UNION SPRINGS, N.Y. – If anglers across the country didn’t realize how good the smallmouth bass fishing was on Lake Cayuga after Dustin Connell’s win at the Bass Pro Tour event on the fishery last August, the word is certainly out now.
Smallies stole the show during Favorite Fishing Stage Five Presented by ATG by Wrangler. After Adrian Avena boated 58 pounds of all brown bass across the final two days of competition to secure the win, and five anglers caught all-smallmouth limits of 28 or more pounds during the course of the event, it feels safe to say the past six days changed the perception about what’s possible at a northern smallmouth tournament.
The quality of Cayuga’s smallies wasn’t the only vital piece of information confirmed.
While Spencer Shuffield couldn’t find the precious 6-pounders he needed to keep pace with Avena, the Bass Pro Tour rookie confirmed what those who have followed his career already knew – any time the field is targeting smallmouth up north, he’s likely to be near the top of the standings.
Shuffield caught 27-15 during the Championship Round for a total of 56-0 across the final two days of competition, good for a second-place finish. His four-day cumulative weight of 106-10 would have been the best in the field if the competition format was a traditional four-day schedule.
Shuffield’s $45,000 payday pushed him past the $1 million milestone in career earnings. He can thank northern fisheries where smallmouth are a key quarry for more than a third of that money.
Shuffield finished out his 2022 season by winning the Tackle Warehouse TITLE on the St. Lawrence River last August, an event that saw him catch more than 21 pounds of smallmouth each day. He also has a fifth-place finish at Lake Erie, a sixth at Sturgeon Bay and an 11th at Lake Champlain on the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit, plus finishes of 16th on the St. Lawrence River and third on Champlain on the Toyota Series. Add it all up, and Shuffield has placed among the Top 20 in seven of the past eight events he’s fished on northern waters, with five Top-10s during that span.
This week, he caught at least 24 pounds every day he took the water, one of three competitors to do so. Had the tournament been contested under the old every-fish-counts format, Shuffield would have been tough to beat. He caught five smallies weighing at least 5 pounds that didn’t even make his five-fish limits during the Knockout and Championship Rounds.
Shuffield caught all of his smallmouth sight-fishing, employing a one-two punch of a drop-shot and a Ned rig to aggravate them into biting. His drop shot rig consisted of a Strike King Baby Z Too in the siren color above a 3/16-ounce tungsten weight. His Ned bait of choice was a Z-Man Finesse TRD in the green pumpkin goby color, threaded onto a ⅛-ounce Woo! Tungsten head.
“It was very simple, just find them up there on beds, and the deal was finding the bigger ones,” Shuffield said. “But when you found one you wanted to catch, I always started with the drop-shot. If they were pretty tough to catch, some of them I would pitch a Ned in there and either catch them on the Ned, get them fired up on the Ned and then pitch a drop shot back in there so I could see them eat it.”
With smallmouth certain to steal the show again at Lake St. Clair and likely to be a major player at Saginaw Bay, don’t be surprised to see Shuffield’s name near the top of SCORETRACKER® for the remainder of the season.
With his late rally on the final day of qualifying to earn a spot in the Knockout Round, Ott DeFoe ensured that he will maintain his lead atop the standings in the Bally Bet Angler of the Year race. But a pair of pursuers who entered Stage Five in the top five gained ground on him this week.
Dakota Ebare, who notched a third-place finish, and Matt Becker, who finished seventh, both improved their positions in the standings. Ebare is now in second place, 28 points behind DeFoe with two events remaining. Becker, a rookie, jumped to third after finishing in the Top 10 for the second straight event. He trails Ebare by 15.5 points.
Alton Jones Jr. improved his position on the leaderboard as well, rising from eighth place to fourth with his fifth-place showing on Cayuga. And don’t look now, but Jacob Wheeler isn’t out of the running. The two-time reigning Angler of the Year, who tumbled down the standings after a 75th-place finish at Lake Murray, climbed into the top six by finishing fourth at Stage Five.
David Dudley couldn’t quite replicate his Knockout Round bag of 27-8, catching 24-7 on Sunday. But his eighth-place finish continues a positive trend. It marked the second Top-10 finish in as many events for Dudley, who finished fourth at Lake Guntersville.
The consecutive Championship Round appearances mark the first time Dudley has finished in the Top 10 twice in a row since he joined the BPT in 2020. Prior to Stage Four, he had two Top-10 finishes in 24 events, the last coming at Stage Seven in 2021.
If Dudley can continue the hot streak, watch out. Dudley, the second-highest career earner in professional bass fishing history, terrorized the FLW Tour to the tune of four Angler of the Year titles from 2008-2019.
The Bass Pro Tour doesn’t keep track of anglers’ four-day weight totals, and the tournament format – which resets weights prior to the Knockout Round – doesn’t necessarily incentivize competitors to rack up as much poundage as they can during the qualifying rounds.
That only makes it more impressive that six anglers hit the 100-pound mark across their four days on Cayuga, doing so virtually all by catching smallmouth.
Avena, Shuffield, Wheeler, Jones Jr., Becker and Kevin VanDam all joined the century club with their four-day weight totals. Aside from one largemouth weighed by Shuffield on the first day of qualifying, those bags consisted entirely of smallmouth.
Prior to this week, only two anglers had ever weighed 100 pounds of smallmouth in a national level tournament, with Jay Przekurat and Cory Johnston both doing so at the Bassmaster Elite Series event on the St. Lawrence River last summer. The fact that six smallmouth sacks hit triple digits this week further underscores how unprecedented the fishing was at Cayuga.