Cherry's Classic win soothed a seven-year ache

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Chris Mitchell

“But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” — Isaiah 40:31

“I’ve been waiting seven years for that fish.” — Hank Cherry, 3/8/20

Harold Cherry loves to tell the story about one of his son’s first fishing trips. Harold and young Hank were accompanied by Maggie Howell — Harold’s grandmother, Hank’s great-grandmother. She loved to fish, especially at Lake Santeetlah, a scenic 128-acre lake in the North Carolina mountains. And that’s where the threesome spent a morning together, fishing from the bank.

If your teenage years don’t put some salt in your language, a military career will. Harold Cherry was in the midst of what would be three decades of service in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve. But Harold clearly understood his grandmother had no tolerance for such language, and he’d always behaved accordingly. Always.

So there was stunned silence when, after a fish-less few hours on Lake Santeetlah, 3-year-old Hank said, “Dammit, daddy, I can’t catch anything!” 

The silence was broken when Hank’s great-grandmother laughed.

“It cost me the next day when we took Hank to a trout farm,” Harold said. “I had to pay about $30 for all the trout he caught.”

Harold Eugene “Hank” Cherry Jr., the 2020 Bassmaster Classic champion, is an acorn that didn’t fall far from the oak. Harold Sr. grew up in the 1960s, when, as he says, “It was nothing for you and your buddies to dig some worms, grab your Zebco and go catfishing.” His 30-year military career fueled an interest in bass fishing. Military bases are known for having some premier small bass lakes on their training grounds. Harold Cherry took advantage of every one he could. And he encouraged his son to be a fisherman. 

“I’ll put it this way,” Hank said, “a parent could probably get arrested today for what my dad let me do then. In the summertime, he would drop me off at the lake before work and pick me up after work.”

When Hank was 14 years old, Harold began leaving him at a local lake, like Lake Wylie or Norman, in their 14-foot boat, often by himself, occasionally with one of Hank’s friends. Hank was responsible for bringing everything he needed – food, water, in addition to fishing tackle, and common sense to get off the lake if a storm blew in. Harold set a boundary – a certain cove or creek channel that Hank was instructed not to leave. It was trolling motor only at first. There was no gas tank onboard for the outboard motor. When Hank turned 16, the boundaries expanded. Harold allowed the gas tank, but with a limited amount of fuel before gradually building up to a full tank. 

Harold was absolutely not thinking about developing a future professional bass tournament angler. He viewed bass fishing as simply a sport and a pastime, as most did then, not a potential career. If Hank was going to make a career of a sport, Harold thought it was going to be one of the more traditional ones. 

Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 230 pounds today, Hank Cherry looks like an athlete. He’s got the thick neck and wide shoulders of a linebacker. While he participated at times in high school football and basketball, his sport was baseball. Cherry was recruited to play baseball at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke. He was a third baseman, outfielder and pitched occasionally. Cherry graduated with a degree in criminal justice. 

“In his second or third year in college, we, as a family, bought our first legitimate bass boat,” Harold said. “That’s the thing that really kicked it off for us. Hank started fishing local tournaments, going against some experienced fishermen, like (now-fellow Elite Series pro) Todd Auten, finishing high in the standings often and winning some.

“The defining moment came when he graduated from college. He handed me his diploma and said, ‘Dad, this is for you. I’m going fishing.’”

It was seven years ago when Hank Cherry burst upon the Bassmaster tournament scene. And it was quite a burst. Cherry won the third and final 2012 Southern Open on Oct. 6, 2012, at Alabama’s Smith Lake. Indicative of the fine line between success and failure in bass fishing, Cherry’s margin of victory at Smith Lake was a single ounce.

The win qualified him for the 2013 Bassmaster Classic, and Cherry’s consistency in the 2012 Southern Opens earned him a 2013 Elite Series invitation as well. Cherry came oh-so-close to winning that Classic at Oklahoma’s Grand Lake. In the final day’s final half-hour, Cherry skillfully fought a bass, which he estimated to weigh between 7 1/2 and 9 pounds, near the boat before it came unhooked. 

“I was dragging it to me,” Cherry recalled. “It was played out. It just came off.” 

It remains one of the iconic “agony of defeat” moments in Bassmaster Classic history, replayed often on Bassmaster media outlets. Cherry dropped facedown on the boat deck after losing the fish and stayed there for several moments. That big bass would have culled a 2-pounder in his livewell. Cherry finished third, 5 pounds, 12 ounces behind winner Cliff Pace

However, the 39-year-old Elite Series rookie from Lincolnton, N.C., remained on a roll in 2013. Cherry won the Elite Series All-Star Week event at season’s end, recorded two other top 10 Elite Series finishes and earned Rookie of the Year honors. He was 14th in the final Angler of the Year standings.

