By BassFan Staff

Zack Birge eclipsed the 17-pound mark for the third day in a row and stands one more decent bag away from clinching his first FLW Tour victory.

The 23-year-old rookie from Blanchard, Okla., shook down Smith Lake today for 17-11 and stayed atop the leaderboard for a second straight day with a 54-08 total. It was his smallest bag of the event, but it took his lead from 1 pound after day 2 to 3-11 with one day to go. Birge maintained his advantage despite going up against a loaded Top 20 that included five former Angler of the Year winners and four Forrest Wood Cup champions.

Clark Wendlandt slid up a spot to 2nd and clinched his 28th career FLW Tour Top-10 finish, a record he shares with Andy Morgan, who also made his 28th career Top-10 this week. Wendlandt, who missed most of last season while recovering from a heart attack, caught 17-05 and has 50-13. He’ll seek his fourth career Tour victory tomorrow.

Tracy Adams, who was 4th after both days 1 and 2, used a day-best 17-14 to move into 3rd with 49-10. Drew Benton, who led after day 1, slipped two spots to 4th with a 12-12 stringer that gave him a 48-09 aggregate. Jason Reyes continued his charge up the standings with a 16-07 effort that has his him in 5th with 47-13.

While a margin of 6-11 separates the top half of the finalists, a mere 13 ounces is all that stands between Scott Martin in 6th and Clayton Batts in 10th.

Here's a look at the 10 finalists, with deficit margin from Birge indicated by red numbers in parentheses:

1. Zack Birge: 54-08
2. Clark Wendlandt: 50-13 (3-11)
3. Tracy Adams: 49-10 (4-14)
4. Drew Benton: 48-09 (5-15)
5. Jason Reyes: 47-13 (6-11)
6. Scott Martin: 46-09 (7-15)
7. Dave Lefebre: 46-00 (8-08)
8. John Cox: 45-15 (8-09)
9. Andy Morgan: 45-13 (8-11)
10. Clayton Batts: 45-12 (8-12)

John Cox advanced 12 spots to 8th with a 16-11 stringer today that assured him of his sixth career Top-10 finish. Dave Lefebre also made a move into the Top 10 with a 15-10 bag that pushed him up to 7th with 46-00. It’s Lefebre’s first Top-10 showing since taking a win at Kentucky Lake in June 2012.

Ish Monroe slipped from 6th to 12th after catching 12-07 today while Scott Wiley went from 5th to 19th following a four-fish, 8-10 day.

Temperatures are going to be around or just above freezing by the time the boats leave the dock Sunday morning and the mercury is expected to only rise to about 60 degrees with partly cloudy skies and a south/southeast wind of 7 to 9 mph. That shouldn’t deter those among the finalists who’ve been picking off bedding fish from continuing that trend.

Birge Focused on Five

> Day 3: 5, 17-11 (15, 54-08)

Birge has his sights set one thing Sunday: Get five keepers in the boat. If he’s able to do that fairly quickly, he says his nerves should calm down and he’ll be able to focus on his next objective: Close out the win.

“It would mean the world to me, it really would, “he said. “I’m just going to go try to make them bite one more day. I know there are more fish in the area. I have to catch ‘em. I know that when you’re fishing against those guys – they’re the best in the sport and it’s a guarantee they’re going to catch them. I have to go catch them better. At the end of the day, I’m fishing against the fish and not the other competitors.”

He weighed in another sack of largemouth today and if he does it again Sunday, he’ll have gone the whole event without bringing a spotted bass to the stage.

Photo: FLW

Birge hoists one into the boat on Saturday.

“I caught three off beds, two on a frog and the rest on a buzzbait today,” he said. “Around noon is when I start catching them and every day there are more that move in. I’ve caught one big one out of that area each day. I just need five tomorrow. That’s all I’m trying to catch.”

2nd: Wendlandt Thinking Big

> Day 3: 5, 17-05 (15, 50-13)

Wendlandt has gotten a sense that he’s not catching the quantity of keeper-caliber fish as some of the other finalists, but he’s certainly around some quality bass and he thinks it’ll take a bag in excess of what he’s caught so far to give Birge a scare.

“To have a chance to win, I think I’m going to need a giant, like a 6- or 7-pounder,” he said. “Something has to change. I have to make the right cast or flip and something good has to happen. Everybody in the Top 10 has demonstrated they can catch the 3- to 3 3/4-pounders. I think it’ll take an 18- or 19-pound bag for anybody to have a chance at (winning).

He continued to sample the same area of the lake he’s fished since Thursday and caught another mixed bag of spots and largemouth.

“It’s exceeded my expectations by a bunch,” he said. “I thought it could have this kind of potential because I did get some good bites there in practice, but they seem to just keep coming.

“The largemouth just kind of happen, but they happen for a reason. They’re only in a certain little spot – there just are not that many of them.”

