By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor

Zack Birge had his toughest season on the MLF Bass Pro Tour in 2023, ending up 48th in the final points standings and failing to qualify for the REDCREST Championship for the first time. He didn't have a single Top-25 finish in seven events.

The Oklahoman, who turned 33 last month, has bounced back in a big way this year. He notched his first tour-level victory in last week's event at Lake Eufaula in his home state and now sits at No. 9 in the Angler of the Year (AOY) race with more than half the season in the books.

"To win feels real good – I'd been a long time waiting for it," he said. "I'd been close a lot of times, but I'd always have something dumb happen; I'd run out of fish or make a bad call. I'd put myself in position pretty often, but it never happened until now.

"I'd been pretty mad at myself because I hadn't won anything lately – not a Toyota Series, a BFL or anything. My competitive drive is really high and never winning, I get a little frustrated. I finally got one!"

He came in with considerable experience on the venue, which is about a 2-hour drive from his home in Blanchard, Okla., but hadn't fished it much in the past eight on nine years since turning pro.

"It's never really been at the top of my list of favorite lakes, but it's a place where you can usually catch a good number of fish and have a good time," he said. "This one came down to a little bit of history, some good decisions and making an unbelievable amount of casts."

He considers himself quite proficient using forward-facing sonar and has no qualms with fishing that way when the scenario is conducive for it, but he was happy to achieve his first win in more of an "old school" manner. He'd like to see more derbies play out like this one, which featured constantly changing conditions on the Sooner State's largest lake as the water level went up, then down and displayed various stages of clarity due to recent heavy rains.

He was the last angler from Qualifying Group B to advance to the Knockout Round and the second-to-last to punch his ticket to the Championship Round. He then dominated the rain-drenched final day – with his electronics shut off, he used a 3/8-ounce Omega Rapture (chartreuse/white) bladed jig with a Reaction Innovations Little Dipper trailer and a black Toad Thumper frog to catch 17 scorable fish that combined to weigh 46-10, outdistancing runner-up Drew Gill by almost 16 pounds.

He never left Eufaula Cove, where the launch ramp was located, and said he doubts he burned a gallon of gas all day. He gave props to his Alpha Angler Power Skipping (bladed jig) and Zilla (frog) rods and 30-pound Yo-Zuri SuperBraid line.

"I feel like I'm good (at 'Scoping) – I know what I'm looking at and I know how to catch them on it, and at Toledo Bend (where he placed 5th in early February) it was all I did," he said. "But I'm not 100-percent dedicated to it and I don't really like to spend the whole day doing it. I like to throw a frog and flip and do that kind of stuff."

He won't be among the field for the Heavy Hitters event that will take place later this month at Florida's Kissimmee Chain. The next full-field tournament is set for North Carolina's Chowan River (June 4-9) and he looks forward to competing with the confidence boost he'll derive from knowing he can win at the top level.

"I'm pretty excited for the rest of the season and now, being in 9th place, I've at least got a shot at Angler of the Year," he said. "I'll just take it one event at a time and do as good as I can and if it happens, it happens.

"I think I'm even hungrier to win again now that I know I can do it."