Across the country, there are thousands of ultra-talented bass anglers who would have loved to compete in this week’s 50th Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk.
Only 53 got the opportunity — and from start to finish, there was no doubt which one of them owned the event.
Hank Cherry, a 46-year-old pro from Lincolnton, N.C., and an eight-year veteran of the Bassmaster Elite Series, caught five bass on Championship Sunday that weighed 19 pounds, 8 ounces. It gave him a three-day total of 65-5 and put the exclamation point on a dominant wire-to-wire victory that netted him a $307,500 first-place prize.
The competition was held at historic Lake Guntersville, but Cherry’s raw emotion shined through most back at the final weigh-in, which was held at Legacy Arena inside the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
“I talked to (fellow competitor) Paul Mueller in the boatyard, and he told me the devil was gonna try to get in my head today,” Cherry said. “He said just tell the devil to get out of your boat. He said tell him you don’t have time for him.
“That’s what I did. I caught my first fish and then I lost a big one. I could hear those voices in my head, but I didn’t listen to them. I just went and caught four more.”
This was the fifth Classic appearance for Cherry, and he had come close to hoisting the trophy once before — back in 2013 on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake, when he came in third after losing a key fish on jerkbait.
That same lure was one of his weapons of choice this week during three days of fishing that saw him catch 29-3, 16-10 and 19-8.
He did most of his damage during Friday’s first round with a Z-Man Jack Hammer ChatterBait. The bait allowed him to cut through a strong wind on his way to a tournament-best bag that featured a pair of 7-2 largemouth.
On Days 2 and 3, he relied mostly on his own Hank Cherry Signature Series Jig from Picasso in green pumpkin with a matching Berkley MaxScent Chunk trailer and the jerkbait — a Megabass 110+1 in the GP stain reaction OB (orange belly). He replaced the factory hooks on the jerkbait with Berkley Fusion EWG No. 5s.
“I changed the hooks out to make it sink just the right way,” Cherry said. “About 90 percent of the fish I caught would be when it was directly falling. I had it heavy enough that I could see it falling, and if I saw one following it, I could watch them kill it.”
Cherry suffered an arm injury on Day 1 that he said may have limited the amount of running he did the rest of the week. But the major factor in his limited travel, he said, was the wind that blew hard on Lake Guntersville for most of the tournament.
He spent practically the whole event fishing one causeway and one grass flat.
“I never put gas in the boat all week,” Cherry said. “Y’all know me. If it’s windy, I’m not going to be making a lot of long runs — and anyway, I just didn’t need to.”
Cherry said Garmin LiveScope allowed him to keep track of the giant schools of gizzard shad that were drawing fish to the area. He also said a solid understanding of the way bass use causeways helped him catch big limits each day.
“Everybody has a misconception about those causeways,” Cherry said. “They think they should just fish the four corners. But bass use those causeways like highways. When they’re coming in, they come through the causeways and go down the rocks and to the back. Then they go exactly the same route when they come back out.
“That Garmin LiveScope just made them easy pickings.”
The win brought Cherry’s career earnings with B.A.S.S. to $934,500. He now has three career victories and 10 Top 10 finishes.
Perhaps more important than any statistic, however, was the fact that he exorcised some old demons that had lingered in the back of his mind since his near miss at Grand in 2013.
“When I caught that biggest bass on a jerkbait (Sunday), I felt some redemption,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot — and I’m still learning. I learned from this event how to handle the situation when you start with a big lead and have to protect it. I learned that your body will do wild things when you need that last fish to seal the deal, but you have to work through it.
“Those kinds of things make for an amazing feeling — and once it sinks in that I won this thing, I think that will be the most amazing feeling of all.”
Hank Cherry added an additional $7,500 to his winnings for being the highest-placing eligible angler in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program. Todd Auten was awarded an additional $2,500 for being the second-highest placing eligible angler in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program.
Virginia pro John Crews took the Berkley Big Bass award for the day with a 6-10 largemouth. But the Berkley Big Bass award for the week went to Auten for the 7-9 he caught on Day 1.