Talk about acceleration. Justin Atkins entered his rookie season as an FLW Tour pro in 2017 with plenty of confidence, but it’s a safe bet that winning the Forrest Wood Cup in the same year was a pleasant surprise. Most certainly, it was one that rewrote the script for his life.
“For some of the guys who won it in previous years, they were pretty established, so my situation was a little different because no one knew who I was,” the pro from Florence, Ala., says. “I was just a kid who showed up and fished the Tour, and that’s all I focused on. I didn’t have any sponsor obligations.
“Winning the Cup was a tremendous blessing, but it made me have to mature in my fishing career really quickly. A lot of people have learned how to take care of sponsor obligations and how to keep a schedule gradually, but I went from zero to 100 in a matter of moments. I had to learn how to balance all of this and grow up in my fishing career overnight.”
In fairness, Atkins was hardly green when he stepped up to the Tour. He brought with him a respectable resume of T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League and Costa FLW Series competition that included a handful of top 10s dating back to 2008.
Nevertheless, he likens his post-Cup experience to a college graduate who steps directly into a CEO role – a lot to learn, and not a lot of time in which to learn it.
No doubt, after Atkins won the Cup, many people expressed well wishes and offered him advice, but relevant insight comes only through similar experience. That’s why Atkins sought short-term and long-term career advice from fellow Alabama pro Jordan Lee, who had won the first of his two Bassmaster Classic titles about five months earlier, and fellow Tour pro Brad Knight, who won the 2015 Cup on Lake Ouachita.
“Jordan is one of my best friends, so he was somebody I really reached out to on how I should approach things, what to hope for and what to expect on things to come,” Atkins says. “He was pretty spot-on with things he wished he’d done differently, which gave me good insight on how to capitalize on the moment as a whole.
“The first thing Brad told me was, ‘You better go get a planner because your life’s about to get crazy.’ Literally, as soon as I left Columbia, I went and got one because the phone calls were coming in from people wanting to do radio interviews and that sort of thing. For the first two or three months, I was practicing for tournaments and having to sit down and check my calendar to see when my next interview was coming up.”
Knight impressed upon Atkins the importance of remaining on top of media commitments and sponsor conversations. Everyone’s allowed a slip-up now and then – unless you’re the reigning champ. Then, there’s no room for error.
“Taking care of all of these obligations becomes your No. 1 priority. Fishing isn’t No. 1 anymore,” Atkins says. “Promoting yourself and being a business-minded professional becomes most important. You have to take care of all of these people wanting to give you support and exposure.”
Atkins gives props to his wife, Tessa, who came to the 2017 Cup well accustomed to the tournament lifestyle. Obviously, much has changed, but her steady support and encouragement have helped her husband manage the growth.
“Once I started fishing the Tour, she was prepared for what she was getting into,” Justin says. “Then, when I won the Cup, it was an easy transition. She’s been around this sport so long, and she knows how much I’ve wanted it.”
While the intense flood of demands has proven challenging since winning the Cup, Atkins notes that the economic factor of a huge payday and the ensuing surge in sponsorship opportunities has balanced the burden with a solid upside that benefits the mind, as well as the wallet.
“It did make me a little more comfortable; not that I worked any less hard at it. It just helps you understand that you can do it,” Atkins says. “When you first get started in this deal, there are a lot of good fishermen that don’t make it, and it’s not because they lack the ability to catch ’em. So, in the back of my mind, I always wondered, ‘Are you going to be able to capitalize on this opportunity? Are you going to make it work?’
“It’s not that I ever doubted it, but there are a lot of guys who’ve taken my money at the house and then tried to fish the Tour and didn’t make it. At this point, I’m not comfortable, but winning the Cup solidified that I can do it. It gives me a place in the sport that I feel like I can ride for a couple of years and focus on developing my game as a whole.”
Atkins knows the work ethic must continue, as complacency paves the path to the valley of one-hit-wonders. He’s in this for the long haul, so he’s leveraging his position to advance his career without the nagging pressure of worrying about the check cut.
“I’m still a rookie, and I still make rookie mistakes every day, but I got them all right that week,” he says. “Winning the Cup was not a statement that I’m the best and that I’ve got it all figured out. That’s the last thing on my mind.
“But winning gives me a little bit of a cushion to learn and grow in the sport without having to be stressed out about making house payments, getting sponsors and things like that. It lightened that load enough to give me a longer window for that learning curve.”
Atkins’ last victory came a month and a half after his Cup win when he won the BFL event on Ross Barnett Reservoir. Suffice it to say, he’s hungry for another trophy.
Entering this year’s Cup at Lake Ouachita, he’s counting on the confidence and clarity of last year’s experience to help him deal with what will likely be a very different scenario than the 2017 slugfest he enjoyed over Lake Murray’s cane piles.
“My pattern last year was based on getting a lot of bites. I just had to get a good lineup, throw out there over the cane piles and then get him in the boat,” he says. “Having the pressure of a cameraman in my boat and having a lot of follow boats was easy because I was getting a lot of bites and I was really dialed in. Whereas, on Ouachita, it doesn’t matter how dialed you are, you’re going to get five to six bites a day.
“That place can be really tough, and the guy that wins could have four one day. It will be a lot easier for me now to deal with all that pressure and deal with the media boats if I were to find myself in the situation to win again. Lake Murray was a great learning experience for me. So for a tough event, I’ve kind of trained myself on how to operate under those conditions and focus more on the fishing aspect.”
Then again, if he does find himself in contention on the final day, Atkins will have to fight the pressure of a possible historic event. No one has ever won the Cup twice. To do it would be significant, but to do it in consecutive years would pair Atkins with rare company. Only three people have ever won consecutive major championships: Rick Clunn, Kevin VanDam and Atkins’ buddy and confidant Jordan Lee. Atkins followed Lee’s first Classic victory with a Cup win. To do it again would extend an improbable start to an already impressive career.