By Todd Ceisner
It would mean a lot to Zack Birge to qualify for the first Bass Pro Tour Redcrest championship. Not only would it be another bullet point on his burgeoning bass fishing résumé, it would further validate his decision to leave the FLW Tour after 2018 to join the startup league. It would set him up for a pretty busy and potentially lucrative month of August.
Birge, who enters the Bass Pro Tour season finale at Lake Winnebago sitting in 27th in points (the top 30 qualify for the Redcrest), is seeking to become the only angler this year to compete in the Forrest Wood Cup and Redcrest, two big-money tournaments that take place within two weeks of each other later this summer.
Birge qualified for the Cup – the fourth of his career – via his seventh-place finish at the FLW Series Championship last fall at Lake Guntersville. He was the highest finisher among anglers who qualified through the Southwestern Division. This week, however, he’ll attempt to stay inside the top 30 in Bass Pro Tour points at a venue he’s never seen before other than through online research. That’s where his focus has been and will continue to be. Until he gets the job done.
“I have to get there and get that one sealed up and then I’ll have the opportunity to fish for two championships,” he said. “I haven’t thought much about the Cup. I’ve been trying to focus on making the Redcrest more than anything. That’s where all of my focus has been. I want to say I made the first one. Being the first year, I want to be there.
“It would mean a lot. In my eyes, it’s kind of like being rookie of the year. It’s the first year for the championship and you don’t get a second opportunity at a first like that. That puts a little more pressure on me. I want to be there and be able to say I was in the first one. That’s just my competitive nature.”
Mark Rose, the 2018 FLW Tour Angler of the Year, is a mathematical lock to make the Redcrest, but he forfeited the automatic Cup berth that came with the AOY title since he didn’t return to the FLW Tour.
Birge has been among the most consistent anglers on the Bass Pro Tour this season. He ranks 15th in fish caught per competition day (19.5) and eighth in pounds caught per competition day (35-10). He’s one of eight anglers to average more than 35 pounds per day on the water.
“It’s been a good year. I have no complaints,” he said. “Like everyone else, it’s taking some getting some getting used to. I love it. It fits my style of fishing perfectly. The quicker I can learn how to maintain and manage areas for this format, the better off I’ll be and the more success I’ll have with it.
“I’ve kept telling myself two words all year: bite generation. It’s all about making the next fish bite. In other formats, it’s not so much about getting a bunch of bites. It’s about getting the right bites throughout the day. From my perspective, I try to catch as many as I can during the day and let the numbers play to my advantage. I’ve tried to better myself all year on those two words.”
While Birge knows many others would trade places with him in the points standings, he’s far from thrilled with how he got there.
“I have had a couple opportunities this year that I halfway choked on, so to be 27th in points is frustrating,” he said.
The two events that still irk him are the first two stops of the season. At the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, he finished third in Group A, but wound up 39th in the Knockout Round. At Lake Conroe, a similar scenario unfolded. He was seventh after the first two days, then slipped to 36th in the Knockout Round.
After a 68th-place showing at Raleigh, N.C., he reeled off three top-15 finishes before notching a 64th at the most recent Table Rock Lake event.
“The things I did different versus the first two is in the first two I had places I could catch them during the first two days, but I had no backup plans because I didn’t realize I might’ve needed backup plans,” he said. “When I got in that position in the next three, I tried to catch all I could the first day and keep my eyes open and look for backup plans. I did that at all three and had multiple patterns in practice and places I could go catch fish.”
It’s a formula he will try to apply to the Winnebago Chain this week when simply making the Knockout Round might not be good enough to sew up a Redcrest berth.
“I don’t know the first thing about the place,” he said. “I’m just going to take off and if it looks good, I’m going to fish it. The goal is cover as much water in practice as possible. Worst case scenario, I go for a boat ride and go into the tournament with an open mind and try to eliminate stuff. If I find an area where I can get multiple bites, I’ll drop a waypoint, then come back and hope to find more isolated stuff.”
Cody Meyer had a tough practice, but isn't sweating the fact that he's sitting in 30th in points entering the final BPT event.
In three previous Cup appearances, Birge has two top-10 finishes and both occurred at Lake Ouachita (2015 and 2018). Initially, FLW announced that Ouachita and Hot Springs, Ark., would host it again this year, but it was later moved to nearby Lake Hamilton. For Birge, a third Cup at Ouachita would’ve been preferred, but he’ll take a shot to win $300,000 fishing against a field of 51 other anglers just about any chance he can get.
He’s been to Hamilton twice before, but those were fun-fishing outings. He says it fishes somewhat similar to Ouachita, but it’s considerably smaller and is a popular recreational lake loaded with boat docks.
“It’s a lot like Conroe in that regard,” he said.
