When Alabama’s Justin Hamner was in middle school, his class was assigned a project on what students wanted to be when they grew up. It was the year in which Bassmaster Elite Series pro Jay Yelas had won the Bassmaster Classic. Hamner adopted Yelas as his role model.
“I told them my dream was to be the Bassmaster Classic champion,” Hamner said. “They must have thought I was crazy. They might still think I’m crazy because that dream hasn’t changed.”
After earning a spot in Bassmaster Elite Series lineup for 2021, Hamner’s dream appears to be more destiny than daffy. Of the 11 Opens tournaments that Hamner competed in, he cashed checks seven times.
Hamner’s father, Carl, had his son aboard a bass boat as soon as he was big enough to hold a rod and reel. They began fishing local team tournaments together when Hamner was 7. They won their first event a year later. Hamner proudly clutched the winner’s trophy and was hooked for life.
During Hamner’s early teens he and his father fished team tournaments at many of Alabama’s noted bass fisheries, including Guntersville, Logan Martin, Neely Henry and Lay Lake. Since they lived on Lake Tuscaloosa, they also fished many tournaments there.
“I give Lake Tuscaloosa a lot of credit for teaching me how to grind through a tough tournament,” Hamner said. “It’s a small lake that doesn’t generate power, so there’s no current. Baitfish are just about non-existent. Eight or 9 pounds wins about any tournament there.”
Despite the challenging fishing on Tuscaloosa, Hamner and his buddy Jimbo Williams spent countless days fishing the lake from ages 10 through 15. Jimbo’s mother, Patrice, would drive the boys home from middle school, and they would race to launch William’s 12-foot aluminum johnboat, which was powered by an electric motor.
“We started out with the shaky head,” Hamner said. “Then we got into fishing finesse jigs. Once we learned how to swim a jig we really thought we were something.”
Starting at age 14 Hamner won three consecutive Alabama State Bassmaster Junior Championships, which qualified him to compete in three Junior World Championships. The world championships were heady experiences for the young angler. He competed on three different fisheries — Florida’s Harris Chain, Alabama’s Logan Martin Lake and New York’s Onondaga Lake. And, he had an opportunity to practice fish with three prominent Bassmaster pros — Ron Shuffield, Bill Lowen and James Niggemeyer.
“Being able to fish with those pros was a really cool experience,” Hamner said. “I was starstruck. They taught me a lot.”
Prior to fishing the Junior World Championship at Onondaga, Hamner had no idea was a drop shot was. He rigged one with baitcasting tackle, using a heavy Carolina rig weight as a sinker and one of his regular worm hooks. It was hardly a finesse setup, but he did manage to boat a few bass on the rig.
Upon graduating from Tuscaloosa County High School, Hamner took a groundskeeping job at the University of Alabama. The job gave him the funds needed to purchase a 20-foot Triton bass boat and to pay tournament entry fees. The downside was that it didn’t provide enough time off to fish major weeklong bass tournaments.
To pursue his fishing dream, Hamner quit his job at the university and went to work pouring concrete for his father’s company, Hamner Concrete.
“My dad gives me the time off I need to fish,” Hamner said. “I started my Clean Cut Lawn Care business last year to be able to afford fishing the Bassmaster Opens.”
Hamner’s team tournament partner is Wyatt Burkhalter, who also competed in the 2020 Bassmaster Eastern Opens as a boater. A few years ago Hamner met Elite Series pro Patrick Walters, and the pair became good friends as well.
Hamner and Walters traveled together in 2019 when they fished the Bassmaster Eastern Open tournaments. In 2020, all three anglers traveled together to the Eastern Opens and worked together to locate bass and determine productive baits and patterns. The partnership proved remarkably successful at the Kissimmee Open.
“I finished in 10th place, Patrick finished 11th and Wyatt finished 12th,” Hamner said. “It’s a whole lot easier breaking down a lake with three people you can trust and believe in.”
What Hamner loves most about bass fishing is that the learning never stops, or at least it shouldn’t. He claims to be a junky when it comes to learning new techniques. He scours articles and videos on the internet to learn new tactics, and he works to master them between tournaments.
“Whatever technique I’m trying to learn, I can find the right water for it in Alabama,” Hamner said. “I’ve got Smith Lake, a highland reservoir, 45 minutes from my home in Northport. Tennessee River lakes are only two hours away, and the Coosa River gives me a completely different environment where I can try new stuff.”
Hamner is married to Christina, his childhood sweetheart, and the couple has a young daughter named Scarlett.
“Christina is so supportive,” Hamner said. “I couldn’t do this without her and my mom and dad 100% behind me. Making the Elite Series is my dream. I’ve worked at it pretty much all my life.”
Hamner’s sponsors in 2020 included Treeshaker Tackle (makers of the Hamner HD Swim Jig), the Fast & Easy convenient/tackle store in Tuscaloosa, Daiwa and Burnum Hahn Exterminators.