At only 30 years of age, Justin Atkins of Florence, Ala., has competed successfully in every major bass tour with the exception of the sport’s pinnacle, the Bassmaster Elite Series. That will change in 2021.
Atkins ended the 2020 Bassmaster Opens season at second place in the Falcon Rods Bassmaster Opens Angler of the Year overall standings. The top four in these standings received an invite to become an Elite angler.
His father, Phil, is a longtime bass addict who competes mainly in tournaments close to his home in Columbus, Miss. When Atkins was 6 years old, his father put a baitcasting rod in his hands.
“All my dad’s rods then had Abu Garcia 5500Cs on them,” Atkins said. “Learning how to cast that big barrel reel with small hands was a challenge.”
When he finished homework after school, Atkins would snatch one of his father’s rods and practice casting with it in the backyard. Once he became proficient at casting, he stepped up to pitching into coffee cans.
“By 8 years old I could handle that 5500C pretty well,” Atkins said.
He was handling it well enough that he began fishing team tournaments with his father. By the time Atkins was 12 they were fishing 15 to 20 tournaments a year. Many of their outings were on the Tombigbee River where they pounded the banks with spinnerbaits, crankbaits and pitching baits.
“It was basically junk fishing,” Atkins said. “But my dad would work on fishing any new technique he read about or saw on Bassmaster television. That taught me to be versatile and good at everything.”
When Atkins was 16, he and his father were determined to learn “how to fish off the bank.” Pickwick Lake became the institution at which they studied offshore bottom structure with 2D sonar. This was in 2006, before Humminbird introduced Side Imaging and all the incredible sonar advancements that have followed.
“What I learned at Pickwick has paid off a ton,” Atkins said. “I’ve worked hard to become proficient with electronics. Now, with Side Imaging, Down Imaging and 360 Imaging, it’s a lot more obvious what the fish are set up on.”
In 2008 Atkins enrolled at East Mississippi College. He also began fishing the Bassmaster Weekend Series and BFL events as a co-angler. His big break came in 2009 when he became the Co-Angler Weekend Series Champion at Lake Dardanelle. The $50,000 purse he earned for this accomplishment provided the funds he needed to fish from the front of the boat as a pro the following year.
Over the next two seasons, he competed in a number of trails including the EverStart series. During this phase he noted that collegiate tournament anglers were getting more exposure than he was. It was one of the realities that prompted him to enroll at Mississippi State and join the university’s fishing team.
The College B.A.S.S. series allowed Atkins to compete against anglers his own age who were at the same skill level. These events also expanded his fishing knowledge by taking him to waters ranging from Florida lakes to clear reservoirs to Tennessee River impoundments.
“I made a lot of contacts in college that have helped me become a professional angler,” Atkins said.
After college Atkins moved to Florence, Ala., where he continued to compete in a variety of tournament trails. He fished the FLW Tour in 2017 and 2018 and won the Forest Wood Cup in his rookie season. He switched to the Major League tour in 2019 and fished it again in 2020 as well as the Bassmaster Opens.
“I wanted to get back to a five-fish format and to qualify for the Elite Series,” Atkins said. “The Classic is every kid’s dream. That dream still burns in me.”
Atkins still resides in Florence, Ala., with his wife Tessa, a kindergarten teacher, and their 6-month-old son, Cooper.
Atkins’ 2020 sponsors included Abu Garcia, Berkley, Humminbird, Minn Kota, LureLock, Prym1Camo, Falcon Boats, Costa Del Mar and BuckNBass.