Fall from grace stories are rarely told in the fishing world. Tournament pros come and go from year to year, some after having found a little success and some leaving the pro fishing world with little show for it. That’s the nature of a sport predicated on competing with the best of the best in a format that sometimes rewards chance. Often, hard work and skill aren’t enough to precipitate prolonged success.
And, more often than many realize, it’s the financial aspect of professional tournament fishing that can get in the way, to say nothing of the work-life balance of it all. Somewhere between those two realities sits Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit pro Spencer Shuffield.
From 2012 to 2015, the Hot Springs, Ark., hammer consistently finished near the top of the pack in what was then the FLW Tour – four years, two FLW Cup appearances, three top 10s in regular-season competition and $181,221 in earnings. Never quite the best, but far from the worst, Shuffield was consistently good enough to prove he could hang with the best anglers on the planet.
That all came crashing down in 2015.
That year, Shuffield went through what he calls a “major divorce” that left him with a mountain of debt. Forced to file bankruptcy, he knew the possibility of continuing in tour-level competition was a thing of the past.
“I never didn’t want to fish on the Tour,” he says. “I went through a lot of stuff. It was a really low spot in my life. I wasn’t happy in the marriage I was in. I wasn’t happy, plain and simple.”
Shuffield says he turned to drinking and “hanging out with the wrong people.” Those kinds of falls from grace are told frequently. They usually end with a prolonged stay at rock bottom. In many of those stories, there is no rebirth.
This story isn’t one of those.
Picking up the pieces
“I’m going to have to end up getting a 9-to-5 job like everybody else and be miserable the rest of my life instead of doing something I love, and I just woke up one day and was like, ‘I’m not doing that,’” says Shuffield. “I’m going to make it back no matter what.”
At the lowest point, Shuffield had nothing – not even enough money to make a truck payment or a boat payment. Recently divorced and bankrupt, the light at the end of the tunnel had all but extinguished.
But, as with most redemption stories, there was seemingly an abrupt turning point where that light sparked back into existence.
“I woke up one day and decided to get my relationship back serious with God again and got in church,” Shuffield recalls. “I started fishing everything locally. I never really stopped doing that to begin with. I fished everything I could, but I got serious fishing locally again like I never had before.”
It wasn’t easy fishing that much after just pulling himself from the wreckage, but fishing is what Shuffield does. It’s the constant for him, and it’s the life raft to which he clung as everything else sank around him.
He also found redemption in the form of his wife, Kristin, whom he married two years ago.
“My wife is awesome,” he says. “She’s a registered nurse and works in surgery, makes good money, and really supports me. She’s pushed me day in and day out to be better, not just as a fisherman but as a human in general. We met each other both at the lowest point in our lives, and I can honestly say I’m in better shape now than I’ve ever been – emotionally, physically, mentally, financially, all of it.”
With the foundation rebuilt, it was time for Shuffield to start on the framework. To return to fishing the highest level, he had to start from the bottom.
Mr. Bass of Arkansas
Shuffield started fishing FLW Tour events as a co-angler in 2007, fresh out of high school. His father, Ron Shuffield, was already an established FLW pro, and it made sense for the younger Shuffield to begin his career on the water from the back of the boat.
But being the son of a man who made more than half-a-million dollars fishing with FLW hasn’t always been easy for the now 30-year-old, who has always wanted to carve out his own path, too.
“I want to have my own career,” Spencer explains. “Nothing against my dad – I love my dad to death; we fish two or three times a week together – but I don’t want my success to be a pyramid under him.”
Whether he wanted to admit it in his younger days or not, Spencer needed the validation of knowing he was good enough to make his own way in the bass fishing world, so, in that sense, his hiatus from the Pro Circuit was a blessing in disguise.
“Before, when I was out there, I didn’t have as much respect from a lot of people, even around here [Arkansas],” he says. “’He’s out there because his dad’s paying his way.’
“He [Ron] quit, and I fished two more years after he quit as a pro, and then all that happened to me. I’ve gained my way back on my own. Nobody can say it can’t be done, because I did it. I came all the way from the bottom to do it.”
How Spencer did that is probably more impressive than you’d imagine. Sure, he fished locally, but the success he earned on the local Arkansas trails is beyond reproach.
In both 2018 and 2019, he won Mr. Bass of Arkansas Angler of the Year, which included $40,000 in winnings and the use of a new bass boat. In fact, he won just about everything he fished in that span.
“I started winning a lot of tournaments around here,” Spencer says. “I was winning Angler of the Year on all the trails.”
Spencer doesn’t say that to sound arrogant or prop up his resume. He says that because, as bleak as his outlook was for a long time, it gives him confidence. And it’s the truth.
“I grew a lot as a fisherman through all of that, really learning these lakes around here,” he admits. “I knew them well, but I had to re-learn them to actually be able to compete with a lot of these guys with 40 years more knowledge than I had to be able to beat them day in and day out. It really made me grow as a fisherman.
“I’m not saying it in an arrogant way, but I’m 100 times better now than I was five years ago, and it’s not even necessarily mechanical. It’s mental – the decisions I make on the water, being able to stay focused. It’s really helped me out, and I’ve learned so much more about myself on the water in the last four years than I ever thought I could.”
“I’m going to make my way back to fishing by fishing.”
That was Shuffield’s goal, and that’s exactly what he did.
