Rojas' AOY title hunt

I’ve long argued that Todd Faircloth and Edwin Evers are the two best Elite Series pros never to have won either the Bassmaster Classic or the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) title, but in my rush to anoint them the co-champions of that category I may have skipped over an angler whose stats compare favorably to theirs – one Dean Rojas, who is currently sitting atop the AOY standings with three regular season events and the Toyota Angler of the Year Championship left to go.

I’m not sure why Rojas’ achievements escaped my notice. Maybe it’s because he’s largely perceived as a frogger and sight fisherman, but if you look at his stats, he stacks up favorably across the board against the other two.

While Rojas is four years older than Faircloth and three years older than Evers, he’s competed in 187 Bassmaster events, just one fewer than Faircloth and eight fewer than Evers. He’s finished in the money on 128 occasions, or 68.4 percent. That’s slightly below the 72.3 percent and 73.3 percent marks that that Faircloth and Evers have attained. When it comes to Top 10s, his 21.4 percent is slightly better than Faircloth (20.2 percent) but a fair amount worse than the 30.3 percent clip that Evers has claimed. Of course these are not quite apples-to-apples comparisons because disproportionate participation in larger fields (like the Opens) and smaller fields (like the E50s and All Star events) may skew the numbers slightly. Nevertheless, they give a pretty good indication of the lofty heights at which these three continue to compete.

When it comes to Classics, they’re all roughly in the same boat – Rojas and Faircloth have been to 13 apiece, while Evers has been to one more. Collectively, they’ve made every Classic from 2011 through the present. Evers was the last one to miss one when he sat out the 2010 derby. Rojas last missed it in 2008 and Faircloth hasn’t worked the Expo since 2006. But none of them have taken home the trophy.

The categories in which Evers separates himself from the other two are wins and career winnings, which are of course inextricably linked, as each six-figure payday is the equivalent of a lot of plain old money finishes. He’s won nine Bassmaster events to the others’ four apiece, and his overall winnings reflect that difference. Evers has won over $2.3 million dollars from B.A.S.S. while Faircloth and Rojas have won $1.9 million and $1.8 million, respectively.

Of course, Rojas can make up a whole lot of ground on that difference if he holds onto the AOY crown. With respect to prestige, such a title might allow him to leapfrog the other two.

In order to win the crown, however, he’s going to have to hold off a bunch of hungry contenders in smallmouth country. When you think of Rojas, northerly climes are not what comes to mind. Since becoming a pro, he’s lived in California, Arizona and Texas. Of his four wins, one was in Florida, two were in Texas/Louisiana and one was in New York. “Aha,” you might be saying, he’s demonstrated an ability to win on smallmouths…but you’d be wrong, as his northerly victory came on Oneida, where he used his signature frog to weigh in grass-based largemouths. He’ll have the option to do that at the Upper Chesapeake, but unless he finds some hidden treasure trove of green fish it’ll take all or mostly smallmouths to do well at the St. Lawrence, St. Clair and Sturgeon Bay.

That’s where it gets interesting. If you look at his results in northern tournaments in the latter years of the Elite Series, it’s been feast or famine for Dean. He started off the Elites with northern finishes of 38th, 40th and 31st, but in the last 11 events the senior circuit has held in smallmouth country he’s either been in the Top 11 (six times) or worse than 70th (five times). Included in the former category are first, third and fourth place finishes on Oneida, where he no doubt focused primarily on largemouths, but there have also been fourth and eighth place finishes on Green Bay and Bay de Noc, respectively, where he likely had no choice but to pursue bronzebacks. The last time the Elites visited St. Clair (2013), he ended up 81st, which isn’t even his worst finish in smallmouth country – that came in 2008 when he finished 97th on Erie.

Of course past performance is not an unfailing predictor of future results. Rojas could go up North and have a solid home stretch and still fall short of the title. Similarly, an otherwise exemplary run with one stinker mixed in could doom his chances. In order to break free of the “greatest without a title” pack, he’s going to have to get the job done in an area that does not best suit his perceived strengths, and he’s going to have to swing hard without striking out. That would be a fitting coda for the award generally perceived as the hardest to win in the sport of professional bass fishing – getting the job done when no one expects you to do it, when you’re not a Fantasy Fishing favorite, against a stacked field that takes no prisoners. If Rojas ends up as our 2015 AOY, he will have earned it.