Zack Birge likes to play the numbers, and right now the math is looking pretty sweet for him. With two events remaining on the 2015 Walmart FLW Tour, the Blanchard, Okla., pro has essentially sewn up Rookie of the Year honors, and he’s currently sitting in fourth place in the Angler of the Year standings. His 741 AOY points lead the next-closest rookie, Andy Young of Minnesota, who has 586 points and sits at 39th in the overall AOY standings.
“Winning Rookie of the Year was my main goal this year, along with cashing a check at every event,” Birge says. “I’m very fortunate with the way it’s turned out so far. I wasn’t expecting it to go this good, but I’ll take it.”
Birge opened the year with a 13th-place finish on Lake Toho and followed with a sixth-place showing on Lewis Smith Lake. Placing 36th at Beaver Lake rocked the boat, but Birge got back on course at Lake Eufaula, where he took eighth.
Confidence was never an issue, but entering his rookie season stoked from his 2014 Rayovac FLW Series Championship win on Wheeler Lake certainly boosted Birge’s enthusiasm.
“That gave me a huge shot of confidence,” he says. “I went into Toho really excited, and then I came home and won a BFL Okie Division event on Grand Lake. So I’ve been on the momentum train.
“I had already decided to fish the Tour, but I wasn’t sure how it was all going to play out. The Rayovac FLW Series Championship basically financed my whole year. That alone took a huge chunk of stress off me.”
Noting that he started sensing the season’s potential after his top-10 finish on Smith Lake, Birge says he can’t deny a certain pep in his step at this point in the season.
“It’s awesome to have a legitimate shot at Angler of the Year,” Birge says. “I thought I’d slipped up a little at Beaver Lake. I thought I put myself out of it, but Eufaula rebounded my season pretty good.
“It’s the real deal; I’m right there,” he adds. “If I can get two more great finishes, that would be awesome.”
Now, Birge realizes that’s a big “if,” and even “if” he winds up with a Cinderella season, his performance is not the only factor in this equation.
Currently occupying the top three slots in the AOY race are veteran toad-slinger Wesley Strader, Bryan Thrift (fresh off his Tour win at Eufaula) and Florida standout John Cox. Trailing Birge are Tracy Adams, young gun Adrian Avena, Scott Martin and Luke Clausen – the latter two boasting Forrest Wood Cup titles in their resumes.
“I have a few guys ahead of me that are going to be extremely hard to pass, and I have a few guys tailing me that are really good,” Birge notes. “But if I can pull out two good finishes, it can happen.”
Strategy of Probability
If Birge wins AOY, he’d be the first pro since Shin Fukae in 2004 to win ROY and AOY in the same season. With such an honor in his sights, one school of thought might suggest that Birge should step on the gas for a final run at the AOY title. That’s not his approach – rather, more like the winner in the tale of the race between the tortoise and the hare, Birge values consistency over celebrity.
“I don’t ever swing for the home run,” he explains. “I try to play the numbers game, rather than a big-fish type of game.
“If I can go to an area and catch 20 fish, odds are that I’m going to have five keepers and I’m going to have a couple of decent fish. This is better than fishing an area where I can get maybe five bites and have them all be giants.”
The problem with the latter strategy, Birge points out, is that there’s no guarantee of catching all five of those big bass.
“I’d rather fish an area where I can catch a ton of fish versus an area where I only catch two to three, maybe five fish, if I’m lucky,” he adds.
With the Tour’s finals stops set for the Lake Chickamauga (June 11) and the Potomac River (June 25), Birge knows he’ll have to stay sharp. Each Tour stop has presented him with a new fishery, but these final fisheries will be challenging for the rookie.
“My biggest concern is going to two more places where I’ve never been before,” he says. “I don’t have any experience on tidal bass fisheries like the Potomac, but it should play to my strengths as a shallow grass fishery.
“Chickamauga is going to be the most challenging, just because I’m most comfortable fishing shallow [the tournament figures to be an offshore duel]. It’s going to be a timing deal where you’ll have to pull up on the right spot at the right time. So I really have to make sure all my choices are right.”
Though a pro’s mentality will keep Birge focused on each cast of each day of each event remaining in the 2015 FLW Tour season, the not-so-distant prize of an AOY title will surely stand next to him on that front deck.
Birge says he won’t let the point race influence his decision-making, but by his own admission, overall discipline will be essential going forward.
“Something that I do sometimes that I shouldn’t do is gamble,” he says. “I gamble my choices a lot when I feel kind of nervous about something, or I get to where my mind starts spinning. The majority of the time, if I can just make myself stick to what I’m doing, I can do well.”