By MLF Communications Staff

EUFAULA, Okla. – As he idled out of Peter’s Point-Nichols Point Marina for the Championship Round on Lake Eufaula, Zack Birge of Blanchard, Oklahoma, planned to run down the lake to some spawning bass he’d located earlier during the MLF Bass Pro Tour event. But when he turned the corner, a stretch of flooded bank grass caught his eye.

“What the heck,” Birge figured. Might as well fish the pocket, where he’d started the first day of the Qualifying Round on Wednesday, while he was in the neighborhood.

Birge never left. His last-second decision paid off in the form of 17 scorable bass for 46 pounds, 10 ounces, earning the Oklahoma resident the win that has narrowly eluded him throughout his 5 1/2 years on the Bass Pro Tour and four prior seasons on the FLW Tour.

“I was telling my official that I wanted to go down lake and start on a couple of bed fish that I thought I could catch quick, and then after that just kind of play it on the fly,” Birge said. “And then as I was idling around the corner, I glanced over to where I started the first day, and I thought, ‘You know what? I better just go there. I’m right here, might as well just give it a half hour and see if I can get some bites.’ And I’m glad I did. That was the best decision of the whole tournament.”

Pitching a bladed jig around the flooded grass and brush, it took Birge just three minutes to land his first scorable bass. He added two more in the next 15, bringing his total to 8-0. While Drew Gill and Skeet Reese threatened at times, Birge would go on to defend the top spot on ScoreTracker all day. His final tally, the best of any angler during the event, put him 15-13 clear of Gill.

While Birge garnered a bit of pre-tournament buzz thanks to his experience on Eufaula, prior to Sunday, he never really looked like the angler to beat. It took a clutch catch — a 3-10 largemouth off a bed, which put him 7 ounces clear of the cut line with about 20 minutes left in the second day of the Qualifying Round – for him to sneak into the Knockout Round. And while he started Saturday strong, he didn’t catch a scorable bass during the final 3 1/2 hours, at one point wondering aloud on MLFNOW! what to do if he did make the final day.

But with the conditions on Eufaula changing by the day, so did the bite, and Birge used his Oklahoma instincts to take advantage. A week that brought tornadoes and thunderstorms, a four-foot spike in the lake level and constantly fluctuating water clarity threw one last curveball at the Championship Round competitors in the form of an all-day drizzle. Birge believes the stabilized water level combined with the overcast conditions prompted more bass to move into the newly flooded cover and feed.

“I think the biggest factor was the water has settled now for several days, and a good number of fish have finally swam up there where they’re catchable for me,” he explained. “When it came up four feet, not all the fish swam up to the bank, to the water line. It was really hard to get any bites at all. And I just think over the past day or two, it really got good, and it showed today. I mean, I got a ton of bites today. Much more than I’ve gotten all week.”

While the area Birge patrolled during the Championship Round is far from a secret, he credited his experience on the lake for getting him to the final day amid challenging conditions. It also helped to know that the area near takeoff tends to have one of the healthiest bass populations on the lake, even though the water there stayed fairly dirty.

“Knowing where to go and what to do a little bit earlier in the week helped, and really knowing how many fish live in this creek and how good it can be,” he said.

Like he had all week, Birge relied on an Omega Rapture vibrating jig to cover water. He wielded it on a 6-foot-11 Power Skip rod from Alpha Angler spooled with 30-pound Yo-Zuri SuperBraid. Birge said he made “an unbelievable amount of casts each day,” using the bladed jig to identify which of the thousands of pieces of flooded cover housed fish. Seven of the nine bass he boated during the first period Sunday ate the bait.

At that point, he led by nearly 8 pounds over his nearest pursuer. But as his bite slowed, both Reese and Gill gained ground, with Gill pulling within 4 pounds midway through the second period.

