ORANGE, Texas — Saturday morning, Dean Rojas felt like his game was dying, that perhaps his chance of victory in the Sabine River Challenge presented by STARK Cultural Venues was slipping through his fingers.
He had zero fish for the first hour of competition. He finally boated three keepers. Then three long hours passed without another bite.
How do you spell relief? With only about 35 minutes to go in his fishing day, he boated his fourth keeper, a 3-pounder, then his final bass 15 minutes later.
Armed with a five-fish limit, crucial in this event, “I got out of there,” said the Bassmaster Elite Series pro from Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
“It was critical to get that fifth fish. Without it, I would have had only 10 pounds. You have to have a limit every day to win this thing,” he said.
Rojas’ Saturday weight of 11 pounds, 14 ounces was enough to snatch the lead back from home-state favorite Todd Faircloth of Jasper, Texas, who had taken it from Rojas on Day Two. Rojas’ three-day total of 38 pounds, 6 ounces got the better of Faircloth by 3 pounds, 9 ounces. Faircloth, who brought in only four bass that weighed 7-14, had 34-13 over three days.
“It was a grind today,” Rojas said. “I only had six keeper bites and caught five of them. I hooked that sixth one, fought it all the way back to the boat, and felt it was a good one. It just came unbuttoned on me.”
“I know big ones are in there, it’s a matter of getting them to bite. I felt like I had that big bite this morning, and I lost him,” said the two-time Elite champ, who also has had two other wins in his Bassmaster career.
Two other competitors are fishing the same area as he is, Rojas said. “I’m not going to worry about the other two guys. Tomorrow I’m going to keep my head down, catch the five biggest bass I can and win this thing.”
He’s been on a bedding-bass bite all week, although the heavily stained water doesn’t give him a look at the bass he’s hooking. He said the area is replenishing each day as more bass move in. And he’s encouraged about Sunday’s possibilities, judging by the changing conditions.
“Today the tide came in, and with the south wind, it blew water in and got real high. The good thing is, it’s low in the morning, and getting lower each morning. We’re on an incoming tide, and it will be an hour later in the morning, and it’s going to be good. It’s shaping up; I like what it’s doing now,” he said.
If his area doesn’t pan out for him Sunday, the final competition day, the leader has no Plan B to turn to.
“This is all I’ve got — it’s all or nothing there,” he said. “I just need to focus, I know I can catch them, and I’m just going to go out and do it."
Faircloth was visibly disappointed. He had a fishless morning, then caught his four keepers in a short stretch from about noon to 1:45 p.m. The largest was about 2 1/2 pounds, he said.
“I had some bad mojo today, I guess. I never had the fifth one on. I caught probably 30 fish today, but never could get that fifth keeper,” Faircloth said.
What changed from Friday to Saturday for him in his area?
“I asked myself that question all day today,” Faircloth said. “It’s just fishing. I can’t say that anything changed. It just didn’t happen today, it didn’t click. But I know my area has the winning fish in it — if I can just get them to bite. I have to believe that, and I do with all my heart.”
Like Rojas, Faircloth has all his eggs in one bayou. “I know if I change water, I’ll be fishing ‘used water.’ I’ve had this area all to myself all three days, and I’m anticipating I will tomorrow. I’m going to grind it out.”
In third place Saturday was Ish Monroe of Hughson, Calif., with 31-11 after adding in his Saturday bag of 9-15. Like most Elite pros all week, he’s been searching for the kicker bass that will push him to the top.
“I feel like I can catch them there again tomorrow. It’s about getting that big bite. I’ve had no company at all and leaned harder on my fish each day,” Monroe said.
Terry Scroggins of San Mateo, Fla., held tight in fourth place, the same finish he had Friday. His three-day total was 31-6, just 5 ounces behind Monroe.
“It was frustrating all day,” said Scroggins, who weighed three fish that went 7-1. “I lost eight fish. The good thing about that is I know there are still some fish there for tomorrow.”
In fifth place was Jeff Kriet of Ardmore, Okla. His three-day total of 30-6 jumped him two spots from seventh, the standing he had held the two previous days.
The field was cut to the Top 12 for Sunday’s competition, the final day of the Sabine River Challenge presented by STARK Cultural Venues in Orange, Texas. One of the 12 finalists will claim the first-place prize of $100,000 and an instant entry in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic. The winner will also take the lead in the points race to win the sport’s coveted 2013 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year award.
The day’s largest bass was a 3-15 boated by Keith Poche of Pike Road, Ala. But Terry Scroggins of San Mateo, Fla., with his 6-1 on Friday, was still the top contender for the Challenge’s $1,500 Carhartt Big Bass bonus.
Rojas and Takahiro Omori of Emory, Texas, tied with 11-14 as the day’s largest bags, but Faircloth’s Friday catch of 16-8 kept him in the lead for the event’s Berkley Heavyweight bonus of $500.
Faircloth received the $500 Livingston Lures Leader Award for being the event’s leader on Friday, Day Two of the event. Livingston will present the new award at all Elite events of 2013.
While the pros competed Saturday, 38 students from area high schools participated in the day-long B.A.S.S. High School Elite Experience. They toured the venue, learned what happens backstage in a tournament site and met Elite pros, B.A.S.S. staff and event sponsors. One student, Jacob Bilbo of Orangefield High School in Orange, Texas, won the grand prize of an on-stage appearance with the pro of his choice, Gary Klein of Weatherford, Texas. Bilbo walked on stage with Klein while he weighed his day’s catch.
“I picked Gary Klein because he is a pro who revolutionized the sport of fishing,” said Bilbo, an avid bass angler whose dream is to one day compete in a major tournament.
Sunday’s finale of the Sabine River Challenge will begin with the pros launching at 7 a.m. CT from the City of Orange Boat Ramp at 1000 Simmons Drive and Harry Reed Road. The anglers will weigh their catches at the same location beginning at 3:15 p.m. CT. There’s no admission charge for any Bassmaster event.
Bassmaster.com will provide extensive coverage of Day Four beginning with the launch and continuing through the weigh-in. A complete schedule is posted on Bassmaster.com. Access to all content is free.