By Todd Ceisner
(Editor's note: This is part 2 of a 2-part series on the 15-year anniversary of Dean Rojas' record-setting stringer caught at Lake Toho in January 2001. To read part 1, click here).
The fog that had been persistent in the morning during practice was back again for day 1 of the tournament.
Rojas was paired with co-angler Dan Wilmer, who worked for the Brevard County Sheriff’s Department. Rojas had mentioned to Wilmer that his plan was to target bedding fish so his best bet out of the back of the boat would be to tie on a finesse worm and pitch it around in the grass.
“They’re out there,” Rojas told Wilmer.
The field had to wait out a 2-hour delay for the fog to lift and once it was time to take off, Rojas started to get himself geared up for the run to the canal. That was when pal Kelly Jordon caught his attention as they idled out.
“Jordon and I hung around back then and he was always bragging about how fast his boat was,” Rojas said. “We get the call to get ready to go and I’m chomping at the bit and get into position and I see KJ up ahead and he says, ‘C’mon, let’s race to the island.’ I told him I didn’t want to race, but then he takes off and looks back at me.
“I figured what the hell. There were two paths I could take. I could go through the grass where all the coots were or take the boat lanes. Desperate times called for desperate measure so I told my co-angler to cover up – we were going through the grass.”
Before long, coots were bouncing off Rojas’ windshield, trolling motor and getting stuck in his net. He headed straight to the island, much to the chagrin of Jordon, who shook his fist in anger from a distance after choosing a different route.
Once the excitement of take off was over, Rojas made his way to the mouth of the bay where the canal was located. It was still pretty foggy and he couldn’t see much on shore to know he was in the right area.
“We had no power steering and I was barely on pad and I’m jerking the wheel so I don’t go in a circle,” he said. “I’m going along hoping this is the right way. I see a wake up ahead so I slow down and there is Rick Lillegard. I had to decide if I should stop or keep going.”
He opted to continue past Lillegard – he knew he’d made the right turn and was near the canal.
“I could see nothing but a sheet of water in front of me,” he said. “I was looking for a wall of tulles and I had to decide whether to turn right or left. Then I saw the pole near the entrance of the canal.”
Rojas shut his big motor off about 75 feet from where he remembered being the day before. He started looking for the rock he’d placed on shore. He discarded the dead coot that was stuck in his net and told Wilmer to be ready.
“I pull up to the pads and I flip the same (watermelon-purple) worm that she ate the day before,” he said. “She goes right to it. I know this because all of the pads shook. That’s what is so cool about big fish – they’re not smooth. They lumber.”
He went to lift his bait and the fish raced after it and boiled on it, but still didn’t eat it. Rojas was just waiting for that “tick.”
“I threw back in again and I go to pull it out and she did it again,” he said.
Just then, Lillegard idled past and Rojas decided to make a bait change, ditching the worm for a 4 1/2-inch white lizard that friend Mark Pack, the man behind Lake Fork Tackle, had poured in his garage.
“I tied on that lizard, basically so I could see it,” Rojas said. “I’ll never forget throwing it in there. I could see the legs, but then when it went down, it turned black because the fish was so big.”
A couple seconds later, the lizard was in the fish’s mouth.
“She ate the whole thing,” Rojas exclaimed. “I reared back and all hell breaks loose. The fight lasted maybe 5 or 6 seconds and as soon as I pulled up, she was in the net.”
The fished weighed 10-12 and Rojas caught her on his third flip of the tournament. While Rojas was celebrating his catch with Wilmer, Lillegard was close by and he’d already caught a couple 9-pounders near where Rojas had found a trio of them the day before.
“He caught those two and then he left,” Rojas said. “I was waiting to see what he was going to do. I told my co-angler there were three 9s over there so I went on down the canal and I rolled over the beds and I saw this head sticking out of the grass and those big old eyes were staring up at me.”
Within 10 minutes, the white lizard had agitated that fish enough into biting and Rojas got her in the boat.
“I was excited at that point because I figured I would be getting a check,” he said. “I knew there was one more fish down the way – that 6-pounder on some lily pads. The canal wraps around to the right and I saw the lily pads and I saw that Lillegard was way down the canal.”
It’s not often losing a 6-pounder is looked upon as a positive, but that’s how Rojas feels about what happened next. After getting the fish to bite, it tied him up in the pads and she was gone.
