By Todd Ceisner
Nine years ago, a wide-eyed 18-year-old named Justin Atkins sat inside Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C., and watched Michael Bennett win the 2008 Forrest Wood Cup with bass caught at Lake Murray.
Last August, Atkins rode around Wheeler Lake at the Cup, watching the competitors pick apart the lake, all the while wondering and wishing and dreaming about the day he’d get the chance to be in their shoes.
Wonder and wish no more.
Atkins’ opportunity arrived this week, way faster than he could have ever imagined and today, inside the same building where Bennett won $1 million, Atkins carved out his own spot in Forrest Wood Cup lore with a tournament-best 22-01 bag that helped him overtake roommate Brandon Cobb and hold off fellow Cup rookie Travis Fox to win with an eye-popping 3-day total of 59-04.
Who knows, maybe the 2027 Cup winner was somewhere in the crowd today at a packed Colonial Life Arena, watching Atkins calmly capture FLW’s top prize with a massive mid-summer weight that took everyone by surprise.
Atkins is the third Tour rookie to win the Cup and is the fourth-youngest champion in the event’s 21-year history at 27 years old. His winning weight this week (this was the first time the Cup was a 3-day event) exceeded all but three of the previous 4-day versions of the Cup.
“It’s hard to put it into words,” Atkins said. “I’ve looked up to these guys a long time. I’ve dreamed about getting to be here. To win it is unbelievable.
“When I say I feel like this is what I’m meant to do I don’t mean that in any kind of arrogant way,” he added. “I just went out on a limb of faith this year. I didn’t have the money to fish the full Tour when I started. I had enough money to fish about four events, and I was hoping I would make it. I felt like God had a plan, and that’s what I was supposed to be doing. I just went out there and fished, and today signed off that I was supposed to be there.”
Fox, an eight-year Tour pro who qualified for his first Cup through the FLW Series Championship last fall and opted not to compete on Tour in 2017, made an incredible final-day charge with 21-11 to finish 2nd with 56-11.
Cobb, the leader after day 2, slipped to 3rd after catching just four fish for 15-10 and finished with 54-10.
Reigning Angler of the Year Bryan Thrift sacked 18-02 and wound up 4th for the second straight year with 51-05. Anthony Gagliardi, the 2014 Cup winner at Murray and odds-on favorite this week, struggled early, but managed 15-02 to slip two spots to 5th with 51-03, one ounce more than his 4-day winning weight in 2014.
In a tournament that blew away the most optimistic of weight predictions, this Cup will be remembered for the return of pencil popper-style baits as topwater fishing dominated this event like no other and Atkins was happy to lead the way.
He relied on his Humminbird electronics to dissect manmade clumps of bamboo cane (vertical brush piles) from Bear Creek all the way to the southeast corner of the lake. Once he learned how the fish positioned in and around the cover, he used a chrome IMA Lures Little Stik 135 to call fish to the surface and to imitate herring that passed through the areas.
Here’s how the rest of the top 10 finished up:
6. Michael Neal: 46-11
7. Scott Suggs: 43-03
8. Scott Martin: 41-00
9. Wesley Strader: 34-02
10. Aaron Britt: 31-08
Atkins, a former Bassmaster Weekend Series champion, whose pathway to the Tour was cleared this year solely because he’s a Ranger owner, joins close friend and Bassmaster Classic winner Jordan Lee as the current title holders of the sport’s two marquee events. It’s the first time since 2006 that the reigning Classic and Cup champions are both under 30 years old. Lee was 25 when he won the Classic last March.
Today’s conditions more resembled Saturday’s than Friday’s and there was a good spell during the morning when there was little to no breeze. That forced some of the finalists to go to backup plans, like up the Saluda River, but cloud cover in the afternoon seemed to re-activate the topwater patterns that most relied on all tournament.
Adjustment Paid Off for Atkins
> Day 3: 5, 22-01 (15, 59-04)
It’s been quite a year for Atkins, who collected five money finishes during his rookie season on Tour, including two top-10s. In early June, he finished 3rd at the BFL All-American and got married later that month. The Cup victory is just the icing on the cake.
The first couple of cane piles Atkins fished this morning yielded nothing, which was surprising to him. He idled over them to get a better grasp of how the fish were setting up and he could tell they were holding tight to the cane stalks.
Then his situation improved immensely.
“On my next stop, I threw at some schoolers and missed a few,” he said. “Then I got lined up and made a good cast and caught a 5-pounder.”
Not long after, he boated another 5-pounder to set the tone for the day.
“Things are going good, and the rest of the day goes like that,” he said. “I couldn’t make a wrong decision. It was the greatest day of bass fishing in my life, it seems like.”
