Every local Arkansas River bass angler was both surprised and impressed when Oklahoma State University’s Zack Birge and Blake Flurry weighed 17 pounds, 4 ounces on the first day of the Carhartt Bassmaster College National Championship.
Even though the competition moved to Lake Maumelle and then Hurricane Lake, the OSU duo finished Friday what they started Wednesday, withstanding a Day 3 rally from Auburn to take the title.
“I think this will sink in tonight when I lay down in bed with this trophy next to me,” said Flurry.
Flurry and Birge were nervous after leaving Hurricane Lake an hour early Friday because of fish-care concerns. They didn’t want to risk the dead-fish penalties assessed in B.A.S.S. events, and they were banking on their Day 2, 4-pound lead holding up.
“I didn’t think we had 14 pounds,” Birge said, “but we got lucky and had plenty.”
OSU caught a five-bass limit weighing 16-5 Friday, for a three-day total of 37-13. Auburn University’s team made it close with 18-7, the biggest bag of the tournament, to finish second with 35-1.
For Auburn’s Jordan Lee, Friday was a bad case of déjà vu. He was on the Tigers’ team that finished second to Stephen F. Austin in last year’s championship. This year, his brother, Matt, was his partner
“Second, again,” Lee said. “I’m used to it by now.
“I haven’t won a big tournament in college, but I’ve made the Top 5 almost every time. A win has eluded me. The good thing this time is we’ve got two more days to fish.”
Lee was referring to the new tournament format that will determine the College BASS entry for the 2013 Bassmaster Classic. A year ago, Stephen F. Austin teammates Andrew Upshaw and Ryan Watkins competed against each other to determine the qualifier, which Upshaw won narrowly.
This year, the tournament moves to Conway’s Beaverfork Lake, where morning and afternoon sessions Saturday between individuals from the Top 4 teams on Friday will determine the finalists, who will go head-to-head for the Classic berth Sunday.
In addition to OSU and Auburn, the competitors Saturday will include Murray State’s Justin Graben and Vincent Campisano, who finished third with 32-4, and Alabama’s Dustin Connell and Logan Johnson, who finished fourth with 31-14.
Arkansas’ Mook Miller and Kyle Billingsley had the third-best bag of the Final 5 Friday with 16-0, but it wasn’t enough to lift them out of fifth place, where they started the day.
Oklahoma State’s secret to success in daily 100-degree, central Arkansas temperatures, first on the Arkansas River, then on Lake Maumelle and finally on Hurricane Lake, was a topwater bite.
Essentially, Birge and Flurry clinched the tournament in the first hours of Day 1 when they capitalized using a River2Sea green-back, white-belly topwater frog.
“We were straight across from Willow Beach,” Flurry said. “We were on the backside of those islands. We were throwing that frog in the grass. We had a stretch of probably 50-yards long that we caught all 17 pounds on.
“Ten yards to the east, or 10 yards to the west of that grass, you weren’t going to catch anything.
“It was still a grind, but if we hadn’t caught that 17 pounds on the first day, we wouldn’t be here right now saying we’re the national champions.”
Again, 17 pounds from the Arkansas River in late July when there’s virtually no current flowing and the water is as clear as it gets — that was eye-catching to anyone who has ever fished for bass here.
Birge and Flurry admittedly coasted on Day 2 at Maumelle, finishing with four bass weighing 4-4, but still had a 4-pound lead going into the final day over second-place Alabama’s and Murray State’s 17-8 two-day totals.
Hurricane Lake, a private 326-acre lake near Benton, gave every team a chance going into the final. It holds some double-digit largemouth bass, according to local property owners.
Once again, OSU relied on a topwater bite. Birge and Flurry used bone-color Zara Super Spooks to catch most of their 16-5 Friday.
“We rigged a feather on the bait, and they seemed to hit that a lot better,” said Flurry, of a Gamakatsu feathered-treble they put on the back of the Spook. “They would short-strike it without the feather.”
Birge and Flurry will be entering their senior years in Stillwater this fall. They will concern themselves later with school and now focus on the more immediate task of possibly competing against each other tomorrow. Friday evening was time to enjoy winning the Carhartt Bassmaster College National Championship.
“We’re the first team in Oklahoma to win a national (collegiate bass fishing) championship,” said Birge. “It feels great.”