UPCOMING EVENT: Costa FLW Series - 2019 - St. Lawrence River

FISHING LEAGUE WORLDWIDE

Testing Smith Lake with Birge

Testing Smith Lake with Birge
Zack Birge

After a sophomore slump and a solid third season on the FLW Tour, Zack Birge is cooking this year. The Oklahoma pro has made three cuts in a row and he finished second at Lanier. His streak of success now has him sitting second in the Pennzoil Marine Angler of the Year race behind Bryan Thrift and heading into the fifth stop of the year on Smith Lake. Smith is the site of perhaps the most memorable tournament in Birge’s rookie season – and most disappointing. He led in the second and third rounds, but then faltered the final day when he was one fish shy of a limit and ended up in sixth place with 59-10. This time around, he’s looking for a bit of revenge, and also to keep the Birge express rolling along.  

The Oklahoma pro was kind enough to let me hop aboard his boat to watch him in his attempt to break down Smith for the first time since he fished it in 2015.

Tournament details 

 

I meet Birge at a little ramp on the upper end of one of Lewis Smith’s long, windy arms, and hop in the boat a little after 6 a.m. Amazingly, it isn’t raining yet, but the forecast looks ugly and I drove through a few solid downpours on the way to the ramp.

After parking under a dock long enough to pull out a suite of rods, we idle out and it almost instantly begins to pour. Considering it’s still mostly dark and now extremely wet, Birge pulls over into another dock to wait for the rain to pass. While he’s untying and retying to switch his tackle over from the B.A.S.S. Open on the Arkansas River to clear water and spots, I quiz him about 2015.

Back in Birge’s rookie season, the young pro started off hot, and he went to work on Lewis Smith in style, pacing the field on days two and three. It all fell apart on the final day when his topwater largemouths refused to cooperate and he could muster only four small bass.

“This is my first time back since that last day,” says Birge. “I figured since I let it slip away from me we needed some separation time to get back on good terms. I made some major mistakes that tournament – things that you don’t think about when you’re a rookie, like having a backup plan. I went into that last day with one thing to do.

“If I had a little swimbait with me I could have probably caught 12 pounds of spots off points or something. Of course, I didn’t have any in the boat with me. I remember running up the lake from takeoff and seeing schooling fish busting. I was thinking ‘stop, stop,’ and I just couldn’t. I could have probably won the tournament in five minutes if I had.”


When the weather breaks after about 15 minutes of retying, Birge rolls away from the ramp to a nearby point. Picking up a small swimbait, he goes to work, catching one on his second cast, and then another and another. After working around the point, Birge seems pretty happy with the situation, and idles around a bit before heading off.

 

Our next stop is a small main-lake pocket, and Birge pulls out a topwater and a swim jig to work his way through. It looks great, but it doesn’t produce anything at first. After getting a feeling that it’s going to be a buzzbait sort of day, Birge sits down to hunt through his tackle.

 

As he rummages for just the right buzzbait, I figure it’s time to bug him about the Angler of the Year race – Bryan Thrift is amazing, but Birge being nine points off the lead puts him very much in the running.

“I didn’t think about it until after the last one, that kinda got me thinking about it,” says Birge. “Every one of these tournaments has kinda developed into a good one the day of the tournament. I haven’t been on anything real good, but now it’s definitely on my mind. It’s going to be super hard to beat ol’ Thrifty, but it can be done, I guess. I would definitely like to do it.

“I’m gonna just try to focus on cashing a check and if those cards play out then they play out. If I start thinking about trying to make cuts or top 10s because of AOY I’ll start making decisions I wouldn’t normally make that will end up hurting me. And I’ve done that before.”

 

After finishing out the pocket at the next point with no bites, Birge takes a moment to check up on Kurt Mitchell’s takeover of the FLW Snapchat story and then runs up and across the creek to a main bank leading into a long pocket.

Working down the bank and around and behind some of Smith’s many docks, Birge gets a few bites on a Fluke and a buzzbait, but can’t get one to stick. Picking up a little swimbait for the point, he fishes it and strikes out again – things seem to have slowed down.

