August 21, 2017 10:43:17 AM
The last week has been a whirlwind for Justin Atkins.
Between being surprised at home by friends and doing a handful of radio and newspaper interviews, Atkins finally is getting time to savor the reality that he is a champion.
Last Sunday, the former East Mississippi Community College and Mississippi State fishing team member landed a bag of 22 pounds, 1 ounce to win the Fishing League Worldwide (FLW) Forrest Wood Cup at Lake Murray in Columbia, South Carolina.
The New Hope High School graduate, who is the son of Philip and Lynn Atkins, of New Hope, started the final day in second place, but he weighed in the largest bag of the event to earn the first win of his career and a prize of $300,000.
Atkins had a 15-fish total of 59 pounds, 4 ounces for the three days. He weighed in 21-5 the first day and 15-14 the second day. The finish helped him eclipse a third-place finish at the T-H Marine Bass Fishing League (BFL) All-American and a second-place finish in the FLW Tour Rookie of the Year race.
"It has been crazy and it has been a lot of fun," Atkins said last week. "It has been unbelievable the kind of support I have had. It's a win for my family and it's a win for my friends, too. ... I have had a lot of support from a lot of people, and this victory is for them."
This is Atkins' first year as a professional. He has been fishing in bass tournaments since he was 8 years old and traveling and fishing since he was 16. Many of the events were on the on Columbus pool of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
Atkins started fishing in what was then called the Stren Series. It now is called the Costa Series. While at EMCC, Atkins earned a victory in a Bassmaster Weekend Series that paid out $50,000. He said that win helped fund him through college and up until last week, when he said the six-figure paycheck will provide stability for his family and will open new opportunities in fishing.
"It's a huge relief," Atkins said. "I'm always careful not to put myself in a financial burden if I don't perform well. I definitely don't have to worry about that anymore."
Atkins, who now lives in Florence, Alabama, said he married his wife, Tessa, in June and they just bought a house in July. He said credits his father for setting him on the right course early in his life. Justin said his father never pressured him to fish, or kept him out on the lake too long. He laughed in recalling it often would take his dad twice as long to set up his rig and his boat than he wound up staying on the lake.
Phil Atkins said his father, Harold, who was from Columbus, didn't care about fishing. He said his grandfather, Oakley, who lived in Liberty in Pickens County, Alabama, used to take him fishing. He said Oakley "mostly rode with me in the boat," but he credits him for helping him get interested in fishing.
Phil Atkins said he tried to learn from some of his friends who loved to fish and took their children with them. He said some of his friends would spend seven, eight, or nine hours on the lake, which "basically burnt the child out." As a result, he said many of his friends' kids didn't want to go back and fish. With Justin, Phil said he was more than willing to set everything up and then pack it up and unpack it when they returned home.
"If I could catch a fish pretty quick, he would fish a little bit," Phil said. "We could usually stay about an hour if I would catch a fish. He would get in the live well and play with it. He would sit and play with it and give it another 30 minutes. If I didn't catch a fish in the first 15-20 minutes, he started to get bored because he wasn't doing much and he would tell me I am ready to go."
Phil said he could tell Justin enjoyed fishing, but it wasn't until he was 11 or 12 when he bought him a bait-casting reel that he knew his son loved it. When it came time to walk in his graduation at New Hope High, Phil wasn't surprised Justin said he wanted to fish in a tournament instead of go to his graduation.
"I understood where he was and hat he was doing," Phil said. "I knew what his dream was and his goal was and he felt he would rather go fish than walk through that graduation."
Today, Justin credits the years of experience for helping him win the Forrest Wood Cup. He said he had more than 21 pounds in his live well by 10:30 a.m. the first day, which was cloudy like much of the time he spent pre-fishing the area.
"It seemed like every place I stopped I caught a big one," Justin said.
The second day, though, he said it was sunnier, so he needed to figure out how to catch the fish. On the first day, Justin said the fish were biting over the cane pile and he had to work his bait over the top of the brush. On day two, he said he threw his bait over the cane piles and the fish were schooling around it. He said it took him about an hour to figure out that the fish were roaming about 30 yards away from the cane piles. By the time he adjusted, he said his "window" had closed and he wasn't able to equal his initial total.
Justin said he used the second day as a learning experience and was prepared for the final day. He said he went out assuming the fish would do the same thing they did the previous day, which proved to be the case. Again, it didn't take him long to get what turned out to be the biggest haul of the event.
"It was about 9:30 a.m. and I had filled my limit and I had over 20 pounds," Justin said. "When I caught the last big one, I thought I probably had just won the Cup. I felt like that was it."
Justin said he hadn't gotten a bite after 11 a.m. but he went back and continued to fish. He said he caught a four-pounder to put up him over 22 pounds, which helped solidify the title.
"There are days in pro sports, or in sports in general, when athletes can't do anything wrong," Justin said. "It is just our day. I was having that day. I just knew it at that point. I had enough to win at 9:30 and when I caught the last big one it was like the final nail in the coffin."
Looking back, Justin said a tournament in May 200 in which he nearly earned a pay check proved to be motivation that stoked his enthusiasm and kept him on the right path to realize a life-changing pay day.
"I guess it gave me confidence to do it, and keep striving to do it," Justin said.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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