Even at age 4, Hank Cherry knew he wanted to be a fisherman.
“Some of my oldest memories I have are fishing with my dad down at Lake Wylie,” Cherry said. “The one thing I remember that my dad never lets me forget is I was so eager to get there and hated to leave. I said for a long time that if someone paid me $5 a day to fish, I’d never be late for work. The outdoors in general have a special place in my heart.”
Now, the 39-year-old Maiden resident is hoping to build a career in the sport.
As Cherry grew into his teens, the thought of competing as a professional fisherman loomed large in his life.
“It was always in the back of my mind, but it was important to go to school and graduate,” he said. “When I got out of college, that is when I started trying.”
After graduating from UNC-Pembroke with a degree in Criminal Justice, Cherry started working his way through the grassroots of fishing.
Not knowing what to expect, Cherry competed in his first-ever professional fishing tournament — an EverStart Series event at Lake Okeechobee in Florida — on Jan. 10, 2004.
“I went down there by myself, didn’t know anybody and finished eighth,” he said. “I made both the cuts.”
Riding the biggest high of his life, Cherry returned home a hero, but his world slowly started to turn completely upside down.
“At that time in my life as you fast forward just a little bit past that, I was getting ready to get divorced from the girl I’d dated for 7-8 years and been married to for 4-5 years,” he said. “Before I left for my second tournament, she told me she was going to leave me before I got back. There are a couple of years there were I bounced around and didn’t do a whole lot of fishing. I guess I was mad or bitter. Then, I just started to miss it.”
After spending a lot of time away from one of his favorite activities, Cherry decided to get back into the sport and rekindle the fire and passion he once had.
He started competing in the Walmart FLW Tour — named after founder Forrest L. Wood.
As he started to get his legs back under him, more bad fortune followed Cherry in his quest to become one of the best anglers in the country.
“I got into FLW and was doing good there, but the economy started getting bad,” he said. “Then it got worse. I lost all of my sponsors and about lost everything I had.”
Down on his luck once again, Cherry went with a friend, Craig Chambers, to compete at the Oakley Big Bass Tournament in June 2008.
During the event, Cherry caught a 5.14-pound bass in Stumpy Creek with a big Silent Killer swim bait.
The catch earned Cherry the tournament win, which included a Nitro Z8 bass boat and $800 cash.
“You always sit there and wonder why is this happening to me?” Cherry said of his struggles. “I guess you feel sorry for yourself a little bit, but then you get tired of that, stand up, shake it off and start going again. When I fished the Oakley Big Bass tournament on Lake Norman, I didn’t even have a boat. I won the overall big fish in the event and the won the boat. I finally had a boat to go fishing with again.”
Finally with solid ground to stand on, Cherry’s next goal was to make it to fishing’s top level — the Bassmaster Classic.
After twice attempting to qualify for the Classic, Cherry finally won the Southern Open this past September at Smith Lake in Jasper, Ala.
He also finished fourth in the Bassmaster Elites Bass Fishing Tournament Series points, earning his Classic spot.
“That win was kind of like a turning point and a sign,” he said. “I had a tough, young love divorce. Then I meet this great woman, who is my wife. I have a 3-year-old son. I go to a lake, where I have a little bit of history, not knowing what to expect. I'm there for two days, and I call my wife to tell her I think I'm going to win. She is my biggest fan. She told me if I thought I could win to go do it.”
Cherry credits a newfound faith in his life’s turnaround.
“There were so many events leading up to winning that tournament, including my baptism, which was 9-10 months ago,” he said. “I credit everything — all my success and my positive energy — towards the day after I was baptized. I know a lot of people use that as a cliche, but my faith is so strong. I would much rather talk to people about my religion than fishing.”
Cherry felt a huge sense of achievement in making his first-ever appearance at the Bassmaster Classic at Grand Lake in Tulsa, Okla on Feb. 22-23 of this year.
“That tournament is kind of like a NASCAR driver showing up at Daytona,” Cherry said. “If you show up at that event, you have made it. They are counting you as one of the 53 best in the world. You've been through the ringer to make it there to have entry into the tournament. Everybody that knows anything about fishing has their eyes on you and are watching. That is probably the best place to make a name for yourself.”
Cherry made the most of his first Classic appearance — taking third place after catching 49 pounds of bass.
He continues to live out his lifelong dream with his rod and reel in hand.
During the next two weeks, Cherry is competing in two fishing tournaments in Texas, including the Sabine River Challenge in Orange from March 14-17 and Falcon Slam in Zapata from March 21-24.
“Now that I'm no longer employed, I guess I'm self employed,” he said. “I'm on my way to Texas to fish the first two events of the year. Everything is looking up. I've got a great boat sponsor and a great motor sponsor. It seems like every day we are picking up another sponsor to put the pieces together. We are building sponsor product and sponsor dollars as we go. It's looking very, very bright at the moment.”