The 'dark horses' of Classic 2024 - Bassmaster (2024)

The 'dark horses' of Classic 2024 - Bassmaster (1)

The 'dark horses' of Classic 2024 - Bassmaster (2)

Written by

Christopher Decker

Some of Carl Joc*msen’s best bass fishing memories have taken place in the state of Oklahoma. In fact, after spending his first couple of months stateside in California, the Australia native packed his things and moved to Tulsa to live with former Bassmaster Elite Series pro Fred Roumbanis.

In his three years living in Oklahoma, Joc*msen spent many days picking apart Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees and learning essential tools he would need to be successful as a pro angler. He even earned the nickname “Aussie Okie” from the local sticks.

“I lived in Tulsa for basically the first part of being here in America,” Joc*msen said. “Fred and I fished Grand every second we could. If there was ever going to be a place, it would be Grand because that is where I really cut my teeth on largemouth bass.”

In March, Joc*msen will get to enjoy a homecoming of sorts as the 2024 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Classic presented by Jockey Outdoors makes its return to Tulsa and Grand Lake. While names like Jason Christie, Luke Palmer and Stetson Blaylock will be heavy favorites — with good reason — Joc*msen’s experience on the lake makes him one of several dark horse contenders in this year’s Super Bowl of Bass Fishing.

“I honestly feel like I have as good of a shot as anyone there,” Joc*msen said. “Crazy things happen in the Classic, and I’m going to put myself in a position to try and make it happen. I don’t feel nervous or that I’m out of my league. I feel confident that I can make things happen there.”

Joc*msen’s many hours on Grand obviously gives him an edge over much of the field. Most recently, he notched a Top 50 finish at the Bassmaster Open in 2021, which was held in the fall.

Momentum is also finally on his side. After winning his first Elite in 2019 on Lake Tenkiller (also in Oklahoma), Joc*msen enjoyed two of his best years in 2022 and 2023, finishing 43rd and 35th respectively in Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. He made his first Classic appearance in Knoxville last year, a moment over 20 years in the making.

“These last two years have been my best by far,” Joc*msen said. “Since 2011 and coming to this country to compete, the one thing I’ve always said was I wanted to find consistency. It is the hardest thing I’ve worked on in my career. And I feel like I’m finally getting comfortable and in the right frame of mind and coming into where I have a wide range of experience across the country.”

Joc*msen’s first Classic experience was special in many ways, from riding into the arena for the very first time, to having family and friends from his home country in Knoxville to cheer him on.

“It was surreal. At 16 years old, I was in another country working in a little tackle store watching the Classic on ESPN. Then 22 years later I am there fishing it and on the stage. It was a long time to wait, and it didn’t seem real,” he said.

While his experience off the water was more than he could ever expect, Joc*msen’s on-the-water experience left a little to be desired. Fort Loudoun and Tellico Lakes proved difficult to pattern, and he finished 39th. This year, Joc*msen hopes he can formulate not only a pattern at Grand Lake, but a winning one.

“Even though it could be a grind, there are just more fish in Grand,” he said. “It is more of a pattern lake, and you can run it no matter how tough it is. If you can figure that puzzle out, they are still going to catch them if it is tough.”

The 'dark horses' of Classic 2024 - Bassmaster (3)

Meanwhile, Kenta Kimura has been one of the most consistent anglers — in the Elites and the Opens — yet the Japanese angler has flown under the radar. He finished 23rd in Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings in 2023 and fifth in the St. Croix Bassmaster Opens overall EQ standings, after fishing all nine events.

That’s off the back of an equally impressive 2022 campaign where he once again finished fifth in the Opens overall standings, won the James River Open and finished 16th in Elite AOY standings.

While his home country is Japan, Kimura keeps his truck and boat stored near Grand Lake, and in turn he has accumulated a lot of time on the lake. In the 2021 Open, he led after Day 1 and ultimately finished second.

“That is where I have the most knowledge than anywhere else in the country,” Kimura said. “I haven’t fished it in a while though, and I don’t know much about it in the springtime. Usually, I’m gone on tour somewhere else in the springtime. But I know what I like to fish.”

Kimura experienced his first Classic last year in Knoxville, finishing 45th. Now that he knows what to expect, he is trying to treat this like a normal event as much as he can. Going to a lake he has real experience on is a relief, considering he has never been to the majority of the Elite Series venues before.