He said checking that first spot with his electronics was the key to getting dialed in on other spots the rest of the day.
“Knowing how those fish were setting up in the pile was key,” he added. “These fish are real patternable. I figured if they were doing it on the first one, they’re probably doing the same on the others.”
He finished out his limit and made his final upgrade around 1 p.m. to push past the 22-pound mark, giving him two 20-pound bags in the tournament.
Travis Fox would like to return to the FLW Tour next season.
A critical element to his success as the tournament played out was how he deftly managed his group of spectators. He moved upwards to 10 to 20 times a day, but he was careful in how he approached the spot he was heading to, knowing an armada of boats would follow.
“The key was stopping way far back, then making a long idle into the spot,” he said. “There were times I idled, then used the trolling motor to go the rest of the way. It took longer, but I felt like it was more efficient.”
2nd: Spoon Produced a 6 For Fox
> Day 3: 5, 21-11 (15, 56-11)
Fox nailed down his career-best finish in a multi-day tournament by making a key adjustment today that produced his biggest fish of the event.
“When the herring bite shut off and the fish quit schooling, I’d tied on a big spoon the other night,” he said. “I didn’t know if they bite them or not, but I figured the tackle shops have four feet of spoons on display for some reason, so I tied one on.”
Using a retrieve that saw him let the spoon fall for a couple seconds then rip it up in the water column, he caught a 6-pounder, but also lost two good ones on it.
Fox had registered to compete on the Tour this year. His deposits were paid as well, but once he realized the two February tournaments would force him away from his firearms sales business during a busy time of year, he opted to back away from the Tour. He hopes to return possibly as soon as next year.
“I wanted to fish it this year, but I write exactly half of my business in the month of February and this year on the schedule we had two tournaments in February, so for me to take off two tournaments in February would’ve been 25 percent of my income for the year,” he said. “That’s what pays for fishing for me.”
Brandon Cobb came in one fish short of a limit today.
3rd: Traffic Did Cobb In
> Day 3: 4, 15-10 (14, 54-10)
A combination of spectator boat traffic and some bad luck conspired against Cobb today. He had the bites to possibly hold off Atkins, but lost several key fish, including one he said was a 4-pounder in the final hour.
“It was bad, but I still had seven or eight bites,” he said. “I should’ve had everything over 3 pounds in the livewell. I had 20 pounds of bites, but ended up with four for whatever.”
The impact of the spectator traffic was something he admits he wasn’t prepared to deal with. As the leader heading out on the final day, he had at least two dozen boats chasing him initially this morning and that number fluctuated through the day.
“I knew I would have a lot of people follow me, but there were more than I ever thought,” he said. “A lot of them weren’t real courteous. I had a hard time going back to places. I’d been running to pretty much the same places over and over until they bite.
“A lot of times, I’d come back and somebody that was with me earlier would be fishing it or they’d be idling over it. A couple times, people would figure out my run and would go to the next spot I was going to before I went there. It didn’t help, but looking back I should’ve had more places. I wish I had not touched some places so nobody would know where they were. That’s what I should’ve done different.”
All of his fish were caught on a walking bait or a soft-plastic jerkbait worked just under the surface in areas where fish were relating to herring or cane piles.
4th: Thrift Underestimated Herring Bite
> Day 3: 5, 18-02 (15, 51-05)
Thrift stayed with what he’d been doing the first two days, which was targeting fish relating to herring on points in the morning, then probing brush piles later on.
“I didn’t do anything different today,” he said. “I caught a couple herring fish out on points and caught a couple out of brush again.”
His only regret was not putting more stock in the herring fish. He figured it wouldn’t hold up considering the time of year.
“I shouldn't have underestimated those herring fish as much as I did,” he said. “Usually, they’re not this big of a factor in August, at least not like they were this week. You usually can’t piece together three days of it. I did it a little bit, but it was ridiculous.
“I don’t feel like I missed something. I just feel like I underestimated it. I felt like 15 to 16 pounds per day would win this thing and that’s not the case.”
Bryan Thrift shows off his day-3 kicker at the Forrest Wood Cup.
5th: Gagliardi Disappointed
> Day 3: 5, 15-02 (15, 51-03)
Nobody in the field had more options of where and what to fish at Murray than Gagliardi, but he was kicking himself for sticking with one spot too long this morning and not devoting more time to cane piles in general.
“I got sucked into the schooling bite and sucked into breaking fish,” he said. “I had 80 cane piles I could’ve ran if that’s what I wanted to do. There were too many places with fish coming up that forced me to stay. It was one or the other. I couldn’t run and gun and fish the schoolers, too. That takes too much time. The schoolers were too big to not try to catch them.”
