Hook, Line and Sonar: Justin Hamner wins Bassmaster Classic as tech debate rolls on

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TULSA, Oklahoma — After three days and 24 total hours of bass fishing on Grand Lake — the Grand Lake O’ The Cherokees is its government name — Justin Hamner came out on top at the Bassmaster Classic on Sunday, winning the most prestigious fishing tournament in the world just three days before his 33rd birthday.

Hamner survived the cut from a field of 56 Bassmaster Elite anglers down to 25 after Day 2 and then went on to triumph with a winning weight of 58 pounds, three ounces.

Having joined the Elite circuit in 2021, Hamner stood on stage at the BOK Center emotionally spent. He clutched his world championship trophy to his chest and declared that he had no plans to let it go any time soon, having accomplished a dream he’d had since he was 8 years old.

Four years ago, he was pouring concrete and cutting grass to fund pro fishing and support his wife and daughter. With the win, he secured the grand prize of $300,000, and he recognized the significance of that immediately. That’s three times the $100,000 a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament win pays out.

“I hope I never see another blade of grass in my life,” Hamner said.

In 2006, the Classic paid out $500,000 to first place. In 1971, it paid out $10,000. This in a sport where the first million-dollar man, Larry Nixon, emerged in October 1992, and the world’s best bass angler, Kevin Van Dam, has earned more than $7 million in his three-decade career.

Fishing for bass means fishing near vegetation, brush piles, sticks, rocks and docks. It also means the use of forward-facing sonar, a technology that was introduced into professional fishing six years ago but which has slowly taken over the sport. The technology, manifested on a screen attached to an angler’s boat, allows anglers to quickly assess whether there are fish anywhere near before even attempting to cast.

Bass Elite angler Logan Parks took me and NASCAR Cup Series driver Ross Chastain out on his boat at Skiatook Lake to fish using forward-facing sonar. I watched as Parks showed us, using infrared, the shape of a fish and the bait he’d cast, guiding the bait in front of the fish to earn a bite. As we motored about the 11,000 acres of shoreline, Parks used forward-facing sonar to quickly assess whether we might happen upon fish.

Indeed, it’s difficult to find an angler ranked in the top 10 in points for the Angler of the Year award — an honor for the Bassmaster’s top angler — who doesn’t use forward-facing sonar. It has divided the sport, and that divide grew wider last month when Trey McKinney, the youngest-ever member of the Elite Series, won the Lake Fork Bassmaster Elite tournament with 130 pounds, 15 ounces at just 19 years old.

He is the youngest member of the Bassmaster Century Club — catching more than 100 pounds of bass in a single Elite tournament — and he fell just two pounds shy of the overall record for sheer weight in more than 50 years of B.A.S.S. professional fishing.

McKinney has used forward-facing sonar to catch fish for five years, and it’s clear to him that those who can learn to use it quickly and efficiently will not only catch more fish but catch fish they otherwise would not have. (Among the nine rookies in the 2024 Elite Series, all nine use forward-facing sonar to help locate fish.)

“You don’t just see the fish and they’re in the box,” he said. “So it’s a very good way to compete. But it’s not a tool that guarantees you will have success.”

But some believe that’s exactly what it does. Two-time Bassmaster Classic champion Hank Parker recently decried what forward-facing sonar has done to the sport he’s spent most of his adult life pursuing.

“There are a lot of people out there that are winning tournaments today that really are not very versed in the sport of fishing,” Parker said. “They really don’t know very much, and if you took that forward-facing sonar away from them they wouldn’t really know what to do. And there are a lot of great fishermen that are now depending on forward-facing sonar that do know what to do, but they don’t do anything else because it’s such a proven method for catching big fish. So I honestly think, truthfully, it is hurting our sport.”

But there is no doubt that forward-facing sonar has also brought a new audience to the sport at a moment when bass fishing is growing. The Classic aired on FS1 and FOX while bringing $19.1 million in economic impact and more than 100,000 spectators to Tulsa for the three-day “Super Bowl” of professional fishing.

Bassmaster put on an expo — as well as daily weigh-ins — free to the public, with opportunities for new and experienced anglers to participate in a tailgate atmosphere. Tulsa has hosted the Classic three times in 10 years, and each Classic has been better attended than the last.

But the cost of competing has also continued to rise. A professional angler’s boat might cost six figures and forward-facing sonar technology begins at several hundred dollars and can rise into the low five figures. In this, the normally cheap and fun pastime of fishing can price out many who would otherwise look to compete.

While B.A.S.S., the governing body for Bassmaster competitions, continues to consider the advantages and disadvantages of forward-facing sonar in the sport, it’s worth noting that the technology appeared as an advertisement in the May/June 1979 issue of National Bassman Magazine and was patented in 1973. The “Aquascan” would’ve set you back about $35 then, rather than $3,500 in 2024, depending on the quality of the system an angler chooses to buy. The first finder was created in 1957.

It’s not uncommon for the best anglers in the sport to find big sponsorship opportunities not just from boat companies Phoenix, Nitro or Ranger, but forward-facing sonar providers Garmin, Humminbird and Lowrance. Still, even anglers sponsored by those companies believe technological advances in fishing have been around for longer than many think.

Two-time Bassmaster Classic champion Hank Cherry, who finished eighth this year while wearing Jordan 11s while competing, is sponsored by Garmin. He gave his feelings about the current controversy on stage at the BOK in front of thousands.

“Your first forward-facing sonar was a bobber you watched,” he said. “And when it went down you knew you had something.”

And he doesn’t see much difference in knowing where the fish are because you still have to catch them and get them into the live well on your boat. And catching is where the entertainment is, and B.A.S.S. understands this better than most.

The Bassmaster Celebrity Pro-Am featured Chastain, Pro Football Hall of Famer Randy Moss, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Patrick Queen, motorsports star Travis Pastrana, MLB All-Star and World Series champion Michael Brantley Jr. and others paired up with star anglers like two-time Classic champ Rick Clunn and Chris Zaldain.

Zaldain paired with social media star Rasheen Bailey, who goes by @hoodfishingentertainment. Bailey, a Florida man who catches bullhead sharks for fun, is the kind of superstar Bassmaster continues to recruit and include.

After combining to catch 64.75 inches of bass with a six-fish limit, Zaldain walked onto the dock at Skiatook after four hours on the water and declared, “My guy can fish.” Bailey has given thought to competing in enough Bassmaster opens to qualify for the Elite Series.

For his part, Moss wanted more time on the water.

“Four hours just isn’t enough time,” Moss said. “I need at least six.”

But he was quick to say he enjoyed his time on Skiatook with Clunn, his partner. Clunn, who is approaching his 500th tournament, enjoyed learning from Moss that the mental aspects of their respective sports, two legends in their own right, were not dissimilar. It’s still you against you, before it’s you against them.

That’s the sport. 

Can you land a bigger bass than the next angler on the water? And can you do that no matter the body? No matter the weather? 

When the stakes could not be higher as you stare at your livescope, you still have to drag ‘em into the boat.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.

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