MLF analyst Marty Stone referred to Justin Atkins as a “sight-fishing master” during the Bass Pro Tour Stage Three on Lake Fork. That compliment may have some merit: Atkins holds the current MLF record for biggest bass with a 10-pound, 8-ounce monster he caught sight fishing.
The 30-year-old Berkley pro undoubtedly hears the praise thrown his way, although he doesn’t really like to pay it any mind.
“I don’t really like to toot my own horn,” Atkins said. “So, I just appreciate when people think I’m good at something like sight fishing. I’ve worked at it a lot over the years and there’s really three things in my life that I can attribute to that sight-fishing skill.”
When Atkins was 13 years old, he was fishing a benefit tournament in the March on the Tombigbee River in Mississippi. He and his dad caught a decent bag of fish—he can’t recall the exact weight—but the angler who eventually won had a 31-pound five-fish limit.
Atkins had never heard anything like that before. He heard the other anglers talking about sight fishing the beds for spawning bass, a code a young Atkins couldn’t wait to crack.
“That same day, after the weigh-in was over, me and my dad left and drove 30 minutes to the pool where the majority of the fish were caught that day,” Atkins recalls. “We fished for three hours just trying to learn how to catch one that was bedding before dark. Taking that beating in that tournament really lit my fire on wanting to learn how to sight fish.”
His fascination with sight fishing continued into his teenage years. Atkins’ dad would even get him out of school a day early so he could get a head start on some local lakes for spring break. Fast forward to four years later when he was 17, and Atkins won that same tournament on Tombigbee where he was handed a whooping.
“I learned from that local tournament that if you can sight fish there, you can do it anywhere,” Atkins said. “The water is dirty, the fish are hard to see and the fish get a lot of pressure. If you can win that tournament, you’ve figured out how to sight fish pretty well.”
Later that same year was when Atkins started traveling to different FLW Phoenix Bass Fishing League tournaments around the southeast as a co-angler. That’s when he met Gene Brown, a three-time Phoenix Bass Fishing League winner from West Point, Mississippi who Atkins credits with the majority of his sight fishing knowledge.
“Gene Brown is the best sight fisherman that I know. Hands down. Period,” Atkins stated. “He could see them better than anyone, and he knows how to read them better than anyone. Traveling with him for a couple of years taught me the value of different-lensed glasses, how to see them, and what to look for.”
Breaking news: it’s not easy to sight fish when you can’t really see the fish. Dirty water and weather can make that especially difficult in the spring. That’s why one of the biggest lessons Atkins took from Brown is to not look for the whole fish, but instead just a small portion of it.
“A lot of people want to look for a fish and just see that fish swimming around out there,” Atkins said. “If the water isn’t crystal clear then that’s hard to do. Gene taught me to look for just the tip of their tail. It’s usually a different color than the rest of their body, and once you find that, the fish will reveal itself. Gene is a huge part of the reason that I can sight fish with the success I do today.”
The Tombigbee River and Ross R. Barnett Reservoir are the two main bodies of water that Atkins found himself fishing during much of his youth. He says that both are great places to sight fish, but the water is extremely dirty. That murkiness helped turn Atkins from a novice sight-fisherman to an experienced veteran in a hurry.
“Those two bodies of water have helped me so much over the years because you have to be so attentive to be able to see things in that murky water,” Atkins said. “I find myself always looking for the tip of the tail or the black line on a bass’ back because that’s what I had to look for in Mississippi. If you were going to win a tournament on those bodies of water in the spring, you had to be sight fishing. It wasn’t easy, but it got me here today.”