On Jan. 17, 2001, Dean Rojas pulled 45 pounds and 2 ounces of bass from Lake Tohopekaliga to set the Bassmaster tournament record for heaviest one-day catch. The record still stands.
Now, almost exactly 10 years later, the ideal fishing conditions Rojas tapped into are brewing again on Toho. Coincidentally, the "perfect storm" is happening just in time for the Jan. 20-22 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open out of Kissimmee, Fla., the event that kicks off the 2011 Bassmaster season.
Trevor Fitzgerald of Belleview, Fla., champ of last season's Southern Open finale, is among those who contend that the Toho tournament could reset the 45-2 record. He has more grounds than most to make the prediction. For one, he was at the Toho tournament in 2001 as an 18-year-old co-angler. "I was paired with Alton Jones, and we fished within eyesight of Dean Rojas," Fitzgerald said. "It was an experience — I'd never seen so many big fish in my life.
For that matter, I haven't seen so many big fish in one tournament since. It was just amazing." Since then, Fitzgerald has competed on Toho many times. He lives a short drive away, so he's been able to keep close tabs on the lake in prep for his entry in the Southern Open. "No fish has spawned yet on either lake, so there are hundreds of huge fish out there," he said late last week. "They're just waiting for that water temperature to rise and be right, and then they'll spawn.
That's exactly what happened in 2001. All the big fish came in at the same time. It could definitely happen again. And the lakes are clear enough and healthy enough for that to happen again." Rojas, who ringed the record the first day of that 2001 tournament and then went on to win with 108 pounds, 12 ounces, over four days, said he hasn't checked on Toho lately. But his recounting of 2001 conditions jibes with Fitzgerald's take on Toho now.
"It had been cold in Florida," Rojas said last week. "But when we showed up, they were calling for highs in the mid- to high 70s. That was the first warming trend they'd had in over three weeks to a month. It enabled optimum conditions."
Toho could quickly turn into a slugfest if the bass move up soon — or sooner than Fitzgerald would prefer. "If we show up for official practice (Jan. 17-19) and there's a fish on every bed, then come tournament day, everybody's going to be catching big ones. If they come up on the day before the tournament, like they did in 2001, then the guys who know the spawning areas will do better," Fitzgerald explained. He said he'd like to win another Open this season for one reason:
For the first time in 2011, winners of all nine Open events will qualify for a Bassmaster Classic (this season's winners will be headed to the 2012 Classic). "Just like everybody says, the dream is to fish the Classic," said Fitzgerald, a deputy sheriff with the Marion County (Florida) Sheriff's Office when he isn't competing on the water. Besides the Classic berth, the pro-side winner at Toho will collect a $45,000 bass boat and trailer, and a check for $10,000.
The top prize in the co-angler (non-boater) division will be a boat rig valued at $35,000. The prizes will be awarded at the final weigh-in to be staged at 4 p.m. Jan. 22 at the Orlando Bass Pro Shops location, 5156 International Drive, Orlando, FL 32819. The show at Bass Pro Shops will be free and open to the public. More event facts
- A 2012 Classic berth will be awarded to each of the nine winners of 2011 Open events (three in each division: Southern, Central and Northern). To claim the berth at season's end, the champs must compete in all three events within that same Open division.
- Among the most famous entrants is Roland Martin. He reportedly came out of retirement to try for a Classic berth through the Southern Open circuit. Martin, who owns nine Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles in the years spanning 1971 to 1985, competed in 25 Classics, but a win eluded him.
- Multiple big names populate the entry list for this Open. One is Florida's Terry Scroggins, who won Opens on the Kissimmee Chain in 2005 and 2007. Among Scroggins' fellow Bassmaster Elite Series pros in the Toho Open is Bobby Lane, also owner of a formidable Florida resumé.
- The point system will still be employed to determine Bassmaster Elite Series qualifications. The top five pros in each Open division will automatically receive an invitation to move up to the Elite Series.
- The Toho competition waters include the entire Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. The northernmost lake — the one from which anglers will begin — is Lake Tohopekaliga. To the south is big Lake Kissimmee. The chain includes smaller lakes. Anglers move from one to another lake via canals.
- The event marks the start of the 45th season of Bassmaster tournaments. The first was in June 1967 on Arkansas' Beaver Lake.
- After the Toho Open, next on the Bassmaster schedule will be the Bassmaster Classic, Feb. 18-20 on the Louisiana Delta out of New Orleans.