The highlights then slowed to trickle. Certainly, Cherry has had some, but they’ve been infrequent – only four top 10 Elite Series finishes since 2013 and two of those were last year. In the Elite Series Angler of the Year standings he’s been up and down: 67th and 70th in ’14 and ’15, then 13th and 30th in ’16 and ’17, followed by 84th and 27th in ’18 and ’19.

To the casual observer it might not appear so, but that’s actually a solid span in this sport where averaging one victory every two years practically makes you star. You don’t qualify for the Elite Series by being anything other than, well, elite. Cherry has earned just over $1 million in his tournament fishing career, $927,253 from B.A.S.S. There are only two opportunities each year to stamp your name into the memory of everyone who follows the sport: 1) Bassmaster Classic champion, and 2) Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year.

Most of anglers who stick in this sport seem to have an “emotional support coach.” It’s not an official title, just a trusted someone to help you elevate the inevitable lows and tamp down the occasional highs. It might be another angler, often it’s a mate. Hank Cherry’s emotional support coach is his wife, Jaclyn. They were introduced by a mutual friend in 2004, when both were coming off failed first marriages.

“We were pretty much best friends for awhile before we started dating,” Jaclyn said.

Their marriage has produced two children, Christian, 10, and Bella Grace, 6. And it has created a true partnership. As Hank has said, “Often times you hear guys talk about their support system, well my wife has truly been mine. She has been with me through thick and thin, and she makes me a better person. I’m not sure where I would be today without her.”

Cherry might not be Bassmaster Classic champion without her. He had a moment of doubt and pain on Day 2 at Lake Guntersville. After catching a five-bass limit weighing 29 pounds, 3 ounces and taking a 7-pound, 11-ounce lead on Day 1, Cherry was fishing in physical pain on Day 2, after a hard fall on his right elbow during competition, and mental pain, after a déjà vu nightmare. As Day 2 came to a close, Cherry hooked and lost a bass in the 7-pound class, bringing back memories of the final day at the 2013 Grand Lake Classic. 

Cherry always calls Jaclyn as soon as his boat is on the trailer after a day of competition. Jaclyn didn’t like what she heard in Hank’s voice that day. She was in Birmingham at the host hotel, where she’d been keeping up with Hank’s day on the water while herding cats, in other words, keeping their two children entertained.

“I was up to my eyeballs in kids,” Jaclyn recalled. “He was all Eeyore (the gloomy, pessimistic donkey in Winne-the-Pooh books). He said, ‘It’s happening to me again.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not. We don’t have time for this. This is the Classic.’”

Cherry got a double-shot of encouragement when he got to the boat yard in Birmingham from a fellow competitor. Paul Mueller came close to winning the last Classic held at Lake Guntersville, finishing second to Randy Howell by 1 pound in 2014. The Connecticut angler has broken through the mental barrier with Elite Series victories in each of the last two seasons.

“I know the mental battle that goes on,” Mueller said. “The devil likes to bring up the past. We’re waiting to weigh in, and he started reminiscing about the fish he lost at Grand and the fish he lost that day. I said, ‘Dude, that’s the deal. The devil is going to get in your head. You’ve got to kick the devil out of the boat.’” 

And Cherry came back to reality – a reality that, after the Day 2 weigh-in was complete, left him in first place with a 4-pound, 13-ounce lead going into the final day. Sure, it could have been more if he’d landed the big one he lost. But he didn’t. Cherry was suddenly calm again, like he had been all week, uncharacteristically calm for such a big moment.

And he stayed calm the final day, even through a slow start. Unbeknownst to him, Cherry had fallen to fourth place on the unofficial BASSTrakk scoreboard in the first two hours. Then he lost what would have been his second keeper at 9 a.m. But Cherry, as he would mention frequently, was following Mueller’s mantra and “kicking the devil out of his boat.” No panic. No Eeyore.

By 10 a.m. Cherry had a limit in the boat, including a 5-pounder that prompted him to say, “I’ve been waiting seven years for that fish.”

Crazy things have happened on Lake Guntersville’s fertile bass fishery, but with almost a 20-pound limit, Cherry was confident he’d done what needed to be done. And he had, officially finishing with a three-day total of 65-5 and a 6-11 margin of victory over second place Todd Auten.

The power in the number seven abounds — historical, mythological, Biblical power. From the seven wonders of the ancient world (the Great Pyramid, etc.) and the Old Testament story of creation (God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh) to today’s jackpot on a slot machine (777) and successful book titles (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey), the significance of the numeral seven appears again and again and again.

Hank Cherry caught twin 7-pound, 2-ounce bass on Day 1 of the Classic. It’s been seven years since an angler led the Classic from start to finish, like Cliff Pace did in 2013. And most significantly, it has been seven years since that unforgettable bass Cherry lost at the boat in the final hour of the 2013 Classic. 

“We’ve talked about it a million times – Oklahoma in 2013,” Harold said. “I know how bad that hurt him. I’ve hugged him after a lot of successes and a lot of disappointments. I can tell you that was his biggest disappointment. This was redemption.”