He said he located a kicker-quality fish on a bed today that didn’t appear to be in the mood to bite, but he says he’ll pay her another visit tomorrow. It he’s able to get her in the boat, that could put him on the road to the kind of bag he thinks he’ll need.

“I think I’m going to have a good day tomorrow,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll catch 17 or 18, but I’m going to catch some fish.”

Wendlandt’s last Tour win came in 2001 at Beaver Lake and he’d love to add another triumph to his résumé.

Photo: FLW

Clark Wendlandt clinched his 28th career Top-10 finish on Saturday.

“It’d be pretty huge, just with some of the health concerns I’ve had,” he said. “Not that it’s slowing me down at all because it’s not, but I took some time off from fishing and rehabbed and did everything I could to get back and ready to go. To have a good event feels good.”

3rd: Late Kicker Key For Adams

> Day 3: 5, 17-14 (15, 49-10)

Adams is hoping for calm and sunny weather tomorrow because he thinks those conditions will give him the best chance to maximize the patterns he’s been working this week. And even then, he believes Birge will have to stumble in order for someone to surpass him.

“I think about the best about anybody can hope for is about 18 pounds,” Adams said. “That’s going to be pretty unbelievable, but it’s about all you can shoot for. Anybody who catches 18 will be happy with it.”

Adams said his bites became more frequent once the sun got up this morning despite there being a little more wind than expected.

“The first two pockets I went in I started finding them left and right,” he said. “I then went to my secondary deal of skipping deep docks and caught a good one that way.”

He’s hoping for similar conditions on Sunday.

“The bedders that are left are mostly in 6 to 8 feet and you just can’t see them if it’s cloudy or windy,” he said. “I have to get to where the sun’s out.”

He caught between 15 and 18 keepers today, which was an increase over Friday and he closed the day with a 5-pounder caught off a dock on his final cast.

“I pulled a rabbit out of the hat with that one,” he said.

4th: Benton Had to Scramble

> Day 3: 5, 12-12 (15, 48-09)

Benton’s day got off to a rough start and it was a scramble from there as he came in with the smallest day-3 limit among the 10 finalists.

“It was real cold this morning and I started in a creek where I’d seen some big ones come up,” he said. “I thought I’d have it to myself, but I made a bonehead decision to start out and work my way in. I let Scott Martin get ahead of me and he went all the way to the back and caught a 5 and some other nice ones. I screwed up by not going right to it. That’s my fault.”

He scrambled from there, picking off a 4 1/2-pound spot on a crankbait and a largemouth off a laydown with a jig.

“I fished and fished and fished and I was fishing too fast because I didn’t have a limit,” he said. “I wanted to go catch a big one on a topwater, so I moved out to a deeper spot and caught a couple spots to get my limit.”

By then, it was 1:30 and he ran to an area where he’d seen some spotted bass come up schooling on Friday and culled once on a buzzbait, then added another spotted bass to upgrade.

Photo: FLW

Jason Reyes has feasted on spotted bass that are chasing herring in the backs of pockets.

“I just scrambled around and scratched out what I caught,” he said. “I went back into some bedding areas and there are fish there, but they’re not catchable and I’m not sure they’ll be catchable tomorrow. The water would have to warm up a little and they’d have to lock down for me to have a shot at them. I’ll probably run some new water and see what happens.”

5th: Reyes Hoping for a Breeze

> Day 3: 5, 16-07 (15, 47-13)

Reyes believes he’s around winning-caliber fish. He just wishes he would’ve gotten them dialed in a little sooner on Thursday.

“I’ve figured out a couple areas where those spotted bass are schooling on herrings and that’s made the biggest difference,” he said. “When I look back at day 1, I found it around 12:30. It just appeared and I’ve been getting clued in ever since.”

After he weighed in a couple largemouth as part of his day-1 stringer, it’s been all spots for him since.

“What’s happening is the bass are funneling the herring into the backs of pockets where it comes out of really deep water,” he said. “The flat in the back will be like 20 feet and when they start blowing up, you can get right in a hurry.”

Case in point: He went from 11 pounds to 16 1/2 in the matter of five casts today as he caught three 3-pounders slinging a Keitech swimbait.

“It makes it easy that way,” he quipped. “I have two spots in the backs of creeks and I’m just rotating them and in between lulls, I’m throwing a worm on points between the two so I just run back and forth.

“What makes all the difference is when the wind picks up a little bit. That’s when they want to go. I thought it was an early-morning thing, but the time doesn’t matter. I need just a little wind. That’s when it congregates them on that ledge in 20 feet.”

7th: Lefebre Sticking Shallow

> Day 3: 5, 15-10 (15, 46-00)

Lefebre has tangled with numerous big fish this week and lost his fair share, but he’s been adjusting his shallow-water strategy throughout and he’s hoping tomorrow is the day he executes flawlessly.

