Cherry's victory is twice as nice in keeping his crown

Lynn Burkhead
For the Herald Democrat
For the second year in a row, North Carolina angler Hank Cherry had a lot to think about after capturing the Bassmaster Classic title. He won the 51st Classic at Lake Ray Roberts, becoming only the fourth angler in history to win back-to-back Classic trophies.

FORT WORTH — A year ago, as America prepared to go into the COVID-19 pandemic, North Carolina pro Hank Cherry stood in a confetti downpour as he held aloft the 50th trophy in Bassmaster Classic history.

Much has changed in the world since March 2020, but one thing remained the same on Sunday in Fort Worth after three days of competition in the 51st Bassmaster Classic at Lake Ray Roberts.

And that was simply this, that as the red, white, and blue confetti fell, the laser lights flashed, and the crowd roared at Dickies Arena, Hank Cherry was still the Classic champion thanks to a tournament that no one will soon forget.

Cherry, on top of Classic Sunday once again, certainly won’t after weighing in 15 bass over three days that tipped the scales — being manned by legendary B.A.S.S. weigh-in master Trip Weldon for the final time as he battles cancer and retires — to 50-pounds, 15-ounces.

While a long way from Cherry’s commanding 65-pound, 5-ounce effort at Guntersville last spring, his 2021 Classic effort was still good enough for the $300,000 payday at Ray Roberts and his fourth career victory.

In holding off hard-charging runner-up Matt Arey — the North Carolinian finished 1-pound, 14-ounces behind at 49-01 — Cherry cemented his place in bass fishing history, joining only Rick Clunn, Kevin VanDam and Jordan Lee as back-to-back champions in the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing.

The tournament began on Friday, June 11, a day which featured warm temperatures, partly cloudy skies and a strong southerly breeze that sent waves over the bows of competitor’s bass rigs and made flipping miles of flooded shoreline difficult as boat position proved to be the day’s biggest challenge on a 25,600-acre reservoir that was flooded.

After an opening morning blast off that drew at least a couple of thousand spectators and an opening invocation by U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, Cherry started off his title defense with five Ray Roberts bass weighing 20-pounds, 4-ounces. That put him in the hunt, 2-pounds, 12-ounces behind Day One leader Steve Kennedy’s 23-00 effort, the tournament’s biggest limit over three days.

On Day Two, an MCS (mesoscale convective complex) thunderstorm system rolled out of Oklahoma in the pre-dawn hours, cutting Saturday’s competition time by almost two-hours after the severe weather delay. While a number of anglers missed the early shad spawn bite they had relied on during Friday morning’s opening minutes — Kennedy had boated more than 17-pounds in the tournament’s first half-hour — Cherry flipped his way to two fish, and then headed for the 141-foot high, two-mile long earthen dam on the southern end of Ray Roberts.

Using a prototype Berkley Stunna jerkbait that will hit the market later this summer, Cherry found his way into the lead, eventually weighing in five bass at 17-10, good enough for 37 pounds, 14 ounces over two days and a 4-12 lead over B.A.S.S. Nation champ Justin Kerr sitting in second place.

Ironically enough, Cherry noted in the media center on Saturday night that the previous year at Alabama’s Lake Guntersville, he had enjoyed a 4-pound, 13-ounce lead heading into the 2020 Classic’s final day.

At Guntersville a year ago, Cherry had enjoyed a virtual victory lap in the Silver Anniversary Classic, weighing in five bass at 19-pounds, 8-ounces, good enough for a 6-pound, 11-ounce victory over runner-up Todd Auten.

But Sunday at Ray Roberts, Cherry endured a much different day en route to the Classic championship, weighing in five bass for 13-01, giving him a narrow 1-pound, 14-ounce triumph over Arey’s championship round catch of 18-00.

While Cherry didn’t dominate on Day Three as he did a year ago when he weighed in more than 65-pounds in Alabama, the result last Sunday in North Texas was still the same after the Classic’s third visit to the Lone Star State (previous Texas Classics include Lake Texoma in 1979 and Lake Conroe in 2017).

And that result was this, that once again at Ray Roberts, Classic Sunday had a Cherry on top when the weigh-in was over and the confetti had been fired out of the air cannons as a crowd of more than 147,000 fans — the second-highest attendance total in Classic history, by the way — cheered on the back-to-back champion.

“It's the biggest honor I could dream of as a kid," said Cherry, who claimed his fourth career B.A.S.S. victory, claimed his second Classic crown in six tries, and pushed his total tournament earnings past the $1.3 million mark in a nine-year career.

"I've fulfilled my childhood fantasy twice now and I'm not even thinking about a third. It hasn't sunk in yet and it won't until I go to sleep tonight.”

In an event that featured plenty of ups and plenty of downs as the weather changed daily on an already challenging fishery, the North Carolina pro was proud of persevering to the end and etching his name into Bassmaster Classic lore once again.

"I'm proud of not giving up and fighting through the heat and just proud to be representing,” said Cherry.

And he’ll do just that, represent the Bassmaster Classic as its reigning champion for yet another year. Take your bow, Hank Cherry, for a job well done…again.