After spending two grueling days running over an hour up the river, off the beaten path, pro Keith Poche of Pike Road, Alabama , weighed a five-bass limit Thursday totaling 19 pounds, 2 ounces to earn his first Bass Pro Tour win and the top award of $100,000 at the Major League Fishing (MLF) U.S. Air Force Stage Two Presented by Power-Pole on Cherokee Lake. Poche’s two-day total of 10 bass weighing 35-6 earned him the win by a 1-pound, 1-ounce margin over second-place finisher Dakota Ebare of Brookeland, Texas, who was hot on his heels throughout most of the day.
Poche started the Championship Round on Thursday in third place but despite catching several scorable bass, had dropped to seventh by 11 a.m. However, his luck – and his catch count –drastically changed.
The Alabama pro caught 20 scorable bass throughout the day, most of them smallmouth, but it was a hefty 4-pound, 5-ounce largemouth mid-way through Period 2 that moved Poche into the top spot, a position he then maintained throughout the remainder of the Championship Round.
“Words can’t explain how I feel right now and to get this win after working so hard all these years to get here is just incredible,” said Poche. “To fish against such great anglers, and to come out on top doing it my way – how I like to fish, off the grid in my little Gator Trax – is just amazing.”
Poche said he had a decent first day on Cherokee Lake during the Knockout Round but lost a couple key fish that he felt would have helped him.
“Losing those fish was unfortunate, but I just kept reminding myself that there was a lot of fish there,” said Poche. “I was on this lake last year around the same time and I sacked almost 18 pounds, so I knew it could happen. But I wasn’t 100% sure, because I didn’t practice on this lake prior to this event.
“I focused all my practice time on Douglas Lake, because I knew if I got to Cherokee Lake, I had a chance,” continued Poche. “I’ve been up the river here on Cherokee, and I know what lives up there. I also knew I had those off-the-grid opportunities that no one else in the field would have. So, I just went fishing the past two days.”
With more than an hour run to his area up by the dam both days, in a boat that tops out at 46 miles per hour, Poche knew he would win it or lose it in that spot.
“It took me a little over an hour to get up to the dam today and the first period was just okay,” said Poche. “I caught three scorable fish, but they really turned on and started feeding in that second period. When you’re fishing current, the fish typically group up, move in and feed, and then move out, so you just have to stay with them and keep casting. Eventually you’ll hit a stretch and boom – you’ll catch them one after the other.”
Poche said he caught most of his fish on a 4-inch sexy-shad colored Berkley Powerbait Hollow Belly Swimbait.
“I’m just going fishing and having fun and for so many years I fought that, but I’ve finally come into myself to just do it how I like to do it and I’m having such a great time,” said Poche. “I was lucky enough to get the right bites at the right time. I caught that 4-pounder on a jig, and without that bass, I don’t know if I would have won or not.
“That was my last big fish before they turned off, and I said out loud, ‘Baby, I don’t know where you came from, but I love you,’” Poche said, laughing. “I also caught a chunky smallmouth that weighed 4-10. I didn’t even know there were smallmouth that big up there, but I got her today.”
Poche said at the end of the day, it’s really all about putting in the work and knowing that eventually, it will pay off.
“The Gator Trax boat floats really shallow, so you have to maneuver through the rocks and try not to tear anything up, but that’s just what it takes,” said Poche. “You have to get in there and get where they live. A lot of people don’t want to go the extra mile and put in the extra work to find these places off the beaten path – and they can’t always get to them in their bigger boats – but that’s my style and that’s what I look forward to.
“It was a journey, each day, but I’m so happy we got it done,” Poche continued. “To have a day like this and to beat these other fantastic anglers – it was just my week and I’m so thankful. My family is here to support me and that’s what it’s all about.”
The top 10 pros from the U.S. Air Force Stage Two on Cherokee and Douglas Lakes Presented by Power-Pole finished:
1st: Keith Poche, Pike Road, Ala., 10 bass, 35-6, $100,000
2nd: Dakota Ebare, Brookeland, Texas, 10 bass, 34-5, $45,000
3rd: Michael Neal, Dayton, Tennessee, 10 bass, 32-0, $38,000
4th: Spencer Shuffield, Hot Springs, Ark., 10 bass, 31-14, $32,000
5th: Justin Lucas, Guntersville, Ala., 10 bass, 31-0, $30,000
6th: Matt Becker, Ten Mile, Tenn., 10 bass, 29-10, $26,000
7th: Ott DeFoe, Blaine, Tenn., 10 bass, 29-6, $23,000
8th: Jacob Wheeler, Harrison, Tenn., 10 bass, 28-1, $21,000
9th: Todd Faircloth, Jasper, Texas, 10 bass, 26-13, $19,000
10th: Nick LeBrun, Bossier City, La., 10 bass, 25-13, $16,000
Full results for the entire field can be found at MajorLeagueFishing.com.
Thursday’s Championship Round $1,000 Berkley Big Bass award went to Poche with the 4-pound, 10-ounce smallmouth that he caught on a swimbait in Period 1. Hot Springs, Arkansas pro Dylan Hays earned the $3,000 Berkley Big Bass award for the overall largest bass of the event with his 6-pound, 13-ounce largemouth that was weighed on Day 3 of competition.