The season finale has most in the field feeling like they did prior to the third event of the season in North Carolina, where a series of lakes few in the field had ever fished before were utilized. The Winnebago Pool, as it’s known, consists of lakes (from west to east) Poygan, Winneconne and Butte des Morts along with Winnebago. All of the lakes are interconnected on the Fox River, which flows to the northeast out of Winnebago before emptying into Green Bay on Lake Michigan.
While Green Bay has hosted an Elite Series event – remember the mystery tournament back in 2012? – the Fox River lakes have not shown up on the national circuits before.
“It’s a good smallmouth fishery, but it’s no Mille Lacs,” said FLW Tour angler Jim Jones, a native of Big Bend, Wis., who has multiple top-10 finishes in BFL competition at the Fox River Chain. “It’s pretty diverse and you can catch both smallmouth and largemouth pretty equally. Every tournament is won a different way or with a combination of things. There’s usually not one dominant thing going on.”
Jones said Poygan/Winneconne and Butte des Morts have more grass than Winnebago, where the bottom features a lot of rock and sand, and reefs are prevalent. A decent five-fish stringer at Winnebago, Jones says, weighs 14 to 15 pounds. For the MLF format, though, he believes competitors will be kept busy.
“Catching them won’t be an issue,” he added. “Most of ‘Bago is less than 20 feet and most of the bass fishing is done in 12 or less.”
He said its reputation as a bass fishery trails its following amongst walleye anglers by a good bit, though.
“If there are 100 bass boats out, there will be 400 walleye boats,” he quipped.
Butte de Morts is much of the same, only on a smaller scale, Jones said.
“There’s a lot of stuff to do there, but none of it is deep,” he noted. “There are a lot of points and channels and man-made rock formations.”
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the venue itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Winnebago Pool
> Type of water: Series of interconnected natural lakes
> Surface acres: 166,000 (lakes Winnebago, Winneconne, Poygan and Butte des Morts)
> Primary structure/cover: Rock, shoals, points, docks, milfoil, pondweed
> Primary forage: Gizzard shad, perch, crappie, bluegill
> Average depth: 15 feet (Winnebago)
> Species: Largemouth, smallmouth
> Minimum size: All bass must weigh at least 1 pound
> Reputation: Healthy fishery that can be susceptible to winds
> Weather: Mixed bag, but mostly clear; wind will be a factor if it blows
> Water temp: 65 to 72 degrees
> Water visibility/color: Muddy
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: 0 to 12 feet
> Fish phase: Mostly post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Offshore grass, docks, offshore rock, frogs, swim jig, vibrating jigs, tubes, dropshot
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2
> Biggest factors: Wind. It made for some bumpy conditions on day 1 so if it persists it could make the shallow backwaters and canals pretty crowded
> Biggest decision: How long to wait to move after a long lull.
> Wildcard: If action shifts to Poygan/Winneconne because of wind
Here's a look at how Winnebago lays out, courtesy of Navionics:
Around the Chain
The long-range forecast for the Neenah, Wis., area features a little bit of everything. The first couple days should be clear and sunny, but a little breezy followed by a couple days with the potential for thunderstorms. The weekend looks to be trouble free, but the one variable to watch throughout will be the wind, especially for the Shotgun and Elimination Rounds, which are scheduled to play out at Lake Winnebago. In the event of a wind day, MLF may shift competition to Lake Poygan/Winneconne, which is comprised of 14,000 surface acres and has a maximum depth of 11 feet.
This is the second tournament this season that will play out on more than one body of water.
The Knockout Round will be contested at Lake Butte des Morts, which is sandwiched between Poygan/Winneconne and Winnebago. Butte des Morts is roughly 8,500 acres and is less than 10 feet deep at its deepest point.
The Championship Round is slated for Green Lake, which is located about 50 minutes southwest of Neenah. The 10 finalists will have nearly 8,000 acres to explore on an extremely deep lake (its deepest point is 236 feet) that Jones would prefer to fish over any of the others.
“It’s a phenomenal lake that has huge potential for big bags, more than on the ‘Bago system,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of rock and grass and a good population of largemouth and smallmouth with some nice ones [5 pounds and up] for Wisconsin.”
He said the bass might be a little behind the bass in the other lakes in terms of their spawning cycle because it is so deep.
Here are links to some old-school contour maps of each of the lakes from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources:
Points, Points, Points
With a 79-man field and points awarded in one-point increments, it’s going to be difficult for someone to overcome a big deficit this week. It’s not impossible, but it’ll take several scenarios playing out just right for someone to make a sizable move upward.
Justin Atkins says the fishing at Lake Winnebago so far has been wildly inconsistent.
