SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Before the official practice for the Champion's Choice presented by Ramada Worldwide was over, Dean Rojas said he felt more confident than ever he would win the tournament. Now, thousands of casts later, he feels even better about his chances.
When a reporter tried to ask Dean Rojas how he'd adjust if his fish didn't bite on this final morning, Rojas was quick to cut him off.
"They will bite," he said emphatically.
Then he noted he believes it's possible for him to increase his daily weight again, as he has done the previous two days. In fact, he feels a 20-pound limit is well within his reach.
"Why not? I did it yesterday," Rojas said.
Mike Iaconelli, currently in second place with a three-day catch of 47-00, is slightly less than 4 pounds behind Rojas, but expressed a strong belief that he, not Rojas, will hoist the first-place trophy this evening.
"You have to be confident," Ike said. "You have to think you can win every time."
The conditions have played into his hands. Yesterday on stage, he stated if he could get overcast skies, he expected to bust a monster limit. His wish came true.
"I actually woke up a lot earlier than I planned to this morning," Iaconelli said. "When I heard that patter of rain outside, it put a big smile on my face. It's in my hands. I have to focus on every cast."
Winning ain't bragging if you can do it, but at most, only one of them can take home the big prize. The other, or perhaps even both, will have written a check their respective rods couldn't cash.
While Rojas won two tour-level tournaments seven years ago, he's suffered from several near-misses in recent years, including last year's event on Oneida, during which he led the event through the preliminary rounds, but lost his lead when the tour switched to a hole course.
"This lake is really conducive to the way I fish," Rojas said. "It has a lot of shallow grass and I can use a couple of techniques that I excel at. I knew that if I could get through the first two rounds, I could do it. Yesterday, with only 50 boats, the fish relaxed and moved to the outside edge and started feeding."
Iaconelli earned a Bassmaster Classic victory and a Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title, along with two other BASS wins since Rojas last tasted victory. He indicated he did not intend to engage in head games with Rojas, whose boat was tied up next to Ike's, but also said his ability to seal the deal might give him "a little bit of extra confidence" over the course of the day.
Still, he knows that Rojas, like himself a veteran of tour-level fishing, wants to win every bit as much as he does.
"When you get that hungry feeling, nothing else matters," Iaconelli said. "He's got it and I've got it. Some people may think we're in it for the money, but at the end of the day, it's about the hardware, about bringing home that trophy."
While it appears to be a two-man race for the trophy, none of the other 10 remaining contenders has thrown up the white flag quite yet.
Reigning Bassmaster Classic Champion Alton Jones pointed out conditions can still change in a hurry. "The wind is coming from a different direction today," Jones said.
"That can reposition the fish, or make some areas unfishable. Those guys who are fishing for largemouths, if there's any lake that can burn you on largemouths, this is the one. That's one reason I've elected not to focus on largemouths exclusively, although it was one big largemouth yesterday that put me into the top 12."
Jones said that he felt Rojas has the mental makeup to maintain his lead.
"He may be feeling more pressure," Jones said. "He's got a lot on his shoulders, and some guys would be psyched out and go into a panic mode if their fish didn't bite early. But Dean has got enough experience that that won't happen."
Jones said that the mental part of fishing is only part of the equation necessary to bring home the hardware.
Mike McClelland, who has three Elite Series wins, the most of anyone, except Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam, believes learning to close out a victory is both a learned and instinctual ability.
"It's a little of both," McClelland said. "Either you have the ability or you don't, but once you win one, you definitely develop confidence. You can't let (near misses) get in your head."
Former Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year and Bassmaster Classic winner Mark Davis also believes that there is a learned component to winning.
"Fishing to win is not enough," Davis said. "You have to keep putting yourself in position to win. Look at a lot of our stellar anglers. A lot of times before they win, they're in contention, real close all the time. Then when they win, then they may win two or three."