Scouting Cherokee with O'Connell - Major League Fishing
Scouting Cherokee with O’Connell
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Scouting Cherokee with O’Connell

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Ride along with Matt O'Connell to take stock of the lake on the final day of practice. Photo by Jody White. Angler: Matt Oconnell.
May 28, 2024 • Jody White • Phoenix Bass Fishing League

JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – This year’s Phoenix Bass Fishing League All-American Presented by T-H Marine on Lake Cherokee promises to be a fascinating tournament, with several variables in play at an interesting time of year. For a last look at the playing field, we hopped in the boat with Matt O’Connell – last year’s runner-up and the Fishing Clash Angler of the Year in the Central Division of the Toyota Series.

Here’s how he broke down his final morning of practice for the All-American.

With practice beginning at 6:19 sharp in the morning, O’Connell and the rest of the field have plenty of light at the ramp. After divvying out a few baits to fellow competitors Aspen Martin and Dillon Falardeau (he’s basically a mobile CAST Fishing Co. tackle store), O’Connell gets the boat in the water and begins his day.

For starters, the Georgia pro scouts for a shad spawn, or the remnants of it. Moving quickly, he bounces from the main lake to pockets, throwing various white baits in search of a shallow bite. With the water up in the bushes, which is not too unheard of on Cherokee, there are some willows and trees that are submerged in 5 or 10 feet of water. It’s an interesting dynamic, and according to O’Connell, one that is pretty hard to sift through.

According to O’Connell, there was a fairly robust shad spawn early in practice. Now, on a dock that was loaded with spawning shad earlier, there is barely a flicker. Seining through docks and bushes, he gets one solid bite that he shakes off, but that’s it.

“It’s crazy how much more water there is in this stuff,” he said of the progression. “You could throw a swim jig in all this, up in it, now all you can fish is the edge. I think Day 1, someone will have probably 15 or 16 pounds doing this kind of stuff, but they might only have 10 pounds on Day 2.” 

After about an hour of running the banks, O’Connell dips out offshore with a spinning rod. This is how he’ll spend the rest of the morning, for the most part, and it’s immediately productive. Slinging a drop-shot, he puts a 2-pound smallie on deck and gets another bite in short order.

Hopping around from feature to feature offshore, O’Connell begins to get a bite here and there. It’s not gangbusters, but you can see how a limit could happen, and with a little luck maybe a kicker.

Interestingly, O’Connell isn’t really idling much or marking waypoints – he’s running based on the map, and then breaking things down with LiveScope.

“There’s so much stuff you could mark, you could get lost fishing it all in a day,” he said.

So, instead, he’s really only dropping waypoints on the places that seem to have the most bass.

A mix between chaotic and meticulous, O’Connell is spending a lot of time trying various baits this morning. Rotating between drop-shots, Damiki rigs and Ned rigs, part of today’s mission is definitely to narrow down what will work best. As a result, his Phoenix is overflowing with rods and bits and bobs of discarded tackle. Will something he tries today be the winning bait? Only time will tell.

O’Connell does occasionally get distracted from the offshore game. In his 30s, O’Connell was raised in fishing well before forward-facing sonar, which means an interesting bird or two in a bush or some particularly juicy laydown will get his attention. Still, they’re brief distractions, and usually unproductive – though he’s certainly not committing the time shallow that others might be, it’s not producing when he does.

The second landed bass of the day for O’Connell is a non-keeper, and the morning is turning out to be fairly slow. On most stops, there are fish on the screen, but they’re not biting with a lot of regularity.

“I think I can get more bites further up the lake, I just haven’t been over there,” he said. “And I think if I really throw the drop-shot it gets more bites. I seem to be going in little flurries on this lake, I’ll have an hour where I catch three or four keepers. But, I don’t know if that’s a location thing or a timing thing. But, most of the guys I’ve been talking to have struggled to get keepers.”

One of the issues with the offshore bite is the plethora of species flourishing in Cherokee. With walleye, stripers, hybrids, and a lot of small carp, the sonar is loaded with possibilities. While flipping bushes in 10 feet of water is hardly efficient, the various options off the bank are making that approach tricky as well.

With the day beginning to wind down, I want a practice update. O’Connell has largely stayed off the places that are theoretically the best, but the bite does seem to be pretty tough.

“I’d say it’s been like a medium practice,” outlined O’Connell. “I don’t have something figured out that gives me confidence I can win. But I’ve fished enough that I think maybe now I have a collection of enough of the good stuff where I can stumble into 15 pounds. It’s not like Hartwell last year, where if I didn’t finish in the top five it would be a disappointment. I think I could make a Top 10, but I’d be pretty surprised if I won.”

That being the case, it might come down to a game-day decision – starting on the right place or maybe getting a lucky bite somehow. As far as how to put himself in that position, O’Connell hasn’t got it figured out yet.

“The thing about this one I’m not sure about is how to approach it,” he said. “I don’t have a starting spot in my head, which I’m not feeling good about. At this rate, I might have to find out where the off-limits is and fish for retreads all day.”  

Noon comes fast. After a few more stops, it’s time to put it on the trailer. Fishing up to the last minute, O’Connell has done all he can do to prepare for his second All-American as a boater. Come weigh-in, we’ll see how practice panned out.