“That was it,” he said. “She wasn’t coming back, but it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. What was I going to do – cull her out? She was 6 pounds, at least. It was a pivotal point because that lost fish actually helped me catch a bigger limit.”
Rojas (left) is presented with a replica mount of the fish from day 1 of the 2001 Florida Top 150. The mount now hangs in his office at home.
Rojas went back to where some other bigger fish were at. The sun continued to burn through the haze. He caught a couple small males and by 11 a.m., he had four fish for roughly 24 pounds.
He knew what his next move would be, but he was biding his time until the sun got high enough.
“At that point, Lillegard came idling out and told me he had about 28 pounds,” Rojas said. “He said, ‘I’m done. I going to wait for weigh-in.’ The whole time he’s talking to me, I’m thinking the best sight-fishing is about to happen in the afternoon.”
After Lillegard got out of earshot, Rojas boldly told Wilmer to prepare himself because they were going to catch more big fish.
“My co-angler go to the point where he didn’t want to fish anymore,” Rojas said. “He just wanted to watch. He was really into it.”
Rojas ran back toward Big Toho Marina and stopped on a point. At the time, he had an aluminum prop on his trolling motor and it was quite noisy so he wanted to limit how much he used it so he didn’t spook any fish.
He spotted an opening in the grass toward shore and eyed a smaller fish near the surface. That gave away the location of another giant crater.
“There’s another 10 sitting in the middle of the bed,” he said. “It was maybe 12 feet away from me. I remember thinking, ‘It was one way in and one way out,’ and the male was sitting right there.”
The male was anxious to bite and Rojas shook it off once. He’d flip his lizard about 10 feet out in front of the boat and let it sink.
“What’s funny is the way I was fishing was the simplest thing,” he said. “It was like bluegill fishing with a cane pole. You just let it sink and jiggle the rod tip.”
Finally, he got the female to eat.
“I figured she’d go right to the grass so I told my co-angler to just scoop everything,” Rojas said. “They’re so strong and powerful. I knew if I could handle that first surge and turn her head and roll her over, she’d kick toward me.
“She went to the grass and I was pulling as hard as I could. My co-angler was saying he couldn’t see her to net her. I said, ‘I don’t care, just scoop everything.’”
Eventually, Wilmer hoisted the net and a massive clump of grass into the boat, bending the net handle in the process. They weren’t sure the fish was in there.
“I couldn’t see line going anywhere,” Rojas said. “I figured she was in there. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning and I started tearing through grass and then I see an eye and her head.”
That fish weighed 10 pounds even and gave him a limit in the neighborhood of 34 pounds.
’Let’s Go Find Another Big Lady’
Rojas had caught some big fish before, sight-fishing, too, but he’d never pulled it off in a high-profile tournament. After landing his second 10-pounder, he and Wilmer traded high fives and then Wilmer proclaimed he was done fishing for the day.
“He put his rods away and said, ‘I just want to watch you fish, Dean,’” Rojas recalled. “He said, ‘This probably won’t happen to me again so do me a favor, let’s go find another big lady.’”
He kept working around the same area within sight of Big Toho Marina when he spotted a 4-pounder.
“I go another 100 feet and I see a male and three females,” Rojas said. “I flip over there and one of the females comes over to the bait, but the male came over and chomped on it. That got the other fish real excited, but he kept getting in the way.
“Finally, I got the biggest of the three females to eat it and got it in the boat.”
It weighed 8-02 and gave him a 6-pound upgrade since he culled a 2-pounder. His limit was now pushing 40 pounds. He had to place one of his 10-pounders in his co-angler’s livewell to free up room on the other side.
“I kept thinking, ‘40 pounds – that can’t be right. You just don’t catch 40 pounds,’” Rojas said.
With 90 minutes still left in his day, Rojas continued to look around in the grass.
“I was seeing more fish, a lot of 4-pounders and more holes,” he said. “Then I saw another big one. It was the biggest one I’d seen since the last one I’d caught. I got off my trolling motor and just let my boat glide.”
He wanted to keep his boat positioned precisely so he tied a rope to his spare prop and slid it over board to use as an anchor.
“I couldn’t afford a real anchor back then,” he joked.
For 20 minutes, he pitched his bait in the vicinity of the female. Each time, the male would nip at it and the female would just hang around.
“All the while, I’m looking down the way and I see Shaw Grigsby about 300 yards away. I made a mental note of where I was because when you start looking for fish in Florida, it all looks the same. As hard as you try to keep your place, you lose it.”