“I’m trying to keep as much of a normal tournament as possible. Like I’m fishing an Open,” Kimura said. “Usually wherever we are going throughout the year, I don’t know crap about those lakes. This time, I know the lake better than the majority.”

One thing Kimura knows for sure is he wants to win a tournament this year.

“I need to win one this year,” Kimura said. “Every tournament has the chance to change your life completely.”

The 'dark horses' of Classic 2024 - Bassmaster (4)

The 2022 Rookie of the Year, Jay Przekurat, may have limited experience in Oklahoma, but his time in the Sooner State has been extraordinarily productive. In 2019, the 24-year-old from Wisconsin won a Bassmaster Open at Grand Lake as a co-angler, before returning in 2021 as a boater to earn his Elite Series spot with a 21st-place finish.

“Those are the only two times I’ve been to Grand and those two times were huge milestones in my life,” Przekurat said.

Przekurat made his first Classic appearance last season in Knoxville, quietly notching a seventh-place finish at the Tennessee River. He approached that tournament with the same cool and collected mentality that’s led to two straight Top 10 finishes in AOY.

“I almost fished that event very similarly to how I fished Grand Lake the two times I’ve been there,” he said. “I never got caught up in ‘I need to be doing this and I need to be doing that.’ I basically locked my favorite jig in my hand and ran around the lake until I saw something that looked good. I fished that tournament really free to the point that I didn’t care what part of the lake I was on. Everything just felt right, and it never felt like I was never going to get a bite.”

While his victory at the St. Lawrence River in 2022 has given the impression that Przekurat is a smallmouth slayer, which he is, the third-year pro is a river rat at heart. That style applies to Grand Lake.

“I felt like Grand sets up similar to what we have here at home. I never felt like I had to know everything. I felt comfortable out there,” he explained. “The things I did in each of those two tournaments were honestly identical. I wasn’t doing the forward-facing sonar thing or offshore, I was just doing things I do at home. Fishing docks, laydowns, brushpiles and flipping. I feel like Grand fits my style pretty well.”

Both of Przekurat’s trips to Grand Lake were during the fall of the year, but he’s seen enough of the lake to know where the best places to go are when things get tough. Calmer conditions will be best for the young angler come tournament time, but he knows anything is possible.

“I’m even more excited to get there now because I feel like a lot of the stuff I fished and felt was right during the fall was really springtime stuff,” Przekurat said. “I like beating the bank and looking at the structure I’m fishing. I feel like it could work out well for me come March.”

The 'dark horses' of Classic 2024 - Bassmaster (5)

After finishing fourth in the 2022 Classic, and losing several bass that would have vaulted him into the top spot over Jason Christie, Alabama’s Justin Hamner watched the 2023 Classic in bits and pieces from the Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo.

“That was brutal. That whole 2022 season was just absolutely terrible. After being in the Classic, watching it from the Expo hurts a lot,” Hamner said. “I wanted to be fishing that one so bad just because of how it got won. I really wanted to fish that one. It hurt to watch.”

Thanks to a stellar second half to the 2023 Elite season, Hamner qualified for his second Classic and could be dangerous at Grand Lake. Not only was making the Classic a big-time motivator for Hamner in 2023, but his sophom*ore campaign hurt his career average for Elite requalification.

But after disappointing Lake Okeechobee, Lake Seminole and Lake Murray results, Hamner made the Day 3 cut in five of the last six tournaments with Top 10 finishes at Lay Lake and the St. Lawrence River.

“The 2022 season definitely motivated me, not just missing the Classic, but doing bad in general was tough,” Hamner said. “I knew going into (2023) I didn’t want to do that again. It was more about knowing I could do better than what I did. Looking back, 2022 was not who I was. I went back to fishing my strengths instead of trying to make something happen.”

While he has never been to Grand Lake, his early preparation and study indicate that it will set up for his strengths. Lake Tuscaloosa, his home lake, has plenty of rock walls, transition banks, docks and brushpiles, which are pieces of structure and cover that Grand Lake tournaments are won around historically.

If the weather stays on the colder side and the bass stay in the early prespawn phase, Hamner feels like he can catch them exactly how he wants with a jerkbait and a jig.

“Ever since 2013 when Cliff Pace won, it has looked like one of the lakes that sets up like my home lake, Lake Tuscaloosa,” Hamner said. “It fishes exactly like it, just with bigger fish. I cannot wait to get there. Everything about that place just screams what I love to do. My confidence is through the roof.”

The 'dark horses' of Classic 2024 - Bassmaster (2024)
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