By Todd Ceisner
His smile is as wide as ever. His confidence seems to be intact. For the most part, Dean Rojas is the same Dean Rojas that BassFans have become accustomed to following on the Bassmaster Elite Series and in Major League Fishing events.
Last year at this time, though, he was licking his wounds after a dismal 2017 season that saw him finish a career-low 67th in points and fail to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic, ending his streak of nine straight Classics. He’d been a fixture in the sport’s marquee tournament, qualifying for 13 of the last 14 Classics before this year.
When the 2019 Classic rolls around next March, though, Rojas will be back in the mix after he compiled another Rojas-esque Elite Series campaign. Save for a 104th-place finish at Lake Travis, which hosted Texas Fest in May, it was a rock-solid season highlighted by six top-50 finishes, three of which resulted in top-15 outcomes.
He’ll head to Lake Chatuge for the Angler of the Year Championship later this month in 8th place in points, hoping to secure a fifth career top-10 finish in Elite Series points.
“I turned a page not wanting to turn a page,” he said, referring to the transition between 2017 and ‘18. “Last year, I just had a bad year. Even though I had two top-10s, I also had a couple bombs and for whatever reason I lost a lot of fish last year. I’d been fishing good the last 10 years, but so many things worked against me last year. It was the culmination of things that didn’t go my way. I was very happy for the season to end last year.”
Last offseason saw Rojas experience wholesale changes to his sponsor portfolio. Outdoor retailer Gander Mountain filed for bankruptcy, effectively ending its title-sponsor association with Rojas. He also parted ways with Skeeter and Yamaha in favor of Blazer Boats and Suzuki. It was considerable turnover for an established veteran, but he took the changes in stride.
“Change is good and I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at right now,” he said. “I have very supportive companies surrounding me and they’re all pulling in a positive direction.”
Rojas came into the ’18 season with a measure of uncertainty. He’d been in a Skeeter for years so getting acclimated to the layout and nuances of his new boat took a while.
“I drove the boat around a little in Florida, but there were still a lot of unknowns,” he said. “I’d fished out of one boat for so long that it was like learning to drive a different car.”
He’d also never fished at Lake Martin, which hosted the season opener.
“I knew it’d be a deep-water deal with spotted bass and I just wanted a top-50 to get things going,” he added.
He sacked 13-10 on day 1, which had him in 11th. From there, he averaged a bit over 11 pounds a day and secured a 10th-place finish, extending his streak of seasons with at least one top-10 finish to 13.
“Gaining that momentum and knowing that all of the stuff from last year was gone and I had a clean slate was huge,” he said.
Since he didn’t compete in the Classic at Lake Hartwell and with the postponement of the Sabine River Elite Series due to weather, Rojas was among the group of anglers who went 2 1/2 months between tournaments – Martin and Grand Lake – this spring. At Grand, he finished 15th and was up to 3rd in points.
His two events were his two worst showings of the season – 104th at Travis and 51st at Kentucky Lake, where he weighed in three fish on day 1 and missed the money cut by one ounce.
“If I’d been in the 50s at Travis, the AOY points would be a whole different deal,” he said. “I got hung up on fishing deep with a wobble head and didn’t catch any big ones. I could’ve gone in the river, but I wanted to win. I was in good shape in points and went for it. That stuff happens.”
After a 34th at the rescheduled Sabine River event, Rojas continued his tear as the schedule shifted up north in June. He scored a 19th at the Mississippi River out of familiar La Crosse, Wis., then notched a 5th at Lake Oahe before closing the regular season with a 42nd at the St. Lawrence River.
“The northern swing is traditionally not my thing, but I’ve embraced the smallmouth thing,” he said. “At the Sabine and St. Lawrence, I was in the top 15 after day 1, then fell off big time on day 2. I still caught enough to barely make a check at both of them. It was all about the points at both of them.”
And those points helped him qualify for his 16th career Classic.
“I feel like I got back in a groove,” he said. “It’s what I do. I feel like I fished to my expectations. I lost some this year, but not like last year. A couple of those lost fish are the difference between not making the Classic and making it or making a check versus not making one.”