By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
People sometimes express a measure of disbelief when Justin Atkins tells them his sole focus since he was 7 years old was to become a professional bass angler. When that happens, he sometimes relates a story from a day during his childhood in Columbus, Miss.
Atkins, his parents and his sister were all in the living room. His dad was reading the latest issue of Bassmaster Magazine – the one in which B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott's impending retirement was announced – while the other three watched TV.
When Atkins' father briefed him on Scott's plans, the boy got up and went to his bedroom. A while later, when his mom went to check on him, she found him crying.
When pressed for an explanation for the tears, Atkins told her he'd wanted Scott to hand him the trophy when he won the Classic.
"Some people tell me I've got it made because I fish all the time, but I've been working to get here for 20 years," said the FLW Tour rookie from Florence, Ala. "Everything I've done was to get me one step closer to where I am today.
"I feel like this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I talked to my dad before the year started and he told me that (fishing the Tour) was a great opportunity and if it didn't work out, the amount of money I'd lose this year would be nothing compared to what I'll make for the rest of my life, so I might as well go out and give it my best shot."
No Hiccups Yet
Things have worked out extremely well for Atkins thus far. With more than half of the regular season in the books, he sits at No. 12 in the Angler of the Year (AOY) race and already has a top-10 showing on his ledger.
He's missed the money cut only once, and that was by a single ounce at Florida's Harris Chain.
"Maybe it's been a little better than expected, but that's what I expect of myself, if that makes any sense," he said. "I'd heard that if you cut two checks you were having a good rookie season, but I knew that I couldn't just cut two checks or else I wouldn't be able to do this again next year. I'm all in with this and I needed to perform.
"I really couldn't have asked for it to go any better, and I feel like it's the result of a lot of homework and spending a lot of time on the water. To me, what you put in is what you get out of bass fishing. I've lived like that for the past year and so far, so good."
His best showing to date was in his debut event at Lake Guntersville in early February, where he finished 9th. His other three placements ranged from 36th to 56th.
Consistency is his mantra, and he can look to the top of the points list to see the epitome of that concept. Runaway AOY leader Bryan Thrift has fared no worse than 12th in an 2017 event.
"Maybe I look at it different than some people," said Atkins, who has a degree in marketing from Mississippi State University. "I'm having a great rookie season, but at the same time it burns me that Thrift is 120 points better. That makes me want to spend even more time learning how to catch them even better.
"I don't take what I'm doing for granted and I'm loving every minute of it, and I've got some work to do to make up that ground."
Interesting Side Gig
Atkins makes a living on the water even when he's not fishing tournaments. He's a hydrographic surveyor for Humminbird, which entails collecting data for the LakeMaster GPS mapping chips.
"I've got some lakes within driving distance of my home that I'm working on, and when it's not tournament season they'll fly me somewhere for about 20 days," he said. "I started doing it last June and on the first trip we did seven or eight lakes in Maine, where the lakes are smaller. Then we did Cayuga and Seneca in New York and that took a whole month because those lakes are so big."
The data he gathers regarding depth, bottom composition, etc., is sent to engineers for conversion into the chips. He can't divulge much regarding how he goes about collecting it, as that's proprietary information.
"You need boat-driving ability, an understanding of sonar and good knowledge of how (marine) electronics work. It'd be complicated for somebody who doesn't use a lot of GPS technology, but for somebody who uses it a good bit, I wouldn't say it's real difficult."
He said the work has benefited him as a tournament angler.
"It's helped me understand sonar, beam width, return strength and all that kind of stuff. If I'm at a lake that doesn't have an up-to-date chip, I can take older info and add 2 and 2 together and get 4.
"Now I can read less, but get more out of it."