Go time at Cherokee for 41st BFL All-American - Major League Fishing
Go time at Cherokee for 41st BFL All-American
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Go time at Cherokee for 41st BFL All-American

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Day 1 of the All-American got off to a splendid start. Photo by Jody White.
May 29, 2024 • Justin Onslow • Phoenix Bass Fishing League

JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – A top prize of up to $120,000 and a berth to REDCREST 2025 is on the line this week at Cherokee Lake, and with a small field of just 49 anglers and 49 Strike King Co-Anglers, the 41st annual Phoenix Bass Fishing League (BFL) All-American Championship Presented by T-H Marine presents an incredible opportunity to launch professional bass fishing careers under the brightest lights in grassroots bass fishing.

As the 49-boat field takes off this morning, it does so on a lake in a transition period that could offer up a few curveballs – even for the handful of anglers who have some familiarity with the eastern Tennessee fishery.

Take Jake Lee, for example. The Powell, Tennessee, angler, who lives about 45 minutes from takeoff and who has fished Cherokee his whole life, spent the official practice period doing his best to crack the code. With rising water levels and the fishery’s population on the front end of a postspawn funk, it hasn’t been easy for Lee to figure out Cherokee’s ample smallmouth and largemouth populations.

“I’m not getting many bites,” Lee said. “It’s been kind of hard for me. I didn’t even catch one today (the last day of practice). I don’t think people are going to be catching 50 or 60 fish. I think 10 or 15 would be pretty good.”

The main reason for that, Lee said, is that just about every bass is in postspawn mode – spread out throughout the lake and river, not really concentrated in any usual late-spring spots. And sifting through bait and other fish species offshore isn’t easy.

“It’s absolutely postspawn,” he said. “There may be a few (spawning) stragglers left. I haven’t found any, but I’m sure there’s a couple.

“It’s kind of hard because there’s bait everywhere. No matter where you put your trolling motor down, there’s bait and stripers in that bait and it doesn’t matter where you’re at. If this were a striper tournament, it’d be the most fun I’ve ever had.”

In addition, rains last week (along with the usual routine of regulating water levels back toward summer pool) have driven water levels to the extremes with the reservoir now sitting at just about full pool.

“It’s full,” Lee said. “It’s either full or almost full but it’s still coming up a couple inches a day. The crazy thing with these lakes is – it happens at Douglas too – these fish are almost used to it. It happens every year. If we were on a lowland lake, you may need some stabilization, but it isn’t a huge deal is here.”

Quickly rising water levels have also created a larger playing field for the 98 All-American anglers with ample shallow cover now in play.

The big question is…

Some anglers expect tech to play a big role in the event. Photo by Jody White.

Will forward-facing sonar be the real player at Cherokee this week?

Lee certainly thinks so.

“If I had to make a guess, I’d say LiveScope is probably going to dominate this tournament,” he said. “I would say about 80 percent of the field is going to be doing that.”

At Cherokee, especially in the postspawn stage, smallmouth tend to congregate offshore while largemouth primarily stay shallow, near the bank and up the river. As such, anglers utilizing forward-facing sonar are probably going to be focusing on the postspawn smallmouth population – but that too comes with drawbacks in the form of a bunch of “skinny” smallmouth compared to what you might expect from prespawn and late-summer fish.

“I do think that because these smallmouth are so skinny, the number I’ve got in my head is 14 or 15 [pounds] a day (to win),” Lee guessed. “I haven’t seen potential to do that with just smallmouth because they’re so skinny. I caught a 22-incher the first day of practice and it weighed 2.70.”

Which means…

It’s probably going to take a mixed bag to win the All-American, barring some big-time luck with a better-than-average school of smallmouth.

Lee believes the key to victory is going to be a solid bag of mostly smallmouth with a kicker largemouth or two mixed in – or an unlikely all-largemouth bag caught offshore.

“The only X-factor I can think of is if someone finds a big school of largemouth out off the bank,” he said. “That’s the only X-factor I can think of. You could see a guy leading up shallow fishing for largemouth after the first day, but I don’t think you can do it for three days.”

Still, every angler in the field should have ample water to find something to have all to themselves. From the riverine end of the fishery where shallow largemouth are very much in play to the south end of the lake with deep, clear water and lots of offshore smallmouth, there’s every opportunity to get on the winning fish without too much pressure from other anglers.

“I think it’s going to be pretty spread out,” Lee said. “You’ll have a bunch of guys on the lower end and midlake fishing for smallmouth and you’ll have several guys that go up the river to catch some largemouth. Any way you like to fish, you can go do it.”

The bottom line

The All-American nearly always provides some good drama. Photo by Rob Matsuura.

The All-American is a showcase of the best grassroots anglers from all over the country. There’s always the potential for something a little off-the-wall to be in play, especially on a fishery so diverse and so full of both largemouth and smallmouth. Someone could easily buck “local” trends and find an overlooked winning spot or pattern.

But, given the time of year and all the variables at play, it’s a safe bet forward-facing sonar will again have its day and smallmouth will be a big part of the equation, alongside a few kicker largemouth.

As for baits and techniques, the jighead minnow will be on a lot of front decks throughout the week, though topwaters, finesse plastics and larger swimbait offerings are always popular on Cherokee this time of year. For shallow largemouth, anglers can employ just about any bait they prefer for fishing rock, bluffs, bushes and laydowns.

Ultimately, the 2024 All-American is shaping up to be a true test of skill, and it should be a fun tournament from start to finish.

The MLFNOW! broadcast team of Chad McKee and Rob Newell will break down the extended action live on Championship Friday from 6:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. ET. MLFNOW! will be live streamed on MajorLeagueFishing.com and the MyOutdoorTV (MOTV) app.