By winning so much locally, Shuffield earned enough money to right the ship and get back to professional fishing in 2019. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the call to return to the FLW Tour that season, so he settled for more Arkansas trails (and his second Mr. Bass of Arkansas title) and a full season of Phoenix Bass Fishing League presented by T-H Marine events, finishing second in points in the Arkie Division. He also fished a couple Toyota Series Central Division events along the way.
By the time 2020 neared, Shuffield was even more eager to get his second chance, and he got it. He received an invitation to fish the first season of the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit, though the prospect of getting another shot at a pro fishing career brought with it some concerns.
“I knew going into this year I was going to have my work cut out for me,” he says. “I knew that I was going to have to make a check in at least one of the first two tournaments to realistically go on with the season. Obviously, you want to make a check in both of them, and I knew I could, but you kind of doubt yourself in the beginning of it.”
To ease his mind somewhat, Shuffield was able to secure a title sponsorship from the Yo-Zuri brand Duel Hardcore right before the season started.
“For them to go ahead and roll the dice with me this year, to pick up most of my entry fees and to give me that support and peace of mind to fish this year knowing it was going to be my first year back and kind of stressful, that was huge,” he adds.
To start the 2020 season, major sponsorship secured, Shuffield ventured to east Texas for the Pro Circuit opener on Sam Rayburn. It’s a lake Shuffield had only fished one time prior, and he wasn’t exactly confident in his chances, all things considered.
“On my way to Rayburn, it was really nerve-racking for me,” he admits. “I just got down there and started fishing and had a horrible practice; probably the worst practice I’ve ever had. I don’t think I caught but one fish over 3 pounds the entire time in practice.”
Plying one small pocket on day one to the tune of just over 10 pounds, Shuffield caught enough weight to give himself a shot entering day two, though not enough to make him feel good about it.
“The second day — this is where the four years off really played key for me, because I would have never made a decision like this otherwise – I just went with it,” he says. “I just went fishing. I didn’t have anything to lose. I picked up a trap and fished stuff that looked good and caught 15 pounds out of a pocket on a trap that morning. I had zero fish at 9 o’clock, and by 9:15, I had 15 pounds in the livewell.”
That 15-pound day turned into a made cut and a $10,500 paycheck with the 28th-place finish. For all his concerns about bombing in Texas and not having the money to fish a full season, Shuffield instead left with a nice check and the confidence to know that his four years away from the Pro Circuit weren’t wasted.
Stop No. 2 at the Harris Chain of Lakes in Florida resulted in a 56th-place finish for Shuffield and another paycheck. He wasn’t happy with the result, but Shuffield says he’s always struggled in Florida, and coming away with another $7,500 wasn’t the worst thing in the world. After all, he knew Rayburn and the Harris Chain were going to be about as bad as his season is going to get.
“Knowing I’d gotten them two behind me was huge, and I’d gotten a check in both of them.”
The dream realized
Shuffield finished third at Lake Martin in mid-March. You can read all about how he caught his fish and what he caught them on here and here. That’s not what’s important when understanding Shuffield’s story, though.
Finishing third at Martin confirmed exactly what Shuffield already suspected: He’s ready for this.
“Before [his time away], it’s not a goal you really think is possible,” he says. “You feel like you’re kind of sheep most of the time, and every now and then you can hang with the wolves – making top 10s and top fives. Now, I feel like I’m kind of to the point where I can be in contention for angler of the year every year – not that I will be. Obviously, you’re going to have bad years, and you’re going to make bad decisions in a tournament. I feel like Florida was probably mine. But we still have a lot of tournaments left, and anything is possible.”
That finish at Martin (along with the $25,000 check) made the last four years something else entirely for Shuffield. He’s finally seeing the forest for the trees.
"My main goal in any tournament trail I fish is to win angler of the year,” he says. “Being able to do that around here is what has given me a lot of confidence that I can do it out there, too. It really gave me the confidence that that was going to start being my goal. Anything I fish now, it’s going to be winning angler of the year.”
With the 2020 Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit in flux due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s unclear where and when the next Pro Circuit event will take place. It could be Cherokee Lake in June (already rescheduled from March), or it could potentially be Dardanelle in May, which is what Shuffield is hoping for, more or less.
“Dardanelle is one of them places where I don’t personally really even like,” he admits. “I hate the Arkansas River. That being said, Dardanelle’s always been really good to me. The first Mr. Bass championship I won was on Dardanelle. I won it there two years ago, and I’ve always had good success on Dardanelle. I’ve always done really well there.
“I have a lot of knowledge there, so as far as making a $10,000 check, you’re not going to one like that worried about making a check. I’m here to win, because I have the knowledge of this place and I’m capable of it.”
Through three events, Shuffield sits in eighth place in the standings, 69 points behind AOY leader Ron Nelson. That’s a lot of points to make up in one event, but four? That can be done.
“I want to be the most consistent guy, because, in my opinion, it’s harder to win angler of the year than it is a tournament,” he says. “If you can win AOY, you’ve actually won the season. It’s not over yet; we still have four tournaments left.”
Two of the three tournaments Shuffield has already fished were the two hardest for him on the 2020 schedule, at least in his mind. That bodes well for him the rest of the way.
And knowing where he came from, no one should doubt his ability or his desire in the second half.
“Coming up from rock bottom and getting back, I feel really, really blessed to get to where I’m at,” he says. “I took it for granted the first time around, and I’m not going to this time for sure.”