“I’ve only weighed in one big one each day,” he said. “I’m around big fish. They are unbelievably big. Today, I saw about 10, including one over 7. I saw 10 over 5. They’ve been following my bait and I know they’re going to bite it like 5 seconds before they bite. They track it, but today they weren’t coming up. They were down below the bait 2 or 3 feet and by the time I got it back to the boat, they’d slide under the boat.”

He said the presence of herring seems to be a key in the areas he’s fishing, but the timing has been interesting.

“These herring are spawning early in the morning,” he said. “They’re all around the bank from like 8:30 to 10 and what’s weird is I’m not getting bit then. I try to hit different places, but they’re not feeding on herring when the herring are spawning. It’s not like a shad deal. They start biting later around 11:30 or 12 and that’s when I hit those places.”

His bag had a trio of 4-pounders today and he had a shot to catch a double on a topwater bait that would’ve given him a 7-pounder.

“I was reeling one in and this big one came up and was trying to get the bait out of the other fish’s mouth,” he said. “It was banging the crap out of it.”


> Day 3 stats – 20 anglers, 19 limits, 1 four.

Weather Forecast

> Sun., March 29 – Mostly Sunny - 65°/49°
- Wind: From the S at 6 to 8 mph

Day 3 Standings

1. Zack Birge -- Blanchard, Ok -- 18-15 (5) -- 17-14 (5) -- 36-13 (10) -- 17-11 (5) -- 54-08 (15)

2. Clark Wendlandt -- Leander, Tx -- 16-3 (5) -- 17-5 (5) -- 33-8 (10) -- 17-05 (5) -- 50-13 (15)

3. Tracy Adams -- Wilkesboro, NC -- 18-9 (5) -- 13-3 (5) -- 31-12 (10) -- 17-14 (5) -- 49-10 (15)

4. Drew Benton -- Panama City, Fl -- 20-12 (5) -- 15-1 (5) -- 35-13 (10) -- 12-12 (5) -- 48-09 (15)

5. Jason Reyes -- Huffman, Tx -- 13-2 (5) -- 18-4 (5) -- 31-6 (10) -- 16-07 (5) -- 47-13 (15)

6. Scott Martin -- Clewiston, Fl -- 18-6 (5) -- 12-9 (5) -- 30-15 (10) -- 15-10 (5) -- 46-09 (15)

7. Dave Lefebre -- Erie, Pa -- 14-8 (5) -- 15-14 (5) -- 30-6 (10) -- 15-10 (5) -- 46-00 (15)

8. John Cox -- Debary, Fl -- 16-7 (5) -- 12-13 (5) -- 29-4 (10) -- 16-11 (5) -- 45-15 (15)

9. Andy Morgan -- Dayton, Tn -- 16-3 (5) -- 14-11 (5) -- 30-14 (10) -- 14-15 (5) -- 45-13 (15)

10. Clayton Batts -- Macon, Ga -- 19-9 (5) -- 11-13 (5) -- 31-6 (10) -- 14-06 (5) -- 45-12 (15)

The following anglers did not make the cut and will not fish on day 4.

11. Matt Arey -- Shelby, NC -- 14-7 (5) -- 15-3 (5) -- 29-10 (10) -- 15-03 (5) -- 44-13 (15) -- $12,000

12. Ishama Monroe -- Hughson, Ca -- 17-14 (5) -- 13-9 (5) -- 31-7 (10) -- 12-07 (5) -- 43-14 (15) -- $12,000

13. Luke Clausen -- Spokane, Wa -- 12-9 (5) -- 17-2 (5) -- 29-11 (10) -- 14-01 (5) -- 43-12 (15) -- $12,000

14. Wesley Strader -- Spring City, Tn -- 15-4 (5) -- 14-1 (5) -- 29-5 (10) -- 13-08 (5) -- 42-13 (15) -- $12,000

15. Anthony Gagliardi -- Prosperity, SC -- 14-8 (5) -- 14-13 (5) -- 29-5 (10) -- 13-08 (5) -- 42-13 (15) -- $12,000

16. Jayme Rampey -- Liberty, SC -- 13-1 (5) -- 17-5 (5) -- 30-6 (10) -- 12-00 (5) -- 42-06 (15) -- $12,000

17. David Dudley -- Lynchburg, Va -- 15-8 (5) -- 14-1 (5) -- 29-9 (10) -- 12-00 (5) -- 41-09 (15) -- $12,000

18. Adrian Avena -- Vineland, NJ -- 14-14 (5) -- 14-14 (5) -- 29-12 (10) -- 11-06 (5) -- 41-02 (15) -- $12,000

19. Scott Wiley -- Bay Minette, Al -- 15-8 (5) -- 16-2 (5) -- 31-10 (10) -- 8-10 (4) -- 40-04 (14) -- $12,000

20. Shinichi Fukae -- Palestine, Tx -- 15-2 (5) -- 14-7 (5) -- 29-9 (10) -- 10-04 (5) -- 39-13 (15) -- $12,000