Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Zack Birge Leads Top 10 to Championship Round at U.S. Air Force Stage Five at Chowan River

Date:

Oklahoma pro catches 20 bass weighing 42-14 to lead Knockout Round, final 10 anglers set for Championship Sunday in final-day shootout for top prize of $100,000

EDENTON, N.C. (June 8, 2024) – It took Zack Birge of Blanchard, Oklahoma, 45 events and 12 Top-10 finishes before he notched his first Bass Pro Tour victory at Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma last month. Now that he’s broken through, he just might make lifting trophies a habit.

Birge used a blistering start Saturday morning to claim the top spot on SCORETRACKER®, then maintained it for the rest of the Knockout Round at the Major League Fishing (MLF) Bass Pro Tour U.S. Air Force Stage Five Presented by WIX Filters on the Chowan River. After stacking up 14 scorable bass for 29-9 during the first period — more than enough to qualify for the Championship Round — Birge cruised to a total of 20 bass for 42-14. Looking to win back-to-back BPT regular-season events, he’ll be first to blast off Sunday morning, having topped Michael Neal of Dayton, Tennessee, by 4 pounds, 5 ounces.

Link to HD Video – Fish-Catch Highlights of Knockout Round on Chowan River
Link to Photo Gallery of Knockout Round Highlights on Chowan River

Birge admitted that he didn’t expect a start like that. He’d fished that same stretch a couple times already during competition, once during his first afternoon on the water and once Friday. The first time, he “caught them good;” the second, he only got about five bites.

The third time proved to be the charm in terms of finding feeding fish. The rate at which he got bit and his style of fishing — sliding a swim jig around shallow wood and bank grass, watching bass engulf the bait and cracking them on straight braid — made for a fun flurry.

“It was a blast,” he said. “I really didn’t expect to get that many bites, but if they’ll bite it, I’ll catch them.”

Overall, the Chowan River continued to kick out impressive quality, with 11 bass over 5 pounds (seven of which topped 6) hitting the scales during the Knockout Round. Birge didn’t connect with one of those lunkers; his biggest bass of the day weighed 3-15. But he made up for it with quantity. Birge boated all 14 of his scorable bass in Period 1 during a span of less than two hours — about a bass every 8 minutes.

He doesn’t necessarily think that has to be the formula to earn his second BPT trophy, though. Birge caught fish over 4 pounds during each day of Qualifying Rounds, and he saw some bigger ones cruising the shallows Saturday. Getting them to bite, he said, will be critical to his chances of winning.

“I saw some big fish swim by, so I know there’s some bigger ones in there,” Birge said. “I just need to get them to bite. … I know they’re swimming around, so I know I’ve got an opportunity to catch them.” 

Midway through the second period, Birge eased off the throttle, searching for new water he could exploit during the Championship Round. Not finding anything to his liking, he’s “all in” on his Knockout Round starting spot.

True to his understated nature, he has a straightforward outlook on whether it can produce enough. If the shallow bite remains as hot as it was Saturday, Birge thinks he left enough fish in the area that he can contend for the win, or at least get off to another good start and go from there. He predicted it will take 40 to 50 pounds to top the final-day field.

“If they’re biting somewhat decent and I milk it for all it’s worth, I feel like there’s another 30 to 40 pounds in there,” he said.

As for why the bank bite shined during the Knockout Round, Birge doesn’t really have an explanation, nor a prediction about whether it will last another day on the unfamiliar fishery. Other anglers posited on MLFNOW! that it had to do with a change in conditions or mounting fishing pressure on the submerged offshore (albeit not far offshore) targets that produced strong Qualifying Round performances for the likes of Dustin Connell, Jacob Wheeler, Matt Becker, Alton Jones Jr. and Drew Gill.

Still, those five anglers — each among the best in the world at utilizing forward-facing sonar — all overcame the slower day to make the Top 10. So, if the offshore bite turns on again during the Championship Round, it could be anyone’s trophy to win.

“I feel like there’s days when they just bite, and it’s different here by the day,” Birge said. “That’s the only thing I can really say is changing the scenario is whether or not they bite. Yesterday, they didn’t bite as well for me, and I was fishing shallow, and I felt like today they bit better. So, I’m hoping that tomorrow the shallow bite is decent again and I can catch a few.” 

Don’t mistake Birge’s realism for a lack of confidence. After landing his long-awaited first win on a national tour, he’s confident that, if the conditions line up in his favor again Sunday, he has the ability to take advantage.