As he got closer to Grigsby, Rojas had to decide whether to keep going or turn around and go back to other fish. He’d lost track of where he was and in turn lost track of the fish he’d just been targeting.
“I was getting depressed about it,” he said. “I was going back and forth trying to figure out where the fish was. I was blowing areas out in the process.”
Finally, he caught a glimpse of the fish just as he was reaching for his trolling motor rope. He backed off as she’d spooked and he started making long pitches to her vicinity. The male she was paired up with ate the bait every pitch. Before long, 40 minutes had elapsed.
“I watched her eat the lizard and sometimes she’d get half of it in her mouth,” he said. “I’d set the hook and the bait flies past me and back toward the motor.”
Mark Davis nearly upstaged Rojas on day 2 of the tournament with a limit that weighed 41-10.
He re-rigged his bait, pitched back toward his target and this time she ate the whole thing. The fish came to the surface immediately and jumped the whole time before Wilmer netted it. It was a 7-09 brute, but it wound up being his smallest fish.
’Your Life is Going to Change’
After replacing a 3-pounder with the 7 1/2-pounder, Rojas was ready to call it a day.
“I didn’t want to fish anymore,” he said. “You don’t cull 7 1/2-pounders.”
After that, he just sat in his boat and reflected on the day he’d had. The gravity of it all started to sink in.
“My co-angler told me, ‘Your life is going to change,’” Rojas recalled. “I said, ‘I know.’”
Still, he had his doubts that he was the only one who’d had a banner day. Martens, in particular, was someone he figured would’ve also caught a hefty stringer.
“Aaron was always in the back of my mind because I knew what he could do,” Rojas said.
It was now 1:30 in the afternoon and the first flight was due to check in at 2:15. Rojas figured he’d take his time and idle in, trying to not put any undue stress on the fish in his jam-packed livewell.
He remembers the boats in the first flight speeding past him, among them Martens, who looked over but didn’t wave or gesture.
When he got close to the pontoon boat B.A.S.S. used as the check-in point, Rojas told the official that he needed two bags. The man on the boat noted he was early and encouraged him to go back out and fish some more.
“You never know what you could catch,” Rojas recalled the man saying. “I was thinking, ‘Just give me the dang bags.’”
After Rojas pulled into a boat slip at the marina, he watched from afar as Martens loaded his bag with a throng of about 30 people around him, a mix of media and fans.
“I’m sitting there watching Aaron pull a big fish out and then another and then a 7-pounder,” Rojas said. “Then he calls out to me, ‘Hey Dean. I had a great day.’”
Rojas then realized when Martens headed to shore, all of the photographers and writers, the people he’d want stationed by his boat to document him unloading his livewells, were walking in lockstep with Martens.
“I was like, ‘That’s not good,’” Rojas said.
There was one photographer, though, who’d stuck around on the dock. It was Yasutaka Ogasawara, a tall Japanese man who people knew as “Oga.” Rojas called out to him to alert him that he had some photo worthy fish.
After Rojas loaded both of his 10-pounders into one weigh-in bag, he pulled the 9-pounder out of the livewell. As Ogasawara raised his camera to snap a picture, the lens fell off the camera and bounced off the side of the boat and into the water.
“I have spare,” Ogasawara said, digging in his bag for a backup lens.
By then, about a dozen people had converged around Rojas as word started to spread that he had a mega bag.
Once Rojas got to the weigh-in line, he sat in a folding chair next to a bin with water in it. He gently placed his two bags in the bin to keep the fish comfortable. He told a B.A.S.S. official he had five fish, all alive.
“I remember Cliff Craft was behind me in line and he nudged me and I showed him what I had,” Rojas said. “He said, ‘Looks like you got ‘em.’”
His next stop was the bump tank to confirm the fish were legal size and alive.
“I throw the bag with the two 10s in first and he flips them over and he just stopped and looked at them and said, ‘Woah,’” Rojas said.
Meanwhile, everybody is still paying attention to Martens, who was about to take the stage. Kendrick came up to Rojas and peered into Rojas’ bags. When he did, he knew Rojas had considerably more weight than Martens.
“I remember Dewey saying, ‘Let what’s going to happen happen,’” Rojas said. “He had it all choreographed.”
’Where Are The Fish At?’
Martens tried to treat the Toho event like he was back home in California fishing for spawners.
