie,” Cifuentes said. “In the spring, these baits are good for getting a big prespawner to come up and eat.”

On Lake Seminole, Cifuentes made good use of a dropshot for targeting specific fish. Some would bite on the fall, others would follow it down and then make their decision. The appeal is undeniable, so Cifuentes keeps this rig on deck year-round.

“In the summertime, I like a big Texas-rigged worm, like the 10-inch Berkley Power Worm,” he said. “I’ll let it fall through the branches and watch it (descend) on LiveScope.

“You don’t want to use too heavy of a weight; you don’t want it to fall too fast. When it comes over a branch and slowly falls, that’s when they’ll eat it.”

Cifuentes also likes jigging a spoon and burning a spinnerbait over the tops of submerged timber (fall), while Damiki-style rigs deliver during the spring and fall.

Avoid the Mistakes

Ask Cifuentes what can kill your timber productivity and he circles back to the opening premise. At the risk of delivering a terrible pun, the problem most people have is they can’t see the timber for the trees.

“Not paying attention to the key features can waste a lot of time,” Cifuentes said. “Pay attention to your maps and use your electronics to find the key spots.

“It’s like a grass mat, you have to find the key areas. It can be overwhelming, but if you focus on the high-percentage areas, you’ll be more effective.”

A big part of this is establishing not only the zones of likelihood, but a general depth range. Once Cifuentes dials in where the fish are holding, he can consistently keep his bait in the strike zone.

“They could be on the bottom, or 15 feet under the surface,” Cifuentes said. “If you’re dropping your worm and they bite it on a 5-count, there’s no sense fishing on the bottom. Keep your bait where the fish are."