Spencer Shuffield has had a tremendous season on the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit and he capped it off with a top 10 finish at Lake Erie. Now, he’s getting ready for the Tackle Warehouse TITLE presented by Toyota on Sturgeon Bay, which has only the top 50 Pro Circuit anglers in it and will be a Major League Fishing (MLF) format event.
With just two days to practice for the championship event, Shuffield let me hop in the boat to see how he started off on day one.
Putting in at a ramp near the mouth of Sturgeon Bay, Shuffield dunks the Phoenix and then pauses to do a little rigging. He spent the day before putting on a new trolling motor after breaking his old one on the run to and from Lake Erie and St. Clair, so he didn’t get a chance to stew on all his tackle. After putting some fresh line and a jerkbait on a baitcaster, it’s time to roll.
Running out of the bay, Shuffield doesn’t go too far before setting the boat down. He came and pre-practiced after the Mississippi River event, so he knows what he wants to look at first thing.
“I spent three days on this side, and three on the Lake Michigan side, and I like this side better,” outlines Shuffield. “I’ve got so much stuff in here that had ‘em, I want to see if they’re still the same way. But, I still need to go up and look up north and around Sister Bay. I’ll probably do that tomorrow.”
Idling at between 5 and 6 mph, Shuffield starts rapidly covering water, looking at piles of bait on his graphs and working towards where he intends to start fishing.
“The problem is, there’s so many dang walleye and yellow perch and drum,” says Shuffield, who is a bit of an electronics guru. “But, there are a ton of smallmouths too. Every ball of alewives you see will have a smallmouth on it, almost every dang one.”
Stopping the boat, Shuffield drops his trolling motor and starts to get ready. He puts on some fresh plastic, begins to adjust his electronics and starts scanning around for bass.
“I’m gonna spend time throwing more stuff this time,” says Shuffield. “I already know I’ll probably have just one rod in my hand the whole time, but you gotta at least say you tried. These smallmouths here seem to be a lot more particular about what they eat. I had a lot of fish last time that wouldn’t eat anything, and at St. Clair, as soon as you saw one, they bit usually.”
After losing one smallmouth, Shuffield hooks into a good one and tries to let it get off. Another competitor in the area has him thinking stealth, but the smallmouth wants no part of it. She refuses to shake loose, and eventually Shuffield leans over the gunwale and grabs the feisty bass.
“There’s a pile of them down there,” exclaims Shuffield after releasing the fish. “Look how they followed that one in. You can see them on bottom too.”
After a few fruitless casts with a Ned rig, Shuffield whips out a jerkbait – he wants to experiment a bit.
“If it was in the tournament, I’d sit and pound on them until they stopped biting the drop-shot and then find something else they’d bite,” he says. “Look at them, there’s just a mega-wad of them. They’re following the jerkbait, but they’re not rising up to it. I can’t believe those fish are still sitting there. I caught like 12 in a row off that spot when I was here in [pre-]practice.”
Without catching another, but satisfied by the quantity and quality, Shuffield pulls his trolling motor for a move.
Making a short move, Shuffield idles a bit more and then drops the trolling motor again. After putting on another drop-shot bait, he spots some fish, can’t catch them, and decides to dig into adjusting his transducer. Because his trolling motor install is new, his transducer isn’t pointed just right, so, he actually breaks out an Allen wrench to make some adjustments.
A short time later, he’s back in action and seeing smallmouths.
“I know those are smallmouth. Golly, they fly to the bottom with it and never touch it,” he says. “It’s crazy how you’ll go to one place and see them and catch every one you see and then go to another place and see them and not be able to get a bite.”
Then he begins to doubt.
“I don’t think much of these can be bass. They can’t be that freaking particular,” says an exasperated Shuffield. “They are smallmouth! See that, they literally chased it up. Drum or walleye don’t do that. I’ve gotta figure this out.”
Finally, after almost 40 minutes without a bite while constantly seeing fish, Shuffield decides to move.
