By Todd Ceisner
(Editor's note: This is part 1 of a 2-part series examining the 15-year anniversary of Dean Rojas' record-setting stringer of 45-02, caught at Lake Toho on Jan. 17, 2001. Due to the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr, Day, part 2 will not appear until Tuesday.)
Fish Fishburne was incredulous and nearly speechless. Imagine that for a moment.
The man charged with injecting excitement and enthusiasm into the Bassmaster weigh-ins, for keeping the crowd engaged and informed – a man who’s never been accused of being at a loss for words – was suddenly fumbling for how to properly describe what he was witnessing.
It was the afternoon of Jan. 17, 2001 and 150 of the top bass fishermen in America had gathered in Kissimmee, Fla., for the second Bassmaster tournament of the new calendar year and the fourth Top 150 event of the 2000-01 season. The Kissimmee Chain of Lakes was well known on the tournament scene and had hosted B.A.S.S. tournaments in January the two previous years.
Among the competitors was Dean Rojas, a 29-year-old with a big, bright smile who grew up in the San Diego area before moving to the Arizona desert. He was still considered a newcomer to the pro scene, but he’d just filled up a white laundry basket with five largemouth bass he caught from the shallows of Lake Toho. The cumulative weight of those five fish registered 45 pounds, 2 ounces.
Fishburne was stunned. All he could do was recite what the scale said and after he did, he had to repeat himself for fear that those watching in person didn’t, or for that matter those who’d later watch the television show about this tournament, wouldn’t believe him. In all his years as a tournament emcee, he’d never seen a number that big before for a five-fish limit. Nobody had.
When Fishburne repeated the weight, his voice went up an octave to a higher-pitched tone that conveyed complete disbelief. History had just been made.
About 20 minutes prior to Rojas coming on stage, Aaron Martens, another angler from out west, had put 34 pounds, 10 ounces worth of bass into the same basket, momentarily breaking the previous B.A.S.S. record of 34-07 set by Mark Tyler at the California Delta in 1999.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but Rojas had pulled off the bass fishing equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in an NBA game. It was a transcendent day – and tournament – for B.A.S.S. and bass fishing in Florida, which always found itself, along with Texas and California, in the middle of a debate over which state had the best big-bass fishing. For the time being, it was no contest.
“There is always that one magical week on every lake where all the big ones will bite and that week happened to be that time,” Rojas said.
This Sunday will mark the 15-year anniversary of Rojas’ record catch, which helped kick-start his pro career and thrust him out of relative obscurity on his way to becoming one of the most consistent performers of this era. A large replica mount of the five fish he caught from day 1 now occupies a wall in the office of Rojas’ home in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. While the record has been approached a couple times, including once in the same tournament, nobody has been able to eclipse the mark that some believe will stand for years to come.
This is the story of that day.
‘The Perfect Storm’
It was, by most accounts, the perfect storm of a bass fishing tournament. In short, a prolonged cold front had blunted the willingness of the Florida-strain largemouth to shift into full-blast spawning mode. When the temperatures – both air and water – started to climb as the practice session wore on, the fish started to swarm the banks in massive numbers.
By the first morning of the tournament, all of the figurative stars were aligned and the result was a sight-fishing bonanza that led to an all-out assault on the B.A.S.S. record book. On the first day of the 4-day tournament, an estimated dozen bass in excess of 10 pounds were weighed in, with three fish registering 11-plus pounds, including John Sappington’s 12-08 bruiser. Over the first 2 days of the tournament, Tyler’s record was eclipsed five times, including twice by Rojas.
“If we’d been there a week earlier or later, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Dewey Kendrick, who served as the B.A.S.S. tournament director at the time. “That was a day I will never forget.”
The same goes for Rojas, who went on to win the event with a then-record four-day total of 108-12. He then followed it up the next month with a victory at the Toledo Bend Louisiana Top 150. Suddenly, the man who used to get picked on in grade school for his love of fishing had laid the foundation for a long and successful career as a pro angler. His dreams were starting to come true.
“It was unique because at Toho, I won by 15 pounds, and at Toledo Bend, I had to make up a 5 1/2-pound deficit on the final day,” Rojas said. “That taught me early on that you never stop and to keep working through it.”
The 2000-01 season was Rojas’ third year competing in the Bassmaster Top 150s, then considered B.A.S.S.’ premier circuit. He’d qualified for the 1999 Bassmaster Classic through the Top 150s and also took Angler of the Year honors in the Western Invitationals (now called the Opens).
“For me, it was a lot of excitement and I had a lot of momentum and good things were happening,” he said.
The 1999-2000 campaign was a bit of a disappointment as he cashed just one check in six Top 150s, a slump that saw him miss the Classic.
