JEFFERSON COUNTY, Tenn. – In the history of tournament bass fishing, some of the most interesting – borderline epic – wins have come when an angler went “off the grid” to find the winning spot. John Cox on the Red River and Wheeler Lake come to mind. Or Edwin Evers at REDCREST 2019 on the upper Mississippi River.
Add Keith Poche and Cherokee Lake to the list.
It probably didn’t come as a surprise to anybody who knows the Alabama pro when he maneuvered his 18-foot Gator Trax aluminum boat 1 hour, 15 minutes up the Holston River from tournament takeoff – over shoals and shallows that the rest of the field couldn’t run – to locate the sweetest of honey holes on Cherokee. The result was 35 pounds, 6 ounces of smallmouth and largemouth over two days in one of the most off-the-grid spots in the lake to secure his tour-level win at U.S. Air Force Stage Two Presented by Power-Pole.
Fishing the heavy tailrace current of a spillway below a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant near Rogersville, Poche stacked up 19-2 on the final day to secure a win over Dakota Ebare (34-5) and Michael Neal (32-0).
“I guess I’m just doing it my way,” said Poche, who opted to fish the 2023 season out of the kind of small boat that he’s become known for the past several years (thanks partly to his “Off the Grid” YouTube series). “Words can’t even explain how I feel. To work so hard and finally get one – and to do it my way fishing out of a little boat, the way I like to fish – I couldn’t ask for anything else.”
As was the case with most of the anglers fishing the Championship Round, Poche opted to not practice on Cherokee, instead spending all three of his practice days on Douglas Lake to give himself the best chance to advance out of the Qualifying Rounds. Unlike most of the rest of the field, though, Poche had solid knowledge of his winning tailrace, courtesy of a 17-pound day he spent in that spot during a Bassmaster Open in 2022.
“I told everybody, ‘Let me get to Cherokee and see what happens,’” Poche said. “I knew what lived up there, I felt in my heart that I could win it up that river if I made it to Cherokee.”
Fishing a 4-inch Berkley PowerBait Hollow Belly in sexy shad on a 3/8-ounce shad-colored Berkley Fusion19 Swimbait Jighead (4/0 hook), Poche worked his way back and forth below the boiling bottom of the spillway, casting the swimbait into the boiling water and letting the current carry it to smallmouth (and occasional largemouth) holding just below.
“Fish were sitting right on the edge of that wash,” Poche said. “That water would boil back on itself, it made a little bit of an eddy, you’d call it. Smallmouth like that current, though. I had to throw right into the wash, or just above it. If I threw it anywhere else, the current would just take it right out. I’d throw it up there and let the current move the bait – fish would come out and grab it.”
Poche’s final day percolated along through the first period and half of the second, with just over 14 pounds on SCORETRACKER® to his credit. Ebare, meanwhile, overtook Neal for the lead in Period 1 thanks to a 4-2 and a pair of 3-10s to anchor his five-fish bag at that point. Poche started to surge in the second period, though, upgrading with a 3-12 smallmouth just before noon, bumping up again with a 3-4 smallmouth an hour later. Then, he connected with the surprise fish of the day, a 4-5 largemouth that bit a Berkley PowerBait Finesse Jig with a 3-inch Berkley PowerBait Shape 108 Craw in Alabama craw.
Poche would end up upgrading four of his five fish in the second period, adding to the Berkley Big Fish 4-10 smallmouth he caught in the first period.
“That spot was either going to work or it wasn’t, I was going to fish there no matter what,” Poche said of his all-in game plan. “I don’t know enough to know any better, but I guess that’s what we do; we just go with our gut and trust it and make good decisions. Sometimes we get it right. I knew those fish lived there, I figured they’d be there and I thought I could make it happen – it turns out that I did.”
Ebare keeps it tight in second place: For the better part of two periods, Ebare looked destined to pick up his second tour-level win of the season. The Louisiana-native-turned-Texan seemed to have the upper hand on quality fish throughout the first half of the day, connecting with three fish over 3-10 in the first period and holding Poche at bay for three hours. Ebare’s $45,000 Stage Two check brings his season winnings to $305,000 less than a third of the way through the 2023 season.
Smallmouth are king: As was the case in the Knockout Round, smallmouth again accounted for the lion’s share of the weighed catch in the Championship Round, tallying 168-11 to 65-1 largemouth.
More credit to Poche: In addition to the best five-fish weight on the day (19-2), Poche also caught the Berkley Big Bass (a 4-10 smallmouth), the biggest smallmouth of the two rounds fished on Cherokee (same fish), the biggest largemouth (4-5) and the most fish (20).
DeFoe claims AOY lead: With his seventh-place finish, Ott DeFoe unofficially took over the Bally Bet Angler of the Year lead. Check back for updated standings.
1. Keith Poche – 35-6 (10)
2. Dakota Ebare – 34-5 (10)
3. Michael Neal – 32-0 (10)
4. Spencer Shuffield – 31-14 (10)
5. Justin Lucas – 31-0 (10)
6. Matt Becker – 29-10 (10)
7. Ott DeFoe – 29-6 (10)
8. Jacob Wheeler – 28-1 (10)
9. Todd Faircloth – 26-13 (10)
10. Nick LeBrun – 25-13 (9)