“Definitely more confident just knowing that if the opportunity is there, I can get it done, because I’ve done it now,” Birge said. “So, that’s really cool. Hopefully it can happen again tomorrow.”

As usual, the brawl to finish above the cut line came down to the final seconds of the Knockout Round. And, as has been the case a few times during his first two seasons on the Bass Pro Tour, it was Becker who came through in the clutch.

Becker, who led Group B through qualifying, went more than 2 hours, 40 minutes without boating a scorable bass Saturday afternoon. That caused him to tumble out of the Top 10 and stay there most of the third period. Finally, with less than 15 minutes remaining, he ended the drought with a 3-15 largemouth.

He would need every ounce of it. Both Mark Daniels Jr. and Stephen Browning also added to their totals in the closing minutes, with Browning catching a 3-7 with about 2 minutes left before lines out. That bass left him 1 ounce shy of Becker’s 25-10 total. It marked the second time this season Becker has jumped from the wrong side of the cut line into the Top 10 in the final minutes of the Knockout Round, the first coming during Stage Two on Santee Cooper.

“That was a nail-biter, but we pulled it our right at the end,” Becker said. “We’re moving on to the Championship Round. That’s all that matters. It didn’t matter if you were first or 10th today; you’ve just got to make the Championship Round, and weights are zeroed and it’s a one-day shootout.”

The top 10 pros from Saturday’s Knockout Round that now advance to Sunday’s Championship Round on Chowan River are:

1st:         Zack Birge, Blanchard, Okla., 20 bass, 42-14
2nd:        Michael Neal, Dayton, Tenn., 18 bass, 38-9
3rd:        Drew Gill, Mount Carmel, Ill., 15 bass, 36-6
4th:         Justin Lucas, Guntersville, Ala., 11 bass, 36-5
5th:         Alton Jones Jr., Waco, Texas,12 bass, 36-2
6th:         Jacob Wheeler, Harrison, Tenn., 14 bass, 33-0
7th:         Dustin Connell, Clanton, Ala., 14 bass, 32-5
8th:         Fred Roumbanis, Russellville, Ark., 11 bass, 31-14
9th:         Ott DeFoe, Blaine, Tenn., 15 bass, 29-13
10th:      Matt Becker, Ten Mile, Tenn., 10 bass, 25-10

Finishing in 11th through 20th place are:

11th:      Stephen Browning, Hot Springs, Ark., 12 bass, 25-9
12th:      Mark Daniels Jr., Tuskegee, Ala., seven bass, 23-2
13th:      Adrian Avena, Vineland, N.J., four bass, 14-11
14th:      Keith Poche, Pike Road, Ala., five bass, 11-14
15th:      Bobby Lane, Lakeland, Fla., five bass, 11-7
16th:      Gary Klein, Mingus, Texas, four bass, 10-15
17th:      Dylan Hays, Hot Springs, Ark., five bass, 9-14
18th:      John Hunter, Shelbyville, Ky., four bass, 9-12
19th:      Martin Villa, Charlottesville, Va., four bass, 6-14
20th:      Alton Jones, Lorena, Texas, two bass, 4-8

A complete list of results can be found at MajorLeagueFishing.com.

Overall, there were 192 scorable bass weighing 471 pounds, 8 ounces, caught by 20 pros Saturday, which included seven 6-pounders, four 5-pounders, eight 4-pounders and 16 3-pounders.

Sunday’s sprint for the Stage Five trophy will double as a showdown between the top contenders in the Fishing Clash Angler of the Year race. Four of the anglers who entered the week in the top five of the season-long points standings made the Top 10 at Stage Five: Wheeler, Jones, Connell and Gill.

Wheeler, who arrived at the Chowan River with a 12-point lead over Jones, has ensured that he will remain atop the standings heading to the James River for Stage Six. However, the two-time AOY winner won’t have much breathing room over Jones or Connell. Entering the week, Jones was 14 points ahead of Connell and 19.5 clear of Gill. It’s shaping up to be another tightly bunched finish in the race for the $100,000 prize.

Justin Lucas of Guntersville, Alabama, earned Friday’s $1,000 Berkley Big Bass Award with a 6-pound, 15-ounce largemouth bass that he caught on a drop-shot rig during Period 1. Berkley awards $1,000 to the angler who weighs the heaviest bass each day, and a $3,000 bonus to the angler who weighs the heaviest bass of the tournament.