“It was just a really bad year,” he said.
Prior to the 2000-01 season, the majority of Rojas’ success came out west. His best B.A.S.S. finish east of the Rockies was an 11th at Lake Seminole in February 2000.
The 2000-01 campaign started with Top 150s at the Potomac River, the Louisiana Delta and Mobile Delta, all between August and October 2000. His struggles from the previous season had carried over and he was 114th in points after three tournaments. He needed a break. With three months until the Kissimmee Chain event in January 2001, Rojas headed home to Arizona to regroup.
“Up until then, I had never fished that much in my life,” he said.
That fall, he attended the annual Bass-A-Thon show at Angler’s Marine in Southern California. Still fairly new to the national stage, he figured it’d be a good way to help get some exposure and network a little while interacting with fans.
One person, though, whom Rojas was interested in talking to was Shaw Grigsby. With Toho next on the schedule, he knew Grigsby would be among the favorites in his native Florida. Grigsby had won the Florida Top 150 in 2000 at Toho and had finished 2nd there in 1999. How Grigsby achieved his success was what intrigued Rojas.
“I remember the year before he’d caught 30-plus at Toho sight-fishing,” Rojas said. “I was trying to figure out ways to better myself and I remember reading about how Shaw caught them sight-fishing.”
Rojas recalls attending a seminar Grigsby gave at the Bass-A-Thon and he approached him afterward to pick his brain about what he could do to improve his results in Florida. Rojas had finished 62nd at Toho in 1999 and 68th in 2000.
Shaw Grigsby's track record at Lake Toho was virtually unrivaled and Rojas wanted to learn more about what made him successful there.
“He told me to throw a Rat-L-Trap and a spinnerbait and flip and throw a worm,” Rojas recalled. “He reeled off about 10 different things and sight-fishing was not one of them.”
Rojas sensed Grigsby was trying to throw him off as he wanted to protect his secrets.
“Immediately, I started to do more homework,” Rojas said. “I went back and studied where he was fishing, how he did it. Mentally, before I got down there I was very clear on what I wanted to do.”
After the Bass-A-Thon, Rojas had plenty of time to prepare for Florida. He kept close tabs on the weather and he noticed central Florida was experiencing an unseasonably cold winter.
“Every time I’d look, they’d have lows in the 30s and highs in the 50s and 60s,” he said.
Rojas figured that if the cold weather was still around for the tournament, he’d try to scrape together 10 pounds and get out of there with a check, which he desperately needed.
“I drove 2,000 miles to get there so I had a lot of time to think about it,” he said.
Only four times in the first 16 days of January 2001 did the high temperature in Kissimmee, Fla., exceed the historic average high for those days. A severe cold front had parked itself over much of central Florida and didn’t start to relent until practice for the tournament started on Jan. 14.
Rather than highs in the low to mid 70s and lows in the 50s, temperatures struggled to get out of the 50s and there were several nights over the first couple weeks of the year where the mercury dropped below freezing. The conditions were not ideal for the always weather-sensitive Florida-strain largemouth to even consider starting their spawning rituals.
“The conditions were just unprecedented,” Rojas said. “It’d been so cold that they hadn’t spawned at all.”
Eventually, the weather had to stabilize and return to normal and what better time than right before 150 of the best bass anglers were about to converge on a chain of lakes known for big fish.
A 13-Inch Clue
Even though 15 years have passed, Rojas’ memory of the entirety of the Toho event is as vivid as if the event happened last week. From the first morning of practice to walking off the stage into the arms of wife Renee on the final day with the winner’s check in hand, he has every twist and turn of the tournament, especially day 1, cataloged in his mind.
He remembers it being foggy the first morning of practice and wanting to check one particular canal.
“It had nothing to do with what I’d fished before, but I figured it might be a place they’d pull up in,” he said. “I remember looking in the water and seeing these huge clearings. The water temperature was 57 degrees, but I wasn’t seeing anything but clearings.”
Soon after, he saw a 13-incher dart off and Rojas reveled to himself, “That fish was on a bed.”
He left the area with the intent of coming back on the last day of practice to re-check it.
“I bounced around some and little did I know everybody was murdering them in deeper water,” he said.
The second day of practice brought another thick layer of fog, so much so that Rojas opted to stay around Upper Toho. He casted a Smithwick Devil’s Horse around Kissimmee grass and had a bunch of blow-ups.
“At that point, I figured I could catch 2-pounders and I had something to build on,” he said. “In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about that canal.”
As he rode around, he noticed Martens and took note that he was keenly looking around for spawning areas where he was fishing.
“The water had come up 1 degree so I knew what he was doing,” Rojas said, inferring that Martens was looking for sight-fishing opportunities.
