Hamner posts first Classic win

Justin Hamner, who won the Bassmaster Classic Sunday at Tulsa, invites comparison to the late Bryan Kerchal, winner of the 1994 Classic.

Kerchal worked nights as a fry cook in a Connecticut restaurant. He earned a berth in the 1993 and 1994 Classics as an amateur through the BASS Federation circuit. The rigors of that arduous route tempered Kerchal like steel. As Mark Davis said after Kerchal won the 1994 Classic, "That boy wasn't picked green!"

Hamner, 33, is a good deal older than the late Kerchal, but Hamner's success demonstrates the same grit and determination.

Unlike Kerchal, who was single, Hamner has a family to support. He owns a lawn care business, but his dream was to become a full-time professional bass fisherman. He got there by fishing tournaments in the Bassmaster Open Series in 2020. He qualified for the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2021, and in 2023 he qualified for the 2024 Classic at Grand Lake O' The Cherokees.

The Classic, as it was for Kerchal, was Hamner's first major tournament victory, but also like Kerchal, Hamner wasn't "picked green." In 41 Bassmaster Open and Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments, Hamner finished in the money 32 times. His best finishes were 10th and 14th.

Hamner, who caught 58 pounds, 3 ounces in three days, never trailed in the 2024 Classic, but he held off a charge by Adam Rasmussen of Wisconsin during the championship round on Day Three. He salted it away with a big fish in the waning minutes after losing three big ones back to back.

"That was one of those crazy things," Hamner said. "People say, 'When it's meant to be.' When I was coming in to check in, I gave myself a little extra time because the lake was extra rough. I had five minutes left. I got to the takeoff area and caught my biggest fish on a bait I hadn't thrown all week. It was 4 pounds."

Hamner outperformed Jason Christie of Park Hill, Okla., winner of the 2022 Classic, on Christie's home water. He also outperformed Luke Palmer of Coalgate, Okla., who has won $635,000 in tournaments. He also outperformed Hank Cherry, a two-time Classic champion, who finished eighth.

Hamner's home water is Lake Tuscaloosa, the playground of another guy that knows a thing or two about winning, former University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban.

"Winning the Classic means the world to me," Hamner said. "It's something I've dreamed of since I was a little kid. Being gone from family so much, it means so much to do it for them. It's been a ride."

Hamner won $300,000. Conscious of sounding presumptuous, he said he predicted his win publicly.

"Coming into it, I just had a feeling it was going be a really, really good week," Hamner said. "I hate to say I called my shot, but I told four podcasts that I was going to win this Classic."

Despite vastly different weather conditions each day, he used a jerkbait almost exclusively. He would not identify the brand, but he said it was a light grayish blue with a matte finish. He described it as translucent.

"Every day was really different," Hamner said. "A big key to my success was being able to adapt tp different conditions."

The first day was sunny and calm. The water was slick. Hamner said he used a deep-diving jerkbait on creek channel swings to weigh in 22 pounds, 6 ounces.

The second day was rainy and overcast. Hamner used a shallow-diving jerkbait in the same color around brushpiles at depths of 4-6 feet. His weight was 20-0.

On the third day he fished around boat docks and bluff walls and brushpiles to weigh 15-13.

"The jerkbait is just my absolutely favorite confidence bait," Hamner said. "It's the only thing that was consistent all week, and I wouldn't have won without it."

Poor performance in practice made Hamner wonder if he would even catch a limit during the tournament.

"Patience was the key," Hamner said. "I had one area I saw in practice. I got had three bites in one little area. I went there and slowed down and picked it apart."

As Bassmaster magazine advised Kerchal after the 1994 Classic, Hamner can quit the day job.

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