When is a new entrant to the Elite Series not considered a rookie? When he’s already passed the B.A.S.S. career earnings threshold by pocketing over $500,000 as a pro angler, that’s when. “I joined the FLW tour in 2017 and won the Forrest Wood Cup in my rookie year,” Atkins explains with nary a hint of braggadocio. “I stayed with FLW through 2018, won the Bassmaster Central Open at Logan Martin (Ala.) that same year, then joined another tour in 2019.” By the way, Atkins didn‘t bother to mention that he caught that tour’s record largemouth — 10-8 — at Lake Fork in 2020. “But my lifelong dream has been to fish the Bassmaster Classic,” he continues, “so I got serious about qualifying for the Elite Series in 2020 and signed up for all the Opens that year. Then COVID-19 hit, pushing the Opens back to later that year. [In 2020] I ended up finishing second in the Opens’ overall Angler of the Year race (Note: He missed copping first place by one point). I finally made the Elites in 2021 and finished second at the St. Lawrence River [in N.Y.] in July. I’ve finally found a home in the Elite Series; it’s by far the sport’s most prestigious and fan-friendly tournament circuit.” So, how would one of pro bass fishing’s hottest sticks tackle an obscure “mystery” lake on a blustery December day? Stay tuned to find out!
◗ 6:45 a.m. It’s 34 degrees and cloudy when Atkins and I arrive at Lake J’s vacant boat launch. Atkins arranges an arsenal of Abu Garcia rods and reels on his rig’s front deck. “I’m really pumped about doing this article!” Atkins says. “I know that a few pros have zeroed out on their ‘Day On The Lake,’ so the pressure is on!”
SEVEN HOURS LEFT
◗ 7:06 a.m. We launch the Falcon. Atkins checks the water: It’s 48 degrees and fairly clear. “I’ll hit the dam first, then I’ll look for bass suspended around baitfish schools and sunken brushpiles off points and channels. I’ve got jerkbaits, small crankbaits, jigs and spinnerbaits rigged up; these are my go-to early winter lures.”
◗ 7:15 a.m. Atkins makes his first cast of the day to a seawall near Lake J’s dam with a bone white/yellow belly Berkley Stunna 112+1 jerkbait and catches a 10-inch largemouth. “Looks like I’m off to a good start! [Elite pro] Hank Cherry helped design this jerkbait; Berkley calls this color hankie pankie.”
◗ 7:19 a.m. Atkins switches to a generic green pumpkin 1/2-ounce ball-head jig with a matching Berkley twin-tail grub trailer on the seawall.
◗ 7:26 a.m. Atkins moves to Lake J’s dam and tries the jerkbait.
◗ 7:35 a.m. Atkins jerks the Stunna around an overflow structure.
◗ 7:39 a.m. Atkins switches to a red craw Berkley Frittside No. 5 flat-sided crankbait and grinds it around dam riprap.
◗ 7:45 a.m. Atkins moves to a rock bank adjacent to the dam and tries the jerkbait and crankbait.
◗ 7:49 a.m. Atkins hops a generic green pumpkin 3/8-ounce finesse jig with a matching Berkley PowerBait Meaty Chunk trailer around the rocks. “Light, compact jigs are way less likely to hang up in chunk rock than heavy jigs.”
◗ 7:55 a.m. Atkins enters a cove and skips the finesse jig under a dock, backlashing his reel in the process. He clears his reel’s line tangle, pitches the jig to open water to clear a remaining loop, and a bass hits the lure as it sinks! His first keeper of the day weighs
1 pound even. “Well, that was sheer luck! I was just trying to cast that loop out when it bit.”
◗ 8:01 a.m. Atkins is jerking the Stunna in open water near where his pounder hit. “I’m seeing a few fish suspended around some shad on my ActiveTarget [forward-shooting] sonar unit, but nothing big.”
SIX HOURS LEFT
◗ 8:06 a.m. Atkins switches to a white and chartreuse 3/8-ounce Zorro Baits Bango Blade spinnerbait around docks. “This is an awesome cold-water spinnerbait; it has compact [rounded] Colorado and [teardrop-shaped] Indiana blades that put out serious vibrations during a slow retrieve.”
◗ 8:15 a.m. Atkins shakes the finesse jig through a sunken brushpile.
◗ 8:26 a.m. After casting the crankbait and spinnerbait around several docks, Atkins moves across the cove to another brushpile and catches a big crappie on the jerkbait. “He slammed that jerkbait like a smallmouth! Brushpiles are major crappie attractors, but they can also hold plenty of bass.”
