(As posted on BassFan.com) There he was, face down on the deck of his Skeeter, his agony evident in each inhale and exhale through the chilled February air blowing across Grand Lake.
Hank Cherry’s devastation after losing a fish in the final hours of the Bassmaster Classic is certainly one of the lasting images of the 2013 tournament season so far, but it’s not how he wants BassFans to remember his first go-around at the sport’s signature event.
“It was a wonderful experience and I’m going to use it as a driving force or a stepping stone to remember how close I was and how important it is to get back in that situation every year to have that shot,” he said.
In his mind and in reality, this season has evolved into way more than a lost giant on the final day at the Classic, where he finished 3rd. He’s proven he can bounce back from adversity and with three events remaining, he’s running away with the Elite Series Rookie of the Year chase against a pretty stout class of “rookies.”
In his second turn as a tour-level pro, Cherry has a different mindset now than he did when he fished the FLW Tour in 2007-08. He’s fishing more relaxed – solid sponsorship support helps on that front, he says – and his finishes are a direct result. This season, he’s missed just one check (Falcon Lake) and is in position (14th in Angler of the Year points) to make a run at another Classic berth and a spot in the postseason event.
Back At It
Six years ago, when Cherry started fishing the FLW Tour, he did it on his own dime. He had some modest success (two Top-10s), but he struggled to put consistent finishes together.
Lacking the sponsorship support necessary to continue, he backed away from the sport almost entirely after the 2008 season. Two years later, he won a Nitro boat at a Lake Norman Oakley Big Bass Tournament and he could feel the embers start to heat up inside. The itch to get back to the top level of the game was back.
He fished the Bassmaster Southern Opens in 2011, but finished no higher than 48th in any of the three derbies. He took another swing at the Southern Opens last year and connected in a big way, winning at Lewis Smith Lake and landing the Classic berth. He also finished 4th in points, which earned him an invitation to the Elite Series.
“After I won the Open, I had a little time to think, but not a lot of time to decide whether I was going to fish the Elites or not,” he said. “My wife and I had pretty much already made up our minds that if I made it and had the chance, I was going to do it and if I didn’t, I was going to regret it.”
It’s safe to say he has no regrets so far. He was fortunate enough to be signed this year by Livingston Lures, a new company on the hardbait scene, and that’s lifted a burden off his back.
“Since the season started with the Classic and everything that’s been going on, it’s been one straight roller-coaster ride,” he said. “I’ve had a pretty flawless year except for the second day at Falcon. I only had like 15 pounds and I should’ve had 30. It was just one of those days where they just didn’t come in.”
He said his previous tour experience, combined with his fishing pedigree that was shaped on the lakes around North Carolina, have helped him navigate this season with relative ease.
“It’s been all of my experiences fishing. I think the places that we’ve been being mostly new and with a lot of the guys not having prior knowledge, it’s kind of leveled the playing field,” he said. “I try not to ever get bigger than the moment and just realize what I’m there for and just enjoy it.
“I think earlier in my career I didn’t enjoy it as much because I was so concerned about the money, the money, the money and what you have. When you have a team and support in your corner, it’s a little bit easier to go do your job.”
He said he noticed a big swing in his mental approach when things started going his way at Grand Lake in February.
“I think it really switched for me on the first day of the Classic when I started catching them,” he said. “It just put the thought in my mind that I could do this. The biggest thing, though, was Livingston (Lures) coming on board and signing me and getting me to a point where if I don’t make a check at a tournament, I don’t have to worry about my family eating or the bills getting paid.
“When I fished the Tour, I fronted all the money so I was pressing a bit and then second-guessed a lot of my decisions. Now, I just put my head down and just fish with confidence. ”
Rookie In Name Only
The class of 2013 Elite Series rookies is a unique bunch. Among the nine rookies are a Forrest Wood Cup winner (Kevin Hawk), an FLW Tour winner (Jason Christie) and a U.S. Open winner (Clifford Pirch). Kelley Jaye, another rookie, is fishing both tours this season after fishing the FLW Tour in 2012.
Of the nine, only four really qualify as true newcomers to the top level of competition.
“It’s a pretty impressive rookie class when you go down the names,” Cherry said.
That’s why he’s relishing his position atop the ROY standings. He holds a 77-point advantage over Pirch after five events and a 79-point cushion over Christie, who’s 3rd.
“It’s been a goal from the beginning,” he said of winning ROY. “There are several good guys that are trying to get it, guys that I’ve known for a while and guys who are established. Honestly, it probably means a little more to me than it does to Jason (Christie) or Cliff (Pirch) because Cliff’s won a U.S. Open and Christie’s won a bunch. It would be the first big stamp for my career besides the Open win.”
While his experience level is limited at the three remaining venues on the Elite Series schedule, Cherry is optimistic that he’ll be able to hold serve.
He’s never fished the upper Mississippi River, but from what he’s seen and read, it could play to his strengths. He fished two FLW Tour events at the Detroit River so Lake St. Clair won’t be a foreign body of water to him. The wild card could prove to be the penultimate tournament at the St. Lawrence River.
“I’ve never been to the St. Lawrence, but I have such a love and a passion for fishing up that way since I went to Champlain for the first time,” he said. “I don’t foresee it being an issue or being intimidated. I need to go up there with a strong game plan and not get too far out of the realm of what I do best.”