By Todd Ceisner
Zack Birge’s first shot at a $300,000 payday this month didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. His second chance at a six-figure prize is off to a much more promising start.
The Oklahoma pro, who finished a distant 35th at the recent FLW Cup in Arkansas, seemed right at home on the upper Mississippi River today. Birge tied his single-day season-high with 50 bass and his 81-15 overall weight set a blistering pace in the Shotgun Round at the Bass Pro Tour Redcrest, the inaugural championship tournament for Major League Fishing’s expansion circuit.
Birge was strong all day long on Pool 8, catching 15 bass for more than 23 pounds in both the first and second periods before pouring it on with 34-11 (20 bass) in the third. It’s the second time this season Birge has eclipsed the 80-pound mark in a single day.
“It feels a lot better coming from (Lake) Hamilton after a mediocre event,” Birge said. “To start the way I’ve started, it’s pretty awesome. I can still make August 50-50.
“I didn’t think I’d be leading. In practice, I had a great first day and the second day was tougher, but I was fishing dead water. I went back to areas today where I caught them (Sunday) and they were still there. I knew it would be alright, but not this good. I’ll take it, though.”
River expert Stephen Browning was among the leaders all day, but finds himself more than 17 pounds behind Birge with 64-10 (35 bass). The next two spots are occupied by anglers who got stronger as the day progressed.
Fred Roumbanis moved up 19 places (25th to sixth) in the second period and climbed all the way to third, where he finished with 61-03 (35 bass). Mike Iaconelli improved 12 spots (22nd to 10th) in the middle frame and continued his surge up to fourth, closing with 55-04 (34 bass).
Brent Ehrler is fifth with 53-04 (31 bass). Points champion Edwin Evers started slow today, but picked up the pace in the second period and sits in 16th place with 40-03.
Wesley Strader holds down 20th with 32-11 and is more than two pounds ahead of Mark Rose in 21st. The 20th spot will become the focal point on Thursday as the bottom 10 competitors will be eliminated from the tournament.
Overall, eight of the 30 anglers cracked the 50-pound mark and eight caught 30 or more fish under comfortable summertime conditions. Not much is expected to change in that regard tomorrow.
After Thursday’s Elimination Round, the weights will be zeroed and the remaining 20 anglers will be split into two groups of 10 with one group returning to Pool 8 on Friday and the other hitting the water Saturday. The top five finishers in each group will advance to the Championship Round, which is slated for Pool 7 on Sunday. Weights will be zeroed again prior to the final day.
Browning and Birge were 1-2 after the first period as they, along with Michael Neal and Andy Morgan, all eclipsed the 20-pound plateau. Birge took carried the lead into the third period and began pulling away with two hours to go.
Birge mixed up two different baits and caught fish off a handful of areas where clean water and current are prevalent.
“It’s simple frogging and flipping,” he said.
His plan tomorrow, armed with nearly a 50-pound cushion over 20th place, will be to try to expand around the areas that were productive in hopes of unlocking additional groups of fish that could benefit him in the Knockout Round.
“I’m going to start close to areas where I know there are fish and expand out on them,” he said. “I’m not necessarily going to fish the same stuff, but maybe I can find more groups of fish near where I already know there are piles of them.”
Fred Roumbanis settled into a groove in the second period, throwing one of his favorite baits – a hollow-body frog.
Browning said his wrists are tired from “chunking and winding” all day, but he’ll take a little discomfort to be in the mix to advance to the Knockout Round.
“I would say (today) surpassed expectations,” he said. “I thought 50 pounds was doable, but with the flurry I had late this afternoon I didn’t want to lay off of them. I knew I was that much closer to making the Knockout Round, so I leaned on them hard. My game plan was to catch as much as I could to take the pressure off for tomorrow.”
He said past experience at La Crosse played a role in where he fished today, but it wasn’t from any of the Elite Series events he competed in.