Birge didn’t panic, staying in the same zone but slowing down, using a black Toad Thumper frog to dissect the cover. Every time it seemed like his lead might be in jeopardy, Birge answered with a flurry of his own. He delivered the dagger with about 50 minutes left when a 5-9 slurped his frog. As Birge boat-flipped the brute (which earned him an extra $1,000 as the Berkley Big Bass for the day), he knew he’d won, exclaiming “that’s it, baby!”

“That was awesome, because I was starting to stress it a little bit,” Birge said. “They caught them good yesterday afternoon when I didn’t catch hardly anything, and I knew that they would probably start catching some again, and it was getting kind of close. … Then I caught that 5-9 with a little bit to go, and I was like, this has got to be it.”

Cracking a 5 1/2-pounder on a frog fits any angler’s definition of fun. But even before then, Birge clearly enjoyed himself on Eufaula — as evidenced by the Hulk Hogan-esque horseshoe mustache he rocked all week, which just might become a permanent fixture.

“It seems like it’s pretty good luck, so I might sport it a little while,” Birge said with a chuckle.

While he enjoys fishing with forward-facing sonar, Birge relished the throwback nature of this derby — wielding heavy tackle, making precise casts around shallow cover, his electronics turned off. Plus, his wife, children and a host of other family and friends made the roughly two-hour drive from his home in Blanchard, Oklahoma, to watch the action firsthand. His proximity to the boat ramp Sunday meant he could hear their cheers every time he added to his total.

“It was awesome,” he said. “They got to watch me from the bank this morning for a long time, and a buddy of mine showed up, put his boat in and was following me around, and a little while later I looked back and my wife had gotten in the boat with him. So, that was cool. It was cool to have that support.”

As the final minutes ticked by in Period 3, the whoops and cheers reached a crescendo. Birge’s emotions showed as the accomplishment sunk in and he struggled to find the words to describe his first win after 11 prior Top-10 finishes on the Bass Pro Tour.

One thing he made clear: The first-place paycheck will be nice. But the feeling of finally lifting a trophy at a national tour event is one he’ll never forget.

“I’ve been so close so many times,” Birge said. “I’ve finished second. My rookie season I should have won an event, and I choked the last day and made some bad decisions. And looking back on it, I kind of think it was a good thing it went that way. This is year nine or 10 that I’ve been doing this now, and it means a lot to finally get one. I’m super, super competitive, and that’s everything I do in life, so it sure feels good to win.”

The top of the Angler of the Year standings didn’t change Sunday, with Jacob Wheeler maintaining a 12-point advantage over Alton Jones Jr. However, several anglers entered the Top 10, positioning themselves to factor into the race for the $100,000 first-place prize across the final three regular-season events.

With his win, Birge moved from 19th place at the start of the event to ninth with 245.5 points. Immediately ahead of him are fellow Championship Round competitors Jeff Sprague (248.5 points) and Nick LeBrun (252). Gill moved into fifth place with 269.5, while Cole Floyd continued his strong season and climbed to fourth place, 3 points ahead of Gill and 3 back of Dustin Connell in third.

Championship Round

(Figure before prize money indicates weight of angler's heaviest fish for the round)

1. Zack Birge -- 46-10 (17) -- 5-09 -- $100,000

2. Drew Gill -- 30-13 (13) -- 5-03 -- $45,000

3. Skeet Reese -- 28-06 (12) -- 4-13 -- $38,000

4. Randy Howell -- 27-13 (12) -- 4-11 -- $32,000

5. Nick LeBrun -- 25-02 (9) -- 4-10 -- $30,000

6. Cole Floyd -- 24-05 (8) -- 5-01 -- $26,000

7. Jeff Sprague -- 15-13 (7) -- 3-04 -- $23,000

8. Luke Clausen -- 15-08 (6) -- 4-13 -- $21,000

9. Martin Villa -- 9-08 (4) -- 2-13 -- $19,000

10. Britt Myers -- 3-10 (2) -- 2-01 -- $16,000