The boat that saved Hank Cherry’s career

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Alan McGuckin

Hank Cherry stood on a boat dock at Table Rock Lake watching amateur anglers idle through morning takeoff at the recent Toyota Bonus Bucks Owners event and felt his tear ducts getting jumpy.

“That boat right there is the boat I won in an Oakley Big Bass event that saved my fishing career and ultimately changed my life,” reflected an emotional Cherry.

You see, before the world came to know Hank Cherry as a back-to-back Bassmaster Classic Champion, an unfortunate series of events found him unloading horse feed and fertilizer at a lawn and garden store just trying to keep the light bill paid at home. 

That was 13 years ago, when a corporate buy-out landed him out of a job as a well-paid district manager in the wine and spirits industry. And then the brutal reality hit that tournament fishing was far more a detriment to his personal finances than a profit center at that time – placing Cherry and his beloved bride Jaclyn on the verge of dire economic straits. 

“I was at my lowest point,” admits Cherry. 

To stay afloat, Cherry sold his bass boat, quit fishing tournaments and stopped dreaming of a pro angling career when a friend invited him to ride along in an Oakley Big Bass event on Lake Norman. And that’s when Cherry’s storied life turned toward its intended path.

“I caught a 6-pounder on a Deps Silent Killer glide bait that looked like it was going to land me in second place, but the guys with the bigger fish in front of me got busted for trying to cheat. So, I won the biggest bass of the tournament and the Nitro Z8 top prize,” he explains.

With a capable vessel and a new job back in the wine and spirits industry, Cherry suggested to Jaclyn he was considering entering the Bassmaster Opens. And is always the case, nobody cheered him with more encouragement than her.

The first season didn’t go great, and while the second season was much better, Cherry still headed into the final event after two years with a sense of, “Maybe this pro career isn’t meant to be.” 

“I thanked Jaclyn, made peace with the fact Smith Lake would be my final big tournament and headed toward Cullman, Alal, thinking I needed to enjoy it, because that was likely going to be the end,” says Cherry.

Not only was it not the end – it was truly the beginning. Cherry won that third and final Bassmaster Southern Open on Smith Lake by 1-ounce using 5-pound line and a tiny swimbait.

The win qualified him for the 2013 Bassmaster Classic and the 2013 Bassmaster Elite Series season, and a star was born. He nearly won the 2013 Classic on Grand Lake, before finishing third, and then went on to win Rookie of the Year in the 2013 Elite Series season. 

“If I hadn’t won that Nitro Z8 in the Oakley Big Bass event on Norman, there’s no way I’d have got back into the Bassmaster Opens. So yeah, every time I run into the gentleman than owns it now, I get a little emotional looking at it,” says Cherry. 

“There are two things I’ve learned for certain the last 13 years: You better have a budget prepared before you jump into this sport. So, learn how to eat a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of going out for steak and beers with your buddies. And mostly, things don’t happen in my time – they happen just as they’re supposed to on His time,” concluded the always introspective back-to-back Classic champ on a perfect October Sunday morning in the Ozarks.