Entering the eighth event of the season, the following anglers are more than 80 points ahead of 30th place, meaning they are locked into the Redcrest: Edwin Evers, Jeff Sprague, Michael Neal, Jordan Lee, Jacob Wheeler, Brent Ehrler, Ott DeFoe, Todd Faircloth and Dustin Connell. DeFoe announced late last week that he will not compete at Winnebago due to a heart condition that will require surgery. He’s expected to recover in time to compete in the Redcrest at La Crosse, Wis., in mid-August.
That means there are 21 Redcrest berths in play this week. There are 23 anglers who are more than 80 points out of 30th, meaning they’re mathematically eliminated from Redcrest contention. That leaves 48 anglers to battle it out for the final 21 spots. Some are in a more comfortable position than others, likely needing to only make the Knockout Round this week to sew up an invite to the championship, but others will be scratching for every ounce they can get.
Cody Meyer is the bubble boy, entering the event in 30th with 311 points. There are 13 anglers behind him who are within 30 points of 30th, so the value of every spot on the leaderboard will be magnified.
“I’ve had the mindset all week that if it happens, it’ll happen,” Meyer said. “If you put too much pressure on yourself you won’t survive.”
At the top of the standings are Evers and Sprague, who have been 1-2 in points since the third event of the season. Evers currently holds a three-point edge on Sprague, who has yet to miss the Knockout Round this season. Michael Neal is the next closest contender in third, but he’s 44 points behind Sprague.
Below are some comments from a few anglers who will be competing this week:
“This is in the top 5 of the worst places I’ve ever been in my life, maybe top 2. I’m afraid I might zero two days in a row. It’s very possible. I’m in Group B and that might be a negative. Maybe there aren’t as many to catch here and maybe they’ll all get caught during Group A’s round.
“I don’t know if they don’t live here or what, but I can catch plenty of drum and walleye. Just not many bass. Everywhere I go, the water is murky or muddy or there’s an algae bloom going on. The deepest I’ve been able to see is about a foot.
“There’s been a little bit of rhyme and reason to the bites I’ve had, but they’re few and far between. I know what I’m looking for but it’s hard to find and lot depends on what the wind does.”
“One of the best smallmouth fisheries [Sturgeon Bay] is like 50 miles away and we’re on this place. I fished for smallmouth for half of a day and caught four and only two that were scorable, so I’m done fishing for smallmouth. Occasionally, I can get bit by largemouth.
“I don’t know if it’s always muddy or if it’s just this week, but I have a hard time fishing for smallmouth in muddy water. The problem is every little bay or backwater you go into there’s a competitor’s boat. But every tournament, somebody catches them and I’m sure someone will this week.
“It’s just a tough place. We’re all dealing with the same place. I’m going to fish for largemouth and mix in smallmouth stuff when I can. I just hope to run across a wad of them, but it is so hard to get bit consistently.”
“It’s going to be a challenge to get bit here. Somebody will catch them and make us all look stupid. I got some bites, but never got them doing the same thing to the point where I felt I could go do that one thing. It’s just pretty random. And when the wind blows it turns to chocolate. On Sunday, it didn’t take long to get muddy, but it clears up pretty quick, too.
“It seems like smallmouth won’t be a player because you can’t catch them quick enough. If you have perfect conditions, you might catch smallmouth, but you can’t catch them fast enough to keep up with the guys catching shallow largemouth. I just never dialed in to what kind of bank I need to be on for largemouth.”
A Few to Keep an Eye On
Based on the above information and more, here are a few anglers who might fare well in this event.
> Todd Faircloth – He may be locked into the Redcrest, but he’s never one to coast through an event. He’s won in Wisconsin before, too.
> Jacob Wheeler – Word is the fishing seems to be pretty tough at Winnebago, but at the rate he’s been going lately, expect Wheeler to be a factor yet again. His mindset is tailor-made for this format.
> Jason Christie – Did someone say shallow, dirty water? After missing the Knockout Round at both Table Rock events, he’s on the verge of missing a championship event for the first time since 2008, which was his rookie year on the FLW Tour. Winnebago could be to his liking, though, as he seeks to overcome an eight-point deficit and get into the Redcrest.
> Jared Lintner – Did his best work early on this season and finds himself 16th in points and in a comfortable spot, but he’s going to need to make another Knockout Round cut to sew up a Redcrest berth.
During the Shotgun and Elimination Rounds, anglers will take off from Neenah Recreation Park (600 S. Park Ave., Neenah, Wis.). During the Knockout Round, anglers will take off from Lake Butte des Morts Boat Landing (5316 Leonard Point Rd., Omro, Wis.). For the Championship Round, angles will take off from Green Lake Launch Site (5254 Co. Road A, Ripon, Wis.). Competition days will begin at 7 a.m. CST and end at 3 p.m. with 15-minute breaks every 2 1/2 hours. The post-game show each day will take place at Shattuck Middle School (600 Elm St., Neenah, Wis.).