He used a Zipper Grub and a 10-inch Castaic Tora Tube to trigger bedding fish to bite.
“It was the same stuff I’d use in California,” he said. “Those fish at Clear Lake react to large baits differently than a fish in Alabama. When you pitch a big bait, they react a certain way.
“I loved bed fishing. It was one of my favorite times of year,” he added. “I remember we had a cold front and I kept checking beds with nothing on them. I remember thinking if they’d already spawned, but I knew deep down, just how the beds looked there had to be fish on them.”
In practice, he noticed roughly half of the field was fishing off the bank and the other half were in tight, presumably trying to locate spawning fish.
“By the third day of practice, most guys had figured they weren’t coming up so they abandoned it,” Martens said. “I’d been in and out looking and seen a few bed fish lined up.”
He encountered Kota Kiriyama during practice and remembers mentioning how many beds there were and how few fish were around them. On the afternoon of the final practice day, everything changed.
“I went back to a lot of areas and a lot of beds had fish on them. They were locked on,” Martens said. “They were ready. It wound up being one of the best scenarios, like a perfect storm.”
The first fish he caught on day 1 of the tournament was a 10-pounder, but the next fish he wanted to target already had a boat on it. He had other easier fish nearby, but they were smaller.
“I felt like I had been knocked out,” he said. “I had to go down the list, but I ended up with a really good day. I had found some fish that were really hidden. There were too many fish up. I knew somebody would catch over 40 for sure. It was one of those days you dream about.”
As Kendrick made his way around the weigh-in area, tending to his duties as tournament director, he sensed this could be a special, if not historic, day.
“I was back and forth from the tanks to the check-in boat to the stage,” he said. “I was going every which way. It was unbelievable. Everybody was in awe.”
Soon after, Martens took his turn on stage and posted his 34-10 weight, breaking Tyler’s record and attracting all of the media back stage. Kendrick told Rojas to sit tight; there’d be four or five other anglers to weigh in before it was his turn.
Before Rojas took the stage, Fishburne summoned all the media members back to the front of the stage as he’d been tipped off that Rojas’ bag would likely eclipse Martens’.
“We knew it was another mega catch,” Fishburne said. “When we started weighing those fish, I was thinking, ‘We’ve got to make sure we document this properly.’ When you have an event with a 200-man field, it’s a cattle call. It’s all about getting them through the process and getting the fish back in the water. This was a different deal.”
“Then they called me up,” Rojas said. “It was my time. I go up with one bag. It was a huge mound of fish. I remember walking to the stage and looking over to my right and there’s Aaron leaning on the B.A.S.S. trailer with his arms folded.
“I’ll never forget giving my bag to Pee Wee. He went to pick up the laundry basket and the handles bent out. You saw nothing but bellies and green.”
When the basket was placed on the scale, it registered 27 pounds, then 37, then 42, before settling at 45-02.
Fishburne called the weight and informed the crowd of roughly 100 people that Rojas’ weight had broken the record for heaviest five-fish stringer in B.A.S.S. history.
“At that moment, it was an incredible amount of emotion,” Rojas said. “The whole time, I just wanted to win the event. I’d already been to the Classic. Now, I wanted to win a tournament.”
Terry Scroggins' 44-04 limit at Falcon Lake in 2008 is the closest anyone has come to challenging Rojas' record in a B.A.S.S. tournament.
After the weight was made official, Rojas reached in and grabbed the two biggest fish. Fishburne, standing to Rojas’ right, lipped the smallest one. Weighmaster Pee Wee Powers, stationed to Rojas’ left, held the other two fish aloft for photos.
“I’m out of my skin looking at Dean’s fish,” Fishburne recalled. “I was thrilled for him and thrilled it was happening on my watch. He was young and climbing the ranks. I just remember saying ‘Let’s document this. Let’s not screw it up. Let’s weigh these fish.’ The priority was getting the photographs and trying to talk to Dean.”
Kendrick said he later called Trip Weldon, his top lieutenant at the time, and told him about the day-1 weigh-in. Weldon had remained in Alabama that week and did not travel to Toho.
“I said, ‘Trip, you should’ve been here because we will probably never see these weights again,’” Kendrick recalled.
While Weldon wasn’t there in person, he’d been alerted that some big stringers were being caught. During the weigh-in, he’d placed a call to the scoring trailer and had a B.A.S.S. staff member hold the telephone out the window so he could hear Fishburne call the action on the PA system when Rojas came on stage.