On the final day of practice – Tuesday – anglers were allowed to take a sponsor rep out on the water with them. Rules were a little more lenient in those days. Rojas had a local sponsor who tagged along, but he had to be back on shore by noon. Rojas had wanted to run to Lake Kissimmee and they caught a couple on a buzzbait and a Rat-L-Trap, but nothing of significant size.
Rojas usually tried to be off the water at noon on the final practice day, but when he dropped his partner off the conditions were setting up perfectly for sight-fishing and he hadn’t identified any key areas to go back to yet.
“It was flat calm and the sun was high,” he said. “My friend told me, ‘Go find ‘em.’”
‘Oh My God, They’ve Moved Up’
After Rojas dropped off his sponsor rep, he ran to the canal that he checked on day 1.
“I shut down and put my trolling motor down and started to look around,” he said. “The first spot I looked, I saw a 5-pounder on a bed. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, they’ve moved up.’
Rick Lillegard found fish in the same canal that Rojas did.
“Then I saw another one and went to the other side to see what was there. I found the meanest bass I’ve ever seen in my life. There was a patch of three or four lily pad stems and a big, round crater. The male was about 14 inches, but the female was 10 pounds plus.”
Rojas continued: “I flipped my bait in there and she swam off, but then she came back and looked at it. I pulled my worm through the bed and she ran at it and swirled. I pitched back in and she rushed over to it again. She was staring at me. It was a like a great white shark, looking at me the whole time. She was mad.”
Before he moved on, Rojas wanted to find out if she’d bite, so he buried his hook point in the plastic worm and as soon as he pitched back to the bed, the female darted from the trolling motor back to the bed. He hopped the bait once and she inhaled it.
“She started heading toward the middle of the canal before she spit the hook,” he said.
At this point, Rojas had a good idea that the fish were starting to come to their spawning areas with the warming weather. He looked around to see if any other competitors were within sight. He saw no one.
“A lot of guys were off the water already,” he said. “So I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a 10-pounder. I have to know exactly where this fish is at for tomorrow.’”
As advanced GPS systems hadn’t quite made their way to the bass fishing market in 2001, Rojas had to resort to old-school tactics in order to mark where the fish was located.
“I beached the boat, grabbed a rock and placed it on shore in front of the lily pads so I knew where it was,” he said.
Once back in his boat, he drifted to the other side of the 50-foot wide canal and found a 9-pounder on its bed. He went another 30 feet. Another 9-pounder. Another 30 feet. Another 9-pounder. He’d found a 10 and three 9s within 200 feet of each other.
“There was a lot of happiness going on in that canal,” he joked.
As Rojas continued along, he encountered fellow competitor Rick Lillegard, who was from Vermont.
“I’m looking at him and he’s looking at me,” Rojas said, “and all the while I was hoping he didn’t see me or see what I saw. He waved me by and I went to the back of the canal where there was this pad clump.”
He discovered a 6-pounder and got it to bite as well.
“I went through the whole canal, but that was where the meat was at,” he said.
Between 1:30 and 2 p.m., he headed back toward the ramp and stopped around Big Toho Marina where he saw some more fish moving around.
“I didn’t care about running late,” he joked. “I knew then I only needed two rods for the next day.”
He again saw Martens and knew he was also locked into a sight-fishing plan based on how and where he was fishing.
“The guys who stayed out late had found them,” Rojas said. “They had just moved up.”
After he got off the water, Rojas rigged up two rods with 25-pound monofilament line and made sure his oversized walleye net was in the boat. At the registration meeting that night, he blended in as most up and coming pros that are in 114th place in points do.
“Nobody was paying attention to me at all,” he said.
Rojas remembers making eye contact with Lillegard, who was off to the side. After a while, Lillegard, a two-time Bassmaster Invitational winner, came over and started making small talk with Rojas.
“He asked me if I saw anything,” Rojas said. “I said, ‘I saw a couple.’ He then told me Gary Klein and some other guys were also in there. I think he was trying to get in my head.”
At that point, Rojas knew boat number would determine who would win the race to that canal in the morning. B.A.S.S. broke the field into nine flights and when the draw was being announced, he paid special attention to the names of the other anglers who he’d seen in that canal, especially Lillegard.
“I’m listening to the names and the names Rick had mentioned were behind me,” Rojas said. “Then Rick gets called – he’s in the later part of the first flight and I was in the second flight. At that point, I was just thinking about a check.”
Back at his room that night – he traveled with friend Ron Chapman, who was also from out west – Rojas started laying out his plan for Wednesday morning.
“I was all excited,” he said. “I thought a more experienced angler probably would go after those 9s, but I knew I could catch that 10 quick if everything went right.”
– End part 1 (of 2) –