After a short run and idle, Shuffield starts fishing again. Less than 10 minutes later, he sees a bass on his sonar, fires out a cast and lands a 4-pounder.
“Gosh I love these things,” he says, temporarily forgiving the smallmouths for not biting.
Though few in the field have fished actual MLF events before, Shuffield is one of a few anglers that have gotten comfortable with the format in other events. So, I ask what he thinks about having to go for numbers instead of his best five for the TITLE.
“I’ve fished a bunch of MLF-style deals back at home,” says Shuffield, who has a strategy worked out. “My plan is to try to go easy, if you can do that, and then hammer them on the final day.
“I like doing this, I don’t feel like it’s that easy to catch numbers here,” he says. “If you land on the right spot you can whack ‘em, but so much of it is one here and one there. I’m glad we’re doing this format for the championship, but also, I’m not. I figured out how to catch really big ones here in practice, but I couldn’t catch but eight or nine in a day.”
After fishing a bit more near where he caught his last fish, Shuffield works away, seeing fish the whole time, and then cranks up to re-visit where the fish came from. Before he does, he pulls out his sunglasses and puts fresh batteries in his scale. Though he won’t really need the scale this week, it died immediately after he weighed his last fish, and he seems to be a very particular and meticulous angler.
As he idles back up to where he caught the last fish, Shuffield starts spotting more grass than he thought was there, and it prompts him to drop the trolling motor again. This spot deserves some more investigation.
“There may be a lot of them right here, there could be two or three smallmouths on every clump,” he says. “It seems like every area of this lake is a little different. You’ve gotta find out what they relate to. In some areas it’s grass and in others it’s rock.”
As he hunts around on the trolling motor, I ask how he got on the pro fishing track. Though his comeback is well documented, just because your dad is a pro angler doesn’t mean you’ll be one.
“He fished every day. He always knew what to do,” says Shuffield of his father, Ron, who had a long career on the FLW Tour. “We went three or four times a week, and he was always on fish. At an early age, I was hooked.”
Still, he had some other options.
“I was big time into golf, I actually was really good,” explains Shuffield. “I had scholarships to go about anywhere I wanted to in college. But, I just hated school. And, I can’t go play golf alone and have fun. I could go fishing by myself and have fun. I always knew fishing was what I was going to do. Nothing else was my true passion.”
Picking up stakes, Shuffield runs out away from the shore more, stopping in deeper water than we’ve been in all morning. Here, we actually idle pretty extensively before he drops the trolling motor. Along the way, he goes over numerous balls of bait and single fish in the water column.
“It seems like there’s so much of the right ingredients out here that you have to find something really special,” says Shuffield, before cutting the motor off and going fishing.
After marking some at the bow and some more frustration while trying to coax them into a bite, Shuffield sticks his third fish of the day. The deepest and the smallest, it’s still a good one, and would be a very valuable addition to his total this week.
“See, they’re bass,” he says as he brings it up. “I’m just not used to them being this tough to catch. There are plenty of them, they’re just scattered around all over the place.”
Continuing to fish out deep, Shuffield gives voice to the potential and the danger ahead of him.
“I really wish I knew for sure how many smallmouths I was throwing at to get one to bite,” he says. “It’s funny, the only spot I’ve been to where I got bit in pre-practice, I got bit on again. But it’s been so hard to get bit on these other places where there are fish.
“There’s gonna be somebody that finds a place that they can catch 20 or 30 off, and I may have found some of them. But, as a whole, I think it’s going to be tough. I think a lot of guys might catch six or eight fish a day.”
Picking up again, Shuffield’s next move is much closer to the shoreline. Again, he idles a bit to get the lay of the land and then starts fishing.
With a little more frustration at not getting fish to bite, Shuffield catches a tiny smallmouth, then another and another. These are not the caliber of fish he’s after. So, he straps down his rods and we roll.
After dropping me back at the ramp, Shuffield heads back out. He’s had a productive morning, but it’s also been a bit frustrating. Still, he’s got a lot of ground left to cover and about 1 ½ days left to do it in.