Seeing into the future

When did the modern era of professional bass fishing begin?

Was it in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or more recently? I’m not sure we need to pick one specific line of demarcation, but clearly there have been events and personalities that have irrevocably shifted the landscape.

That’s true of any sport. In baseball, the game experienced major change at the end of the dead ball era in the 1920s. The integration of the Major Leagues by Jackie Robinson in 1947 had a similarly substantial impact on the on-field product. The rise of free agency in the 1970s didn’t necessarily change the on-field product, but it altered the balance from team to team. Football has had similarly seismic shifts – like the allowance of the forward pass and the AFL/NFL merger, although probably not the Ickey Shuffle.

Since Ray Scott created B.A.S.S. the popular mythology might have you believe that there have been three pivotal anglers whose rise shifted the sport forward. First there was Roland Martin, who popularized the concept of pattern fishing. Then there was Rick Clunn, who made it clear that what’s between your ears matters as much as what’s on the end of your line. The third is Mike Iaconelli, whose scream-fest at the end of his 2003 Bassmaster Classic set up the stage for the next generation of media-savvy anglers.

I’d like to add a fourth angler to that list. It’s not as easy as it seems. You could make a strong case for the inclusion of Gary Klein, the first straight-out-of-school bass pro, a category whose ranks are now a dime a dozen. I also struggled with the omission of KVD, likely the best tournament angler who has ever lived. The greatest, yes, but his importance to the overall development of the sport is not yet entirely clear. There’s no doubt that he’s forced everyone else to raise their game, but in many respects he’s a total outlier, a complete statistical anomaly.

If I have to choose a fourth and can’t add a fifth (a construct totally made up for the purposes of this column, but it’s my column, so bear with me), my choice is going to be someone altogether different. Not Bill Dance. Not Jimmy Houston. Not Skeet. Not Swindle. Not Aaron Martens.

For me, it has to be Dean Rojas.

Just as Ike’s Louisiana freak-out changed our expectations of the pros’ behavior in the boat and on-stage, Dean’s Toho obliteration in January of 2001 changed how everyone had to fish. It’s not just that he landed a 45 pound limit, but it’s how he did it; with his eyes.

It may seem odd now, when anglers put polarized glasses in the cribs with newborn sons and outfit their strollers with Power Poles, but a little over a decade ago sight fishing was not in everybody’s wheelhouse. Sure, pre-Rojas there were a few beady-eyed experts like Fish Fishburne, Guido Hibdon and Shaw Grigsby, but for the most part when the fish were spawning – unless the beds lit up like neon signs – a sizeable number of anglers avoided them and tried to find another catchable segment of the bass population. After Rojas (can we just refer to it as “A.D.” for “After Dean” as in 2012 is 11 A.D.?), if you didn’t sight fish, you were almost immediately eliminated from contention in certain events. Everyone has to be able to do it. There’s no opting out of this or any other technique.

Don’t like finesse fishing? How do you like unemployment?

Not sure how to swimbait? Might as well flush that entry fee down the crapper.

Deep cranking not your forte? Thank you very much for playing. Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect any sponsorship dollars.

In the immediate aftermath of Dean’s feat, the $5 off-the-rack glasses were no longer going to cut it. Lasik surgery became a business expense. In fact, the whole sport became a business for which you could prepare. Today’s 20-something anglers come into the Opens and the Elite Series lacking mileage on their tires but without holes in their games. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but the Rojas record, which stood the test of time and Falcon, catalyzed the process.

At one point in the mid-90s my friend OT Fears set the B.A.S.S. single day five fish limit weight record with 34 pounds. He’s told me that when he caught them, he had to strategically stack them in the livewell like a slimy game of Jenga. Bass boats in that era, less than a decade before Dean obliterated the record, weren’t made to hold 30 pound limits. Now every major bass boat brand can accommodate that kind of weight and keep them alive. A 30 pound bag is nothing to sneeze at, but in most of the big bass belt it won’t elicit the utter shock it once did. That’s attributable to Rojas for two reasons: first, he smashed the 40 pound barrier on the sport’s biggest stage; and second, he brought on the era of no excuses, no weaknesses. If you see a top-flight angler these days who doesn’t sight fish or doesn’t flip or doesn’t use spinning tackle, there’s a pretty good chance he’s over 50. Unless you’re a very special case, you can’t get away with that in this business anymore.

It’s fitting that Rojas ushered in the era of angler-as-machine. It’s not that he doesn’t seem to have fun on the water – after all, how can you not have fun when you’re sacking 45 pounds or whacking ‘em on a frog – but to me, no other Elite Series angler better represents the current pros’ mindset than Dean. If he blanks on a competition day, doesn’t even get a bite, you can look into his eyes that afternoon and tell that he genuinely believes he’s going to crush them tomorrow. That’s the difference between them and us – they’ve done it before and even under the most adverse conditions they expect to do it again.

I’ve probably interviewed Rojas 20 times over the past five years, including during and after his Elite Series win on Oneida. I had dinner with the Rojas family the night before the 2009 Classic in Shreveport. Still, I don’t profess to know what makes him tick. I know a little bit about his back story and his on-the-water achievements, but he’s never really let his guard down. By the same token, I don’t have any meaningful depth of understanding of my accountant or my dentist or my plumber, either. I trust that they can execute a wide range of tasks within their area of expertise, and when they complete them perfectly I’m not surprised. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t call Dean Rojas a lunchbox type of guy. He’s more of an NFL cornerback, never looking back on past failures but rather focused ahead on the next pick-six.

Good eyesight, short memory.

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