By Todd Ceisner
When Justin Atkins partnered with his dad in charity fishing tournaments when he was still in elementary school, he loved every minute of it.
By the time he was a teenager, he couldn’t get enough of bass fishing. He competed in BFLs and FLW Series events. He won the Mississippi Junior TBF championship. As a 19-year-old, he won the co-angler division at the Bassmaster Weekend Series championship.
“That helped me financially and gave me a clue I could do this,” Atkins said.
Turns out he was right.
Next, it was on to college fishing at Mississippi State and consecutive berths in the Bassmaster College National Championship in 2013-14. He also did a stint working for Timmy Horton as operations manager for Horton's Profound Outdoors.
Last year, he took 3rd at the BFL Regional at Lake Dardanelle, which qualified him for this year’s All-American at Pickwick Lake, where he finished 3rd back in early June.
He told his parents that if he qualified for the All-American, he’d be registering to the compete on the FLW Tour in 2017 as well.
He got off to a great start and wound up 22nd in points, second-best among rookies. It was almost as if what happened at Lake Murray last week was all part of a grander plan for Atkins, who was asked what the central reason was behind his rapid rise to the Tour level and now Forrest Wood Cup champion.
“Through a lot of hard work,” he said. “I’ve been fishing my whole life.”
On Sunday, Atkins gave professional bass fishing yet another youthful jolt as the 27-year-old Mississippi native-turned Alabama resident captured the Cup by employing a high-octane, high-intensity topwater pattern at Murray, a lake noted for its blueback herring population and well-fed largemouth.
Several veteran anglers who’ve fished numerous Cups in their careers cannot recall another championship event that was so purely dominated by a specific technique in the manner this one was. Plain and simple, if you weren’t hunting topwater or sub-surface fish you were not going to contend.
A combination of the water being roughly a foot lower than it was for 2014 Cup and some recent rain and cloud cover brought the water temperatures down into the low to mid 80s. That left little to be caught along the banks at the 50,000-acre Saluda River impoundment, taking the likes of reigning Cup champ John Cox and three-time Angler of the Year Andy Morgan, both famous for their shallow-water acumen, out of the picture.
From pre-practice all through the tournament, Atkins was all-in on fishing offshore for bass stationed around manmade bamboo cane piles placed along points from the mid-lake section down toward the dam.
He was plenty comfortable fishing that way from his time on the Tennessee River and while he hadn’t had a lot of experience at Murray, he had a good working knowledge of herring lakes since the ’13 and ’14 Bassmaster College Championships were at Lake Chatuge, a herring-infested lake that straddles the North Carolina-Georgia border.
“I had a couple friends who did well – Brad Rutherford and Patrick Walters,” Atkins said. “I was able to talk to them about herring-related things and how to read the water.”
Here’s how he was able to tackle Murray and walk away with $300,000.
Atkins arrived at Murray knowing that targeting fish schooling offshore would be a factor. That’s how Anthony Gagliardi caught some of the winning fish in 2014, and based on what he learned at Chatuge and from talking to Rutherford and Walters, he knew it would be important to locate several schools or spots that had fish-holding structure on them.
That included traditional brush piles or cane piles, as locals refer to the buckets filled with bamboo chutes that are carefully placed upright on the lake’s bottom to give fish something to hang around in otherwise wide-open water.
He spent three days at the lake before it went off-limits and did nothing but idle and stare at his electronics.
“I found some of those cane piles and saw the fish in them,” he said. “I graphed around the lower section of the lake and went up a little further. Most of the piles were on the lower end and I wanted to cut off the lake at a certain point and I did my best to graph as many as I could.
“I looked at anything with any irregularity that might hold fish. There were never any on a plain, straight bank.”
When he returned for the four days of official practice, his search resumed and he decided not to go above Bear Creek, meaning the Saluda River wouldn’t factor into his plans.
“I tried to pick a section of the lake where I could efficiently fish it and move around,” he said. “It literally took me seven days and on the last day of regular practice, I graphed some more and fished a little.”
And that’s when he dialed in the pencil popper bait to essentially call those fish up to the surface if they weren’t already feeding.
“When I started graphing and saw those fish in the piles, I thought, ‘If I can see them, there’s a way to catch ‘em,’” he said.
> Day 1: 5, 21-05
> Day 2: 5, 15-14
> Day 3: 5, 22-01
> Total = 15, 59-04
Atkins boated 15 pounds pretty swiftly on Friday under prolonged cloudy skies, which he thought was going to put him in good shape. He figured 17 to 18 pounds would be leading and he had most of the day remaining to get there.
“I pulled up on a spot that I don’t think anyone else was fishing – it was a little random area with a fresh pile on it – and I caught a 4 1/2 to give me 18,” he said. “I ran to another off-the-wall place that had potential to have big ones and caught a 5 there. That’s when I thought I could win.”