While Rojas caught some fish on a Hawg Caller Log Crawler creature bait in the cherry cola color, the bait that caught everybody’s attention – and some of Rojas’ biggest fish – was a white lizard that Pack, who also competed at Toho, created in the garage of his Texas home.
Pack and Rojas had roomed together on the road in the past and had formed a friendship. Lake Fork was among Rojas’ sponsors and Pack had given him some of the white lizards to try.
Rigged on a heavy gauge 5/0 hook under a 1/8-ounce tungsten weight, the baits were 4 1/2 inches long, but Pack said they were never made available at the retail level. He’d molded the initial shape of the bait out of clay and constructed the mold out of silicone rubber. The white color was somewhat rare back in the early 2000s and Rojas insists it helped him see the bait in the water, especially when it was cloudy or windy.
Pack said a key ingredient to the manufacturing process was adding garlic-flavored PAM spray to the plastic.
“There’s some other secret stuff, too, but once they lock on they won’t spit it out,” he said. “We just used it in tournaments. It did help our sales with other products, though. We sold a 6-inch lizard, but never did sell the smaller one at the retail level. Everybody wanted that 6-inch white one, though.”
Pack finished 75th with a 25-03 total that week, but his favorite memory was watching his friend set a record using something he’d made.
“When I came in on the last day of practice, I remember seeing Dean and he’d said they made a big move,” Pack recalled. “Dean said he could win on the lizard. The moon phase was perfect and temperatures were just right. It was unbelievable.
“I still think about that today and how neat it was that he broke the record on something I created in my garage,” he added. “I get a lot of satisfaction from that. We’re still using that bait today on Lake Fork.”
Davis’ Close Call
On day 2, Rojas tacked on 34-09 as he started to pull away from the field, but his record was nearly eclipsed by Mark Davis before it was 24 hours old.
“That particular tournament, I still remember so vividly every thing that happened every day,” Davis said. “I can remember every big fish, whereas with most tournaments you tend to forget those things.”
Davis had caught 20 pounds on day 1, but it was what he found during the final 30 minutes that afternoon that set the tone for a near-historic day 2.
“I knew from what I was looking at, there were 7s and 8s and 9s everywhere, but I just didn’t have time to catch them,” he said. “When I found them I had 30 minutes to go. I caught an 8 and a couple 5s before I had to go in.”
When he came back the following morning, things happened quickly for him.
“I remember looking at my watch and it was 9:10,” Davis said. “I had 41-10 in the box.”
What’s more is Davis had more than one opportunity to challenge and possibly break Rojas’ record. Twice that day he had a 10-pound-class fish hooked and on the way to the boat, only to have it come off. His smallest fish that day was a 6-pounder, so a 4-pound upgrade would’ve given him the record.
“I wasn’t really dumbfounded,” he said. “Just from what I’d seen. I can’t say I expected it, but everyone that was in that tournament knew that that sort of thing would happen. We just didn’t know it would be that good.”
Davis eventually finished 2nd in the tournament with a 93-10 total, more than 15 pounds behind Rojas.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like that again,” Davis said. “The timing was just perfect. The chances of having a tournament, much less going fishing and the weather playing out the way it did, the odds are so remote.”
Can It Be Broken?
When any record is set the immediate question that follows is whether it can be broken. As impressive as Rojas’ catch was, there’s a strong belief that should the right variables ever line up again his record could fall.
“I’d imagine so,” said Martens, who went on to catch a 42-00 stringer at the Falcon Lake slugfest in 2008. “If we hit a place at a crucial time, some place like Santee Cooper or Clear and hit it during those special 2 days of the year. If we do hit those lakes, a 45- or 50-pound bag is possible. At Toho, we hit the right fishery on the right day on day 1, so it could happen. Someone could catch five 9s.”
Terry Scroggins has come the closest so far with a 44-04 effort at Falcon in 2008.
“I think any record can be broken,” said Kendrick, who now resides in Montgomery, Ala., and works part time at the Bass Pro Shops in Prattville. “With the emergence of some of these fisheries – look at Chickamauga. Over the last couple years, that lake’s been unbelievable. There are 40-pound stringers there.”
Even Rojas feels the record will fall eventually.
“At some point, it will be broken because the fishermen are getting better,” he said. “We have better equipment and knowledge and there’s more information out there, but we have to be fishing the right lakes.”