 

Birge continues on into the adjoining pocket – this one is quite a bit longer than the first pocket we hit and looks very fishy. Unfortunately, if it is they aren’t very interested in biting.

“If I had to bet I would have said there’d be one in here. Let’s go back out to the main stuff; there’s a reason they’re biting out there,” says Birge. “I was thinking we’d be catching the tail end of the spawn. I thought it might be the reverse of Lanier. There I was catching them on the points going into the pockets. I bought here I might be able to catch them coming out.”

 

The next stop is a steep, bluffy point. Pulling out his small swimbait again, Birge fires away a few times on the point before working down the bank into the next creek. At least part of his decision to move on is based on getting away from a pod of gar he can see surfacing on one side of the point. Either way, it doesn’t result in any fish.

 

Through the morning, Birge has kept a healthy selection of Falcon rods and a mixed bag of Shimano and Daiwa reels on deck. Most of them are baitcasters, but he’s got some spinning sticks in the mix as well. He came out of Oklahoma with a reputation for power fishing, but he’s proven himself to be about as versatile as they come in recent years.

 

As Birge gets ready to roll, Jordan Osborne shows up for a quick chat. Pros talking with each other is part of the game in practice, and Birge has been popular this morning – Jason Lambert pulled up earlier to warn him that the upper stretches of the creek we’re in are packed, and Aaron Britt stops by at the next spot. As usual, Britt has plenty to say and plenty of questions – though the spotted bass in Smith Lake seeded the California lakes Britt has grown up fishing, he’s never been here before. After borrowing a buzzbait from Birge, the two part ways.

Finally out of the crowd, Birge gets back to casting a swimbait over a point that’s basically identical to where he started the day so hot. After one bite and one breaking fish spotted, he makes a move.

 

The next stop is another point, but instead of staying off it, Birge picks up a bigger swimbait and starts paralleling the bank. As he eases by a dock, a fish throttles his bait. After a brief battle, he swings aboard a primo spotted bass.

 

Continuing on, now with some decent rain falling, Birge gets another bite on the swimbait at his next point, and connects again with a Ned rig on the point after that. Immediately after saying the Ned rig only catches small fish, his bait starts swimming away and he’s hooked up again. This one turns out to big as well, and Birge is all of a sudden working on a pretty good limit.

 

With the rain seemingly quitting again, Birge hits one more point in our current section. Again, he rustles a bite on it, but this one doesn’t get in the boat. After finishing out the point, he pulls the trolling motor and packs up for little run farther down the lake.

 

Running down the lake, Birge pulls into a pocket lined with riprap and settles down with the swimbait again. He’s consistently getting bites on it and having quite a bit of fun. There’s no telling if it will work on derby day in the sun, but it’s working this morning. Almost on cue, he gets another decent bite and wrestles it into the boat.

“It’d be nice if I wasn’t getting as many bites, but they were all like that first one,” Birge says of his developing swimbait pattern. “Because I know other ways I could probably get more bites.”

It’s a good day when you’re kind of complaining about 2-pound spotted bass.

 

Ditching the points, Birge next rolls over to a steep bluffy bank and begins to parallel it. Minutes in to the exercise he sticks what he thinks is a huge one. It turns out to merely be a good one, but it’s still welcome to come to the party.

“He freakin’ crushed it,” exclaims Birge. “This is so fun.”

 

After working to the end of the bluffy bank and into a nearby pocket with no more fish, Birge picks up and runs. Our next stop is fairly plain-looking back with some docks near the mouth of a pretty big creek. After marking some fish under one of the docks and swimbaiting a little with no success, Birge decides to roll. As it’s nearing 11:30 a.m. and he wants to move farther down the lake, it’s time for me to hop out.

 

After a quick run back to the ramp, I hop out and Birge busts out a sandwich. At least based on the first few hours of practice, it looks like this stop at Smith Lake could be another good one for Birge.

Tags: jody-white  pre-tournament  2018-04-26-smith-lake 

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