Atkins battles one of his biggest fish back to the boat on Sunday.
His 21-05 day-1 stringer put him in the lead, four ounces ahead of Gagliardi, and it also confirmed that the best fish in the lake were where he thought they’d be – around the cane piles – and the most effective presentation was a gaudy, slim pencil-style topwater.
Saturday was a tougher day on everyone as the clouds dissipated much earlier in the day. Nobody cracked 20 pounds and less than half the field caught a limit, but Atkins stayed in the race with 15-14, despite relinquishing the lead to roommate Brandon Cobb.
It was much sunnier and that changed how the fish set up around the cane. It took Atkins a little while to understand how the positioning of the fish had changed and that’s where Cobb was able to get a leg up as the two were rotating through the same areas.
“When the sun came out, I scrambled,” he said. “Brandon was ready for that and I wasn’t. He got an hour of fishing on me there. If we had had two days of sun and two days of clouds (in practice), I’d have been more prepared.”
Still, he was less than two pounds behind Cobb, an easy deficit to overcome at Murray, where several 4- to 6-pounders were caught during the tournament. Atkins said Saturday night that he’d much rather be the leader entering the final day, but he made quick work of Cobb’s lead Sunday morning.
He thrived fishing a way some would call unpredictable, scary and exciting all at once.
“I like it,” he said. “I’m a big offshore fisherman. I love to fish offshore and those fish relate to that cover, whether they’re in it or just around it. You know where they’re going to be. The unpredictable part is if you can only catch them when they’re schooling is when they’re going to come up. You know that they’re going to come up in a general area, though.
“People who were catching just schooling fish, I think there is brush holding those fish there whether they know it or not. All of the fish I saw schooling were next to cane piles I have marked.”
While it took a considerable amount of gumption to commit to an offshore topwater pattern in a championship event, the technique also required plenty of patience and precision.
When the fish would show themselves, making long and accurate casts – “landing it in in the bowl,” as some call it, referring to the bait landing in the ripple left by the fish – was paramount to eliciting a strike.
“On day 2, when it was sunny in the morning, the fish were not in the brush,” Atkins said. “They were out around the brush and for the first hour I was behind the 8-ball. It took me a little while to get it figured out.
Here's what a cane pile looked like on Atkins' Humminbird Mega Imaging Side Imaging.
“On Sunday, I was more prepared for it. Every time I’d pull up to a place, instead of immediately trying to throw out there toward the pile, they’d school when you first got there – maybe I got the bait riled up. I’d wait for second to see if they’d school. That paid off big for me. It took me a while to hook up with one of them, but the first six or seven that came up I was right on them and got the bites. Patience was key when it was sunny.”
Winning Pattern Notes
> Atkins said the cane piles he was targeting were sitting in 18 to 22 feet of water and topped out in 7 to 10. The fish would suspend along the cane and the big topwater bait would cause enough of a disturbance on the surface to call them up to investigate.
> He also had different theories on how the fish positioned when it was cloudy versus sunny.
“I think when it’s cloudy those fish get in the brush because the bait I think don’t start roaming,” he said. “They get down and I think the bass get more in the cover to ambush them.
“When it’s sunny and the herring get up on top, the bass roam out around that cover because they’re under the herring and they don’t need to ambush them. They can run them up to the surface.”
He said the cloudy scenario was better because the fish were more predictable.
“When it’s sunny, they’re out and around and on day 2 I wasn’t prepared for that in the morning,” he noted. “I wasted about an hour trying to figure that out. Once I got it figured out, I could catch some fish.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Towpater gear: 7’5” medium-heavy unnamed composite fiberglass casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo SX and STX casting reels, 30-pound Berkley Trilene braided line, IMA Lures Little Stik 135 (chrome).
> He replaced the stock hooks on the Little Stik with No. 2 Owner Stinger ST-36 trebles, including a feathered rear treble, and also used Owner Hyper Wire split rings.
> Atkins had more confidence in using just braided line compared to monofilament or a combination of the two like others. “I would blow up a spool of mono trying to sling it and I’m not into the mono leader thing because I’m bad about blowing the braid up, which then breaks the leader,” he said.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Sticking with the big pencil popper. Something I learned this year is if they’re not out deep, they’re on the bank, and if they’re not on the bank they’re out deep. I could get bites on a buzzbait, but it was rare I caught quality. I caught two good ones, but it was random. I knew I could get those quality bites offshore.”
> Performance edge – “My Humminbirds. I could see how big they were and how many were in there. You could see the shadows off of it and the hard returns of the fish inside the shadows. I made a mental note of how many I’d see in some piles and continue to look for new ones. I made a pass over them before practice was over and rode by them with side-imaging.”
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