Stephenson bests Strike King co-angler field at Smith Lake - Major League Fishing

Stephenson bests Strike King co-angler field at Smith Lake

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Justin Stephenson was the top Strike King co-angler at Smith Lake with a three-day total of 15 bass weighing 34-2. Photo by Rob Matsuura. Angler: Justin Stephenson.
April 6, 2024 • Justin Onslow • Toyota Series

CULLMAN, Ala. – With a 242-boat field and a lake stuffed with spotted and largemouth bass of a similar size, the second event of the Toyota Series Presented by Phoenix Boats Central Division season was expected to be decided by ounces. On the boater side, that didn’t prove to be the case, but it certainly was in the back-deck battle that saw Justin Stephenson win by just 2 ounces.

The middle school principal, who hails from Jasper, Alabama, didn’t expect to add a fourth win (his first on the Toyota Series circuit) to his MLF Strike King co-angler résumé, especially after coming to the scales with just 10 pounds, 3 ounces on the final day. But a terrific second day made all the difference.

“Yesterday I had the time of my life,” he said. “I caught them all day long. Today was a struggle; I got five keeper bites and caught all of them.”

Fishing behind Blake Knies (eighth on the boater side), Stephenson was resigned to catching what he could while his boater ‘Scoped; but there was about an hour on Day 3 when the duo went to the bank – an hour that Stephenson was able to make hay.

“He was LiveScoping and targeting some largemouth,” he said. “He did a bunch of that and that wasn’t working, so we went to the bank. We hit one stretch of bank and I just happened to catch five quality keepers on that bank. He went back to ‘Scoping after that. Fortunately, I was able to fish that bank for an hour.”

Stephenson only had seven or eight bites in total on Saturday, all on a hand-poured shaky head tipped with either a Reaction Innovations Flirt Worm or a Zoom Trick Worm, which he rotated between throughout the event. 

Stephenson is no stranger to Smith Lake, having won Phoenix Bass Fishing League events there in 2018 and 2019. But stepping up to the Toyota Series level last year and this year, he’s feeling good about the progress he’s made in his career and excited for what the future could hold once he’s retired from his career as an educator.

“I would love to go to the front deck, but it’s one of those things where I’d like to see retirement happen first,” he explained. “It’s one of those things where it’d be a dream come true to make that happen, to be a part of Major League Fishing from the front of the boat. I have family that’s very important to me and I want to see retirement through in my education career and then possibly pursue it after that.”

He’ll have plenty more opportunities to hone his craft with his own boat thanks to the win that awarded him a brand-new Phoenix 518 with a 115-horsepower Mercury outboard, which he plans to use for fishing with his three children, wife Beth, parents and father-in-law.

“I’m just appreciative of Major League Fishing giving us this opportunity,” he said. “It really is a dream come true. No joke.” 

Top 10 Strike King co-anglers

1.  Justin Stephenson – 34 – 2 (15) – $36,000
2.  Pop Catalin – 34 – 0 (15) – $7,500
3.  Jeff Thompson – 33 – 5 (15) – $6,000
4.  Cody Abbott – 32 – 7 (15) – $4,500
5.  James Steve Burgess – 32 – 5 (13) – $4,150
6.  Larry Franks Jr. – 31 – 12 (14) – $3,500
7.  Chris Bensel – 31 – 1 (15) – $3,000
8.  Cooper Jett – 30 – 6 (14) – $2,250
9.  Johnny Suratt – 29 – 9 (15) – $1,700
10.  Oliver Siebert – 29 – 8 (15) – $1,500

Complete results