The six-day tournament, hosted by the Town of Edenton, the Chowan County Tourism Development Authority and Harbor Towns Cruises, showcases 78 of the top professional anglers in the world, competing for a purse of $659,000, including a top payout of $100,000 and valuable Fishing Clash Angler of the Year (AOY) points in hopes of qualifying for the General Tire Heavy Hitters all-star event and REDCREST 2025, the Bass Pro Tour championship.

The 39 Anglers in Group A competed in their two-day Qualifying Round on Tuesday and Thursday – the 39 anglers in Group B on Wednesday and Friday. After the two-day Qualifying Rounds were complete, the anglers that finished first through 10th from both groups advanced to Saturday’s Knockout Round. In the Knockout Round, weights were zeroed, and the remaining 20 anglers competed to finish in the top 10 to advance to Sunday’s Championship Round. Tomorrow, in the final-day Championship Round, weights are zeroed, and the highest one-day total wins the top prize of $100,000.

The final 10 anglers competing in Sunday’s Championship Round will launch at 7:30 a.m. ET Sunday from Pembroke Creek Park, located at 716 W. Queen Street in Edenton. Sunday’s General Tire Takeout will be held at Colonial Waterfront Park, located at 510 S. Broad Street in Edenton, beginning at 4 p.m. Fans are welcome to attend all launch and takeout events and also encouraged to follow the event online throughout the day on the MLFNOW!® live stream and SCORETRACKER® coverage at  MajorLeagueFishing.com.

The MLFNOW!® broadcast team of Chad McKee and J.T. Kenney will break down the extended action live on Championship Sunday from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. ET. MLFNOW!®  will be live streamed on MajorLeagueFishing.com and the MyOutdoorTV (MOTV) app.

On Sunday, June 9, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. MLF welcomes fans of all ages to visit Colonial Waterfront Park, located at 510 S. Broad St. in Edenton, for the MLF Watch Party and Kids Fishing Derby. Fans can watch the pros live on the MLFNOW! big screen, enjoy free food, enter to win hourly giveaways and cheer on their favorite pros. The first 50 kids 14 and under will receive a free rod and reel from Pure Fishing. Additional fishing gear will be provided onsite for the fishing derby or kids can bring their own. The final 10 Championship Round Bass Pro Tour anglers will be on hand at the trophy celebration on Championship Sunday to meet and greet fans, sign autographs and take selfies.

Television coverage of the U.S. Air Force Stage Five at Chowan River Presented by WIX Filters Knockout Round will air as a two-hour episode starting at 7 a.m. ET, on Saturday, Oct. 26 on Discovery, with the Championship Round premiering on Nov. 2. New MLF episodes premiere each Saturday morning on Discovery, with re-airings on Outdoor Channel.

The U.S. Air Force Stage Five at Chowan River Presented by WIX Filters features the MLF catch, weigh, immediate-release format, in which anglers catch as much weight as they can each day, while also feeling the pressure and intensity of the SCORETRACKER® leaderboard. The tournament features anglers competing with a 1-pound, 8-ounce minimum weight requirement for a bass to be deemed scorable. The MLF Fisheries Management Division determines minimum weights for each body of water that the Bass Pro Tour visits, based on the productivity, bass population and anticipated average size of fish in each fishery.

The Bass Pro Tour features a field of 79 of the top professional anglers in the world, competing across seven regular-season tournaments around the country, for millions of dollars and valuable points to qualify for the annual General Tire Heavy Hitters all-star event and the REDCREST 2025 championship.

Fishing Clash, an interactive 3D fishing simulation game that’s played by more than 80 million people worldwide, is the official AOY sponsor of the Bass Pro Tour, Tackle Warehouse Invitationals, Toyota Series and Phoenix Bass Fishing League. You can download Fishing Clash for free in the App Store and on Google Play or log on to www.fishingclash.game for more information.

Proud sponsors of the 2024 MLF Bass Pro Tour include: Abu Garcia, B&W Trailer Hitches, Bass Pro Shops, Berkley, BUBBA, Epic Baits, Fishing Clash, Garmin, General Tire, Humminbird, Lowrance, Mercury, MillerTech, Minn Kota, Mossy Oak Fishing, NITRO, Onyx, Plano, Power-Pole, Rapala, REDCON1, Star brite, Suzuki, Toyota, WIX Filters and U.S. Air Force.

For complete details and updated information on Major League Fishing and the Bass Pro Tour, visit MajorLeagueFishing.com. For regular updates, photos, tournament news and more, follow MLF’s social media outlets at Facebook, XInstagram and YouTube.



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