By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor

Justin Hamner, the newly crowned Bassmaster Classic champion, has been on quite a roll for the past 11 months. In nine tournaments dating back to late April 2023, he's posted eight placements of 21st or better, with half of those among the Top 10.

The one outlier was a 90th-place showing last June on the Sabine River. He probably would've done a lot better in that derby if he'd been more familiar with the habits of a different piscatorial species.

"I thought I was going to win that one, but it turned out I was on redfish in practice," said the easy-going 33-year-old from Alabama. "I didn't know you could catch them on a buzzbait."

He was practicing with baits that had no hook so he could avoid sore-mouthing fish he hoped to catch in the tournament. Therefore, he never actually got a look at the ones that were making the water boil like Mt. Vesuvius beneath his offerings.

"I was getting these giant blowups and all I kept thinking was this was going to be real good," he recalled with a chuckle.

Well, it wasn't, but a lot of positive stuff has certainly happened since then. He concluded the 2023 campaign with three strong finishes, logged two more (14th at Toledo Bend and 3rd at Lake Fork) to being the '24 season, then won last week's Classic at Oklahoma's Grand Lake O' the Cherokees in wire-to-wire fashion.

He weighed the heaviest stringer of the event (22-06) on Day 1, added another 20 pounds on Day 2 and boxed 15-13 on the final day to prevail over runner-up Adam Rasmussen by about three pounds. It was the initial tour-level triumph for the fourth-year pro.

He said it's no coincidence that his game has taken a major step forward since last spring. That was the point where he felt secure enough with the money he was generating through his sponsorship deals to get out of the lawn-care business and focus strictly on fishing as a profession.

"I didn't have to worry about making every single cut (Top 50 at Elite Series events)," he said. "Instead of fishing for that cut line, I started fishing a lot more free. All that stress about thinking I needed to get a check to feed my family got put away.

"I think for the first time in my whole career, besides my first Classic (in 2022) when there weren't any points on the line, I've been fishing as freely as I wanted to. At about this time last year I really started to trust myself to make gut decisions. Just about every tournament I'm fishing new places with different techniques than I've used before. I've stopped in a lot of new areas just because they felt right."

He now has shot at a double milestone that's been achieved only by Hall-of-Famers Kevin VanDam (twice) and Mark Davis – winning the Classic and the Angler of the Year title in the same year. After two Elite Series points events, he's fourth on the list, just four points behind co-leaders Trey McKinney and Ben Milliken.

Prior to the season, the two Texas events in February were more worrisome for him than any others on the nine-event schedule.

"I'd never done good in Texas and I've never been a big-fish, big-bag guy," he said. "The slugfests have never been my best tournaments, but those two seemed to work out okay."

He was still making his way home to Alabama on Tuesday morning along with wife Christina and 4-year-old daughter Scarlett. He was anticipating an enjoyable time upon his arrival.

"I think there's going to be a party waiting on me when I get there," he said. "My wife was trying to hide it and surprise me, but she might've let it slip a little bit. We'll see!"