◗ 8:33 a.m. Atkins moves to the mouth of the cove and casts the jerkbait to open water. “I’m seeing a few suspended fish on my ActiveTarget unit, but they aren’t relating to anything specific like a point or baitfish school. During winter there are often ‘bite windows’ occurring in early morning and late morning when these lethargic suspending fish move shallower to feed.”
◗ 8:42 a.m. Atkins locates some fish suspending around a 12-foot brushpile. He tries the jerkbait and generic 1/2-ounce metal blade bait around the cover but hauls water.
◗ 8:46 a.m. The skies are clearing as Atkins moves across the lake to a marina. He casts the ball-head jig to an empty boat slip.
◗ 8:49 a.m. He pitches a 6-inch green pumpkin Berkley Bottom Hopper finesse worm on a 3/16-ounce shaky head around marina slips. “There’s a ton of sunken brush around these slips. I’m seeing a few fish, but I bet they’re crappie.”
◗ 8:58 a.m. Atkins motors a quarter-mile uplake to a point and tries the jerkbait.
◗ 9:02 a.m. Atkins graphs a lone fish suspending off the point in open water. He casts the jerkbait to the bass; it follows the lure and loads on near the boat! He races off the front deck, works the fish closer and grabs his second keeper of the day, a beautiful largemouth weighing 5 pounds even. “That was so cool! I could actually see the fish rise up and hit my lure on live-action sonar. The transducer is mounted on my trolling motor’s shaft; when I’m fishing a point or channel swing, I’ll scan the area for suspending fish by moving the trolling motor left or right as I work around the structure. This bass is long but superskinny; she’d weigh 6 1/2 pounds in spring.”
FIVE HOURS LEFT
◗ 9:14 a.m. Atkins tries the jerkbait over submerged brush at the mouth of a nearby pocket.
◗ 9:18 a.m. He gets a solid strike on the Stunna, but the fish comes unbuttoned. “That felt like a good one. Look, there are scales stuck on two of the hooks! Winter bass will often just swipe at a jerkbait and not bite it.”
◗ 9:30 a.m. The wind is suddenly blowing 20 mph and it’s clouding up again as Atkins patiently jerkbaits another main-lake point. “We’re on the leading edge of a pretty volatile weather pattern, which will hopefully activate these fish. They’re predicting tornadoes in this area tomorrow.”
◗ 9:48 a.m. Atkins pauses to replace the stock hooks on his jerkbait with heavier trebles, “so I can cast it farther into the wind and get it down a little deeper.”
FOUR HOURS LEFT
◗ 10:06 a.m. Atkins is wind-drifting uplake while jerkbaiting primary and secondary points. What’s his take on the day so far? “It seems like the fish are in a transitional phase between fall and winter; the fish I’ve encountered are mainly suspending up high in the water column and aren’t real deep and bottom-oriented like they typically are in midwinter. They also seem to be more structure- and contour-oriented than they are cover-oriented — I bet casting to shallow cover would be a losing proposition today. I feel pretty confident about looking for fish suspending around points, so I’ll probably stick to that approach awhile and try to boat a couple more big ones.”
◗ 10:16 a.m. Lake J is whitecapping as Atkins casts the jerkbait to the end of a long laydown tree. “They’ll often suspend under these big laydowns. I’d like to see one about 9 pounds swim out and eat this jerkbait!” So would I!
◗ 10:25 a.m. Atkins moves around a shallow point to fish some calmer water. “I like that strong, gusty wind when throwing horizontal lures like jerkbaits, shallow crankbaits and spinnerbaits, but it makes jig and shaky head presentations more difficult.” He probes an offshore brushpile with the finesse jig.
◗ 10:32 a.m. Atkins is fancasting the jerkbait 100 yards offshore. “I’m not seeing much to throw at out here, but I’ll keep looking.”
◗ 10:37 a.m. Atkins makes a short run uplake to a shallow mud point and grinds the red craw color crankbait across the structure.
◗ 10:44 a.m. Atkins catches a small yellow bass on the crankbait, then carefully unhooks the spiny-finned panfish.
◗ 10:52 a.m. He zips to another shallow point and catches a short bass on the spinnerbait.
◗ 10:55 a.m. Atkins runs the spinnerbait around a shallow pocket with lily pads but zeroes here.
THREE HOURS LEFT
◗ 11:06 a.m. Atkins speed-trolls to a clay point and tries the spinnerbait.
◗ 11:14 a.m. He switches to a white 6-inch Megabass MagDraft swimbait on the point without success.
