Before last October’s win at the Bassmaster Open on Smith Lake, Hank Cherry was probably not a name that most bassaholics recognized. Prior to that victory, he’d had a workmanlike career in fishing; including a couple of decent years on the FLW Tour (07 & 08) and a handful of BFL wins around his native North Carolina. A much better resume than 95% of tournament bass fishermen for sure, but nothing that separated him from the large pack of competent, yet not quite there touring pros.
Oh what a difference a year can make… Cherry’s victory at the Open qualified him to fish the 2013 Bassmaster Classic on Grand Lake; where he not only came close to winning (he finished 3rd), but pretty much stole the show on the last day, suffering an excruciating series of lost fish that likely kept him from hoisting the most coveted trophy in the sport. In the months since the Classic, I think it’s safe to say that Cherry’s career path has not only taken off, but has downright skyrocketed.
Cherry’s Open win also left him at 4th in the points, good enough to qualify for the 2013 Elite Series. Anyone who thought the personable North Carolina Pro’s Classic finish was a fluke quickly got put on notice in the very first elite event, when Cherry slapped the fourth biggest stringer on the scales day 1. He faded a bit in that tournament, and ended up 40th, but set the pace for a phenomenal season, finishing in the money in six of eight events, and ending up in 14th place in the AOY race.
Along the way, Cherry also collected another coveted title, that of Elite Series Rookie of the Year. He bested what was an extremely stout field of rookies, including Jason Christie (winner of three tour-level events in 2013), 2010 Forrest Wood Cup Champion Kevin Hawk, and FLW stalwart Cliff Pirch.
To say it’s been a whirlwind season for Cherry would be something of an understatement, as he went from largely self-financing his maiden Elite Series season, to having sponsorship requests and media responsibilities piling up at his door. We were able to sit down with Hank for a few minutes as he catches his breath after an exciting season that saw him accomplish all the goals that he set for himself at the beginning of the year.
Q: Hank, describe the season as a whole. How do you think it went?
A: I think it went really well. I accomplished all the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year. I cashed a check in six of eight events, made a couple top-12’s, qualified for the Classic, Toyota Texas Bass Classic twice, and won the rookie of the year. It’s interesting, because in your mind going into the season, you have these ideas that everything is going to go awesome and you are going to do extremely well in all the events. Then you get out there and actually have to do it. I guess the feeling I have right now would be best described as just really satisfied.
Q: What are your thoughts on the ROY win?
A: Going into that last event on St. Clair, I knew that if I put in a pretty good finish that it would be mine to lose. After the day one weigh-in when I caught them pretty well and some of the other guys kind of struggled, I knew that I had it. It feels pretty special to win Rookie of the Year, it was a heavy rookie class, and to know that I caught them better than those guys is just extremely special.
Q: What event really stood out to you as your best event of the year?
A: Without a doubt the Alabama River event. A lot of guys are probably not going to believe this, but that was the first time in my life that I had ever fished on a river system. And to be able to figure out a pattern when the river was swollen like that is something I take a lot of pride in. It was actually kind of a neat pattern, I found a little clean water coming out of a flooded lake and I caught them on a jerkbait at the mouth. When the water dropped, I realized that the majority of the fish I was catching were coming off a couple old fire pits and a BBQ grill that were flooded. I was bouncing my bait off those things without even knowing what they were until later.
Q: Which event were you most frustrated with?
A: It might not seem like it because I finished fourth, but West Point Lake was definitely my most frustrating event. I should have won that event, but I chickened out and didn’t do what I needed to do to win, even though I knew what that was. I could catch a limit of spots on a jerkbait, but I could also get big bites swimming a jig under docks. I caught that six plus pound fish doing it pretty early on the final day, and should have stuck with it the rest of the day. I decided to go for the limit, and likely cost myself a chance at winning. It was a good finish, but I am frustrated looking back at it because I could have potentially won that event.
Q: With one Elite season in the books, what surprised you most about fishing the Elite Series?
A: I’ve got to say, the thing that surprised me the most is that these guys are all just really solid humans. You guys only get to see them from in front of the TV, and the impressions you may have are just a small part of who they are. In my experience, they are all just really normal guys that love to fish. Take Ike for example, he seems like this intense persona, but he is one of the nicest guys out there. Sure, he is really intense about the sport, but he’s also a really great guy. I had a ton of guys that helped me out this year. Shaw Grigsby was a real help in just being able to talk about whatever. I ended up the year traveling with Britt Myers because we live like 30 minutes apart. He’s also a great guy. Gerald Swindle and Terry Scroggins were also awesome; they always had something good to say if you had a bad day on the water.
Q: What was the biggest thing you learned over the course of the year?
A: The biggest thing I learned is that you’ve got to go out there and do your job every day out on the water. These guys are so good, and they’re not going to give you anything. I learned that if I get out there and put in the hard work, I can make a living and support my family doing this, which is the most important thing. My family is my life, and I need to make sure that they are taken care of no matter what.
Q: How have some of the sponsorships you’ve gotten over the season affected your outlook?
A: That is one of the things that has been really good for me. I went into this season pretty much paying my own way. I had some great sponsors to start the year, and have picked up some more along the way. Companies like Denali rods, Livingston Lures, Evan Williams Bourbon, and others have all given me a bigger sense of ease going into each event. I’m still approaching each tournament the same way and putting in the same amount of work, but it’s calming to know that I’m not fishing to keep the lights on. There are guys out there doing this check to check, and I’m fortunate not to have that issue anymore.
Q: Gear-wise, what was one piece of equipment that you relied on all year to compete the way you did?
A: There have been a lot of things I’ve relied upon this season, but one thing that stands out to me is that Denali Noirwood 7’3” slop rod. It’s the rod that I swim my jig on, and I used it a ton in almost every tournament. It might seem a little stout for skipping and swimming jigs, but I like a stiff tip and a lot of backbone so I can stay way back from docks and skip them far back under there. I caught a lot of big fish this season on that rod, and I absolutely love it.
Q: What’s your outlook for the rest of the season and looking ahead into 2014?
A: Well, the Elite regular season may be over, but I’ve still got a lot of fishing left to do this year. I’m heading up to Michigan in a week for the All-star event, and then from there straight down to Texas for the TTBC. After that, I’ve got a few more tournaments to fish and then it’s gonna be time to start working towards next year. I’ve already qualified for the Classic on Guntersville and the next TTBC in the spring, so I’m looking forward to getting back out there. As far as the 2014 schedule goes, we’ve been hearing some rumors about where it will take us but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see once the schedule comes out. All I know is that wherever they take us, I’m going to be there and do my best to represent myself, my family, and my sponsors at each event.
By TJ Maglio