JEFFERSON COUNTY, Tenn. – After four days on Douglas Lake, U.S. Air Force Stage Two Presented by Power-Pole moved down the road to Cherokee Lake for the final two days of competition. The switch offered hope for an improved bite over a generally slow series of qualifying days, and Cherokee didn’t disappoint. Wednesday’s Knockout Round produced some quality bags and a tightly packed leaderboard that should make things extra interesting for Thursday’s final.
Tennesee pro Michael Neal leads the field heading into Day 6 with 16 pounds, 14 ounces. His total is just 7 ounces ahead of Dakota Ebare. Behind them are three more anglers with bags over 16 pounds, making it easily the closest final day this season, since the switch to the winner being decided by cumulative weight from the Knockout and Championship Rounds.
Cherokee Lake is just over two hours away from Neal’s home near Lake Chickamauga, but he’s anything but a local. Still, he was able to have the best day of anyone in the Knockout Round.
“I came over one day to check it out in practice and it was the first time I had seen it in my life,” Neal said. “I feel good about today, but I’m all in on one area and have nothing else. It’s an area about the size of two football fields where the fish are around baitfish.”
Neal didn’t give complete specifics to his pattern, but shared that he’s catching smallmouth exclusively and fishing away from the bank.
“I’m offshore in 10 to 25 feet of water and looking for isolated rocks,” he said. “Tomorrow’s weather is going to be a lot different with the sun coming out and that’s either going to make my bite way better or way worse. I don’t see much in between.”
Neal is obviously hoping for a better bite and believes he’ll have to catch them with a stacked group of weights behind him.
“I’m hoping that the sun pushes those fish out and around the bait instead of just floating around like they were today,” he said. “But, it could be slick calm and those fish won’t want to bite anything.
With weights tightly grouped, Ebare feels that anyone left in the final 10 has a legitimate chance of winning. The Toro pro is looking to claim his third win this early in the year after already winning a Toyota Series and Tackle Warehouse Invitationals tournament.
“It’s anyone’s ballgame here and the guy who can catch 17 or 18 pounds has a chance to win it,” Ebare said. “I had a good day today, but never got a big bite. My biggest fish was 3-7 and all the rest were over 3 pounds. Getting one or two bigger fish to go with some threes would have me right there with a shot.”
Today was the first time Ebare had seen Cherokee after dedicating his entire practice period to Douglas Lake to ensure he even made it to the final round. That was the main reason for his slow start to the day, where he caught one small smallmouth in the first few minutes and then went scoreless until after the clock struck noon.
“I just went fishing and was finally able to run into a bunch of them later in the day,” Ebare said. “I started out trying to target smallmouth and then decided to try for some largemouth when I had a decent limit. I never caught any, but I found out where the bigger smallmouth were and hope that pattern works for me tomorrow.”
The changing weather conditions for Thursday should be better for what Ebare is doing and he said the warmer weather is a plus.
“(The wind is) supposed to blow a little harder tomorrow, which could be good,” he said. “What excites me most is the sunshine that’s supposed to come tomorrow. It’s been so cold this week that anything to warm up the water should get the fish to bite better.”
The largemouth bite: As predicted, smallmouth outnumbered largemouth on Cherokee. It was nearly 2-to-1 (156 to 88) today, but the green fish did play a significant role. The Berkley Big Bass of the day was Chris Lane’s 4-13 largemouth, and some other nice ones were caught.
The Top 10 anglers were split. Some only weighed largemouth, some had just smallmouth, and others had mixed bags. It’s too soon to tell which species will win, but largemouth are a factor.
Rookies showing out: It’s hard to call someone who qualified for the Bass Pro Tour via the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit a “rookie,” but the “newcomers” had a great showing here in Tennessee.
Matt Becker (6th), Spencer Shuffield (7th) and Nick LeBrun (9th) all made the final day. Two others, Jacob Wall (12th) and John Hunter (13th), barely missed it.
Stage Two has one more day on Cherokee Lake for all the marbles. The rain and overcast from today will likely turn to sunshine, possibly forcing the anglers to adjust if they expect to win. The action starts at 8:45 a.m. ET with MLFNOW! streaming live on MajorLeagueFishing.com and lines going in at 9 a.m. ET. The pros will fish for three periods until 5 p.m. ET.