His day started to unravel shortly after it began. He went without a bite at his first spot, then made a move out in the middle of the lake where fish were actively on the surface all around him.
“It was the biggest school of big bass I’ve ever seen here this time of year,” he said. “I got frustrated because when I’d get bites I’d lose them. I spent way too long on one spot and then ran around trying to make up for lost time.”
He later ran up the Saluda River and probed some isolated shallow brush with a big worm, similar to how he won in 2014. Eventually, he came back down the lake and caught a couple 3-pounders with a Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits D-Shad.
“Over the next hour, I had 12 to 15 bites, all on the D Shad,” he added.
Below is a rundown of what the rest of the top 10 would’ve done differently during the Cup if given the chance:
> 6th: Michael Neal (15, 46-11) – “I have no complaints. I had 2 3/4 pounds in penalties, but I don’t feel like I did anything wrong. If you’d have told me I could walk out of here with 45 pounds at the end of the tournament I would’ve never made a cast. I’d have told you I’d have won, no problem. I did the best I could do and left it all out there.”
> 7th: Scott Suggs (15, 43-03) – “Nothing. By the time we got into it, I didn’t want to take chances on messing up somebody else’s stuff on the lower end.”
> 8th: Scott Martin (14, 41-04) – “On the first day of practice, Matt Arey was on another point, literally 100 yards away. When he left that spot, they started busting and I went over there and caught a 3 1/2-pounder and went over it just to see. At about 11, I made a cast with a topwater and caught a legit 6 or 6 1/2-pounder. I called Matt. We got there and (Arey) was on the farthest point and nobody was on the other one and they were busting really good by Matt ,so I came around the back side of Matt. There was a local guy in an aluminum boat fishing in between us. Then Matt and I started catching them and eventually Travis came in and fished that other spot and it became ‘Momma’s Spot.’”
> 9th: Wesley Strader (12, 34-02) – “Two things: On Friday, I left the cane pile bite around 9 a.m., which was too early. And today I would’ve come down the lake sooner had I known it was as cloudy as it was. I might’ve caught three or four more fish had I done that.”
> 10th: Aaron Britt (11, 31-09) – ”I wouldn’t have done anything different. I started on the same spot all three days. I also found the spot Scott talked about in practice, but today I tried to boat-flip a 7 and it broke my rod and line. I dove in waist deep trying to grab it. Those three points were absolutely loaded. There were so many fish there and I stayed on the spot for about three hours each morning and if you were patient and just sat there, they’d come up.”
> Day 2 stats – 10 anglers, 6 limits, 2 fours, 1 two, 1 one.
> FLW announced the attendance at this year’s Cup (weigh-in and Expo combined) was 68,315. Next year’s Cup will be at Lake Ouachita with Hot Springs, Ark., serving as the host city.
1. Justin Atkins -- Florence, Al -- 21-5 (5) -- 15-14 (5) -- 37-3 (10) -- 22-01 (5) -- 59-04 (15) -- $300,200
2. Travis Fox -- Rogers, Ar -- 18-3 (5) -- 16-13 (5) -- 35-0 (10) -- 21-11 (5) -- 56-11 (15) -- $60,100
3. Brandon Cobb -- Greenwood, SC -- 19-12 (5) -- 19-4 (5) -- 39-0 (10) -- 15-10 (4) -- 54-10 (14) -- $50,000
4. Bryan Thrift -- Shelby, NC -- 19-4 (5) -- 14-9 (5) -- 33-13 (10) -- 18-2 (5) -- 51-5 (15) -- $37,500
5. Anthony Gagliardi -- Prosperity, SC -- 21-1 (5) -- 15-0 (5) -- 36-1 (10) -- 15-2 (5) -- 51-3 (15) -- $30,000
6. Michael Neal -- Dayton, Tn -- 16-0 (5) -- 14-14 (5) -- 30-14 (10) -- 15-13 (5) -- 46-11 (15) -- $24,000
7. Scott Suggs -- Alexander, Ar -- 14-13 (5) -- 13-11 (5) -- 28-8 (10) -- 14-11 (5) -- 43-3 (14) -- $23,000
8. Scott Martin -- Clewiston, Fl -- 15-14 (5) -- 16-0 (5) -- 31-14 (10) -- 9-06 (4) -- 41-00 (14) -- $22,00
9. Wesley Strader -- Spring City, Tn -- 14-6 (5) -- 13-14 (5) -- 28-4 (10) -- 5-14 (2) -- 34-02 (12) -- $21,000
10. Aaron Britt -- Yuba City, Ca -- 15-9 (5) -- 14-1 (5) -- 29-10 (10) -- 1-14 (1) -- 31--08 (11) -- $20,000