After five days of mostly wide-open smallmouth-catching activity, a new competition format and anglers sparring with each other on the live scoreboard, the final day of the 2020 Tackle Warehouse TITLE presented by Toyota came down to the most basic difference-maker in bass fishing: an angler making a move based on his gut.
For Southern California pro Rusty Salewske, that move was worth $200,000 and the first-ever TITLE championship belt.
Shortly after peeling away from the shoal he had been fishing most of the day on the lee side of Snake Island outside of Riley’s Bay – the bay just north of Little Sturgeon Bay – Salewske caught two smallmouths in the final 42 minutes of the event. That included a 4-pound, 14-ouncer with 12 minutes remaining that catapulted Salewske past Bradford Beavers and into first place.
That’s where he stayed: Salewske finished the day with 13 fish for 48-11 to Beavers’ 48-3.
John Cox finished third with 36-14, Kurt Mitchell was fourth with 22-8 and Kyle Hall rounded out the top five with 22-0. Spencer Shuffield (21-7), Grae Buck (20-11), Joey Cifuentes (18-9), Casey Scanlon and Evan Barnes (0-0) finished out the Championship Round field.
Salewske, a San Diego-area pro who finished fifth in the 2009 Forrest Wood Cup and then took nearly 10 years off from tour-level tournament fishing before the 2020 Pro Circuit season, stacked 28-15 on SCORETRACKER® in the first period and hovered in the top three until early in the second period. But Salewske couldn’t relocate a consistent bite for the next 4 hours, slowly falling behind Beavers through the second and third periods before chipping away at the lead with a 4-pounder and a 2-15 before connecting with the winning fish.
“It was a tough, tough day out there,” Salewske admits. “I just kept fishing – what else was I going to do, right? Just about every bait on that mess on my deck is from Wade Strelic – I ran out of baits, weights, everything, and Wade helped me out.”
Salewske's final spot had been good for just one keeper bite a day in practice and previous competition days. But after being pummeled by the wind and nursing his trolling-motor batteries, Salewske decided to spend his last hour there in hopes of coaxing one more scorable smallmouth. He did much better than that, catching two non-scorable fish before adding what turned out to be the two winning fish.
"I'd go there every day of the tournament to check that spot," Selewske says. "It's right next to a big current hole. To me it was going to be a good spot, but it didn't really materialize during the tournament. I just couldn't hang on that point anymore (in the wind), it was just killing me. Luckily three casts in I caught the 2-15 and then the 4-15."
Bradford Beavers – Summerville, S.C. – 16 fish for 48-3
The South Carolina pro doggedly fished his way through the waves and wind outside of Egg Harbor – 15 miles north of Sturgeon Bay– grinding out 16 smallmouths worth 48-3 as the winds barreled over the length of Green Bay.
Beavers connected with nine fish for 29-6 in the first 2 ½ hours of the day, taking advantage of the best bite window of the day before the wind sent the field into scramble mode. He picked up four more fish for 11-6 in Period 2 to enter the last 2 ½ hours of the TITLE with a 2 ½-pound lead over Salewske and Cox, but then caught only one scorable fish (a 2-2) in the final 90 minutes.
“We had to work for it today, it was rough,” Beavers says. “We had the lead for a good while, but it was just rough. I moved in shallow to try to catch a largemouth there at the end, just trying to do something productive, hoping and praying. If you can catch them in this weather like Rusty did, you deserve to win. That was the most challenging day I’ve fished in my life, but I’m glad to be where I (finished).”
John Cox – DeBary, Fla. –11 fish for 36-14
Cox was one of the few anglers who showed up at the ramp in the morning looking forward to the changes the wind might bring to his primary area. The Florida pro rode the day out in inner Sturgeon Bay, fishing further out into the bay than he had during his Qualifying and Knockout rounds, where he fished inside the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal.
“This wind might push the current through some places harder than it has this week – if I can find one of those corners where the current has them grouped up, whooo, this could get silly,” Cox says before launching this morning.
It did get silly for Cox in the second period (just not quite silly enough). After a slow first 2 ½ hours that put him nearly 20 pounds off the lead, Cox put more than 24 pounds on the board in the second period while the rest of the field combined for only 34 pounds. That pushed the Berkley pro to within 6 pounds of the lead. That was as close as Cox would get, though, as he registered only one more scorable fish in the third period.
“We wondered how John Cox would do in this format – he pretty much checked that box,” FLW Live analyst Marty Stone says.
Weather policy comes into play
Befitting a championship event that pushed the entire field with a new competition format before rewarding a $200,000 check to the winner, the final day had the kind of standout, memorable moments that have come to define the first-ever TITLE.
Pre-launch consultation with MLF Weather Ops confirmed 20- to 25-mph winds in the forecast, prompting an extension of the day’s two period breaks to 30 minutes instead of 15. In addition, the field was allowed to relocate during the period breaks, to provide a measure of safety and flexibility in dealing with the wind.
The first rounds of the TITLE provided some inclement weather in the form of heavy rain and some intermittent winds, but as the Top 10 arrived at the Sawyer Park ramp to collect their officials, they were greeted with a forecast of 20-mph sustained winds building to 25 by the afternoon (with gusts over 30).
Multiple anglers utilized the event’s trailering policy, which allowed them to put their boats on the trailer and drive to different locations when the wind blew their spots out.
Championship Round notables
The Berkley Big Bass of the day was Grae Buck’s 5-10, caught near the end of the first period. It was only the second 5-pounder caught by the Pennsylvania pro in his three full days of fishing. Buck lived on quality fish, though: of his 45 scorable fish, 20 were 4-plus-pounders.
If you missed it: How, where to watch the TITLE
FLW fans who missed any of the action at the Tackle Warehouse TITLE presented by Toyota can watch all three periods of all six days of competition at www.majorleaguefishing.com. Click on the MLF NEWS link on the home page.
Hosted by Chad McKee, JT Kenney and Marty Stone – with remote reporting by Chris Jones, Travis Moran, Todd Hollowell and Tackle Warehouse pro Jared Lintner – FLW Live coverage of the first-ever TITLE included immersive, 10-camera coverage of four days of Qualifying Rounds, one Knockout Round, and Saturday’s Championship Round.
Top 10 Finishers
1. Rusty Salewske – 48-11
2. Bradford Beavers – 48-3
3. John Cox – 36-14
4. Kurt Mitchell – 22-8
5. Kyle Hall – 22-0
6. Spencer Shuffield – 21-7
7. Grae Buck – 20-11
8. Joey Cifuentes – 18-9
9. Casey Scanlon – 0-0
10. Evan Barnes – 0-0