December 24, 2023
Of all the details Darold Gleason considers with his winter bass catches, dorsal coloration may not be the first thing you’d think he examines. In truth, it’s often a key sign of the habitat where the fish has been living.
In many cases, that deep habitat comprised standing timber.
“We know bass are ambush feeders, so the bass use not only the tree itself, but the shade provides a place where they can hide,” Gleason said. “Traditionally, when you see a fish with a dark back, we always think of grass fish. But a lot of times in the winter, we’ll catch dark fish and I think they’re hanging out in the shadows, and they camouflage themselves with darker coloration.
“I’ve literally caught fish before and brought them to a weigh in and have guys comment, ‘That one came out of the grass,’ but it came out of super deep water with timber. You tend to think of deeper fish being pale, so there is something to that."
As he explained, standing timber can play a nearly year-round role, but the late-fall through winter period really brings its benefits into focus.
“Typically, in a lake like Toledo Bend or Sam Rayburn, there’s a little bit of a drawdown; just a natural progression of the lake level dropping down, so there’s not a ton of cover for the shad to (utilize),” he said. “This time of year, the grass is getting sparse and there’s not a lot of docks in the water and things like that, so standing timber is one of the few things the shad have that will actually provide a place for them to hide in and it provides shade for the bass to hide in. It’s one of the last options to hang out.
“The other major factor here is that a lot of times, our timber is going to be near creek channels and ditches and drains, contour changes and things like that. For this time of year, it’s a great place to target bass because of the deeper water. This makes everybody more comfortable with the cooler weather.”
He said he finds a mix of sizes in the timber. But while the younger, smaller fish are more likely to be found wolf packing on shad, the older—wiser—big fish prefer to hide behind a piece of standing timber and wait for the groceries to come to them.
Find the Fish
While this proximity to deeper water stands paramount, Gleason refines his site selection even further by factoring in his past experience with a different seasonal focus. Essentially, determining where he’ll find fish often comes down to where they’ll soon want to be.
“I look at March and April (of past years) and I think about where the most spawning fish were and then I work my way out,” he said. “I’ll look for a funnel or a ditch that leads into a spawning flat and work out from there.”
Also, because bait schools are such a critical element of winter bass positioning, he keeps watch for feathered fish finders.
“Look for pelicans and loons (which disclose the bait location),” he said. “They are kind of a cheat code.”
Within the timber, a discerning eye is the best time-management tool. Could the bass be anywhere in a field of flooded trees? Yes, but quickly deducing the targets of high probability means more time in the strike zone.
“Bigger is better,” he said. “That means the diameter of the tree, branches on the tree, the roots of a tree.
“Most of what we have on Toledo Bend is (flooded) pine forests. Most of it is thinner pine trees, but I think the bigger and the gnarlier is better than pole timber.”
Gleason has found a diverse assortment of baits will produce in the winter timber, but consistency comes through determining where the fish will be positioned.
“The one key thing in the winter is to figure out if they’re on the bottom or suspended up in the water column,” he said. “If they’re suspended up, that’s when the forward-facing sonar comes into play, because I’m throwing the jighead minnow (Damiki).”
To maximize his fishing time, he uses the Strike King 3X Baby Z-Too Soft Jerkbait, made of Z-Man’s extremely durable ElazTech material. Fitting this on a 3/16- to 1/4-ounce ballhead jig, he makes a disciplined cast that creates an irresistible presentation.
“I’ll cast near the tree where I see the fish and let it pendulum above them,” he said. “The key is to keep it above them. It’s like pitching bushes—you want to cause a reaction.
“It’s like the Jaws music; you can see the fish coming toward your bait. You can actually see the disturbance in the water when they charge the bait.”
Gleason also works suspended fish with a small paddletail swimbait like a Keitech Swing Impact to match the seasonal bait size. Here, he’ll rig the bait on a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce ballhead, depending on depth.
If the fish are on the bottom, that’s when he goes to a dropshot with roboworm style hand-poured worm. He’ll also work in a football jig with a smaller grub style trailer, or a Carolina rigged creature bait. Natural colors like green pumpkin and watermelon work best.
“It’s so much about the fish’s mood and their reaction,” he said. “That’s where my electronics shine because if I see some on the bottom, I know that’s where I need to be looking for a while.
Jumping back to the finesse stuff, Gleason said the ability to monitor the playing field on forward-facing sonar, keeps his winter timber game tight and intentional.
“I’m not saying baits and colors don’t matter, but your presentation is key,” Gleason said. “With the Damiki rig and the swimbait, you want to get it close enough to the structure to get their attention, but also making sure you don’t throw over the structure and get hung up.
“You just want to sneak it into their house and get them to do what they do—react. It’s the element of surprise, because a bass doesn’t have hands arms to defend themselves, so a lot of times, when they bite, something got near them and struck their curiosity. All they know to do is attack it.”