By Todd Ceisner
Justin Atkins arrived on the FLW Tour scene last year as a mostly unknown rookie. Outside of his co-angler win at the Bassmaster Weekend Series in 2009 and a stint competing for the Mississippi State University fishing team, not much was expected of the 20-something from Florence, Ala.
Appropriately, he competed out of a boat featuring a camouflage pattern wrap.
By the end of the season, though, obscurity became a thing of the past for Atkins. His unexpected victory at the Forrest Wood Cup last August changed everything and what followed has been a period of adjustment as he looked to capitalize on his achievement while at the same time maintain some of his old routines.
It’s been a challenge, Atkins admits, but one he welcomed. It’s one of those good problems to have, he says.
“The biggest thing to compare this year to last year is nobody knew me a year ago,” he said. “I wasn’t obligated to be anywhere and my only focus was fishing. I went all the time and my tackle was ready and the truck was packed. I was on top of it.”
Demands on his time have increased in the wake of his Cup win. Obligations to sponsors and appearances have reduced the amount of time he has to fun-fish and get his equipment dialed in while in between tournaments.
“All of a sudden, my whole schedule changes and I have a new normal,” he said. “The process for how I approach this thing has changed and I’ve had to re-learn it all.”
Each time he climbs the stairs to the weigh-in stage, the phrase “reigning Forrest Wood Cup champion” precedes his name on the PA system. He’s not complaining about it, but it’s taken time for him to modify his habits to account for all the changes.
“I love to hear that because it’s something I won’t hear every year,” he said. “At the same time, I just want to be thought of as being me – the kid who showed up in a camo boat and fished the Tour.”
Got Away From What Worked
Because winning the Cup comes with an automatic berth into the following season’s Cup, Atkins has had to battle the automatic-berth mentality all season. In the past, others who’ve gained early entry to big events like the Cup or Classic have said it’s allowed them to fish differently. Some are willing to take more risks.
For Atkins, that mentality creeped in early this season and he said it undermined the approach that carried him through his rookie campaign. In 2017, he had one finish lower than 56th. This year, he has three of them, including a 128th at Kentucky Lake two weeks ago.
“The first thing everybody says when you win the Cup is ‘You’ve already got it made for next year so you can fish to win,’” he said. “It’s a mystical fairy tale. It’s stupid. I fish to win every one, but I got caught up in it and made dumb decisions like locking to a new lake where I got two bites, but both were big.
“Last year, I had to get paid and I fished wherever I could catch consistent bags where I could feel like I could get paid. This year, I felt like I was out on a limb trying to reach an apple that was out of reach.”
And that’s been the toughest internal struggle he’s faced as a reigning Cup champ in his second year on Tour. The experience to foresee the pitfall on the horizon wasn’t there, but he knows now the go-for-broke mentality isn’t for him all the time.
“Maybe I was fishing a little unsafe, but I found myself in situations where I was saying, ‘Last year, I got paid a lot and did well in points and was consistent,’” he said. “I’ve come to learn that when you win, it’s not because you threw a huge bait for five bites. You win because you figure out how to catch fish in that lake during that timeframe and you land on the right school or spots.
“I let the whole I’ve-got-the-Cup-made-mindset-and-I-can-go-for-the-win thing get to me. You can’t just force a win to happen. Wins come when you’re dialed in and those bites just come. It took me a little bit to learn and I found out that getting $10,000 checks is more fun than doing the up-and-down thing.”
Still Faced Obstacles
Being the reigning Cup champion doesn’t mean all of life’s other worries and struggles fall by the wayside. Atkins learned that at Lake Lanier this spring.
On his way to Georgia, his truck broke down. It wasn’t a quick-fix issue. Nothing about a failed bearing in a fuel pump that sends metal shavings into the fuel injectors is. In the ultimate pinch, Atkins bought a new truck at 9 p.m. and arrived at Lanier around 3 a.m. on the morning of the start of practice.
Once on the water later that morning, he got a couple decent bites in some stained water throwing a red crankbait. He did the same thing the next day. He was confident that pattern could hold up, but he was convinced the tournament would be won in the cleaner water down the lake.
Atkins said the main challenges this season have been adjusting to more demands on his time and trying to maintain a consistent mindset on the water.
“I never figured out the clear-water deal, but I knew it would be won down there,” he said. “On day 1, I ran past all the dirty water and fished my butt off to catch 15 (pounds).”
Day 2 sunk him with only two fish for 7-14, which led to a 92nd-place finish.
“That sums up the demons I’ve been fighting,” he said. “Last year, I would’ve blasted off with one rod on my deck. I was fishing where it’d be won, but I had no clue how to do it rather than focusing on what I had confidence in. If I was fishing to win, I had to be in the clear water. I had the Cup made so I might as well fish to win. That entailed throwing a swimbait on the lower end or a shaky-head on points.
“I felt like the dirty-water deal was 12- to 14-pound deal or to get paid. It turned out to be better than that. In two hours of practice, I figured out something that multiple people made top 10s on while spending 30 hours doing something I figured it would be won on, but figured out nothing.”
Wants To Earn It
Despite his ups and downs this season, Atkins is in position to accomplish one of his goals – qualify for the Cup via Angler of the Year points, regardless of his automatic berth. Atkins doesn’t need to catch a bass at Lake St. Clair in the Tour season finale later this month, but it won’t sit well with him if he’s not able to qualify via the AOY standings.
The top 40 punch their ticket to Lake Ouachita, but with two anglers already Cup-qualified among the top 25 (Bryan Thrift and Sheldon Collings), the projected points cut off right now is 42nd.
Atkins stands 45th, just 10 points out of 42nd.
“That’s key to me,” he said. “It’s comforting to know I have it made, but for peace of mind, I want to make it on points. If I had to make it on points, I probably would’ve done some things differently. I’m going to St. Clair with the mindset to catch whatever it takes to get in the top 40. It doesn’t matter if I win the Cup every year, I want to qualify on points.”
He feels he’s capable of achieving the consistency that’s needed in order to be in the Cup mix each season. He finished 22nd as a rookie.
“I think my biggest deal is I’ve learned consistency pays in this deal,” he added. “I want to be known as a consistent guy. I would love to be a Thrift, but I’d be happy to be a Wesley Strader or Scott Canterbury, guys who finish top 25 in points, are in the Cup and cash five out of seven checks. That’s where I strive to be. I don’t want to get in a rut where I get into bad habits. It’s about finding my groove and my place.”