“The area I caught them in today, I have not been in since the 1998 Redman All-American,” he said. “I remembered catching a bunch in a particular slough. You don’t catch big ones there, but the numbers are good in there. I checked it in practice and got some bites.
“I haven’t fished a tournament day there before today. I’d always check it, but it usually yields numbers versus quality. Today, I caught some heavy 2s and a 3 1/2 there.”
Despite being pinned down toward the bottom of the ScoreTracker early on – he caught 5-15 in the first period – Roumbanis never lost his confidence. He rebounded with 29-10 in the second and 25-10 in the third.
“I never really felt the pressure because I knew what this place is capable of,” he said. “I was still experimenting with some things I got bites on in practice, so I didn’t panic because I knew I only have to beat 10 guys (to advance).”
He rode a frog bite for much of the day, but as most know largemouth and smallmouth aren’t the only species swimming around in Pool 8. Roumbanis lost about a dozen frogs to pike today and is worried his supply might run thin depending on how long he remains in the tournament.
Fortunately for him, he can go back to experimenting tomorrow in an attempt to identify additional areas or patterns for the Knockout Round.
“I really wanted to have a 10-pound cushion (on 20th) after today and find a happy medium tomorrow where you know you’re safe and can start looking for new water,” he said. “I have almost a 30-pound cushion now, so do I go back and keep catching them or go back and protect those areas? I have some decisions to make.”
Mike Iaconelli cycled through a couple patterns before landing on one that clicked midway through the Shotgun Round.
Like Roumbanis, Iaconelli didn’t panic, but he didn’t have to run through a couple patterns first before landing on one that worked later in the day. The two-time MLF Cup champion began his move with 21-13 in the second and worked his way into the top five with 24-04 in the third.
“I came into today with what I felt like were three really solid patterns in three different areas,” he said. “I started on the one I thought was best, but they just weren’t there. The conditions had changed there and the water wasn’t moving around the same. I should’ve known better, but after having a good practice, it keeps you there longer than it should.”
He went to plan B toward the end of the first and start of the second and started to gain some momentum, but it still wasn’t as strong as it was in practice.
“An hour into the second, I went to my third pattern and that was my best decision of the day,” he said. “It was the right pattern in the right area for today’s conditions. I could switch back to the other tomorrow and they could work, but this started jiving right off the bat.”
He relied on four different baits, but said two of them were “superstars” and matching the hatch seems to be a key factor so far. He figures 80 percent of the fish on his scoresheet were largemouth.
Shotgun Round Results
1. Zack Birge -- 50, 81-15
2. Stephen Browning -- 35, 64-10
3. Fred Roumbanis -- 35, 61-03
4. Mike Iaconelli -- 34, 55-04
5. Brent Ehrler -- 31, 53-04
6. Andy Morgan -- 26, 52-09
7. Michael Neal -- 35, 51-00
8. Brandon Palaniuk -- 28, 51-00
9. Jeff Sprague -- 27, 49-01
10. Greg Vinson -- 31, 48-07
11. Takahiro Omori -- 28, 47-11
12. Todd Faircloth -- 32, 47-06
13. Mark Daniels, Jr. -- 29, 47-04
14. Jacob Wheeler -- 24, 42-15
15. Casey Ashley -- 23, 42-06
16. Edwin Evers -- 26, 40-03
17. Greg Hackney -- 24, 39-11
18. Randall Tharp -- 21, 37-15
19. Jacob Powroznik -- 16, 37-15
20. Wesley Strader -- 19, 32-11
21. Cody Meyer -- 18, 31-12
22. Mark Rose -- 18, 29-10
23. Ott DeFoe -- 17, 29-05
24. Andy Montgomery -- 16, 26-13
25. Jordan Lee -- 13, 23-10
26. Bradley Roy -- 15, 22-01
27. Aaron Martens -- 11, 20-06
28. Dustin Connell -- 8, 17-15
29. Jared Lintner -- 10, 17-04
30. Bobby Lane -- 7, 11-05