SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Dean Rojas may have been the last angler to come to the holding tanks on this final afternoon of the Champion's Choice presented by Ramada Worldwide, but his ear-to-ear smile preceded him. On an evening when fireworks lit up the sky over the weigh-in site, he was clearly the brightest star to be seen.
Though Rojas weighed in his smallest limit of the week — 14 pounds, 8 ounces of Oneida Lake largemouths — it was enough to bring his four-day total to 65-2, beating his closest competitor by nearly 5 pounds.
The icing on the cake was that he earned Purolator Big Bass honors today as well, on the strength of a 4-pound largemouth.
Rojas has lifted a 45-pound limit of largemouths before, when he set the record for the BASS single-day five-fish limit, so lifting the first place trophy over his head didn't strain him. The real burden he lifted was the monkey on his back from so many near misses since the dawn of the Elite Series in 2006.
"It's absolutely incredible," Rojas said. "I've been close so many times. This week I just caught big ones when I needed to."
He admitted, however, those near-misses weighed on him.
"I had come to the conclusion that I probably wouldn't ever win again, because of the way things always seemed to go on the final day," Rojas said.
Pre-tournament speculation suggested a largemouth-only creel capable of winning the event could not be sustained for four days, but Rojas proved that theory wrong. He managed to catch a few smallmouths while targeting largemouths, but every bass he brought to the scales was green.
"I knew that all I needed was 20 bass," Rojas said.
The most poorly-kept secret in Syracuse this week was that Rojas was using a variety of hollow-bodied frogs to catch his fish. The part not as widely known is that he caught several key fish flipping a Slurpies Brush Beaver with a 1-ounce weight. But when push came to shove today, he turned to the frog.
"The frog had let me down on the last day so many times, but today Kermit bailed me out," Rojas said.
No angler in today's top 12 resides farther away than Rojas, who currently calls Lake Havasu, Ariz., home. But this tournament was nevertheless something of a homecoming for Rojas, who was born in New York.
Other pros differed as to whether any local advantage still exists when the Elite Series comes to town.
Dave Wolak, originally from Pennsylvania but now residing in North Carolina, caught the biggest limit of the day: five bass that totaled 16-3.
"There is definitely a local advantage," Wolak said, while noting the Elite Series competition is tough from top to bottom. "I fished here a lot growing up, but I've never fished a tournament here except for Bassmaster events. But I know when they use grass and when they use hard cover. Not on this lake specifically, but in the Finger Lakes in general."
Mike McClelland disagreed somewhat.
"I don't think (there exists any such advantage) anymore with the technology today," McClelland said. "Between the GPS, the electronics and the Navionics chips that everyone has, there are no secrets anymore. You used to have to hunt and peck around to find fish offshore, but now if you've done your homework, anyone can find those fish."
McClelland speculated that the improved caliber of the available technology and anglers on today's Elite Series may have been one of the factors that enabled Rojas to win.
"It used to be that guys didn't want to search offshore, but now it seems like everyone does it. And as more people fish offshore, more pressure can be taken off the shallow water fish," he said.
Mike Iaconelli, who hails from New Jersey and has fished Oneida many times, dating back to his days as a member of a bass club, could not rely upon those past experiences to vault past Rojas into the lead. He weighed in a 12-4 limit and fell to third place.
North Carolina's Kevin Langill took advantage of Iaconelli's minor stumble and moved into second place. Unlike Rojas, Langill did not bring a single largemouth to the scales all week. Today's 14-9 limit of smallmouths increased his four-day total to 60-7.
In his first Elite Series top 12, Langill brought a bit of his own home-cooking to the event. He caught the majority of his fish on a lipless crankbait in a manner he uses at Lake Norman, near his home.
"At Lake Norman, the spotted bass act just like smallmouths," he said. "The stripers chase the bait and the bass get under them. They take advantage of what's left over. Here, it's the same thing — but the larger smallmouths sit below the little ones and wait for what's left over."
He tried to target those larger fish with a tube and a drop-shot, but the lure would never make it where the larger fish waited. By varying his retrieve with a half-ounce lipless crankbait, he could control his depth more precisely, enabling him to remain remarkably consistent over the four days. His four limits were all between 14-9 and 16-1, a gap of only a pound and a half.
But in the end, smallmouths were not enough to win here this year. Rojas had an unwavering vision of largemouths that paid huge dividends.
"I fished for largemouths, because I knew that was what was going to win," Rojas said.
The trophy will sit beside him as he drives back to Arizona, but Rojas will leave behind the frustrations and near misses weighing heavily upon him in recent years.
It took a frog and a beaver to do it, but they knocked that monkey right off his back.