Justin Atkins has never been happier to admit he was wrong than he was on the final day of the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open at Pell City Lakeside Park. The bass fishing pro from Florence, Ala., caught heavier bass than he thought he could and surged from eighth place to win the event with a three-day total of 38 pounds, 3 ounces.
Atkins started the final round 2 pounds, 14 ounces off the lead. The lingering woes of a frustrating practice had him less than confident in pulling off the win. Nevertheless, weighing 13-11 — the day’s heaviest catch — sealed the victory.
“I really thought I was going to catch 7 pounds a day and go on to the house,” Atkins said. “I made a joke with one of my buddies that I’m going to have to eat my words if I turn around and win this tournament. I was complaining to him about how terrible my practice was, so I guess I’ll have to apologize to him.”
Atkins worked the same pattern he fished the latter half of Day 1 and all of Day 2. He started the first day by targeting big fish in shallow water around the Interstate 20 bridge crossing the lake and caught a key 3-pounder that anchored his 11-11 bag.
After checking several of the offshore schools he had located, Atkins realized he wasn’t upgrading his weight, so he ran upriver to an area within about 12 miles of the Neely Henry Dam and spotted a row of rocks with fish set up perfectly for the current situation.
A furious rally completed his limit and prompted Atkins to spend that evening studying his Lakemaster mapping chip to identify similar areas. He ended up locating several between 8 and 15 miles from the dam, in depths of 10 to 15 feet.
“I noticed how much rock was out in the river, so the second day, once the water came on, I went up there and started idling,” he said. “I wouldn’t even fish until I saw them. I found a spot that ended up being really key. I caught all of my fish there today and most of them yesterday.
“I started every morning on those shallow schools and would catch between 10 and 12 pounds and then went up there to make some key culls. It was just a one-two combination that worked out pretty good.”
Atkins caught his morning fish on a 1/4-ounce shaky head with a green pumpkin Berkley Bottom Hopper worm. On the river rocks, he used the shaky head in slower current and then switched to a Berkley PowerBait Rib Shad on a 1/2-ounce swimbait head in swifter water.
Mark Rose, of Wynne, Ark., finished second with 37-5. After posting weights of 13-10 and 13-12, Rose entered the final round in first place, but slipped one spot after adding 9-15.
“I did exactly what I’d been doing every day and had the exact same bag, minus the two 3 1/2-pounders I caught both of the previous two days,” Rose said. “I just never got those big bites today. I probably didn’t adjust as well as I should have today, but I scratched and clawed and was able to catch (nearly) 10 pounds.”
Rose caught his Day 3 bass by dragging a Strike King football jig with a Strike King Rage Tail Menace trailer and a flipping a Texas-rigged Strike King Rage Bug into grass.
Joshua Stracner, of Vandiver, Ala., took third with 37-2. After placing 35th on day one with 10-5, he improved to second on Day 2 after catching 14-14 — the second day’s heaviest bag and the second heaviest of the tournament. He caught 11-15 in the final round.
“I only had three fish at 11 o’clock — two little keepers and a 2-pounder,” Stracner said. “About lunchtime, they turned on, and I started catching some keepers. With about 30 minutes left to fish, I went to a boat dock close to take off and caught my biggest one, a 3 1/2-pounder. Everything I weighed in this week came on a 1/2-ounce Dirty Jigs Scott Canterbury flipping jig with a Zoom Super Chunk Jr.”
In the co-angler division, William Mcnutt II of Bossier City, La., relied solely on a shaky head to win with a three-day total of 19-3. He used a green pumpkin Zoom Finesse Worm the first two days, but when he faced dirtier water on Day 3, Mcnutt switched to a junebug Zoom Trick Worm.
“Those last two fish came in the last hour,” Mcnutt said. “I was really down, but my line started swimming and I set the hook and about had a heart attack. Then three casts later, I caught that last one.”
The Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the tournament was awarded to Joshua Stracner of Vandiver, Ala., for a 5-12 largemouth on the pro side worth $750. In the co-angler division, John Roberson of Shreveport, La., won the Phoenix Boats Big Bass worth $250 with a 4-8 largemouth.
Mark Rose of Wynne, Ark., won the Power-Pole Captain’s Cash Award of $500 for being the highest-placing angler who is registered and eligible and uses a client-approved product on his boat.
At approximately 11:30 a.m. at the beginning of the tournament on Thursday, Sept. 7, pro Nathan Martin and co-angler Michael Johns were fishing below the Neely Henry Dam when a johnboat containing two recreational fishermen capsized in the tailrace. By the time Martin and Johns reached the men, they found one had climbed onto the dam structure and the other was clinging to the capsized boat, which was bobbing in the turbulent water.
“The boat was going up and down and I just knew he was going to go under,” Martin said. “At one point, all I could see was his head. I was really scared, but I got my throw cushion and my rope and threw it up against the dam. Luckily on the third throw, the current took it to him. He grabbed a hold of it, and I backed out and pulled him out (of the turbulence).”
“Michael was up on the front and I was on the wheel and as soon as Michael grabbed the man, he just went limp; he was so tired from holding on. I backed away and got up there and helped Michael pull him in.”
Johns said as soon as they got the man in the boat he was overcome with emotion and hugged each of his rescuers multiple times.
“I think he thanked us about a thousand times,” Martin recalls. “It was really scary because there really wasn’t anything the guy up on the dam could do if he jumped in.”
When the dam operators became aware of the capsizing, they shut off the discharge and Martin was able to idle up and retrieve the second man.
“You know they say everything happens for a reason — this definitely happened for a reason,” Johns said. “We were actually talking about packing up and leaving, but we decided to stay a little longer, and I’m sure glad we did. We hadn’t caught anything to brag about; this was the highlight of the day.”
Martin finished 73rd, while Johns placed 136th in the co-angler division.
“Who cares about the tournament (standings)?” Johns said. “It was just nice being able to save someone.”
The event was hosted by the City of Pell City and Pell City Chamber of Commerce and weigh-in was held at Bass Pro Shops in Leeds.