SYRACUSE, N.Y. — For someone coming off a 97th-place finish at Lake Erie, Dean Rojas was an extremely confident angler all week at the Bassmaster Elite Series Champion's Choice presented by Ramada Worldwide.
After three days of practice on Oneida Lake, he told more than one person, "off the record," he had never felt better about winning a tournament.
That intuition proved to be on the money — $100,000 worth, to be exact — when the 37-year-old Lake Havasu City, Ariz., angler recorded his first BASS victory since 2001 in Sunday's finale at Oneida. In the process, Rojas went over the $1 million mark in career BASS winnings.
"I was born in New York, so actually, this was kind of an omen," Rojas said.
It was appropriate the champion carried a large Kermit the Frog replica in the opposite arm in which he carried the Champion's Choice trophy. Rojas has become so identified with his signature lure, the SPRO Bronzeye Frog topwater lure — which he refers to as Kermit — that a grown man parading on stage with a stuffed animal didn't seem all that unusual.
Part of Rojas' confidence was because of his experience on Oneida Lake one year ago. During the Bassmaster Elite Series Memorial Major, Rojas was leading after the first two days of competition on Oneida. But when the event shifted to Onondaga Lake, Rojas dropped to fourth place.
Most of that confidence came from a practice session Monday, when Rojas found a significant population of largemouth bass in shallow water he could exploit with that SPRO Bronzeye Frog.
Rojas had an important second lure this week. The first three days of the tournament, he said he caught most of his big fish on a Slurpees Brush Beaver he was punching through the aquatic grass mats with a 1-ounce weight.
But that lure didn't produce Sunday.
"Most of my fish today came on Kermit," Rojas said. "He really bailed me out. There have been a lot of times when I've been close and he let me down in the final round. But today he was awesome."
Rojas used a new version of Kermit this week, with much success. SPRO introduced a new Bronzeye Pop version of the lure, which Rojas helped design, at the 2008 ICAST Show last month in Las Vegas. It's like the Bronzeye Frog but has a concave, chugger-type front.
"This is the first tournament where I got a chance to put it through its paces," Rojas said. "It is an exceptional bait. It's almost better than the Bronzeye.
"The popping frog pushes a lot of water. It chugs. I could throw it on top of the grass mats. It's almost like a popper. It's on top of the grass, but it's weedless, so it doesn't get hung up. They just unloaded on it."
Rojas said he caught the 4-pounder that gave him Purolator Big Bass honors Sunday on the Bronzeye Frog in a black color pattern. But his "numbers bait" was the Bronzeye Pop in a leopard color pattern, which produced his 2 1/2- to 3-pounders.
He throws both lures on 65-pound braided line.
Another BASS millionaire
Mike McClelland wasn't able to move up the Champion's Choice standings to fourth place Sunday. Doing so would have allowed him to pass Todd Faircloth for second place in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. In fact, McClelland had his second-worst day of the tournament, catching only 10-7 and dropping to 11th place with 53-8.
But the Bella Vista, Ark., pro didn't have anything to complain about. Faircloth certainly didn't need another kick while he was down, after losing the TTBAOY race to Kevin VanDam on Friday. And it would have been a big kick — in the form of $45,000 — which is the difference between the payout for second and third place in the final TTBAOY standings.
McClelland had plenty to celebrate this season, including becoming the first man in the three Elite Series seasons to make the top-50 cut in all 11 tournaments during the year.
And with his winnings this week, McClelland joined Rojas as the newest members of the BASS millionaires' club.
Onondaga County loves BASS
Jon Cooley was an interested observer all four days of the Champion's Choice event. Even in the rain that fell Thursday and Friday, Cooley had a smile on his face. That's because as Director of Recreation and Public Programming for Onondaga County Parks, Cooley has seen the economic effects of bringing a Bassmaster event to Oneida Lake.
During the four-day event in 2006, the Syracuse Convention & Visitors Bureau calculated $1.6 million was spent in the county as a direct result of hosting the tournament. The area also got $500,000 worth of national media marketing, primarily through the ESPN Bassmaster television show.
Oneida Lake is on the Elite Series schedule again next year.
"We are going to do more than $2 million worth of improvements on the (Oneida Shores) park before next year's tournament," Cooley said.
Those improvements include improved boat launching ramps, campground facilities and a tournament weigh-in site.
"Our biggest successes in the last five years have been in our fishing programs," said Cooley of the entire sports marketing program for the area.
Mark Davis to the rescue
When Arkansas angler Mark Davis came to the weigh-in stage Sunday, his first comment was: "It's been an interesting day."
Davis then explained how he thought he kept hearing someone yelling or whistling while he was on the lake Sunday. He thought he saw something in the water, but it was so far away that Davis couldn't tell what it was.
After he asked his ESPN cameraman to use his zoom lens to get a better view, it was determined that a boat had capsized and two people were in distress.
"We dragged them out and now they're safe and sound," Davis said.
It was definitely the highlight of his day, as Davis had his worst day of fishing this week, bagging only 11-13 and dropping from 10th to 12th.
Five ladies to the rescue
Bill Lowen made sure to thank "five ladies" for providing shelter from the storm Sunday. He got caught in a thunderstorm on Oneida that sent enough lightning flying through the air to make him pull his boat up under a willow tree for protection.
"I heard this voice, saying, 'Get in the house. Get in the house now,'" Lowen recalled.
Lowen didn't need to hear anything else. He and his cameraman were glad to accept the invitation to get out of the weather.
"You should have gotten them to bake you some lucky cookies," said emcee Keith Alan, in reference to Kevin VanDam's good luck charm.
"I think bacon and eggs would have been better," said Lowen, who obviously enjoys good food.
Plethora of lures
With its unusual mix of smallmouth and largemouth bass positioned both shallow and deep, Oneida Lake offers a wider array of choices than usual for tournament anglers.
Unlike last week at Lake Erie, when the Berkley Gulp! products dominated the list of fish-catching lures, this week's lineup was all over the map at Oneida.
A few examples:
Rojas caught his fish on the topwater frog.
Kevin Langill targeted schooling smallmouths with a lipless crankbait.
Mike Iaconelli was using a Berkley Beast and a 1-ounce Tru-Tungsten sinker to punch through aquatic vegetation and create a reaction strike.
Casey Ashley was swimming a jig trailed with a Berkley Chigger Craw around rocks.
Terry Butcher had two key baits — a YUM tube and a drop-shot rig with a 3-inch YUM dinger.
Dustin Wilks also employed a topwater lure, saying, "I caught 25 fish between 2 1/2 and 4 pounds on topwater (Saturday)."
"This is such an incredible smallmouth fishery," said Langill, who recorded his first top-12 finish on the Elite Series and finished second with 60-7.
"I knew largemouth were going to win this tournament," said Rojas, whose total of 65-2 topped Tommy Biffle's winning weight of 63-10 in 2006.
With all the options available at Oneida, an angler can definitely fish his strengths.
"I had no idea I'd have the opportunity to touch so many lives after winning the Bassmaster Classic."
— Alton Jones, on the highlight of his 2008 Classic title
"I burned about two gallons of gas this whole week."
— Mike Iaconelli, about his fishing area, located within sight of the weigh-in stage
"I've said it before and I'll say it again, this is one of the best lakes in the country."
— Iaconelli, whose third-place total of 59-4 included the Berkley Heavyweight Bag of the tournament — 20 pounds, 1 ounce — on Friday
"To be honest with you, I came to the conclusion I'd never win again."
— Dean Rojas, who hadn't recorded a BASS victory since winning twice in 2001