◗ 11:22 a.m. Atkins moves to a fast-dropping point with a makeshift hunting blind on shore surrounded by a flock of floating plastic mallards. He casts the jerkbait and crankbait around the point. “I hope whoever’s inside that duck blind doesn’t come out shooting!”
◗ 11:30 a.m. Atkins races a half-mile downlake to a steep clay point. His ball-head jig strikes out here.
◗ 11:44 a.m. Atkins moves downlake along Lake J’s eastern shore, casting the jerkbait as he goes. He bags his third keeper, 1-1, off a secondary point. “This fish hit right by the boat. The bait I’m seeing on my electronics is positioned higher in the water column than it was earlier.”
◗ 11:52 a.m. Atkins catches keeper No. 4, 1-2, off the same point on the jerkbait. “Ladies and gentlemen, the bite window has officially opened!”
◗ 11:56 a.m. Atkins casts the ball-head jig to a boathouse, gets a tap, swings and misses. “That friggin’ wind blew a 10-foot sag in my line before I felt the fish!”
TWO HOURS LEFT
◗ 12:10 p.m. Atkins cranks the Frittside around a concrete seawall. He catches his fifth keeper, 1 pound, off the wall. “At least I’ve got my limit. How many of these 1-pounders do I need to fish through before I catch another big one?”
◗ 12:17 p.m. The wind is gusting over 25 mph as Atkins pitches the ball-head jig to a moored pontoon boat.
◗ 12:21 p.m. He casts the jig to a boat ramp, detects a tap and swings but misses the fish. “He ate my trailer!”
◗ 12:32 p.m. Atkins has moved to a channel bank and is trying the shaky head worm.
◗ 12:37 p.m. He pinpoints submerged brush in 8 feet of water and bags his sixth keeper, 1-2, on the jerkbait. “There are several fish suspended around that cover, but they’re so small, I wasn’t sure what brand they were!”
◗ 12:50 p.m. Still working the brushpile with the jerkbait and shaky head. No more takers here, however.
ONE HOUR LEFT
◗ 1:06 p.m. Atkins has run back to the brushpile where he lost a good fish earlier on the jerkbait. He again probes the sunken target with the Stunna.
◗ 1:11 p.m. He yo-yos the blade bait around the shrubbery, but apparently nobody’s home.
◗ 1:17 p.m. Atkins moves closer to shore and bags his seventh keeper, 1-2, near a laydown on the jerkbait. “These fish all came out of the same mold!”
◗ 1:19 p.m. He continues down the bank, cranking the Frittside.
◗ 1:21 p.m. Atkins bags his eighth keeper, 1 pound, on the Frittside. It’s no help to his weight total.
◗ 1:27 p.m. Atkins tallies another 1-pound keeper (No. 9) on the jerkbait.
◗ 1:36 p.m. Atkins catches a 1-2 (keeper No. 10) from an undercut bank on the jerkbait. “It’s like they’ve all been stamped out with a cookie cutter!”
◗ 1:45 p.m. Atkins races back to the residential cove he fished earlier and tries the jerkbait and finesse jig around docks.
◗ 1:52 p.m. Atkins’ time is running out. He moves back to the dam and catches four nonkeepers in short order on the crankbait.
◗ 2:06 p.m. Time’s up! Atkins finishes his day on Lake J with 10 keeper bass; his five biggest fish weigh 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
THE DAY IN PERSPECTIVE
“The bite was pretty active today, but I was only able to score one big fish,” Atkins told Bassmaster. “Some of the fish were relating to brushpiles, and nothing I caught was deeper than 8 feet. I would never have caught that 5-pounder without seeing it on my forward-shooting sonar; that technology is a real game changer. If I were to fish this lake tomorrow, I’d throw a big swimbait or 3/4-ounce spinnerbait and probe the slightly deeper 10- to 12-foot zone where there might be some bigger fish holding.”
WHERE AND WHEN JUSTIN ATKINS CAUGHT HIS FIVE BIGGEST BASS
5 pounds; bone white/yellow Berkley Stunna 112+1 jerkbait; open water off point; 9:02 a.m.
1 pound, 2 ounces; same lure as No. 1; channel bank; 11:52 a.m.
1 pound, 2 ounces; same lure as No. 1; submerged brushpile; 12:37 p.m.
1 pound, 2 ounces; same lure as No. 1; shoreline laydown; 1:17 p.m.
1 pound, 2 ounces; same lure as No. 1; undercut bank; 1:36 p.m.
TOTAL: 9 POUNDS, 8 OUNCES