Justin McClelland moves up front

Justin McClelland fondly recalls doing school homework assignments from the backseat of his dad’s boat. Standing on the front deck was Mike McClelland. He was doing his own homework, most of the time practicing for a Bassmaster tournament.

The young McClelland spent summers and part of the school year on the road. The family traveled together from coast to coast and still does. Supportive teachers in their hometown of Bella Vista, Ark., allowed Justin to do the homework remotely while continuing his studies while away.

That was not so long ago. Justin grew up watching Mike practice, win tournaments and like many young boys, wanting to someday walk in his father’s footsteps.

This week he gets that chance. Father and son are competing from separate boats as part of a pact made years ago between them.

Justin, 26, is ready to take his own tournament career to the next level by fishing the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Opens. Later this summer he will also compete on the Northern Opens, too.

“It’s all part of a pact that I made with him,” said Mike. “I told Justin he could fish all the local and regional tournaments he could around home but taking it to the next level required another accomplishment.”

Justin resisted the idea at first before taking his father’s advice. That was studying for and graduating with a college degree. Last fall, he checked that achievement off the list with a marketing degree from the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The college is widely recognized as one of the best in the disciplines of business and marketing.

“I’m glad I did it,” he said. “I enjoyed marketing and business all through high school and it was just a good fit for me.”

Choosing such a major came with a bonus of which Justin took full advantage of experiencing.

“I got to see the practical side of business and marketing through dad’s dealings and marketing relationships with sponsors,” he added. “Just growing up around it all proved just how much of a marketing driven business that professional bass fishing really is now.”

From doing homework in the back of the boat to seeing firsthand the real, daily business dealings proved beneficial for the father and son.

“It bonded us inside and outside of fishing,” added Mike.

Justin held up his end of the deal while balancing out time in school and by granting his father’s wishes of competing in local and regional events. Thanks to mentoring by Mike’s brother, Shannon, and a long list of other skilled anglers, Justin experienced early and quick success.

He continues fishing in the Arkansas and Oklahoma region with a turning point coming last fall.

“The good Lord was just really good to me,” said Justin.

He won two major championships that included a fully rigged Ranger 519VX and another event with a $10,000 payday. Bonus money from the Stratos Boats Double Your Winnings program made fall a successful time, including the college diploma.

That made the decision of entering the Opens a financially secure move. Meanwhile, Justin continues working at Hook, Line and Sinker Outdoors, a small independent tackle retailer with stores in northwest Arkansas. Justin works on the retail side in sales, wholesale product ordering and even making custom jigs. Many of those end up in his dad’s tacklebox.

“What’s really been neat for me is watching him develop on his own, regionally, without my help,” said Mike, 48. “He’s just grown up around it and it’s been in his blood just like it was for me at his young age.”

“You know, even before I started fishing full time 20 years ago he rode around with me in practice and he was just about three or four years old,” continued Mike.

Over the years memories have formed that Mike looks back on when he was the same age as Justin.

“He definitely inherited my absolute love for fishing and the competition,” said Mike. “There are so many things I see in him now that I can trace with how I was fishing at his age.”

Most notably, maturing as an angler.

“He’s adopting his own style and that’s about when I was getting mine down too, so it’s really been rewarding seeing him develop while comparing where I was at his age.”

Like father, like son when it comes to laying that foundation. Justin plans to continue fishing, and in some cases, dominating, the tournaments that he fishes in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

“You can fish at least one or two weekends each month and be in contention for a new boat or a lot of money,” he said. “But I do want to broaden my reach and look forward in doing that with the Northern Opens.”

He will have plenty of chances to do that coming up. The season begins in New York at Oneida Lake, a natural fishery with abundant offshore largemouth and smallmouth fishing. The James River, a tidal fishery in Virginia, leads to the final event in late September on Lake Champlain, back in New York.

Along the way will be flashbacks and more memories to come.

“Now that we’ve started traveling, and I am competing, it will be different,” he said. “Every time we go somewhere I’ve been before I will remember those young times in the back of the boat.”

With old and new memories come the next goals.

“Absolutely I want to qualify for the Elite Series,” said Justin. “How great it would be to travel with dad all year instead of just the summer.”

Mike hopes those memories turn into even better memories in the front of the boat for his son. And so does Justin.