Well folks, we have a champion. Keeping up with the current trend, Alabama’s Justin Atkins, a former college fishing star turned hopeful pro, shocked the FLW world last week, bringing the week’s heaviest stringer to the stage on the final day to win the Forrest Wood Cup. His performance was a fitting end to what may be remembered as a perfect bass tournament, both in terms of competition and venue support.
I must admit, I was somewhat curious to see how the Cup would turn out in 2017. Recent industry trends have placed pressure on FLW as a leading pro circuit, and its response has been a slight shift in attention toward its other leagues. The BFL and Costa events have grabbed more press, and college fishing is huge everywhere, so it stands to reason that there may be a lull at the top of its tournament pyramid. However, if this years’ Cup is any indication, that ain’t the case.
In fact, the 2017 Forrest Wood Cup may have been the best-run championship event I have ever attended, and that comes with experience at major tournaments dating back to the early 1990’s. Now, I’ve seen bigger crowds and more attention at a few, but all seemed to come with a hiccup somewhere along the line. Not so last week.
Columbia, S.C. is the greatest town, ever, to host a premier bass tournament. Logistics are decent, with the lake relatively close, and the downtown area is one of the loveliest urban centers in America. The food is to die for, everything is walkable, and parking’s no problem. Add to that beautiful parks and walking trails right downtown, and locals so friendly they make you feel bad, and we have a recipe for success.
Included in the appeal, last week’s tournament itself left nothing to be desired. Day 1 started with a bang: Atkins and local ace Anthony Gagliardi setting the tone with stringers larger than anyone thought possible. Close behind were young guns Brandon Cobb and Travis Fox. Always eyeing the big prize, Larry Nixon, Scott Martin and Bryan Thrift hid in the shadows.
The fans learned little from the close-guarded leaders, but were delivered an unmistakable message from veteran Mark Rose after he weighed a meager stringer that didn't eclipse 2 pounds. “You have to keep things in perspective,” Rose stated. Giving a deeper message of discipline and faith, Rose put a smile on his face. The following day, he’d bring in a heavy bag, proving his point.
That same second day, Nixon would falter, and two youngsters would prove they were for real: Cobb and Atkins, 27-year old roommates on Tour, jumped out to 1st and 2nd with one day to fish. Fox stayed in the hunt, while Gagliardi and Thrift reloaded their guns for a final shootout.
The corresponding expo was well underway, and traffic was solid. A short blunder knocked the air conditioning out for a couple hours, elevating temps in the convention center to a level that required me to abandon ship and hit the adjacent barbecue stands, where I was again glad to be in South Carolina. I’ve said in the past that pulled pork and sweet tea are reason enough to live down here; add in a cool Southern-lifestyle band on stage and a massive air-conditioned chill tent, and I quickly regained a smile.
Following weigh-in, I was granted an in-depth interview with Cobb and Atkins, and gained a better feel for what was going through the heads of those young standouts our sport seems to be molding. Initially, I assumed youth was again at play, where inexperienced tournament anglers can do no wrong, leading them to unparalleled confidence built on nothing but innocence. However, as I quickly found out, these men were young only by number, their maturity and centered approach to professional fishing blueprinted long ago. A little inexperience poked through, however, when neither had a Sharpie for an autograph request.
As we’d find out, the final day of fishing was epic for Atkins, and left a little to be desired for his friend Cobb, who brought just four bass to the scales. Fox made a run with one of the event’s heaviest stringers, and Thrift left it all on the lake with over 18 pounds. But no one could stop what was meant to be.
If I could be critical to any one aspect of the week, it would have to be the relentless sponsor plugging by the fishermen on stage – especially on the first couple days of the tournament. Sorry,guys, no one wants to hear you thank a garbage bag company for their commitment to fishing. Take a lesson from a guy like Gagliardi, who talked of his sponsor AFTCO’s commitment to conservation and brought the message full circle. Or notice how Nixon didn’t laundry-list his supporters, but instead thanked Gary Yamamoto for saving his career.
When the scales settled, Atkins was crowned king. Indoor pyrotechnics gave a rock-concert feel, stout security kept us safe, and Chris Jones fittingly lost his voice. All was right again in bass fishing.
Microphone in hand, Atkins wasn’t terribly shaken. “It was meant to be,” he said in a strong voice. “This was the greatest day of bass fishing I’ve ever had in my life.”
I was surprised Atkins didn’t cry; I sure would have. But perhaps that’s the difference. Maybe that’s what separating these young champions from their competition; they know what they’re aiming at, they don’t flinch and they’re not surprised when they hit the target.
Evidently, there’s more to college than eating pizza and chasing girls.
If only I’d known.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)